November 26, 1978, Washington Post, The Lure Of Our Many Cults, by Henry Allen,
Our Rational Age Fails To Understand How Many Yearn for the Absolute In an Uncertain Era
IN AN AGE in which everything was permitted; yet little seemed real, the Rev. Jim Jones promised a refuge.
At his Peoples Temples in California and in the jungles of Guyana, little enough was permitted —disciples surrendered property, privacy, logic freedoms. And in a blaze of certainty lit by Jones' charisma, deceits and power lust, they found the final reality —death.
"They were smiling . . . they were genuinely happy," said Mark Lane, a lawyer for the cult who fled into the Jungle just before the mass suicide began with the pouring of cyanide into babies' mouths.
Literate, adult Americans, supposedly immunized against such madness by 20th century education and science — these children of the Enlightenment — watched their own, children, their spouses and friends die in foaming convulsions, then waited — even happily — to fall dead in their turns. Only they could understand whatever message they tried to send with their deaths, so it died with thein. But they were already long past appreciating savage paradox.
Genuinely happy. If Lane is right, here lies the real terror for the rest of us.
All week, in the aftermath, historians groped for precedents, psychiatrists for motivations, community leaders for courses of action. How could this have happened? Could it happen again?"'
Except for the smugness of hindsights offered by foes of the mind-control cults that have emerged in the last decade, there are no simple answers. Instead, a variety of explanations rises out of fact' and , theory. None suffices in itself. But taken together, they begin to show how the madness of one man could converge with the spirit of an age in upheaval to weave doomed nexus out of strands ranging from the most ancient of human instincts and customs to the physiology of.the mammalian brain
The comfort, here, is cold indeed. For all that it was bizarre beyond thinking„ we don't need a Jim Jones to invoke the supernatural to explain the immolation in Guyana. It was a human--- frighteningly human— experience.
It has happened before. Scientists and historians rushed to sweep the carnage onto the corner of anomaly, but suicides--even mass suicides — for gods and principles, right and wrong, have occurred in various contexts throughout history.
On April 15, A.D. 73 nearly 1,000 Jewish defenders of the fortress Masada killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner by the besieging Romans. According to Gibbon, the 4th and 5th centuries Viere merited by the willful martyrdoms of the Donatists, who in seeking heaven "frequently stopped travelers on the public highways and obliged them to inflict the stroke of martyrdom by promise of a reward, if they consented— and by the threat of instant death, i they refused to grant so very singular a favor,"
In the 13th century, the fervor of the Alhigensians Cathars (heretical sects in Southern France) to avoid the material and seek the spiritual led to numerous deaths from self-willed starvation. A. Alvarez, author of `The Savage God,” writes that after the conquest of the New World, "treatment at the hands of the Spanish was so cruel that the Indians killed themselves by the thousands rather than endure it ...In the West Indies, according to.the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other."
In the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, the romantic rebellion turned suicide into a fad. After the appearance of Goethe's novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," Europe was swept by Werther-like suicides. Before the end of World War II, thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians killed themselves en masse after island battles rather than be dishonored by defeated or surrender. Vietnamese Buddhists registered political' 'protests by setting themselves afire in 'the 1960s. In 1970, about a dozen French students killed themselves, as a political gesture.
But these: acts, however irrational, come within the pale of understanding. What promise of heaven, or threat of disaster or dishonor, could have tempted the Peoples Temple disciples?
We were informed that our situation had become hopeless and that the only course of action open to us was a mass suicide for the glory of socialism. We were told that we would be tortured by mercenaries if we were taken elive . . . Life at Jonestown was so miserable and the physical pain of exhaustion was so great that this event was not traumatic for me. I had become indifferent as to whether I lived or died.
—Deborah Layton Blakey. former member of the Peoples Temple, describing a suicide rehearsal..,
There were no mercenaries, of course. There was little "situation" to become hopeless. The Peoples Temple was hardly, known outside California, much less under attack, except for some West Coast media probes, Jones had sizable political clout — he was head of the San Francisco Housing Authority — and a treasury that may have held millions of dollars. He and his followers had everything by conventional wisdom, to live for.
But conventional American wisdom has never come to terms with the spiritual upheavals and cult phenomenon that started growing out of the disarray of American society a decade ago. As a secular society, we've ignored the power of messianic personalities and their persuasive techniques and we've forgotten the terrible charm of absolutism or paranoia —in an age of uncertainty. ,
"What you have to remember Is that leaders like Jones always believe in what they're doing--it's a divine calling," says Syracuse University anthropologist' Agehananda Bharati. "Once a person Is embarked on this path, it will lead to a power quest. What increases the power is the dependence of followers. There's a point of no return, a snapping point. Suddenly, you need more and more power to be sure of yourself — and the quest becomes linked to the divine calling.
"There are cults and cult leaders all over the world; and always have been. In the South Pacific we have the cargo cults [whose members believe in the imminent arrival of shiploads of goods and money. If they can only have complete faith that it will happen]. In India there are gurus such as Sal Baba, who has 10 million followers. But often, in other cults, something comes along to slow the momentum of the powerquest People object, for instance. Jones managed to escape that by, taking his followers to Guyana where there was no media, no possibility of dissent or investigation."
The divine calling. Like most messiahs and prophets, Jones, a minister by profession, seems to have started with a vision. Around 1961 he saw a holocaust consuming Indianapolis, where he.was living. (In "The Varieties, of Religious Experience," William James mites of "the psychopathic temperament in religious biography. . . ; The subjects here actually feel themselves played upon by powers beyond their will.") A few years later, in the archetypal pattern outlined by sociologist Max Weber; Jones had gathered a group of followers and led them to a new land in Ukiah, Calif. He established. a multiracial community which quickly became a political force in Mendocino County. In 1971 he bought his Geary Street, temple in San Francisco, then expanded to Los Angeles. He preached socialism and practiced faith healing, praised Huey Newton and Angela Davis and, expanded apocalyptic vision by predicting a fascist takeover of America.
Being so sure of his ends, JOnes had no doubt about means, a philosophy he passed along to his disciples.
ACCORDING to cult defectors, Jones. gained an estimated following 'of 20,000 by staging faith healings in which the "tumors" which were passed by his subjects were actually chicken organs. He staged a fake assassination attempt in which a shot rang out, blood appeared on his shirt, and then he pronounced himself healed, warning witnesses to say nothing of what happened --- all the better to further their perceptions of the outside world as populated by those who could not understand, by "them."
As in all hermetic sects; there were levels of understanding. Those who suspected fraud justified it on the ground that it brought more recruits to the truth of Jim Jones. Jones claimed to be the inheritor of the spirit of Lenin, Jesus, Buddha and the brotherhood of Man, to be God, some defectors recall. His means were beyond questions.
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