Jonestown and Liberation Theology

(Massimo Introvigne is the director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Torino, Italy. He may be reached at

The Crisis of Liberation Theology

Although whole libraries exist on liberation theology, as well as a significant body of scholarship on Jonestown, the relationship between the two phenomena has never been seriously discussed, although Chidester (1988) did suggest that it may elicit some results. Perhaps now it is a good time to return to the matter, after several important studies have been published on the crisis, if not the demise, of liberation theology in the 21st Century. Two are worth mentioning here. The first is a much discussed article by Father Clodovis Boff, one of the historical Brazilian liberation theologians, published by the Revista Eclesiástica Brasileira, Brazil’s leading theological journal, in October 2007 (Boff 2007). The second is an essay by Mexican sociologist Malik Tahar Chaouch, published by Jean-François Mayer’s Religioscope Institute in Fribourg, Switzerland in 2008 (Chaouch 2008).

According to Chaouch, although some individual theologians remain influential in academic and publishing circles, liberation theology in itself is slowly disappearing. Chaouch (2008, 6) disagrees with the “simplistic victimization theories” which blame this demise purely to Vatican criticism and repression under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In fact, according to the Mexican sociologist, the first question is whether liberation theology was ever as popular as it claimed to be. Even though many scholarly accounts in United States and Europe took at face value the Latin American theologians’ own propaganda, its roots were in fact “weak.” When sociologists started considering the movement and collecting empirical data, they discovered that liberation theology was a much smaller enterprise than has been previously believed (Chaouch 2008, 7). True, there were many “base communities” in Brazil and elsewhere. However, most of these communities had only superficial ties to liberation theology, were led by parish priests rather than lay people, and were more than happy to trade liberationist slogans with Catholic Charismatic Renewal’s Pentecostal experiences in the 1990s and 2000s. Well before Chaouch, this trend had been noted by scholar of Brazilian religion Thomas C. Bruneau as early as 1988 (Bruneau 1988).

Chaouch concludes that, rather than being declining in the 21st century, the success of liberation theology was never particularly significant in the first place, and was unduly amplified by sympathetic scholars. Contrary to this scholarship, liberation theology – with all its “preferential option for the poor” – was an elite rather than a genuinely popular phenomenon. Voting with their feet, the poor generated in countries like Brazil an impressive decline of mainline churches dominated by liberation theology (including, but not limited to, the Roman Catholic Church), and an equally spectacular growth of Pentecostalism. As the distinguished scholar of Latin American Pentecostalism, Paul Freston, recently noted, while the Catholics were busy with their preferential option for the poor, the poor were making their massive preferential option for the Pentecostals (Freston 2008).

All this should of course be nuanced. There was more than one liberation theology, and most comments focus on its radical variety, which was the most interesting for the international media, and liberally used Marxism’s historical materialism both as an analytic tool and as a language. Not all priests and pastors inspired by one or another brand of liberation theology were elite ideologists. Some were genuinely eager to improve the poor’s lot, and some did obtain significant results. However, it is also true that liberationist pastoral strategies were, in general terms, far from successful. When John Paul II moved against liberation theology in the 1980s, his Polish anti-communist prejudices were not his first motivation (contrary to the liberationists’ own perception). He was also very much concerned about reports evidencing that the Catholic Church was losing ground to Pentecostals in almost all Latin American countries. Liberation theology was simply not religious enough to compete in the vibrant religious marketplace created by the new Latin American pluralism (Chesnut 1997; Chesnut 2003).

The question is what happens when a religious movement becomes marginalized. Claiming elite status as a quality religious commodity (although, unfortunately, with a scarce popular following) is just one option. The other is extreme radicalization. If we are not successful in this world, there is something very wrong with the world, which needs to be changed. If peaceful change does not succeed, then perhaps violent change is the solution. Latter-day liberation theologians, according to Chaouch, are now typically attracted by the most bellicose proclaims of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías (Chaouch 2008, 9), while others react by increasingly radicalizing their Marxism in a world where Marxism has become remarkably unfashionable (Chaouch 2008, 12). In the history of liberation theology, however, the armed struggle and what opponents would call terrorism was always present as a paradoxical but not entirely impossible option. At the very beginnings of the movement, the Colombian Catholic theologian and sociologist Father Camillo Torres (1929-1966) left academia in order to join the Marxist guerrilla known as the National Liberation Army, and was eventually killed in combat by the Colombian Army in 1966.

