Salvation and Suicide, by David Chidester

Davide Chidester’s, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown examines the event of the 914 murder/suicides of the Guyanese Jonestown community in 1978 in terms of a “religiohistorical” approach. His goal is to present these events within its context, almost as a natural evolution (although the author does not use these words), and not as a bizarre anomaly of religious conviction. Indeed, the foreward states, “After an era of interpretation marked mostly by sensationalized journalism, facile psychologism, and relatively limited social science analysis, Chidester has shown […] that it is possible to understand Jonestown in religious terms” (ix). Chidester’s thesis is that it was religious suicide, an act of divine fulfillment of the Peoples Temples’ soteriological and socialist worldview.

The author describes his methodology as being a “religiohistorical interpretation, worldview analysis, or the phenomenology of religion,” and admits that this is akin to “structured empathy” (xiv). This theoretical approach is helpful to understanding Jonestown events, as it enables the reader to analyze Chidester’s claims objectively. The author never states it explicitly, but implied in his study is a critique of other scholarly work that passes a moral judgment on these events, even ostensibly neutral social scientific studies. He is not engaged in apologetics; he never denounces the acts, nor does he ever state that they are reprehensible or unfortunate. He instead applies various theories on death, pollution, time and space, and personhood. Language suggesting any notion that these events were an aberration is omitted entirely, something that I have come across in other studies on violence in NRMs. Even if the reader does consider these murder-suicides as an act of involuntary violence, the book itself allows a distance from the visceral reaction to death under these circumstances.

Chidester spends much time discussing the deaths themselves in physical terms: the look, transportation, handling, disposing, disinfecting, interring, and cremating of deceased bodies. This novel approach underlines part of Chidester thesis; that these events are very much a human phenomena: human bodies, human emotions, human decomposition. Since this very corporal material is introduced in the first chapter, it is evident that Chidester is signaling his future arguments.

For example, when the evening of the mass suicide arrived, only a few members backed out, and the author argues that the majority “willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced death as a way of sealing their witness to the worldview that had animated the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Collective suicide focused that worldview into a single act” (155). Scholars, even while attempting neutrality and objectivity, tend to introduce, however subtly, this type of event as wrong, as immoral or unethical, even as they then attempt to explain why it happened without hyperbolic or sensationalized commentary. This is possibly so as not to be understood as condoning the behaviour. Chidester’s book had its first printing in 1988, and was perhaps considered radical at the time. The 2003 reprint, as a post 9/11 publication, now has a larger collective knowledge base from which to draw upon that focuses on the idea of otherness; such as suicide bombings as martyred heroes. The message is clear; there are comparisons between the two events, as they are religiously significant acts. Chidester’s claim is then that these events are not aberrations, but a fulfillment of religious/cosmic destiny in their respective worldviews.

In Chapter 1, Chidester makes interesting commentary on the significance of the deaths at Jonestown by invoking Mary Douglas theories, “Any death may involve a certain sense of defilement in the disruption of the order of the world of the living, but some deaths are experienced as particularly and intensely disruptive of that organic, living order” (13-14). He provides medieval witch burnings and mass executions as examples; they are outside of the realm of normal events. These abnormalities in the social order are then dissected. They are treated as such a pollutant to the normal way of things that current contemporary discourse scrutinizes them. Ostensibly to gain further understanding, but Chidester argues that the whole phenomenon of aggressive inquiry is a purifying ritual in and of itself; we must explain it, find answers, in order to re-establish normalcy.

This does not happen only in the theoretical realm, but on the corporal side as well. Officials dealing with the remains of the 913 bodies in Dover, Delaware, went through a lengthy process to make decisions for disposal. Chidester notes the difficulty in identifying the decomposed bodies that did not indicate race, sex, or age, ironically achieving the social equality so desired by the Peoples Temple; death erased class systems. The author states that ten times the normal amount of chemical treatments were used to disinfect. The danger of bodies contaminating the ground – the physical symbol for the more visceral fear of contaminating the mind, of being susceptible to the kind of “cultish” thought that could potentially lead to such acts – draws a parallel that, “The deceased immediately came to represent a more fundamental, and dangerous, defilement of American territory” (16).

Chidester’s delineation of sexual activity at Jonestown provides further insight into his thesis. Much like death, sex is also a physical act and a political statement in that worldview. “Natural bonds of kinship had to be sacrificed in the interests of the new family, which Jones, holding in counterpoint the Christian and Marxist resources he appropriated, variously called the Christ Revolution, Apostolic Socialism, or the socialist kingdom of heaven” (101). Failing a no sex experiment for a brief time, Jim Jones reinterprets sexual activity to mean, “a revolutionary act to be utilized in the interests of the cause represented by the Peoples Temple as a whole” (103). Sex was used to avert sedition, enable development, and provide physical pleasure (103). Despite the spiritual motivations of the worldview at Jonestown, Chidester continuously reminds readers that physical acts are the means to achieve these ends. What one does with the body has more impact than what one says or thinks. Action is proof of conviction. Corporality affirms ideals. While much of the Jonestown worldview considered the outside world a perversion of ideals, they did not reject physical actions completely (becoming ascetics or monastics). Jim Jones’ own sermons take a gnostic view of theology; Sky God as a mad, jealous, vain, and immoral God (i.e. a more material God), and Jones’ notion of love as a socialist ideal, “That is love, that is God, Socialism” (57). The outside materiality is certainly corrupted, but Jones proposes a corrective and affirmative materiality through actions.

Chidester’s final thesis is that Jonestown is a religious and revolutionary suicide. That it is a test of loyalty, a means to avoid subhuman death, and a statement of inviolable principle to the outside world. Having read other commentary and reviews of this particular book, many opined that Chidester’s conclusions are controversial or simply incorrect. I imagine that this is because popular discourse is reluctant to consider these acts as a fulfillment of religious destiny, or divine blessing. It is somewhat ironic, considering that the embedded inherited Christian notions in Western societies – such as martyrdom – are rejected when practiced by a subversive group that takes this Christian ideal of martyrdom to its logical conclusion.

Topics for discussion:

1)   Death/sex as revolutionary and religious acts in NRMs. (The body as a metaphor for larger territory, and how this idea extends to other groups.)

2)    By avoiding a moral judgment, even subtly, are there larger implications?

3)   Why such disagreement with Chidester’s approach? What does that mean within academia?

2 thoughts on “Salvation and Suicide, by David Chidester

  1. Brilliant. I was given this book last week for my birthday and have yet to read it, this made me look forward to starting.


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