The unveiling of a memorial wall in Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre
I remember the day that the news of the Jonestown Massacre broke—November 18, 1978, 40 years ago this month —the way many of us remember 9-11.
Back then, I was a teenager in Chicago. The first news reports, which named US Representative Leo Ryan as a victim, hit home immediately. He and my father had grown up together in a now-vanished West Side Irish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago. They were cousins who double-dated in high school and wrestled each other on the street in an old family home movie (a movie that provides the only images I have of my father’s youth).
Ryan moved out to California and kept the extended-family standard of liberal Democratic politics flying high. Eventually, he was elected to Congress. He was investigating Jonestown on his fatal visit to Guyana. The sudden news of his killing shook my parents’ hopes for human progress, coming atop other serial killings, mass murders, and revolutionary terrorism in the United States during the immediate aftermath of the 1960s.
Now a new book, Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco, by Daniel J. Flynn, details the chillingly close connections between the rising progressive political culture of northern California and cult leader Jim Jones, who led the massacre at Jonestown. Jones’s alliances with figures such as Milk and Angela Davis, the politicized post-’60s civil rights movement, and establishment Democratic Party figures gave him protection as he developed his abusive totalitarian community, first in California and then in Guyana.
Today, at a time of concern over domestic political violence and the rise of totalitarian extremism in the United States, it’s worth remembering how the terroristic disaster at Jonestown was engineered in the name of social justice by a group that denied basic human rights and civility in the name of revolution.
Religion as a Cloak for Socialist Revolution
Jonestown is often remembered today as a religious cult run awry, led by a fascist-style leader. Yet, as Flynn shows, Jones was an avowed Marxist-Leninist and wanted to move his community to the Soviet Union. He called himself a reincarnation of Lenin as well as Jesus, while fomenting anti-Christian actions by his followers such as using Bibles for toilet paper, and identifying God as Principle or Love equated with communism. His community grew out of the hopes and tarnished idealism of what had been the California of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, a national place for “second chances” and begetter of the Summer of Love, the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Zebra and Zodiac killers.
To Jones, religion was a cloak and vehicle for socialist revolution. His was the Social Gospel run amuck. Originally part of the Disciples of Christ, Jones’s church picked up on rhetoric of the civil rights movement and bought a large former Christian Science church in Los Angeles for its southern Californian hub.
In his classic 1980 analysis of the Jonestown tragedy, Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy, Shiva Naipaul highlighted connections between Jonestown and California’s New Left and New Age cultures, the identity politics that emerged from the 1960s and are still with us today, earlier and ongoing American utopian religious cultism, as well as the socialist regime in Guyana.
Deborah Blakey, a top member of the People’s Temple who escaped, testified (in an affidavit that prompted Ryan’s fatal visit) to Jones’s version of the Soviet system in Guyana. Explaining her motives for originally joining the People’s Temple, she wrote:
I was eighteen years old when I joined the People’s Temple. I had grown up in affluent circumstances in the permissive atmosphere of Berkeley, California. By joining the People’s Temple, I hoped to help others and in the process to bring structure and self-discipline to my own life.
Later Blakey wrote in her memoir Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple, of her own suffering of physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the hands of Jones, in the name of the revolution.
The Dangers of Utopianism
For Jones’s idol Lenin—as for Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others sharing communist-utopian ideology wielding state power around the world in the past century, whose victims totaled an estimated 80 to 100 million—the ends always justified the means. As Dostoevsky’s bleakly satirical novel Demons suggests, violence and killings solidified cultish revolutionary movements. The connection between the nihilistic and the demonic in the nineteenth-century Russian writer’s work was prophetic, not only of global communism, but of the nightmarish version of American utopianism that culminated in Jonestown.
Naipaul concluded in his book:
They came to him [Jim Jones]—the seekers of structure, the I Chingdecoders, the Tarot interpreters, the higher-consciousness addicts, the catharsis freaks, the degenerated socialists, those who thirsted for universal justice and wanted utopia “real bad” . . . The Temple was reared on—or, better still, inherited—an idealism that had already gone wrong, that had already lost its way and been twisted out of shape in the promiscuous chaos of the sixties. Jim Jones was a beachcomber, picking up the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore from the sixties shipwrecks. The “idealism” on which he fed was not virginal but considerably shop-soiled, eaten up with inner decay.
Traditional Christians have a centuries-old term for utopianism: the heresy of chiliasm. The idea that God’s kingdom would be established on earth devolved in modern secular state ideologies into Lenin’s meta-Machievellian ethos of “who whom” (Kto–Kovo?, or “who will do what to whom?”). It’s why, according to Orthodox Christianity and other faiths, the phrase “Whose kingdom shall have no end” was put into the Nicene creed to warn the faithful that there is no salvation in utopian ideologies. The spirit of such utopianism was related to that of the anti-Christ, denying the humanity of Christ and the dignity of each human being made according to the image of Him, however imperfectly acted upon by traditional believers.
The subverting of traditional ties of family, faith, and civic society in the name of utopianism is all too familiar in modern life, from the corrosive impacts of consumerism to the harsh existential violence of the gulag and the Holocaust—or, on a smaller but still shocking scale, in Jonestown.
Terror, Isolation, and Tribalism
The spirit of such nihilistic and destructive assertion of power is ever with us. But its potential effect, according to C.S. Lewis, has accelerated under global “technocracy.” Indeed, Hannah Arendt advanced the post-Holocaust view that terror and isolation were the basic underpinnings of twentieth-century totalitarianism on both the left and the right, and that the emergence of tribal rather than civil nations contributed to it. Arendt’s elements of terror and isolation continue to be major forces of life in the twenty-first century, amplified by technology and its potential for influence, surveillance, and generation of cyber-mobs, together with various types of ideological and identity tribalisms.
The philosopher Charles Taylor has written of a “buffered” or “distanced” self as a hallmark of secular modernity. This definition of self in contrast to the other, set apart from tradition and civic society, lends itself to isolation, in which the essentialism of self-identity struggles to replace God with self-will, as Jim Jones did so seductively. The Jonestown massacre was living proof of the thesis advanced in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s dissident circle that socialism, especially in modern ideological forms, is psychologically motivated by a drive toward annihilation of the self, paradoxically in the name of self-expression. Solzhenitsyn wrote of two basic principles governing both captives and captors in the Soviet system: “Survive at all costs” and “only results matter.” But the materialistic ethos of those sayings doesn’t sound so different from the careerism and political ideology that dominate our culture today.
Jonestown remains an American reminder of how modern terrorism and isolation can emerge from the most “civilized” contexts. Deborah Blakey’s mother Lisa escaped the Holocaust as a young person, only to die from cancer at Jonestown three months before the massacre. When she joined other family members in the People’s Temple, she had believed that they had found mooring and a progressive home led by a charismatic revolutionary, amid the upheavals of post-1960s California. The end for her family was tragic, as it was for Congressman Ryan’s.
Learning from Jonestown
In 1978, a grieving America hoped to learn a lesson from Jonestown. But as Flynn details, its history today is often at best fuzzily remembered, and at worst obscured due to political bias. History of even greater magnitude of mass terrorism in recent generations is often ignored, as well. China, for example, remains ruled by the same party that engineered what some historians conclude to be the largest state-engineered mass deaths in history. It continues actively to persecute and attempt to “re-educate” Muslims, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhist minorities.
The fortieth anniversary of the massacre reminds us today to beware of utopian causes with totalitarian methods, on either political extreme. Though they promise social justice, they only deliver deadly power.
Alfred Kentigern Siewers is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University and William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program, Princeton University. He is a member of the lesser clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. His views are his own. This article has been republished from Public Discourse.