Brian Britt: Drinking the Kool-Aid

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Brian Britt is Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Tech, and currently a fellow at the Zentrum fur Literatur-und Kulturforschung Berlin. Emi Scott provided research assistance for this piece.]

Thirty years have passed since the murder-suicide of over nine hundred members of Jim Jones's People's Temple, on November 18, 1978. A sign hanging in the pavilion of Jonestown at the time read, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Today there is still no consensus on how to understand or respond to Jonestown. Academics have produced dozens of theories in hundreds of publications (some point to Jones's charisma, others to his vulnerable followers, social control techniques, or utopian zeal), but these "cult studies" and biographies fail to explain how familiar people and ideas could yield such destruction. Meanwhile, Jonestown haunts American popular speech in a phrase that makes parody of disaster: "drinking the Kool-Aid."

While public memorials have been slow to appear and modest in scale, the widespread use of the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" in American speech and writing marks a place for Jonestown in collective memory. A database search of recent news publications and broadcasts, along with such sites as the online Urban Dictionary, confirm the phrase's popularity. Used most often to describe irrational or blind support for a trend or leader, the term appears most frequently in political contexts. In August, for example, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson said current Governor Jim Doyle was "drinking some Kool-Aid" when he predicted that Barack Obama would carry Wisconsin in the presidential election. As if to silence the voice of Jones, whose deadly preaching at the "white nights" can still be heard on recordings, "drinking the Kool-Aid" aims to reduce Jonestown to a soundbite and religious rhetoric to mere words.

According to Rebecca Moore, the trivializing phrase is symptomatic of cultural dissociation and amnesia. The prevalence of the term since 2001, when many commentators compared Osama bin Laden to Jim Jones, may point to a growing awareness of and discomfort with religious violence. According to David Chidester, this avoidance is itself religious in nature: "rituals of exclusion" were mobilized from the outset to isolate Jonestown from mainstream consciousness. Likewise, James W. Chesebro and David T. McMahan argue that coverage of Jonestown and other murder-suicides in The New York Times reduces these events to grotesque and burlesque formulas, keeping them safely distant from ordinary life.

For scholars of religion, Jonestown grimly demonstrates the relevance and complexity of their field. In 1982 Jonathan Z. Smith noted that religious studies had yet to grapple with the ecstatic experiences and utopian vision of what Jones called "revolutionary suicide." Smith called for careful comparative interpretations of Jonestown that acknowledge the humanity of Jones and his followers. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas went further, finding fault with the anti-religious prejudice of most responses: "We assume that being modern involves at least agreement that no one ought to take religion too seriously, especially if it is going to ask any real sacrifices from us…[W]e should take seriously what happened there as an act of revolutionary suicide that should initially be morally honored and respected."

Smith's and Hauerwas's challenges remain: Jonestown still makes no sense without rigorous analysis of "religion." Recent studies of Jonestown's aftermath and reception represent first steps toward a reckoning with the issue, yet considerable resistance remains. Homegrown religious violence, especially mixed as it was in the People's Temple with the politics of race and social change, creates deep discomfort. Despite all that has been written and learned since Septemer 11, 2001, the avoidance and trivialization of Jonestown indicate how far we have to go. The modern American movement called Pentacostalism, which was so violently appropriated by the People's Temple, now claims about a quarter of the world's Christians, and it is growing very quickly in Africa and Latin America. An understanding of this diverse and vibrant religious movement must attend to all its cultural and historical manifestations, including Jonestown.

Whether use of the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" opens a window on the American psyche, it certainly reflects a failure to think carefully about the categories of religion and secularity, memory and forgetting. Defenders and critics of religion alike tend to regard religion as a benevolent but limited feature of private life. The defensiveness of people of faith thus mirrors the dismissiveness of skeptics. The popularity of "drinking the Kool-Aid" asks for clearer thinking about the power of religion and the words spoken and written in its name. Such clarity is the first step toward acknowledging the humanity and familiarity of Jones and his followers.

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