“There, but for the Grace of God, go I”

by Bonnie Yates

“I, I could’ve been you
You could’ve been me
One small change
That shapes your destiny”

~ “I could’ve been you”, Melissa Etheridge

It could have been you. It could have been me. It could have been anyone and everyone that we know. Factors such as age, race, sex, class?  None of those would make a person less likely to be involved. None of those factors would save you or – alternatively – make you more likely to be involved.

Think about churches and their role in our lives. What do churches do for us? First of all, they give us a sense of purpose, a sense of why we are here in this world. Churches give us a place to meet as like-minded individuals who want to help not just ourselves, but others as well. And the services that churches provide to their congregation and the community at large? Look at any church, maybe even the one down the street from where you live, and I guarantee you that they offer such support services as daycare, mentoring, emergency financial aid for those who need it. That church will offer counseling for anyone who would like it, and provide comfort, advice and assistance to them about any issue that the individual comes with, be it drug addiction, a rocky marriage, or feelings of being lost and depressed. At the head of that church will be a pastor, and no doubt he or she will be compassionate, caring, kind to every member of the flock, always encouraging visitors to become members of the church.

Have I described anything special?

In the previous paragraph, I have just described basically every community church in the United States, but I have also described what Peoples Temple was like in its early days in Ukiah, California. Actually, no, I’ve done Peoples Temple a disservice. Peoples Temple offered even more than the average community church offers its members. Peoples Temple also had incredibly moving services that were so full of love and joy that it could be said that they caused rapture. Peoples Temple had a program for senior citizens in which they could find affordable, dignified housing through the church. Interracial, a true embodiment of Christ’s call for us to love one another, Peoples Temple found a way to care for each and every one of its members needs. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in such a movement? Who wouldn’t love the idea that they were making a difference? Who wouldn’t feel it vital to change the world for the better, for ourselves and for posterity? And who, believing that all such goals are possible, wouldn’t look past that first time that Jim Jones said something that didn’t quite make sense?

There’s something that I’m haunted by as a result of my research. I cannot drive by a church without a chill going down my spine. Most recently, I went past a church where daycare providers were taking the children in their care for a walk outside. I looked at the church, looked at the little ones, and it all seemed so innocent. More than that, it seemed only right to me, considering that I was raised as a Protestant. But then the thoughts started. Who, I wondered, is the leader of this congregation? What sort of an individual is he or she? How much do the people of the church love their pastor? Does the pastor ever say something that doesn’t make sense to them? Do they question it, or do they simply ignore it and look past it to the “bigger picture” that is offered in sermon?

One of the biggest questions that I have when I look at Peoples Temple, is why, when things started to become strange, didn’t anybody stand up and ask Jim Jones questions? Why would they simply accept his statements, no matter how outlandish, as gospel truth? Why wouldn’t they ask him how it was possible, for example, that “all men were homosexuals except for Jim Jones,” especially considering that despite this statement, many of the men in Peoples Temple still identified themselves as heterosexual and had relationships with females?

I believe one factor that has not yet been explored was “diffusion of responsibility” that kept individuals in Peoples Temple from asking questions. Any time that there is a large group of people, there is a potential for the phenomenon that those of us who are trained in Psychology call “diffusion of responsibility.” Simply put, it is when there are so many individuals in one place that people begin to lose their concept of having an independent ability to think critically about a situation and to act if they need to do so. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the case of Kitty Genovese, who died on March 13, 1964, in New York City. That night, as 38 neighbors in her apartment complex sat with their windows open, Kitty was attacked by an ex-boyfriend. He stabbed her and wounded her badly, then left the scene. Although her neighbors would later say that they had heard the attack, they did nothing to help Kitty, nor did they call the police. Kitty’s boyfriend returned to the scene and attacked her again, this time killing her. Again, no one called or moved to help Kitty. When asked later why they hadn’t done anything to aid the young woman, the neighbors replied that they had all thought “everyone hears it, so someone else will call the police or get involved.” Unfortunately for Kitty, no one did, and it became clear after that attack, that if someone had intervened in between the two assaults by her boyfriend, she could have been saved.

“Diffusion of responsibility” was clearly present in Peoples Temple. Instead of questioning what Jim Jones was saying or the direction that he was going in early on, everyone took the view that if something he had said or done was truly bad, surely someone would stand up and say something about it. Afraid of the type of control that Jim Jones exuded, afraid of standing up and looking strange for asking a question, afraid of the censure and perhaps even punishment that might also follow, no doubt many people simply went with the flow. At some point, the situation in Peoples Temple hit critical mass just as it did in the Genovese tragedy: there was a time and a place in which Jim Jones could have, and should have, been questioned. But the moment passed. And in that second, the church that anybody and everybody could have joined became something far more sinister.

