by J. Gordon Melton (updated: April 14, 2000)
First it was 150 dead. Then it was 350, and gradually the count reached and surpassed the 913 that died at the Peoples Temple community in Jonestown, Guyana. It has now risen above 1,000, and the search for victims of Uganda's Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God continues.
The sheer extent of the tragedy in Kanungu, Uganda, calls forth comparison with Jonestown, where in November 1978 the visit of California Representative Leo J. Ryan became the catalyst for the group to turn in upon itself and commit mass suicide, and to murder the minority who would not participate.
On the surface, Jonestown and Kanungu have striking similarities: More than 900 known dead, both exhibited some primary characteristics of so-called "cults"--charismatic leaders and geographic isolation. But closer reflection shows some equally striking differences--despite equally tragic ends.
As our knowledge of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTC) has expanded, so has our knowledge of its inner dynamics, helped immensely by the emergence of Peter Ahimbisibwe, a young man who so far is the only known Movement survivor.
The MRTC seems to have really begun with the coming together of Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibwetere. On August 24, 1988, Mwerinde, a young woman with a reputation for being sexually loose, had the first of what she said was a series of visions of the Virgin Mary and began to share her story with those who would listen. In 1991, Kibwetere traveled to Nyanmitanga, Uganda, to hear Mwerinde and was so impressed that he invited her to live in his home.
This became the headquarters of the Movement for three years until they moved to Kanangu in 1994. By this time, Kibwetere had separated from his wife and had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. The pair led the group, but accounts vary as to which one held ultimate authority.
Mwerinde's visions had also attracted other Catholics, including the priest Dominic Kataribabo, who in the 1980s earned a master's degree in religious studies from Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic institution. He had been disciplined by his Ugandan bishop, who reprimanded and eventually excommunicated him in the early 1990s for raising funds for the Movement. He eventually left the church and worked exclusively for the MRTC.
Beginning in 1994, the Movement developed as an ordered community, adherents accepting a disciplined life and new behavioral rules as conditions of membership (somewhat like life in other Catholic orders). Its primary center was in Kanungu, but other groups emerged at several nearby towns. Members were united in their acceptance of the material received by Mwerinde from her reported visions.
As families joined, they adopted the group rules designed to prevent any further breaking of the Ten Commandments. They refrained from sex and any unnecessary verbal interaction (a means of refraining from adultery and profaning the Lord's name). They developed a sign language that they used whenever possible.
As the group formed around the visions, it moved to separate itself from society and the church. For MRTC, the Catholic Church was high on the list of those who were regularly breaking the Ten Commandments that caused God such great offense. In return, as soon as the Movement became large enough for church officials to take note, its leaders were excommunicated, and it was written off as not Catholic.
Integral to the group was a belief that the world was disintegrating around them it, but as with apocalyptic groups through the centuries, they also had hope that God or the Virgin would deliver them. The end of the century provided an occasion for actualizing that belief, and as December 31 approached they began to liquidate assets and prepare for the coming deliverance predicted by Mwerinde and Kibwetere.
When deliverance did not come, the pair did as other leaders have done and revised their prediction. It would still happen, they said, but at some point during 2000. Many accepted that revision; they had placed their faith in the Virgin Mary and had confidence in her chosen mouthpiece. However, if we are to believe Ahimbisibwe's account, a significant number of members lost their confidence in Mwerinde's contact with the divine realm and demanded the money and resources they had donated be returned. That demand created a crisis that threatened to bankrupt if not destroy the group.
At this point, one of two possible scenarios become possible. Which actually unfolded remains unclear for now.
First, it is possible that the resources of the group (never large but substantial in Ugandan terms) had been spent on the buildings they had erected and the ongoing expenses of keeping the community together. There was no cash to return to the dissidents (there were so many of them), and if they left it would be a massive challenge for the rest to keep the faith. Everything would be undone. The words of the Virgin that began the Movement would be disconfirmed.
It could be at this point that the leadership decided that the only course was to kill the dissidents and then to end the Movement in the collective death of the faithful. This action assumes the commitment of the leaders to the truth of the visions and their belief that the destruction of the Movement was the only way for its gains to remain.
In this senario, both Mwerinde and Kibwetere would have had to join the trusted aides who assisted them in the group's murderous destruction and die in the final March 17 conflagration that brought the situation to the world's attention. A fair number of aides would have been needed to carry out the many murders that preceded the final conflagration, and at least one would have been sure to notice the absence of the two leaders during the interval between the sealing of the church doors and the explosion in Kanungu.
The second scenario suggests that either Mwerinde and Kibwetere never had real faith in the visions or, more likely, that they lost their faith. This suggests that they were, in fact, hoarding the group's resources that had accumulated over six years, had created a large secret treasury, and were thinking that at some time they would split with the money.
