055: LIBERATION THEOLOGY, Dead or Alive?

“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the unique Christian/Atheist blog where there are no boundaries. In this personal polemic I muse aloud about religion and the world. I hope you get something out of it!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

Image by Cerezo Barredo


(1) History
(2) Biblical foundations
(3) Aims

(4) What I saw
(5) Pro’s
(6) Cons
(7) Comparison of the First World and the Third World
(8) Comparison of contemporary Brazil and first century Palestine

(9) Links to Marxism
(10) Use of violence

(11) The Vatican’s reaction
(12) Its contemporary relevance
(13) Bibliography

(1) History:
Liberation Theology started in Latin America in the 1970’s when Catholic priests  set up Church Base Communities, mainly in rural areas. It can be considered an extension of the papal  encyclical “Laborem Exercens” which described non-capitalist economic alternatives, or an offshoot of the Second Vatican Council. These groups of semi-literate, frequently landless campesinos studied the Bible and quickly related their lives to stories such as the exodus of the Jews, and the life of peasants in first century Palestine. (Simultaneously Cuba was building up the first communist regime in the hemisphere with free health care and literacy classes for all- “the threat of a good example”, and sending armed guerillas to countries such as Bolivia to instigate peasant revolts to overthrow dictators.)

Brazil was for many reasons a pioneer in these innovations. Massive movements of peasants to the slums of Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia removed them from their traditional parishes. The western backed military dictatorship in the second half of the 1960s systematically destroyed trade unions, student associations and other civic organisations. Into this vacuum moved semi-clandestine Christian groups.(vi)

Under the umbrella of the church, groups of 15 to 20 families formed around a catechist who led them in the study of the Bible. Using methods popularized by Paulo Freire they quickly developed a social conscience, a sense of their dignity as human beings, and a confidence that their united efforts could transform their lives. The Exodus story and other Bible passages moved them from spiritual reflection to civic action. And when this was violently suppressed, to guerilla movements and other forms of counterviolence.

The emphasis was on identification with the poor rather than theories. The Kingdom of God was no longer seen as some future form of existence but as the justice that comes when the oppressed are liberated, the hungry fed, and the sick restored to health.

Liberation theologians were later to be accused by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – later to become Pope Benedict – among others, of being unduly influenced by Marxism. (See my Posts “No way, José” and  “Red Christians # 2 Camilo Torres “)  Naturally, this being the time of the Cold War between the US and its allies on the one side, and Cuba’s ally the Soviet Union and its satellites on the other, anyone taking a moral stand on such pressing issues as rural poverty and land reform was liable to be viewed with deep suspicion by Washington. The CIA sponsored Death Squads and semi-fascist political parties throughout the continent to ensure the political status quo remained intact. Leftwing priests (and nuns and even archbishops) were viewed with great suspicion and were assassinated with impunity. Liberation Theology has been a hot potato right from the start.

(2) Biblical foundations:
You work on an absentee landlord’s latifundia and own nothing but the shirt on your back. The only shop is the company store which rigs the prices so you are always in debt to it till next payday. You may see no way out, but one small consolation is that according to the priest, God is actually on your side. His Kingdom is for the poor. ” Looking at his disciples he said: Blessed are you who are poor,  for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20) It is not for the rich: “But woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now for you will go hungry.” (Lk 6:24-5) The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mk 10:25)
Inclusive and exclusive are the key notions here. Jesus was inclusive: he mixed with all sorts, ate with sinners, and didn’t like private property. Private property is, by definition, exclusive. No-one comes into your house or borrows your lawnmower unless you invite them to. Jesus does not idealise the poor, because their poverty is the consequence of the sin of  exclusive possession by rich people. Rather his aim is a “Banquet” of abundance for all. That’s why he teaches us to abandon the goods of this world like “birds of the air” and “lilies of the field” (Mt 6:25-34), and share what we have with the poor “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Lk 12:33) (i)

McGovern sees 4 principle Biblical themes recurring in the field of Lib. Theol. (vii) :
(1) God as liberator. As in the story of the Exodus, which is a striking paradigm for Lib. Theol. God historically frees the Hebrews from hunger and misery, he liberates them from Egyptian oppression and brings them to the promised land. God gets political – he is acting in history, not outside it.
(2) God’s command to “do justice”. As in the prophets’ denunciations. God identifies with the poor and oppressed. To be a Christian means to share in this love. Love of God, of neighbour, of the poor cannot be separated. You can only know God by “doing justice”, indeed, Liberation flows from God’s very nature. Miranda (viii) points out that since the Sixth century, “justice” has been mistranslated in the Bible as “almsgiving”! Check out
Matt. 25
Jer. 22:16
Hos. 4:1-2
Isa. 42: 5-7
Ex. 6:3
Mic. 3: 9-12
(3) Jesus: Liberation and the Kingdom of God. cf Isa. 65:17 Jesus shared that prophetic vision. His deeds, healings, exorcisms, raising to life are signs of the coming Kingdom. This kingdom must overcome sin – not merely personal sin but sin in its social and collective dimensions, in groups that oppress and the structures they represent. Boff (1974) says that in Latin America, the Kingdom represents people’s utopian longing for liberation from everything that alienates them: pain, hunger, injustice, death. Not just something spiritual but a total transformation of their world. Gutierrez speaks of “participation in the struggle for the liberation of those oppressed by others.”
(4) The political dimensions of Jesus’ deeds. Jesus confronted the major power groups of his society:
– He called Herod a “fox”
– he denounced the hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees
– his teachings threatened the privileged position of the Saducees
– he died at the hands of the political authorities by crucifixion (N.B. the penalty for religious subversion was stoning to death)

