Apocalyptic Redemption and Utopian Resignation: How Visions of Dystopia Made Community Impossible in Jonestown

By Shipley, Morgan | Communal Societies, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Apocalyptic Redemption and Utopian Resignation: How Visions of Dystopia Made Community Impossible in Jonestown


Shipley, Morgan, Communal Societies


"Please try to understand. Look at all. Look at all in perspective.  Look at Jonestown, see what we have tried to do--This was a monument to  life, to the [re]newal of the human spirit, broken by capitalism, by a  system of exploitation & injustice." --Richard Tropp, "Suicide Note" "The Jonestown story, like some Joseph Conrad drama of fanaticism and  moral emptiness, has gone directly into popular myth. It will be  remembered as an emblematic, identifying moment of the decade: a  demented American psychopomp in a tropical cult house, doling out  cyanide with Kool-Aid. Jonestown is the Altamont of the '70s cult  movement." --Lance Morrow, "The Lure of Doomsday," Time (4 December 1978) 

Etched into America's imagination as a warning about the insidious threat posed by "cults" and doomsday prophets, what Lance Morrow in a 1978 Time article labeled "the Altamont of the '70s cult movement," (2) the tragic end of and response to Jim Jones and Jonestown often dominate historical memory. John Hall, for example, argues that any attempt at understanding must extend beyond the almost immediate demonization of Jones and Peoples Temple by recognizing that congregants did not encounter the "devil, psychopath, con artist, Antichrist" caricature that often dominate Jones's place within American history (religious or otherwise), but instead "a prophet, redeemer, and friend." To continue to treat "Peoples Temple as the cultus classicus headed by Jim Jones, psychotic megalomaniac par excellence" foils any meaningful attempt at understanding, resulting in a perspective, as Hall laments, that "drifts on a sea of memory, only loosely tied to any moorings of history." (3) Similarly, in his study of the connection between media and the "cult" label as it relates to Jonestown, Hugh Urban emphasizes how critical yet sympathetic engagements with Jones and Peoples Temple remain obscured by the fact that "Peoples Temple became the media poster child of a dangerous, murderous cult and has informed much of the popular representation of new religions ever since." (4) While importantly well developed, the public's broad fascination with the idea of "cult" and the tragedy in Jonestown thus overwhelms attempts to critically engage and understand with a sense of empathy the sacred narratives, utopian values, and communal dreams that led a small, predominantly African American congregation in Indianapolis to follow the self-proclaimed manifestation of God on earth to Guyana, South America. Building off current scholarship that helps us understand the religious and cultural mechanisms that produced the conditions for "revolutionary suicide," (5) this article seeks to further this discussion by specifically outlining the utopian dynamics of Jonestown and the dystopian place of Jones as messiah. Such a focus helps unpack how the sacred positioning of Jones vis-a-vis his congregation intervened on the utopian trajectory and communal idealism of Peoples Temple, making the utopian wish of a free and equal society secondary to the dystopian assessment that functioned to legitimate both Jones's standing and belief (by 1978) that members of Jonestown could only be "freed" from the chaos and destruction attending the modern moment by taking their lives.

In taking this focus, however, it is important not to disregard the broader complexities that both directed the construction of Jonestown and help situate the meaning of its final, collective act. This article concentrates specifically on the way narratives of religious salvation challenged the maintenance of and potential for sustained community, while also working to maintain Jones's megalomania and power by underscoring the utopian impulse of Jonestown members. This article also demonstrates, however, the way the dystopian assessment of contemporary America produced real conditions to explore new ways of living that, for many members, represented more than a Christianized expression of salvation-through-death. …

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