Jonestown remains an object lesson about the destructive potential of cults. Cult leader Jim Jones led his followers to an isolated camp in Guyana, later murdered a United States congressman and then commanded his people to commit suicide.
In 1978 almost 1,000 people were killed, including more than 200 children.
With the possible exception of the Ugandan group known as the “Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments,” Jonestown is the largest cult suicide in recorded history. The Ugandan group’s death toll may have exceeded Jonestown, but due to forensic problems will never be precisely known.
Now it seems some religious scholars want to soften the image of the tyrannical Jones, who led his followers to tragedy. This is reported within the Sacramento Bee in an article entitled “What was the lure?…religious scholars are re-examining the hold Jim Jones had on his followers.”
One scholar says, “It’s time to take a critical look to see what this religious movement was all about.”
“Religious movement” or “new religious movement” (NRM) is politically correct language for the more common term applied to destructive groups like the Peoples Temple, which is “cult.”
But an academic quoted within the article said, “That’s a term we use to describe religious groups we don’t like…It’s so loaded with negative connotations. If we label something a cult, then we don’t make any effort to understand it.”
However, understanding what Jones was all about is really rather simple. By most accounts he was a psychopath, who exercised harsh dictatorial control over his flock.
Perhaps the single most defining characteristic of a cult is a charismatic personality like Jones who becomes the group’s defining element and a locus for absolute power. Tellingly, the so-called “Peoples Temple,” ultimately became known as “Jonestown.”
One survivor explained Jim Jones this way, “I never liked the look in his eyes. He preached fear. God isn’t about fear. God is about love.”
But an academic quoted within the Sacramento Bee preferred to see Jones as a preacher of “social justice and racial equality [who] promised…[life] would get better.”
Maybe so, but Jones like many other cult leaders lied. Instead of providing a better more enlightened life, he led his followers to murder and suicide.
Sadly, some religious scholars today have become little more than “cult apologists.” And rather than listening closely to the first-hand accounts of former members, they frequently prefer to dismiss them as disgruntled “apostates.”
It seems that some academics would like to somehow alter the image of Jonestown. But history has etched this event so clearly it unlikely that the efforts of any revisionists, no matter how “scholarly,” can change its real significance.
One survivor told the Sacramento Bee, “I think it’s important for people to know what happened there.” And certainly what is “important” is the lesson learned about dangers posed by destructive cults, and not some supposed understanding of a “new religious movement’s” theology.