Eventually, Jim Jones moved the Peoples Temple headquarters to San Francisco, California, and for his own enjoyment and “cult of personality” status, he became active in the local politics. It was only a matter of time before the media began to ask who he was and what his church was all about. Questions were being asked that the individuals in Peoples Temple had never dreamed of asking because no one else had broached the subjects. Jones detested the media for questioning him: indeed, he may have detested anyone who dared to question him at that point. Jones felt safe and secure in his belief that he had all of the answers, that he was accountable to nothing except his own sense of self-worth. So when the media began to inquire into the dealings of Peoples Temple, Jones exploded and pegged them as being part of a conspiracy meant to drag him down.

As Jones started to do his best to thwart any sort of media inquiry, those ideals that everyone had joined Peoples Temple for – and that they still held onto – evaporated from the focus of Jim Jones. The social programs, which had excited so many, slowly faded in importance as Jim began to focus on moving everyone to Guyana and away from the questioning eyes of the media. At that point, all the Jones cared about was getting away from those who wanted to make inquiries. Deep inside, Jim knew that the media’s questions would awaken some of his members from their sleep and that they would begin to think critically about what Jim was doing. And he simply couldn’t have that. Members would have begun to leave at a pace that Jim Jones couldn’t handle. One or two defectors was enough to send him into a frenzy, imagine if he had lost, say, one hundred members.

Once his followers were in Guyana, separated from family, the only news they ever received was that which Jones himself gave them. By that time, there was no way for any Peoples Temple member to ask about anything without risking severe reprimand.

In some ways, the members of Peoples Temple were trapped by their own ideals and the inability to see that Jim Jones could not satisfy those ideals. He talked about them a great deal and kept people’s interest, and they so wanted to believe him and believe in him, as anyone would. They had made friendships that were intense and dedicated to the same social causes. To that very last day, and in some cases, beyond it, those friendships bound the members of Peoples Temple together. The friendships were their greatest strength and their greatest weakness all at once.

* * *

I had a wonderful professor at university who used to say that there was “no such thing as a dumb question.” I believed that even before I met him, just as I believe it still. Questions are wonderful: they give us the ability to learn, to clarify what others are saying to us, to guarantee that what we think is happening is really happening. Where would we be without questions? Why are so many of us afraid to ask questions?

Questioning is a human instinct, something that we must never let fall to the wayside as we go forward in our pursuits. Maybe, just maybe, the right questions at the right time would have broken Jones’ hold on some members. Maybe the right questions would have eaten into the aura of mystique around Jones and his ideas. Maybe he would have been seen as human and fallible, and then, maybe, some of the tragedy that was to come in the following years, could have been avoided.

As important as questions are, we also need to remember that we’re all human. We cannot blame those who followed Jim Jones for not asking more questions: how many of us, in the same situation, could have remembered that we were individuals with a natural right to inquire into what our leader was saying? When was the last time that any of us was able to find the gumption to question a statement made by a pastor or another authority figure, even if we heartily disagreed with what that person had said? Who among us believes that we could have had the strength of Christine Miller in those final moments? Could we have pushed Jim Jones for alternatives to death as she did? Before we judge those at Jonestown, we must first ask ourselves that question and face the answer that in the same situation, tired from the constant commotion in the jungle, cognitively drained by Jones’ ever-present harangues and crises, that we probably wouldn’t have been able to muster the same strength that Christine did.

We’re all human, we’re all afraid to question authority, but we must remember that questioning is good. If someone becomes angry at us for asking a question, or doesn’t give us a satisfactory answer, then we need to remove ourselves from the situation. We all deserve to have our questions answered, and to be treated with respect for having asked them in the first place. Years of not asking questions can lead to detriment; for those in Peoples Temple, it led to a tragic death in the jungles of Guyana. For the rest of us, it can be just as deadly: years of not asking questions of our leaders have taken us into a questionable “war” in Iraq that has no real end in sight. Taking that into consideration, are we really any different than those in Peoples Temple?

I could have joined Peoples Temple, or you could have. Anybody and everybody we know could have joined. That’s what makes Peoples Temple and the tragedy at Jonestown so compelling. It started off innocently enough, and slowly, insidiously, it became something horrifying. The best way to prevent it from happening again is to keep questioning, keep talking, even if some would prefer that your voice be silent.

(Bonnie Yates earned her BA in Psychology from Northern Illinois University, and did her undergraduate work in the Northern Illinois University Adolescent Suicidology Lab. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She can be reached here.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 17th, 2014.
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