Thursday, September 5, 2013

THE SACRAMENT: Flashback to Jonestown, Part I

Peoples Temple member Venus Harris

"We didn't commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."
--The Reverend Jim Jones, founder of the The Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church
“Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death.”
--Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party
In November 1978, more than 900 people died in the largest mass suicide/mass murder in history (before September 11, 2001). The location of this grisly event was Jonestown, a religious commune in Guyana. Jonestown was inhabited by about a thousand followers of the Reverend Jim Jones, who had founded The Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church in the 1960s. 

Ti West's latest film, The Sacrament, is screening at this year's Festival and bears many similarities to this real-life tragedy, so let's take a closer look at whathappened.

In the mid-1950s, Jim Jones had quit his job as Assistant Pastor at the Lauren Street Tabernacle in Indianapolis, Indiana because the church board refused to allow integration of African-Americans into the congregation. He started the Peoples Temple soon afterwards to deal with social issues like racism and class inequality, but it was also a way for Jones to communicate his Marxist beliefs.

The beginnings of the Peoples Temple were auspicious: Jones established nursing homes and developed projects in the inner city to help both poor and homeless people, in addition to donating money to humanitarian and political causes such as the anti-apartheid movement. In 1960, Jones was even appointed the Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission, but the constant harassment and death threats from racists caused so much mental and physical strain that he left the position the next year.

The Peoples Temple had a reputation for practicing what they preached: a "human rights ministry." Yet soon, cracks in the beautiful façade of the Peoples Temple began to show. Eight former members of the church (referred to as "defectors") told stories of surveillance, forced confessions of bad deeds, physical abuse, and blackmail.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, Jones's Communist teachings became more obvious in his sermons and he renounced what he called the "Sky God" in favor of a new "apostolic socialism." He argued that no benevolent God would allow his children to suffer and saw the Bible as a "text filled with lies." He promoted the idea of the "Divinity of Socialism," in which love was the "central ordering of society."

Eventually, Jones appointed himself as the manifestation of the God personification of Socialism, claimed to have supernatural powers similar to those of Jesus Christ, became increasingly obsessed with the Apocalypse and Judgement Day, and openly condemned capitalist governments. Soon, the rest of the world became less tolerant of the Reverend and the Peoples Temple, particularly the media.

Article from the San Francisco Examiner
After being excoriated in the as a fraud with a messiah complex and denied tax-exempt status, Jones set up a new compound for the Peoples Temple in Guyana, and by the end of the 1970s, there were close to a thousand people living there. But the attempt to escape from their persecutors proved futile for soon the Peoples Temple was being pursued by the IRS, the Social Security Administration, and US Customs.

Stay tuned to the Vanguard Blog for Part II of"Flashback to Jonestown."

THE SACRAMENT Screening Times:
Sunday, Sept 8th, 5:15 PM THE BLOOR HOT DOCS CINEMA
Tuesday, Sept 10th, 9:45 PM SCOTIABANK 7
Friday, Sept 13th, 8:45 PM SCOTIABANK 3

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