This weekend we observed the 40th anniversary of the mass murder/suicide tragedy at Jonestown in Guyana. The utopian cult lead by the the charismatic Jim Jones had its heyday as the People’s Temple, a Christian church in San Francisco known for its outreach to homeless neighbors. In the end it became a madhouse deep in the South American jungle as Jones became increasingly unhinged, and the would-be paradise disintegrated into a living hell. 909 men, women and children died at Jonestown and this weekend I found a great article that focuses on how pop culture shapes what we talk about when we talk about cults…
Originally, the word “cult” simply meant “to worship”. Deriving from the same root as “culture” and “cultivation”, it described rituals and offerings intended to cultivate the favour of gods, saints and other holy figures. The term later took on negative connotations, and by the mid-20th century was mostly associated with charlatans and violent or otherwise bizarre fringe groups.
Today, a cult might loosely be defined as any group exhibiting a combination of qualities including (but not limited to): a charismatic leader, mind-altering practices, sexual and economic control and exploitation of members, us-versus-them attitudes towards outsiders, and an ends-justify-the-means philosophy.
By this definition, it’s difficult to argue that Peoples Temple wasn’t a cult. After all, they had a leader who was notoriously charismatic and who exerted a disproportionate level of control over his congregation. Members were often overworked and overtired, their finances and sex lives regulated by leadership. Relationships with outsiders were generally discouraged, and Jones was known to sexually abuse both male and female followers. Meanwhile, an ends-justify-the-means line of thinking was employed to justify everything from faked healings to the ultimate massacre of more than 900 individuals.
Read more at the link above. Here’s a Real Stories documentary about the tragedy, Jonestown: Paradise Lost…
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