IT WOULD be comforting to conclude that the enormities depicted in Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle — Storyville (BBC4, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week) — two 90-minute documentaries exploring the murder of 918 men, women, and children that, in November 1978, extinguished the Revd Jim Jones’s People’s Temple — had nothing to do with religion as we know it. That is comforting, but not, alas, true.
Many aspects are what many of us are told are essential for church growth: strong, charismatic leadership; pure doctrinal clarity by the faithful; and absolute commitment to membership. More disturbingly, many of the achievements in the Temple’s early years were admirable: its racial integration and inclusion; the sense of welcome and shared purpose; and the championing of unpopular liberal social causes.
The mystery is whether the positive aspects of Jones’s ministry can be divorced from his monstrous, evil, delusional, paranoid, Messianic sadism, which became apparent to his followers only once they were too deeply involved to leave.
Again and again, the few survivors emphasised that Temple members were just ordinary people, in many cases highly educated and inspired to make the world a better place. I found it emotionally disturbing to watch the tragedy unfold with the use of harrowing videos and tapes made at the time. Jones trained his disciples to suffer, to adopt his persecution mania, and accept that they had no choice but to die; yet, at the end, most had to be forced to poison their babies and children (more than 300 of them) before drinking cyanide themselves. Jones told them that they were performing an act of “revolutionary suicide”, but the survivors were clear: given the emotional and physical coercion, this was mass murder.
Ritual murder far closer to home, but some 3000 years old, was explored in Bone Detectives: Britain’s buried secrets (Channel 4, Saturday). In Thanet, Kent, a late-Bronze Age pit had been found that contained five human and three animal skeletons: an elderly woman had been killed by sword blows, apparently unresisted, her corpse carefully laid out with two lambs in her lap, one finger pointing, the other hand clutching a lump of chalk. One of her companions came from Scandinavia, one from Southern Europe.
Such finds emphasise the complexity and enigma of our island story; but why must the programme seek to raise the temperature with expressions of amazement and anthropological ignorance?
There were far too many female skeletons in Wisting (BBC4, Saturday). An American serial-killer continues his vile crimes in Norway, murdering young blondes and throwing their bodies into wells. It is powerful and brilliantly acted; but, by being entertained, are we colluding with degradation and abuse?