The mass suicide at Jonestown was a horrific tragedy, and Jim Jones is universally regarded as one of the most evil people in history. But there’s something about him that isn’t talked about enough.
Jim Jones was a Christian reverend and faith healer, yes. But he wasn’t a right-wing, fire-and-brimstone preacher.
He was a civil rights activist.
He espoused ideals in black liberation and economic equity. He was outspoken against neo-Nazis and the KKK. His church was interfaith and included Muslims, Jews, and others, and he was very proud of that. They had free medical clinics, physical therapy centers, legal services, senior centers, and food banks. He was an avid integrationist who was instrumental in integrating churches, restaurants, a hospital, and more in Indianapolis where he lived.
He was good friends with political leaders and activists like First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Angela Davis. Harvey Milk spoke at rallies held at the Peoples Temple in San Francisco and even wrote a letter to President Carter describing Jones as “a man of the highest character.”
This is a transcription of a sermon excerpt:
With 2 out of 3 babies going to bed hungry, with wars caused by the appearances of nations and colors and churches fighting over flags — we’re really not fighting over flags. We’re really fighting to suit the whim and circumstance of the cartelists, the international bankers and the great money mongrels. They make the wars. They decide what area of the world they want. …
[A number of prominent military leaders] have said the same thing — that we were never in Vietnam, for instance, for the people. We were there to preserve the fact that we were working people for sixteen cents a day and getting cheap tungsten. That’s the only reason any of you Americans have anything today. Your yellow brothers and your black brothers have been napalmed to death so they could be robbed of it over there, and they give you just enough to keep above the wolves. And you think you’ve had it good, but if you’re sick and you have to go to the hospital, you’re in trouble.
Class warfare. Wealth inequality. Financial institutions’ involvement in foreign wars. Military industrial complex. High medical costs.
These are all issues we still face today. And for the most part, one of the most infamous mass murdering cult leaders in history was on the right side of those issues.
I bring this to discussion not to denounce left-leaning ideology. I bring this to discussion for two reasons:
One: To show that anyone regardless of intelligence, maturity, class, and belief system can get wrapped up in a cult or toxic relationship.
Two: Because it’s of the utmost importance that we view our leaders, community influencers, and even loved ones through a critical lens, no matter how much we love or support them.
Predators shield themselves in all kinds of ways — through charity work, activism, social/political clout, etc. One thing Jones did a lot was name drop all the people with whom he was connected. He humble-bragged about meeting with political leaders and civil rights activists frequently.
The people with whom he surrounded himself gave him credibility.
That’s why the #MeToo Movement and calling people out for predation is so important. Predators use the people around them to give a good impression and support their facade. They use morality as proof of black-and-white extremist thinking when reality is full of nuance.
@LadySpeechSankofa recently made a TikTok that stuck with me:
The abusers in your community are not only grooming their victims. They’re also grooming you.
They are grooming you not to see their red flags. They are grooming you to believe their lies. They are grooming you to distrust their victims. They are grooming you to make you an accomplice to their abuse and their bullshit. They are grooming you so that you don’t see their true self.
This is why a lot of you can’t, won’t, and don’t speak up and speak out against abusers. It’s because you’ve been groomed by the abusers to shut the fuck up.
It’s naïve to think that it’s easy to spot, condemn, and extricate from predators. They entrench themselves in the trappings of community, influence, professional status, friendships, and benevolence. This makes it exceedingly difficult to a) believe their victims, and b) remove them from the spaces where they hold power.
Predators aren’t monsters. They’re people. They’re full of good and bad. They can be cruel and nice. They can be evil and righteous. They can be abusers and victims.
Predators, corrupt politicians, and cult leaders make use of black-and-white, either-or, us-or-them, good-and-evil logic. Seeing those very same people as whole beings capable of great evil and great good is the cure to indoctrination and dogmatism.
I’m certain that if Jim Jones were alive today and Jonestown hadn’t ended the way it did, he’d be very popular. Jonestown was just the grand finale to more than twenty years of manipulation and exploitation hidden from the public.
There are many Jim Jones/Keith Rainere/Anne Hamilton Byrne/Brian Laundrie types walking among us who have secret lives. They’ve become extremely adept at crafting and supporting their narrative of innocence. They know how to manipulate not only their victims, but everyone around them.
When victims come forward, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Even if it breaks your heart.