On November 18th 1978, over 900 members of the Peoples Temple movement either killed themselves or were forcibly murdered in their jungle base in Guyana. Only hours before they had murdered several people including US congressman Leo Ryan and prominent journalists who had come to rescue members of this cult.
What was chilling about this whole terrible tragedy, was that in its earliest days the Peoples Temple looked like the ideal Christian community. It was a multi-ethnic. diverse movement, its services were filled with pentecostal vibrancy, featuring healings and powerful worship. Yet the peoples temple was also deeply committed to social justice and racial reconciliation. The group managed to live out a community life that looked like the early church. The group was also highly missional sending out buses to spread the good news amongst disaffected youth across the country.
Yet a time bomb was ticking in the soul of its leader Jim Jones. Jones’ childhood experiences had left him with a deep fear of abandonment. This grew and grew inside of him, creating a monster that would completely corrupt Jones with devastating consequences. Jones’ fear of abandonment caused him to begin to run his movement with cult like control. His dysfunctions would send him into a spiral of physical and sexual abuse, paranoia and drug addiction.
Jones would eventually reject the authority of the bible, in one service he threw his bible to the ground as he publicly renounced it. He became Marxist, declaring his new found atheism. With no accountability, and no higher authority to look to, the People’s temple movement descended into madness. Eventually Jones’ fear of abandonment would lead him to cause the death of over 900 members of his movement. His dysfunctions had remained unhealed and in the dark. They grew into a cancer which caused him to turn leadership into control.
When you are a leader you place a megaphone to your dysfunctions, amplifying their devastating effects on those in your sphere of influence.
The one ray of light in this dark chapter is the example of Congressman Leo Ryan. I know nothing of his religious beliefs, but in this story, he was a “Christ figure’. Ryan was no ordinary politician. He put his money where his mouth was. After serving in World War Two, Ryan was inspired by John F Kennedy’s call to public service and he became a politician to serve his community. After riots had devastated the African-American area of Watts. Ryan instead of just reading a report about the incident, became in his spare time a substitute teacher in Watts so as to understand ‘on the ground’ the poverty people were living in. When he heard about unjust conditions in the prison system, Ryan had his staff arrange for him to be imprisoned under a false name, so that he could understand the system from a prisoners perspective.
In the last few years of his life, Ryan worked tirelessly advocating for families of cult members. He was one of the first public critics of Scientology. Such was his dedication to these families, Ryan decided to travel to Guyana unprotected and against the advice of the authorities, in order to rescue members of the People’s temple who were being held against their will. Ryan knew that he was walking into a lion’ den, yet he took the risk such was his dedication to others freedom.
Ryan was not able to save the 900 hundred who lost their lives, yet he was able to save a handful of People’s temple members before he was callously shot to death by a member of the cult during the escape.
Jones will be remembered as a leader who let his dark-side take over, who’s insatiable desire for control lead to unspeakable evil. Congressman Leo Ryan will be remembered as a leader who understood that leadership is service and self sacrifice. History will honor him as a leader who gave his own life so that others may live in freedom.