Jim Jones’ (People’s Temple) deception revisited

I watched the PBS special on Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre that aired last night. I was struck by several things that at the same time disturbed and sobered me:

1. Jim Jones had a vision for racial harmony that was way ahead of his time. He was sensitive to the experience of minorities and willing to stand for racial equality. He adopted and gave his own name to a black child who is still living.
2. Jim Jones seemed to care about justice and social welfare. At least at first it looked like he was not trying to financially profit from the communal living.
3. Jim used all the trappings of Pentecostalism to present the feeling of Gospel ministry but all the while there was no Gospel message anywhere to be found.
4. It is amazing how simple it is to entrap individuals and lead them to make decisions they would never make if presented to them at the outset. The recipe? Make them feel at home (this is why outcasts are much more susceptible), give them things they have been longing for (power, meaning, identity, purpose), allow them to gain a sense of ownership (not real, but felt), ask them to do great things for the whole, cut them off from their family and limit their outside information, and stretch their comfort levels with smaller trust tests (in California, Jim gave everyone punch and said it was poisoned (it wasn’t) and then later told them he did that to test them to see if they trusted him) before being more demanding and using power to violate since they have nothing else to lose but “the family.”
5. How self-deceived, paranoid, and weak these leaders are. As long as they can keep from letting others see the little man behind the curtain, they have power. But any threat to their power is perceived as a total threat. It was better in his mind to kill all than lose power.


Filed under Abuse, Cultural Anthropology, Historical events, self-deception

4 responses to “Jim Jones’ (People’s Temple) deception revisited

  1. Phil,

    Thanks for this post. Sorry I didn’t respond to it earlier. I saw this excellent PBS documentary as well, and was challenged by several of the same things you highlight.

    Jim Jones was, indeed, way ahead of the times in his embrace of racial reconciliation, care for the poor, etc. Perhaps you could quibble with his socialist politics, but he seemed to have a positive vision at the start. The program didn’t go into detail trying to psychoanalyze where Jones was coming from, but it did seem that he began his movement with good intentions that eventually became corrupted by his own desire for power and loyalty, not to mention what seemed to be some sort of sexual addiction. I’d be curious to hear your take on what might of been driving him psychologically. Do you think he started off with a self-serving, malicious plan from the beginning, or that he devolved into his twisted dysfunction over time?

    Ed G.

  2. I found a few angry sites out there that feel that the PBS show was far too kind to Jones. THere are those out there who state that Jones was a sociopath from the beginning and that his collecting 65K per month in SS checks while starving many even while they were in California should have been made known in the documentary. For them, it was not a good social project gone bad, but one bad from the get go. I would suggest that at the end he was full of paranoia. Was he a paranoid Schizophrenic? Maybe. Or maybe it was his lack of attachments as a child that led to a personality disorder. Usually mental illness is a combination of diathesis (predisposition of some sort) and stressor that causes it to bloom.

    • D. Stevenson

      Where do you see personal choice in this?

      Could it be the same dynamic as seen in Hebrews 12:15? — See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.

      Perhaps sociopathy and paranoia grow from a root of bitterness. (or other root) ‘They’ say that alleviation of depression appears the same on PET scans whether the treatment was antidepressants or CBT. If both direct chemical interaction and chosen changes in thought and behavior can retroactively change brain function, perhaps it is the same the other direction. Perhaps the foundational etiology of some paranoia is biological but other paranoia began with a choice and was fed by a series of choices.

  3. Linda

    I am a member of church in Indianapolis which uses the house where The People’s Temple once met for various ministry purposes. The house is in the middle of an area where many ministries, including a Classical Christian elemntary school founded on racial reconciliation an offering urban children an excellent education even if they can’t afford it, have been started. Members and pastors of the churches involved in purchasing the house prayed for God to clear out all evil presences and replace them with His Spirit.

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