In addressing the Environmental Grantmakers Association in October 2001, Bill Moyers spoke frankly about national security in a way that reminds me in ways of my experience with the Peoples Temple 25 years ago.
“As for national security,” Moyers said, “well, it’s time to expose the energy plan before Congress for the dinosaur is it. Everyone knows America needs to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel…. Start with John Adams’ wakeup call. The head of the National Resource Defense Council says the terrorist attacks spell out in frightful terms that America’s unchecked consumption of oil has become our Achilles heel.”
In 1971, I was a college senior seeking conscientious objector exemption from the Vietnam War draft board. I needed political and legal support. I got it from Peoples Temple.
I joined that church with a great sense of idealism. However, my seven-year, 13-day long experience enabled me to see the worst in human behavior, both mine and my colleagues.
We tolerated horrible behavior from a despotic minister, because we had allowed him to compromise us and make us too afraid to leave the church. When physical abuse began within the San Francisco church, my personal rationalization for remaining was that no other demonstration of racial integration existed in America. My Achilles heel was my lack of access to trusted friends with whom I could discuss whether a conspiracy theory alleging CIA interest in – and interference with – Peoples Temple was reason enough to remain within the church.
I am familiar with the research describing how tyrants and organizational members co-create dysfunctional organizations and a culture of Group Think. My experience in the Peoples Temple resembled that of a Holocaust victim in a Nazi concentration camp. Instead of allowing myself to be herded onto a cattle car at gunpoint, I overlooked Jones’ increasingly bizarre behavior which was in the foreground and focused instead on a conspiracy theory which was the program operating in the background.
One enduring benefit from my seven years as a Peoples Temple member was an enhanced sensitivity to others’ experience whose racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, disability, or financial status was different than mine.
In the same speech to Environmental Grantmakers, Moyers quotes the President of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation:
The question is what to do with the very fact of survival. Over time survivors will be able to answer that question not by a statement about the past but by what they do with the future. Because they have faced death, many will have learned what is more important: life itself, love, family, community. The simple things we have all taken for granted will bear witness to that reality. The survivors will not be defined by the lives they have led until now, but by the lives they will lead from now on. For the experience of near death to have ultimate meaning, it must take shape in how one rebuilds from the ashes.
(Andy Silver, a former member of Peoples Temple, is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)