My latest obsession is Jonestown. Yes, that infamous place in Guyana where hundreds of devoted people died under the leadership of Jim Jones. According to Jim Jones, they took their lives as a protest to the conditions of the world, and they did so with dignity. Lots of controversy. Lots of interpretations. But the astonishing events of that day in 1978 are not, in fact, what intrigue me most. I’m actually much more interested in who these people were and how they got there. And I’m interested in that because I see myself in them.
I recently watched a film on Netflix about Jonestown, and one of Jim Jones’ sons said something that has stayed with me. I don’t recall his words verbatim, but it was something like:
“Ask yourself what it would take for you to do something you never thought you’d do. It’s easy to judge and distance yourself from these people. But put yourself in their shoes. These were good people who believed in a better world.”
Right now, I am in the midst of an interesting shift in my personal and political life. The radical seeds planted in me long ago are being watered and growing. It is disarming to realize how similar I am to the Jonestown people. These Socialist people who envisioned and worked toward a radically different social, economic, and political system. These people who denounced racism and condemned inequality. These people inspired, to whatever degree, by a sense of sacred calling. I’d like to believe that I could spot a “cult” leader a mile away and would be the first to sprint in the other direction. But how can I know? How can I know that I would not be swept up into the optimism, passion, and possibility of some kind of utopia like Jonestown?
So, I think it’s important to humanize The People’s Temple community. It’s important to grapple with their complexity and texture. They did a lot of good for a lot of people, particularly while they were still in the U.S. There was also a dark underside to this community, but I think there is danger in allowing that dark underside to obscure what was so compelling about them. We can not let the shocking tragedy of the mass suicide/massacre persuade us that we are so different. I want the kind of world they wanted. It could have been me.