National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Jonestown Revisited

There is a growing, renewed interest in the dangerous influence of religious and other cults that, over the last 35 years in the U.S., have thrived by appealing to the young.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, an event almost too horrendous to fathom. It involved over 900 members of a U.S. religious cult, by and large middle class American citizens, who either committed suicide, or did so at the point of a gun, in the course of a few hours at their remote outpost in Guyana in November 1978. This came hours after henchmen murdered a U.S. congressman who had shown up to investigate.

Two new documentary films are circulating about this incident and the circumstances that led to it. One, “Jonestown, a Paradise Lost,” has been playing on the History cable TV channel, along with a documentary on the overall history of cults. The other, “Jonestown: the Life and Death of the People’s Temple,” is the more effective of the two, and has been playing in limited release on movie screens across the U.S.

Both draw heavily on the huge archive of Jonestown memorabilia that is accessible to the public. There was extensive film and audio footage internally produced to document the rise of the Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple from the early 1960s onward, including its period in San Francisco when it became a major political force and after the migration of almost the entire congregation to Guyana in 1977. It culminates with live film footage of Rep. Leo Ryan’s doomed trip to Jonestown and excruciating audio tapes of the actual mass suicide taking place.

What both documentaries reveal is that the followers of Jim Jones were not fools or psychos. They included many young, well-meaning, educated people who believed that becoming involved in a religious cause would bring meaning to their lives, and to advance the cause of social justice that Jones linked to his interpretation of the Bible.

They were seduced and drawn into something that, at a certain point, stepped beyond religious passion to become a dark descent into personal identity loss, lack of mental control and isolation from family and society.

I had personal contact with the People’s Temple in San Francisco, back in the day when, as a young seminary graduate, I was an anti-war and pro-civil rights, including gay and women’s rights, activist. To my knowledge, no one I knew personally fell into that cult, although every time I see footage of Jonestown, I look carefully at the faces.

Jim Jones deployed his People’s Temple like an army in support of political campaigns, including that of the ill-fated Mayor George Moscone in 1975, running against now Sen. Diane Feinstein, among others. Jones’ was considered a potent “get out the vote” machine. Moscone was murdered in 1978 in an incident unrelated to Jones. 

Behold, I was also a candidate for mayor in that 1975 election in San Francisco, running as a socialist, one of among 11 candidates overall. It brought me up close and personal against the People’s Temple. I can also add that I did a period of time, myself, with a political group that operated like a cult.

Therefore, in addition to the Jonestown documentaries, it is also from my own experience that I can report cults like the People’s Temple look like one thing, perhaps normal enough, to the outside world, and operate like another, entirely, internally. Coercive mental and physical control over members, 24/7, who’ve turned over their worldly possessions and cut off contact with families and friends, are the hallmarks of cults. Individual reasoning is banned. Only slavish adherence to pronouncements of the leader, no matter how outlandish, is permitted.

Questions persist about the role of covert intelligence operations, foreign or domestic, in the cultivation and maintenance of cults. For example, Jonestown paralleled precisely the way urban populations were being relocated and “re-educated” in rural encampments in Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the same period.

Moreover, there are difficult questions about what separates cults from more accepted forms of organized religious zeal that involve a suspension of individual powers of critical judgment in favor of irrational, arbitrary authority. It is merely a matter of degree that separates this from cults?

Then there is the gritty issue of what makes cults, and any religion involving a willful suspension of the powers of critical thinking, appealing. What is wrong with our society that so many believe only such approaches can address profound questions about meaning and values? Few seem to offer better ways to speak effectively to this.