Some first steps on this road to global redistribution of resources would be (a) land reform in Latin America, (b) ending the system whereby the South American poor are taxed so that their countries’ national debts (contracted in the 1980s to countries such as Britain) can be repaid (c) end the Dependency of the Global South “periphery” on the West’s “metropolis”; the unfair trade and investment practices of the West have been denounced by Liberation Theologians as obstacles to the Kingdom.


(3) Aims:
(a) Universal satisfaction of basic needs of ordinary people like food, shelter, healthcare and education, as a fundamental human right, NOT as charity. No more crumbs from the rich man’s table, thank you, but  re-distribution of wealth. Not universal pauperisation as some literalist interpretations of Jesus’ words imply.
(b) Replacement of competitive individualism in society by growing solidarity.
(c) No imposition of standards from above or abroad: it’s self evident to the poor themselves what the minimum requirements of nutrition, health, education are.
(d) Then humanity will be free to become what it wants to be, as long as it doesn’t seek to dominate some other group. (ii)


(4) What I saw:
Apart from occasional graffiti, e.g.  “¡Viva Camilo Torres!” and “¡Solidaridad con Las Guerrillas de Llanos!” (“Long  Live Camilo Torres!” and “Solidarity with the  guerrilla fighters of the plains!”) that I saw while touring Venezuela by motorbike in the late 1960s, I saw nothing of relevance to this blog at all. Venezuela was an oil-rich nation with a burgeoning middle class and was relatively untouched by “unrest”. However even here there were stark signs of the obscenely wide gap that existed between rich and poor in Latin America and that continues to this day.
I remember coming down into the giant caldera or extinct volcanic crater that houses Caracas: at the centre a glittering ultra-modern city of  skyscrapers, expensive boutiques, and  traffic jams. Completely surrounding the city were the poor,  forced out onto the sloping walls of the crater’s rim, facing inwards, living under giant billboards advertising


luxury goods they would never be able to afford, sleeping in squalid shacks and tents.
I remember kids jumping onto the back of passing garbage trucks and diving into the trash to find God know’s what – food?
I remember as I sat at a pavement café, watching this scene, a little hand appearing above the edge of the table and a kid I hadn’t noticed grabbing my bread roll and running off with it.
I remember a mother sitting on the pavement holding her baby as she begged from passers-by. I remember the shop window she sat under: it contained a display of expensive Swiss chocolates. The contrast between food as luxury and the food she needed for very survival was tear-jerkingly moving.
You don’t forget scenes like these in a hurry. They have stayed with me for fifty years. On four subsequent visits to this great continent, to Colombia and Brazil, I was to see similar scenes, but my memories of Caracas in 1969 are strongest.


(5) Pro’s:
   (i) Liberation Theology is recovering components of the Christian way of life that mainstream theology has lost sight of
(ii) It aims to empower the poor through liturgy,  prayer, and Bible studies
(iii) It enables one to put one’s finger on the pulse of of a world of suffering and death, personal tragedy and injustice
(iv) True theological understanding comes about only through personal commitment and action, and that’s what LT offers
(v) In the words of theologians Clodovis and Leonardo Boff  “It is in prayer and contemplation and intimacy and communitarian contact with God that the motivation for a faith-inspired commitment to the oppressed and all humankind spring.”
(vi) Segundo Galilea put it thus: “Linking the mystic and the militant, spiritual contemplation leads to engagement with the world: a spiritual participation in the struggle for justice rather than a withdrawal from the world so that you can participate later.”
(vii) A life of obedience to Jesus is called for; one which integrates prayer and meditation with politics and economics. Then Hope can be found in the midst of suffering, a Hope grounded in the resurrection which carries the promise of liberation. This spirituality can only be experienced when living in solidarity with the poor.
(viii) LT is reviving the fundamental Greek Testament (New Testament) notion of  “Sins of the world” being equivalent to  contemporary economic structures. (Protestant theologians are accused of taking the market and its institutions as a given rather than as a sinful construct.)(See Zingcreed Post “Structural ‘sin’ “)