Clodovis Boff’s 2007 article quickly made headlines in Latin America and Europe because of the author’s position as one of the original leading lights in Brazilian liberation theology. He is the brother of Leonardo Boff who, unlike Clodovis (who is still a priest), left the priesthood, the Franciscan Order and the Roman Catholic Church in 1992 after the Vatican repeatedly disciplined him in the 1980s. Leonardo has vehemently criticized Clodovis’s 2007 essay after his publication (Boff L. 2008). Clodovis, in fact, goes deeper than Chaouch and now regards the whole enterprise of liberation theology, at least in its radical variety, as fundamentally flawed and potentially, when not actually, dangerous.

Contrary to his brother’s accusations, Clodovis did not really join the other side of intra-Catholic controversy. He still thinks that there were good reasons to react to the oppressive pre-modern Christianity (Boff 2007, 1010). However, he also writes that the reaction of liberal, modernist theology ended up with throwing up the baby with the bath water. In an historical reconstruction very close to Benedict XVI’s theology and his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (Benedict XVI 2007), the Brazilian theologian blames the mistake to a process dating back to Luther, Immanuel Kant, liberal Christian theology of the 19th and the 20th Centuries, and finally the liberal interpretation of Vatican II (Boff 2007, 1010-1011). Clodovis, however, also recognizes that the radical wing of liberation theology went much farther than its historical antecedents. By adopting Marxism, the poor became a substitute for Jesus Christ and even for God (Boff 2007, 1007-1008). Liberation theology, of course, never denied the existence of God nor the divinity of Jesus Christ. But neither did it talk much about it, focusing as it did on social and political revolutionary issues. “Faith was effectively transformed into ideology” (Boff 2007, 1005), and consequences were twofold. Firstly, liberation theology was never very successful and is today remarkably unsuccessful. Clodovis’ theological analysis concurs here with the sociological comments by Chaouch. Secondly, radical and marginalized liberation theology may become dangerous, not only spiritually but also socially and politically. In fact, some liberationists may end up justifying oppressive Marxist regimes and revolutionary violence (Boff 2007, 1008).

Why exactly Father Clodovis Boff decided to revisit his whole theological career, align himself with Pope Benedict XVI, and break with his brother is an interesting question, but it is outside the scope of this paper. What is interesting for Jonestown is that both an insider such as Clodovis Boff and an astute outsider such as Chaouch note that within liberation theology, there was, since its very beginnings in the 1960s, a radical trend and a possibility of degenerating (due to its lack of success in becoming truly mainstream) into both a Marxist theology without God and an apology for revolutionary violence.

“My Marxist Views”: Jim Jones and Liberation Theology

Jim Jones’s fascination with Marxism is well-known. It has been used as a key interpretive tool in at least one of the important books about Jonestown, John R. Hall’s 1987 Gone from the Promised Land (Hall 1987). Hall appears to be genuinely puzzled by Jones’ Marxism. He vacillates between taking it seriously and regarding it as just another recruiting tool for a prophetic show aimed at feeding Jones’ megalomania rather than truly promoting social or political revolution.

Hall duly notes that as a teenager Jones “became enamored of Stalin and the Soviets” (Hall 1987, 13), and later reconstructed his experience as nothing less than a Marxist infiltration into Christianity. “By Jones’ account, he was associating with Communists, who told him, ‘Don’t become a member of the Party; work for the Party’ … ‘How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, “infiltrate the church”’” (Hall 1987, 16-17). Hall wisely notes that “aside from his own accounts, there is no confirmation of the communist inspiration” (Hall 1987, 17), or that Jones was a man sent on a mission by the Communist Party. On the other hand, “Jones eventually read some Marx,” which made him somewhat different from your average country preacher. “’In the early years,’ Jones recalled, ‘I approached Christendom from a communalist standpoint with only intermittent mention of my Marxist views. However in later years there wasn’t a person that attended my meeting that did not hear me say at some time that I was a communist’” (Hall 1987, 26).

Even in later decades, Hall continues, Jones remained a “crude Communist” (Hall 1987, 26). “Though Jones was exposed to the New Left during the 1960s and 1970s, his own success meant he could incorporate whatever he wanted into a framework largely defined by his crude communism derived from fringe association with the Stalinist-styled pro-Soviet communist movement of the early post-World War II era” (Hall 1987, 27). To an outside observer aware of Jones’ Marxist history, the subsequent Peoples Temple may well appear as “a Stalinist approach to Bolshevism” (Hall 1987, 100), although the “alignment with political communism” was often kept “secret” during several phases of the Temple’s history (Hall 1987, 138).

