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What Were They Thinking as They Died in Jonestown? : SALVATION AND SUICIDE An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown by David Chidester (Indiana University Press: $18.95; 190 pp.)

June 05, 1988|John Dart | Times religion writer Dart is the author of "The Jesus of Heresy and History" to be published late this year by Harper.

On Nov. 18, 1978, at a jungle commune in Guyana called Jonestown, 914 men, women and children died in a mass murder-suicide. Their leader was the Rev. Jim Jones, who had moved most of his Peoples Temple members from California the year before. The deaths occurred shortly after Jones ordered the ambush of a congressman and news reporters about to leave Guyana with 14 dissatisfied members. News of the act stunned the world for weeks.

Using David Chidester's empathetic interpretation of the religious world view of Peoples Temple, it could be described thus:

At the "ultimate day of salvation from time itself," within what had become a new sacred center to replace the polluted places of persecution in California, 914 people, who had striven to establish a loving, egalitarian socialism, committed revolutionary suicide. The decision to die, ordered by a God-man who embodied Divine Socialism, involved ritual (one practiced before), release (from the torture by outside invaders Jones said was imminent) and revenge (on enemies who Jones said would "pay for this"). The event repelled the world, which distanced itself from what it deemed a crazed demagogue and his brainwashed zombies.

That summary does not do justice to the author's full analysis, which draws on research in the history of religions, anthropology and other academic disciplines. But it indicates his motives for the study.

Chidester, a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Cape Town, says that previous efforts to understand the Jonestown event "consistently discounted the possibility that the Peoples Temple had been a genuine religious movement sustained by an authentic religious worldview." The reactions of outsiders "nullified the humanity of the people who claimed to have constructed meaningful, legitimate, fully human identities within the Temple's religious worldview."

By Chidester's count, more than 20 books and innumerable journalistic accounts have decried the moral evil of Jones and his movement. Refusing to moralize himself, Chidester said he employed a method to "demonstrate how such an 'evil' could look good within its own consistent, coherent internal context." Despite affiliation with the mainline Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), based in Indianapolis where Jones first established his church, Jones taught a theology that had eerie affinities to ancient Gnosticism. Chidester noted that Jones resembled an otherworldly redeemer in Gnostic myth. Jones said he was miraculously conceived when his mother made mental contact with another planet. He was born on earth to save others and tell them that they were caught in the despicable web of capitalism.

Very much like the radical revision of Judaism by Sethian Gnostics in the first, second and third centuries AD, Jones presented the true God as a metaphysical entity, which he variously called Principle, Love or Divine Socialism. This God, of which Jones was the manifestation, was higher than the evil Creator, who unjustly demanded obedience. Jones, in typically coarse language, retold the Creation stories in ways to get his audience to laugh at the biblical myths. However, Gnosticism, which was lambasted by early church leaders, was never reported to have conducted a mass murder-suicide.

Chidester makes a plausible case for the movement's religious framework and for its human appeal for followers willing to overlook Jones' staged healings, foul language, and extraordinary demands on their time and privacy. For his mostly black following, Jones declared himself to be black and assigned a positive meaning to the word nigger. He crusaded--often with the admiration of politicians and religionists in the 1970s--for the dignity of minorities, the poor and the old.

While not claiming a definitive explanation for the mass murder-suicide, Chidester noted that Jones had vowed repeatedly that defections--a growing number in the 1970s--or removal of members from the commune would be met with violence and their own corporate suicide. On the afternoon of Nov. 18, 1978, Rep. Leo Ryan, a defector and three newsmen were killed and others injured in gunfire at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Chidester said the organic unity of Jonestown had been "severely disrupted" and the only means for "restoring the purity" were "acts of redemptive violence." Then, probably the majority of the commune "embraced death as a way of sealing their witness," Chidester wrote.

Chidester's primary sources were 900 FBI-stored tape recordings of sermons and rallies led by Jones at his Redwood Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles churches and at his self-imposed Jonestown exile precipitated by an August, 1977, magazine expose.

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