(6) Con’s:
(i) The biblical exegesis employed by priests in Base Communities tends to be conservative, not to say fundamentalist
(ii) As the Catholic church is essentially euro-centric in its outlook and the priests involved in Latin America have sometimes been trained in the US or Europe, there is often a clash of outlooks and cultures  (see below)
(iii) LT ignores gender and sexuality issues
(iv) In 1984 the Vatican launched an attack on the perceived Marxism within LT (iii) (iv). It caricatured this Marxism  as follows:-
(a ) it uses a reductive form of social analysis
(b) it acts against Christian charity because it breeds class hatred and class struggle
(c) it denies God
(d) it denies the human person
(e) it will turn to violence and immorality if this suits the class struggle
(f) Marx’s class analysis is applicable to the church”s own structures!
(g) religion is portrayed as merely a mystifying phenomenon expressing the underlying material (i.e. economic, political and social)  forces which they call the true engine of history
(h) the Kingdom of God is portrayed as a class struggle bringing about the self-redemption of humanity without any recourse to God at all


(7) Comparison of the First World and the Third World:
   Context is everything. A theology originating in one context, e.g. Europe, may be irrelevant in another, e.g. Latin America and vice versa.  (The term “Third World”, while commonly used in the 1970’s, is not as accurate as it was because the communist “second world”  has since merged with the capitalist “first world”. The term also implies a grading with poor countries at the bottom. I favour the term “Global South” instead.)

First World theology grew in the following context:
-the industrial revolution
-forced urbanisation
-rapid secularisation of politics and society
-dizzying pace of technological change
-two world wars
-the holocaust
-the rise of atheism and disbelief (Nietsche, Kant, Marx, Feuerbach)
-no post-industrial revolution
-theodicy and self doubt

‘Third World’ theology  grew in this context:
-absence of most of the above
-dependency and marginalisation, exporting raw materials at prices determined in the metropolis and importing manufactured goods at prices also controlled overseas
-less atheism
-Marxism is a relatively useful tool
-a “pre-critical” fundamentalist approach to the Bible which is two centuries behind First World scholarship
– a politically naive optimism (see my Posts on “Red Christians #1 Thomas Müntzer” and “Red Christians #4 Wilhelm Weitling“)
-no epistomological and theological self-doubt


(8) Comparison of contemporary Brazil and first century Palestine:
Both have : peasant farming
avaricious merchants
oppressive landowners
tax collectors
impoverished widows and orphans, i.e. quite a lot in common!
The most popular book in the Bible here is the Book of Revelation which is applied direct to contemporary society. It inspires people to resist persecution  as they identify with Christian struggles back in the time of the Roman empire.


(9) Links to Marxism:
Most quoted Marxist writers in books on Lib. Theol are:
Bloch, Althusser, Marcuse, Lukács, Gramsci, Henri Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, Ernest Mandel, Garaudy, Schaff, Kolakowski,  Lombardo-Radice, Luporini, Sanchez Vasquez, Fanon and the Monthly Review journal.(ix) Most quoted Latin Americans are Mariátegui, Cardodo, Frank, dos Santos, and Quijano.
Differences between LT and Marxism
(1) LT sees the world’s rich and poor as the main “actors”  in this drama
  Marxists see capitalists and the proletariat as the “agents” in the drama
(2) LT takes an eschatological view of History and sees its driving force as the relationship between God and his creation
Marxists claim the driving force is historical materialism
(3) LT seeks a transition to the Kingdom where basic needs are provided for and the marginalised are included in society
Marxists seek a transition to Socialism brought about by an over-accumulation of capital and the proletarianisation of the workforce
(4) The desired process would be Proudhon-ist, communitarian and redistributive, e.g. ECLA ( the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America)
Marxists point to the State Power of Lenin as the route to follow

Other aspects of the influence of Marxism on LT
(1) If LT is inspired by Marxism at all, it is by the early Marx’s writings on alienation and exploitation rather than the later writings in Das Kapital on surplus value theory.
(2) At the same time, ironically, LT can be considered as just an extension of the anti-capitalist papal encyclical “Laborem Exercens” which doesn’t just call for a correction of the errors of capitalism but for its replacement by a Christian third economic option, somewhere  between capitalism and communism
(3) 80 priests in Chile called for “the take over of power by the exploited masses” (See Zingcreed Post “Red Christians #3, Christians for Socialism  Movement (Chile 1972)“)
(4) The grand-daddy of all Liberation Theologians, Gustavo Gutiérrez, said “LT is not a Marxist agenda behind a Christian facade, but a critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the Word” (v)