Their timetable was upset by the unexpected reaction to the failed prophecy, which could have been made to further manipulate the group. Once encountering the reaction, however, they were forced to quickly develop a way out: Bring a cadre of trusted lieutenants into a plan that included the killing of hundreds of dissident members by either poisoning them or stabbing them, quickly burying the bodies, and covering what they had done both from the faithful members and the general public. In the end, to cover their departure, they killed the remainder of the group in such a way that everyone would think the leaders had also died.
Such a cover-up would have been assisted by the members' trust in their leaders, the maxims against unnecessary communication--including asking about missing members--and the general separation of the group from society as a whole.
Either scenario is possible. If the first is true, there is little the authorities can do. If the second is true, as Ugandan authorities now believe, much needs to be done. If Mwerinde and Kibwetere are alive, a search while the trail is still warm is the best chance to find them. Given what is known of the group's relative lack of resources, the first scenario appears the more likely. There was not enough money for the leaders to think they could hide indefinitely--not with the world after them.
While there is some resemblance, the Peoples Temple stands in sharp contrast with the MRTC in many ways. Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple as an independent congregation in Indianapolis, and soon afterward the group joined the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a large mainline denomination, a member of the National and World Councils of Churches. Once the Temple relocated to California, Jones and the group's lay leadership became very active in the social, political, and religious life of the San Francisco Bay Area. The Temple emphasized racial issues in particular.
Jones' prominence meant that politicians wanted to be seen with him. The church was also active in its denomination and the ecumenical movement through the California Council of Churches, and its social program was touted throughout liberal Protestant denominations as a model to be admired and copied.
Jones preached a form of liberation theology, a popular option in the 1970s among social activists who tried to mix Marxist thought with Christian theology. Few of his colleagues challenged his more radical statements, as many were themselves exploring Marxism's potential. They did not see his gradual shift toward Marxism to the detriment of theology.
But Jones and the leadership of the Temple became more and more alienated from their environment. They had internal troubles with dissidents, critics threatened their financial base, and the process of change in American life seemed so slow as to be invisible. The loss of a hoped-for future in America led the group to abandon capitalist society. Their actual move to then-Marxist Guyana appears to have been occasioned by an attack on the Temple published in the July 1977 issue of Far West, a newsstand monthly.
Once in Guyana, different dynamics took over. Jones, the charismatic leader who built the group, was a terrible administrator. Gradually, power shifted to the circle of leadership he had previously brought around him, a shift encouraged by his increasingly erratic behavior. Guyana proved to be less than the "Promised Land" many had hoped it would become, and increasingly discussion by the Temple's leadership of the possibility of mass suicide led to preparation for it.
For them, collective death became preferred to the dissolution of the group.. They had invested their life in the Temple; its disintegration would have meant the final loss of any meaning their life might have had.
As the failure of the December 31 prophecy occasioned the murders at Kanungu, so the visit of Congressman Ryan, who arrived in Guyana in response to anti-Temple forces in San Francisco, became the occasion for the death of the Peoples Temple. While outwardly Ryan concluded his visit on friendly terms, and even had nice words to say about what he had found at Jonestown, the fragile nature of the group had been revealed in the defection of 16 members who chose to leave with Ryan. Importantly, while the Peoples Temple was overwhelming African American in membership, all but one who chose to leave was white, including some longtime members and Temple leaders. Back in America, the defectors would strengthen the Temple's critics; their leaving seemed to herald further defections that would destroy the community's structure.
In the end, several who had previously prepared for the suicide option pushed Jones aside, quickly organized the group, and distributed the poison immediately after Ryan, his entourage, and the defecting members had been killed.. The last words on the tape that was made of the final hour were of several members who voiced their belief that the end of the community in the act of suicide was preferable to its dismemberment by further defections. Jones himself did not take the poison; he died from a gunshot wound.
In Jonestown, we see the collective action of a group in despair that decided that suicide was better than the loss of all they have attempted to create. In the end, relatively few were murdered; the great majority joined in the suicide.
In Uganda, however, members individually or collective had no such choice. Individuals who chose to leave the Movement were murdered by a disparate leadership, and the group of the faithful who gathered for deliverance were met with an explosion. Although the body count was similar, the dynamics of what occurred were completely different. At Jonestown, a great majority chose suicide. In Uganda, a great majority had no choice--they were murdered. One of the problems in assessing events such as the Jonestown suicides or the Uganda murders is their uniqueness. For those of us who love life, that suicide could be a preferable course of action is difficult to understand. For those of us who trust our pastor, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual leader, it is equally difficult to imagine the betrayal of trust that occurred within the MRTC.
Only in the 1990s, with the tragedies of the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate, and Waco--each of them a unique event in the dynamics that led up to their tragic conclusions--have we begun to focus attention on such religiously related tragedies. We have much to trust if we hope to prevent future repetitions of these terrible events.
Ten Commandments of God: Mass Suicide in Uganda
CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors.
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