In 1978, I remember seeing an issue of Time magazine in my dad’s study. On the cover was the lead story for the week: over 900 members of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, killed themselves by drinking poison at the command of their organization’s leader, Rev. Jim Jones.
They killed themselves because of a lie, or more accurately, a culture of lies. The lies involved allegations that people were out to get them and “capitalist pigs” were going to destroy what they had built. That anyone outside the Peoples Temple community could not be trusted.
None of this was true. What was true was that the conditions at Jonestown were deteriorating and concerns were being raised about human rights violations, gaining the attention of politicians and the press.
It has been reported that Jones was going off the rails, engaging in drug use and increasingly extreme forms of control over the members of the Peoples Temple. By 1978 he had such a firm grasp on his followers that they were willing to commit murder for him and lay down their lives in response to his lies.
In 1954 the leader of a fringe sect in Illinois announced that the world would end on December 21. Word had been received by Dorothy Martin (a.k.a. Marian Keech; later known as Sister Thedra) that was allegedly from Jesus who was now living on an undiscovered planet called Clarion. The message was that a flood would inundate significant portions of the Earth beginning December 21, covering most of the United States, Russia, and other nations. Spacemen from the planet Clarion would arrive just before the flood to rescue the faithful, take them into flying saucers, and bring the safety on Clarion.
People found this believable, and the faithful prepared for the end of the world, many giving away all they had since they would no longer need it. They gathered to greet their rescuers on December 21. The day came, the day went, and needless to say, the spacemen did not appear, nor did the flood happen.
Confusion reigned. The prophesy was reconfigured. Followers gathered to sing Christmas carols in order to renew their resolve. Within days, Martin was threatened with criminal charges.
Martin never admitted fraud, repented, or otherwise took responsibility for the damage she did in the lives of her followers. She moved around a lot after the spacemen from Clarion failed to appear, changed her name, and eventually passed away in Sedona, Ariz.
Adolph Hitler–a man who needs no introduction–almost single-handedly managed to convince a nation that they were destined for greatness, if only they could eliminate the Jews and anyone else who stood in their way.
The origins of Nazi Germany have been studied extensively. I will just say that the one of the key elements of its success from 1933 to 1945 (and the groundwork that was laid in the preceding decade) was feeding people a lie, or set of lies, so attractive that they informed on their neighbors, committed genocide, and did nothing to stand up to fascism and domestic terrorists out of fear for their own lives and livelihoods.
People will believe lies. People will go so far as to destroy their own lives and the lives of others for a lie.
This unfortunately is a sad fact of human nature. Often our need to belong to something–a religion, a movement, a political organization–is so compelling that it short circuits the other things we ought to be doing in our lives. Things demanded of us by religion and civil society, such as showing compassion, thinking for ourselves, working together, rising above our differences, being kind.