(10) Use of Violence
On the whole, Lib. Theol. manifested itself non-violently. References to revolutionary socialism or insurrectional violence were generally vague in the literature.
A.F. McGovern in Gottwald, N.K. and Horsley, R. “The Bible and Liberation”, Orbis/SPCK (1993) p.79 comments that:
– Jesus never used nor condoned violence against people
– Liberation Theologians don’t often mention the subject either , in fact they shy away from it or refer to it in oblique terms
– Gutierrez, for example, speaks often of oppressive institutional violence in Latin America and of the necessity of class struggle to oppose it. He does not consider a recourse to revolutionary violence.
– Boff reckons love rules out all violence and oppression.
– Segundo Galilea thinks Christianity means overcoming institutional and subversive violence with liberation.
– Juan Luis Segundo says Jesus is portrayed as non-violent because of his historical context – it’s not a matter of faith at all. For instance at one point the Israelis were exterminating their enemies, and at that time that was seen as God’s will. Since it would be unrealistic to look centuries back to biblical situations for answers, the best approach would be to ask “What would the Christ of the gospels say if he were encountering our problems today?”


The Catholic religious who joined the leadership of the ‘Marxist’ Sandinista government in Nicaragua is told off by an anti-communist Polish pope!

(11) The Vatican’s  reaction
See Zingcreed Posts on Archbishop Helder Camara, and on the Brazilian bishops.
ormer Hitler Youth and director of Rome’s Sacred Congregation for the Preservation of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later pope Benedict XVI) produced successive initiatives condemning LT in no uncertain terms. The angry reaction to this, especially in Brazil, was to make him soften his stance a little.

As early as 1969 President Nixon (briefed on the dangers to US interests of this progressive church by billionaire banker Nelson Rockefeller) initiated strategies to neutralise it. In a two pronged attack, money was sent to fund fundamentalist protestant sects in the region (See Zingcreed Post I accuse #9: CIA funds protestant missions in Latin America) as well as to a research institute in Chile headed by Jesuit Roger Vekemans for his campaign against the theology of liberation. His close friend and ally Archbishop López Trujillo, President of the Secretariat of Latin American bishops, was also a very aggressive opponent of Lib. Theol. He domesticated the grassroots communities, charging that unless brought under full clerical control they would become a ‘parallel church’. López had the full support of Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, the head of the Vatican’s Commission for Latin America. Pope John Paul (the anti-commmunist Polish one), appointed in 1979, came from a very isolated sheltered background, and depending heavily on his advisors spouted the López-Baggio line. (vi)


Papa razzi
(“Benedikt – Gott geschickt!”)

The popes’ long term and highly successful strategy was to replace ‘left’ bishops when they retired or died with conservatives who were totally obedient to the Vatican line.(see Helder Camara and How churches suppress dissent today)

church in latin america

(12) Its contemporary relevance
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” – a word of caution from Trevor Beeson (x): “A major problem now facing churches and individual Christians responding to this challenge  is the sheer complexity of the factors that determine the course of the modern world’s economic order. These require high technical skills for their understanding and therefore for credible criticism and proposals for change. Such skill is rarely available to church leaders whose pronouncements therefore tend to carry little weight. Technically equipped lay people with a firm grasp of Christian ethical principles are urgently needed if the churches are to make a significant contribution to the debate about the creation of a just and sustainable society in an ever more closely integrated world.”

(13) Bibliography:
Löwy, M. “The war of Gods” Verso (1996)
Kee, A. “Marx and the failure of Liberation Theology” SCM (1990)
Other related Zingcreed Posts, not mentioned above:
Esquivel’s Stations of the Cross
Dear Pope #7: “Stop punishing dissident priests!”
Marx’s 3 criticisms of religion
I accuse #9: “CIA behind missionaries in Latin America!”
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #4: Resources go to the rich
Jesus and wealthy people
Jesus’s real political message

(i) Fitzgerald, Valpy “The economics of Liberation Theology” in Rowland, C. (see iii) p.248
(ii) op. cit. p.251
(iii) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “Libertatis Nuntius: Instruction on certain aspects of the Theology of Liberation”  “….to draw the  attention of all the faithful to the deviations damaging to the faith and Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of LT which uses concepts borrowed from various currents of marxist thought.”
(iv) Turner, Denys in Rowland, C. (ed) “Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology”  CUP (2nd edition, 2007) p.232
(v) p.188, Rowland, op.cit.
(vi) MacEoin, Dr; article in “New Internationalist” Dec. 1983 P.21-22
(vii) McGovern, A.F. “Marxism, an American Christian perspective” in Horsley and Gottwald eds “The Bible and liberation” Orbis (1980)
(viii) Miranda, J.P. “Marx and the Bible”
(ix) Lowy,M. “The war of gods” Verso (1996) pp. 72, 148 (fn 66)
(x) Beeson, T. in “Christianity the complete guide” ed Bowden, J. Continuum (2005) p.797

(top) no title , Maximino Cerezo Barredo (1985)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: