19 November 2013

Jonestown in 1978

Thirty-five years ago yesterday, nearly a thousand people perished at Jonestown in Guyana; they committed mass suicide by taking cyanide. Just as shocking as the deaths themselves is the fact that they were persuaded to die by Jim Jones, their leader.

Jonestown from the air
Jonestown from the air
Thirty-five years ago, nearly a thousand people died after drinking cyanide-laced soft drinks.

As we remember this dreadful event that shocked the world in 1978, let's ask again how it could have happened and what we need to learn from it.

The problem, at its simplest. was that too many people believed the leader of the group, Jim Jones. He told them to drink the poisoned mixture. And they did, men, women and children. The only survivors were those who had escaped beforehand.

How could it happen? - Why did so many people drink the poison? This is less easy to fathom. And how can we guard against something like this happening again?

Jim Jones was very persuasive, and he used the murders of investigators and escaping residents as a lever, telling people that the authorities would arrest them and torture them. A strong mix of anxiety, a sense of impending doom with no plausible escape, prior 'practice' sessions and calm persuasion convinced people to take the poison. And there's also the herd effect, nobody dares to be the odd one out, even when the consequences involve certain death.

Some people avoided the poisoning, a number by leaving before the fatal act took place, and a few who were away from Jonestown on the day of the deaths.

Avoiding danger - The fact that leaders can have such a major impact on their followers should cause us to consider very carefully who we choose to follow. In the church, we should be careful to follow only Jesus. Not only is that what he calls his followers to do (I am the Way, the Truth and the Life). He also loves us and never, ever calls us to harm ourselves or others.

We should be very suspicious of any church leader who issues commands, domineers, or insists on actions [Tweet it!]. Especially when those actions go against the consciences of group members. And we should be alarmed when any leader resorts to coercion or emotional manipulation.

In the case of Jim Jones' followers, it seems they were entirely well-meaning and devoted to him and his unusual mix of communist fervour and confused religious thinking. Some had the wisdom and courage to leave Jonestown, but it was far from an easy option for them.

Questions:

  • Can you think of other cases in which a leadership figure with charisma has misled people? Hint: think beyond religious leaders, include figures from the worlds of politics, business and more.
  • How would you have dealt with the Jim Jones scenario? If you had joined the movement as a young person, at what point would you have decided to leave? Read the Wikipedia article and be honest with yourself. Where do you draw the line when the line is ill-defined?
  • Is there anything we can do, individually or together, to prevent situations like Jonestown developing?

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