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The Cult Observer
Jonestown: Symbol for Our Time
Because of its scale and exotic circumstances, many think that the
murder-suicides of some 900 men, women, and children at Jonestown a decade ago has nothing
to teach us about cults and cultism today. After all, how many other cults have destroyed
themselves so finally and lent their names to the 20th century roll of infamy?
But it is precisely because Jonestown and the career of the Peoples Temple is so
mythic in proportions that it serves as the very best model we could have to identify and
measure the cults and cultic processes that still abound on this tenth anniversary of the
disaster. Indeed, the enormity of the event, which at first induces a kind of denial, soon
demands recognition, and we can begin to see, for the first time or in a new light, the
kinds of systematic and unethical manipulation of social and psychological influence that
gave Jim Joness creation the name of "cult."
The Jonestown horror tells us first of all that death is a possible
result of cultism. Witness the beating deaths of children at the hands of preachers and
gurus blinded by righteousness and emboldened by absolute power, events that we read about
in the press from time to time but perhaps cannot easily place in a cultic context. Mark
also the suicides of members of psychotherapy cults and personal transformation groups,
victims who have been manipulated to the edge of breakdown and then left to fend for
themselves; or just as harmful, counseled to heal themselves in destructive ways. And do
not forget those fatigued cult members, worked round the clock by cynical leaders, who
simply doze and drive off the road into a stone wall. Death not to mention
debilitating and enduring physical and psychological harm is al all-too-frequent
result of the cultic behavior that Jonestown highlights for us.
But the road to Guyana and life in Jonestown also exemplify with
mythic lucidity a host of "garden variety" cult-related harms suffered even now,
every day, by people throughout our nation. These mundane outrages which the
Peoples Temple institutionalized include violation of the confidentiality of
the priest-penitent relationship in order to control; the corruption of virtuous wives and
innocent children for sexual pleasure; the setting of spouse against spouse and the
purposeful destruction of families in the service of a "new" kind of society
freed of "antiquated" values; the defrauding of followers and leaving them
destitute; the conning of elderly persons out of pensions and bequests with the promise of
insights and salvation; the avoiding of obligations to the state -- such as reporting
births and deaths and paying taxes or workers benefits; and the sheltering from
criticism by hiding behind charitable facades.
Do not think, then, that Jonestown and the Peoples Temple are
without meaning for us today; in fact, they illuminate much better than others of their
kind the nature and effects of harmful cutlitc behavior all around us.
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