Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown

“I felt evil blow into Jonestown.”

In 1978, over 900 people who had followed a charismatic religious leader to a South American jungle died. It is often seen as a mass suicide. It is more properly understood as a mass murder. Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown from National Geographic chronicles those events as told by survivors.

In the early 1970s, Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple, a large multi-ethnic, multi-generational church in Oakland, California. Among those who came to speak at the church were Angela Davis and Harvey Milk. But in 1974, Jones took many of the parishioners to a remote area in Guyana to found a utopian society away from the corruption of modernity. But that community evolved into a place of coercion and abuse.

Some people still in the US who had loved ones in the community, asked Congressman Leo Ryan to look into the situation. After a visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan and others were killed at the airport by gunmen from Jonestown. When US military went to the compound to find Jones, they discovered hundreds of bodies.

This three-part mini-series gives an account of what life was like in Jonestown and how all this happened. It is told by people who were there, including some who escaped from Jonestown, Jackie Speier (then a congressional aide, later herself a member of Congress), and Jim Jones’s son.

It is a story of a megalomanic egotist who controlled (and took) the lives of the people around him—people who had put their trust in him. It is also a story of evil. This is not some metaphysical demon, but the evil that comes from within a person.

I have always felt a certain draw to the story of Jonestown, in no small part because The Peoples Temple was a congregation of my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Jones held standing as a minister (although I understand that the process had begun to remove him from the denomination prior to this event). So for me, this represents the danger that can often be found lurking in religious leaders—although this is certainly an extreme example.

The shortcoming of the series is that it spends too much time on the grizzly account of that terrible set of events but not enough time trying to understand how it came about. Certainly, Jim Jones was charismatic, but how could he lure a thousand people to follow him to the jungle? What was the message that he preached that would be so inviting to so many people? And how did that message become so corrupted as to lead to such horrific actions?

It would be wrong to think of the Jonestown Massacre as a typical result of following religious leaders. It would also be an error to think that could never happen again. The trust that people place in religious leaders is usually well founded, even though we are all prone to failure. We also need to admit that there are religious leaders who betray that trust. Jesus spoke of such people: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15, NRSV)

Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown steams on Hulu.

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