Volume 1, Issue 3, 2013
Suicide: Why Do People Kill Themselves In The Name Of Religion?
Rhetoric, Revolution and Resistance in Jonestown, Guyana
Initial reports of the deaths that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978 characterized them as mass suicides. As accounts of the deaths of children and old people emerged, however, the events began to be described as murder, especially by conspiracy theorists. But scholarship in New Religions studies over the last three decades has begun to claim that at least some of the deaths for some of the people were a type of martyrdom. A narrative of martyrdom pervaded life in Jonestown, as well as life within Peoples Temple, the group sponsoring the agricultural commune. Jim Jones, the group’s leader, appropriated and re-interpreted the Black Panther Party rhetoric of revolutionary suicide, calling upon residents to lay down their lives to protest capitalism. This act of protest was rehearsed many times in Jonestown, and in the Temple in the U.S. Some survivors who lived in Jonestown challenge the assertion that residents took these rehearsals seriously, although a number of audiotapes have parents providing the justification for killing their children to save them from torture; others on tape state that they are taking their own lives as a rejection of capitalism. In any event, by killing the children first, the mass suicides of the parents seemed virtually assured.