The 1990s were an interesting time to be around. The attacks of 9/11 loomed in our future, but we weren’t completely removed as a nation from tragedy and turmoil. A popular slogan which had popped up among Evangelical Christians was “WWJD,” or “What Would Jesus Do?” This was a trendy fashion statement to some, and for others it was a true check of one’s behaviors. When a Christian contemplated an action – or even needed advice on what to do next – they might consider, “Well, what would Jesus do in this situation?”
With the state that I see the United States in currently, as well as my notion to be a constant historian and person who studies the Peoples Temple story, I find myself asking many times, “WWJJD”: “What Would Jim Jones do?” I certainly don’t intend this this as a comparison between Jim Jones and the spiritual Jesus Christ, or even the historical Jesus Christ. Far from it. However, the slogan WWJJD hits me all the time in terms of the message that Jim Jones preached that brought in so many followers.
What would Jim Jones think today? And by that, I mean the activist Jim Jones, the Jim Jones who raged against bigotry and racism throughout his career, the Jim Jones who led desegregation efforts in restaurants and hospitals and theaters, the Jim Jones who inspired so many of his followers to work for social justice and equality for all. That Jim Jones. What would he think of the political climate today in 2016? I think he would have been shocked that one party has a candidate so set on non-equality, and I would have been right there, just as shocked as he. What would he think of the police brutality that destroys the lives of so many black men? I think he would find it horrid and a sign of the evil racism of the world that still exists. And I would have been protesting right along with him. Would he be preaching that “Black Lives Matter”? I believe he would, and I would have loved him for it.
This is where the story of Peoples Temple becomes much more intriguing. The world knows the group only as that “Kool-Aid cult.” They know its members only as people who “blindly” followed a “madman.” They forget that Jim Jones began as a man who stood for what is right, fighting for the rights and lives of people that needed it the most.
The climate is right for another group like Peoples Temple. We are in a place in history ripe for someone to want to make a major change, even as history teaches that sometimes these leaders steer us towards unforeseen calamity. Why is that? What is it about someone trying to do something so right to end up going so drastically wrong? Here is where I separate Jim Jones the madman from Jim Jones the activist. And here is where the members of Peoples Temple, even the main accomplices in the end, deserve better treatment than just being known as a cult.
The background of the mission of Peoples Temple and the reasons they joined are what make this story so different from other tragedies. The reasons people joined Peoples Temple – whether they were political or religious or social – were all in the name of helping others. These people wanted to make a change in the society they saw around them. They wanted to end racism and end poverty. They wanted to make the world a peaceful place in the middle of a Cold War just waiting to get hot again. They wanted people of all colors to be accepted and understood. Yes, it started as a Christian church, but it was an accepting one in terms of faith.
Did the passion to help others so much ultimately doom Jim Jones? If so, could people possibly learn from that and not allow the tragic ending to happen today? Where do we begin to differentiate from “What Would Jim Jones Do” to what Jim Jones actually did? I think that is a huge consideration for anyone deeply involved in any organization of community. My students often ask me the question: can someone do this – can someone actually work to make a difference in the world – without the power corruption and tragedy in the end?
Fast forward to 2016. The political and social climate is close to that of the days of Peoples Temple. Imagine Jim Jones today creating a noble community hell bent on changing the world today. I picture him taking in people intimidated by law enforcement, I picture him assisting the poor and needy, I see him helping those with drug addictions and dependencies. I see him regarding the treatment of Muslims in America as a sign of what corrupt government and capitalism can bring. I see him bringing these people together in protests, live on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC alike. And I see myself following his lead.
The psyche behind doing ultimate good and ultimate evil is so close. This is what scares me to the core. I would follow his lead. The question then becomes, in those final moments, would I realize what Jim Jones was doing was ultimately wrong, and try to stop him? No longer is it What Would Jim Jones Do? It would be the deeper question of What Would I Do?
(Craig Foreman is a Sociology and History Teacher with the Expedition Academy at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio. The school’s website is www.expeditionacademy.com. Craig’s previous stories for this site may be found here. He may be reached at Ke_cforeman@kentschools.net.)