[WW] Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple

A few weeks ago, I was studying for one of my courses when I was once again reminded of Jim Jones, a man whose charisma had led 909 people to their death, making it the largest mass suicide ever in history. This is not current news, but I want to share with people what I've learned from researching about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

These two documentaries depict the chilling stories of the people in Jonestown, under the lead of Jim Jones. Both can be seen on YouTube:

PBS Documentary - Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)
Jonestown: Paradise Lost (2007)

*NOTICE* I have to warn you all that after watching these videos, I became really angry and life suddenly seemed a little dimmer. Do not watch these videos expecting to see a happy ending.

The Peoples Temple was formed in Indiana in the mid-1950s, led by a man named Jim Jones, with its purpose to spread "apostolic socialism". In other words, they were considered a faction of Christianity with an integrated political belief that socialism (an economic system characterised by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy) would lead them to enlightenment. In the early 1970's, former Temple members had raised media awareness of the Temples' practices and demanded that there be an investigation done on allegations that were made (there were claims that some members were murdered when they had announced their desire to leave the Peoples Temple, among other allegations). Coupled with the political tide change, these events led to the creation of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, where there was no extradition laws with the United States.

Guyana was inhabited by a majority of English-speaking Indians and the climate was socialist. According to Jim Jones, the mass migration to this rural area was necessary for their salvation and the United States was no longer a suitable place to be because of the dominance of multinational companies and racism that thrived there. There, the Peoples Temple built a village from the ground up. A village with no contact with the outside world. A village so rural that it would be extremely difficult to return back in the United States. As media coverage of the Peoples Temple rose, former members spoke out against Jim Jones and the abuse and brain-washing they had endured while being apart of the Peoples Temple. Family members of those in Jonestown worried about their relatives who they had no contact with. Feeling the pressure of the public to take action, Congressman Leo Ryan (of Northern California) was sent to investigate Jonestown. Along with worried family members, journalists, and camera crew, the Congressman managed to visit Jim Jones and his followers at Jonestown.

Fearing investigation and the decline of the Peoples Temple, it was believed that Jim Jones planned the murder the Congressman and his crew. This led to the events of November 18th, 1978 when Jim Jones gathered his followers and spoke to them about the "enemy" (we don't know whether this is the United States or just some anti-Christian figure) that would descend upon them and kill them mercilessly unless they bravely took their own lives. You can hear his final speech before the tragedy on what is known as the "death tapes". On the day of November 18th, 1978, Jim Jones led 909 followers to their death by poisoning. This event is often referenced by the phrase, "drinking the Kool-Aid", because of the fruity drink that was mixed with an assortment of poisons used to kill the people of Jonestown.

As you will see in the documentaries, Jim Jones had a way with words. He, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, spoke of hope during a time where people needed it most. What shocks and horrifies me about this event is how one man, like so many before him, could create such a vision and achieve so much control over such a large group of people. The extremity of this event leads one to wonder how, despite the threat to safety, the people of Jonestown could look to Jim Jones as a saviour. This was a man who moved the people of Jonestown to forsaken their families and their lives to follow words of salvation and miracles. One of the theories I've heard about why Jones instructed the mass suicide was because his own time was nearly up (because of lung cancer) and his fear of dying alone led him to convince his followers that the end was near and that there was no way out but death. If that is so, it sickens me that this selfish man, that so many people depended on, could consider himself holy and morally just.

Religion scares me. Extremist beliefs scare me. It's because of people like Jim Jones, the people of Jonestown, and even the Westboro Baptist Church, that I am scared of Faith. I know that my religious friends are going to pat me on the head and tell me that those are cults and that their god (small g) would never preach and desire such evil things, but why should I believe them? Having been in touch with Christians and the church before, they will tell me that faith is a blessing bestowed by God (big G). I will tell you now that having the knowledge and capacity to think for myself is the biggest blessing. Humans are capable of the most wicked things, turning friends on friends, turning family on family. There is no right answer when it comes to belief. Like an election campaign in any democratic nation, we should all be allowed to be free-thinkers and to find information when we seek it.

I hope that despite this depressing lesson, people will learn that there is no stronger will than your own. Be the one to make your own decision. If you are religious on your own free will, kudos to you. If you believe in a strong political stance, kudos to you. But your beliefs are strictly your own. What good has harm ever done? Threat of physical violence or death should not stem from a faith that focuses on love. The choice has always been yours. Never let anyone take that away from you.

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