It is important to note that, for all his Marxist rhetoric, Jones was not as well schooled in Karl Marx’s writings as the average academic Communist, nor as many sophisticated and European-educated Latin American liberation theologians. As mentioned earlier, Hall remains undecided on whether we should take Jones’ Marxism seriously. Perhaps it was part of a very personal, idiosyncratic approach to religion. Or perhaps it really was “the deception of using religion to promote socialism,” which for followers “dissipated as they came to know their leader more intimately” (Hall 1987, 144), and was finally revealed as an open secret in Jonestown. Taking Jones’ Marxist rhetoric at face value would be simplistic. Ignoring it may perhaps be equally wrong, which leads to the question whether Jones was creating an original synthesis of Communism and Christianity, or was simply engaged in presenting “a public relations façade” in order to disguise a “crypto-Stalinist” and ultimately non-religious agenda (Hall 1987, 144-145).

There is a third possibility. Liberation theology has never been a purely Catholic enterprise. Although some of his most vocal spokespersons have been Catholic priests, it has always included Protestant ministers and laypersons. The Disciples of Christ, which Jones joined in 1960, were one of the liberal Christian denominations more sympathetic to liberation theology, and to this very day keep good relations with such controversial liberationist institutions as the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, regarded by opponents as an anti-Israeli stronghold.

Jones, in fact, “had little theoretical understanding of the labour theory of value, class conflict, or a host of other issues that Marxists use as touchstones for their debates and strategies” (Hall 1987, 26). In this sense, he cannot be compared to sophisticated liberationist academics such as the Boff brothers in Brazil. On the other hand – particularly outside the Catholic academic milieux and larger religious orders – there has always been a somewhat less sophisticated liberation theology. This village variety was the result of the efforts by country pastors and priests, who perhaps did not entirely grasp Marx’s theory of value, but who believed that the fate of the local poor was so horrible that only Communism would do. When the poor didn’t follow, preferring the heavenly consolations of Pentecostalism, some of these simple priests and pastors did read one line by Marx, the one about religion functioning as “the opiate of the people,” abandoned religion altogether, and joined one of the many Marxist revolutionary groups. Camillo Torres’ was an extreme case, but by no means an isolated one.

Jones’ predicament, as interpreted in a way which would pursue a middle path between the glorious creation of a new religious and political synthesis and a mere deception, would be similar to those simple country liberation theologians. In this sense, he epitomized the worst that (the new and reformed) Clodovis Boff now fears about radical liberation theology. Once Marxism, no matter how simple and “crude,” is put in place within the religious machine, it starts working by itself until it eats out religion and Christianity, leaving only revolutionary politics in place. If God’s existence is conceded but not really regarded as relevant, simply denying that God exists may be the next stop. As Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky said with respect to pre-Communist revolutionaries, “without God, all is possible,” the more so for people originally gathered under the banner of religion. In Clodovis Boff’s 2007 terms, once the poor have replaced God, and ideology has replaced theology, some liberationist congregations may end up justifying all sort of violence. Of course the priest-cum-guerillero Camillo Torres is not typical of liberation theology, and there are brands of this theology which would never condone violence. Nor was Peoples Temple typical of radical religion. But both Camillo Torres and Peoples Temple have something to say about the dangers of a well-intentioned theology gone awry. At the end of the journey, we find this young woman recording her last message in Jonestown: “It’s been a pleasure walking with all of you in this revolutionary struggle. No other way I would rather go than give my life for socialism, communism, and I thank Dad [Jones] very, very much” (Hall 1987, 286).


Benedict XVI. 2007. Encyclical letter Spe salvi of November 20, 2007. Official English text available on the Vatican’s website at

Boff, Clodovis M., OSM. 1997. «Teologia da Libertação e volta ao fundamento». Revista Eclesiástica Brasileira, vol. 67, no. 268 (October 2007): 1001-1022.

Boff, Leonardo. 2008. «Pelos pobres contra a estreiteza do método». Available at

Bruneau, Thomas C. 1988. «The Role and Response of the Catholic Church in the Redemocratization of Brazil». In Shupe and Hadden (eds.) 1988: 87-109.

Chaouch, Malik Tahar. 2008. L’Actualité de la théologie de la libération en Amérique latine: déclin et héritages. Fribourg (Switzerland): Religioscope Institute.

Chesnut, R. Andrew. 1997. Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty. New Brunswick, N.J./London: Rutgers University Press.

_____. 2003. Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chidester, David. 1988. Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Bloomington/Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press.

Freston, Paul. 2008. «Pentecostals in Latin America: Local Dynamism, Global Significance and Uncertain Future». A paper presented at the conference Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and “the New Spirituality,” organized by CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) and INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements), London School of Economics, London, 16-20 April 2008.

Hall, John R. 1987. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books [new paperback edition, with a new Introduction by the Author: 2004].

Shupe, Anson D. and Jeffrey K. Hadden (eds.). 1988. The Politics of Religion and Social Change [Religion and the Political Order, Vol. 2]. New York: Paragon House.