Liberation theology & Marx


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Liberation theology is a relatively recent movement in Christianity. This topic is about assessing how valid it is as an expression of Christianity.

Liberation theologians think that the teachings of Jesus included addressing poverty. They also think that Karl Marx’s economic analysis of society showed that addressing poverty requires addressing the structural causes of economic inequality. So, they conclude that Christians ought to address the structural causes of economic inequality.

This challenged traditional Christianity in two ways:

1: Being influenced by atheistic ideologies like Marxism.
2: Claiming that charity was insufficient for living up to Jesus’ teachings and example in helping the poor.

Liberation theology

Liberation theology began in the 1950s and became very popular in the 1960s, especially in Brazil. Young catholic south American theologians claimed that the teachings and example of Jesus show that Christians should work towards addressing poverty in a more systemic way. The traditional approach of the Church to poverty had been charity. Liberation theologians are influenced by Karl Marx, whose economic theory claimed that poverty was caused by exploitation of the working class. Workers are exploited because they do not own the means of production. They are alienated by working on machines/property belonging to someone else for which a minority of the profits actually go to that worker. This causes a lack of investment and identity with their work for the worker which Marx called alienation. Radical change to the structure of the economy was needed, to address the root causes of poverty. Inequality and alienation are caused by the private ownership of the means of production, so people should overthrow that system by political revolution. Marx even thought it was inevitable that this kind of revolution happen.

Liberation theologians think that truly living up to Jesus’ call to address poverty can only be requires taking into account the economic reality of poverty today. If Marx’s analysis of our economic situation is accurate, then a Christian should accept that helping the poor requires not merely easing the symptoms of poverty through charity but addressing its actual causes through structural change to our economy and society. Liberation theologians do not typically accept solutions as radical or revolutionary as Marx proposed, but they do accept that Marx was correct that the solution had to address the structural root causes of economic inequality.

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis

Traditional theology starts with theological beliefs (orthodoxy) and then prescribes action (Orthopraxis). Liberation theology begins with orthopraxis; prescribing action, and then figures out the orthodoxy. Whatever addresses the structural causes of economic injustice is the right practice and the fitting orthodoxy should then be figured out after that.

The problem with the traditional way of beginning with orthodoxy was that it was out of touch with and disconnected from the practical reality of what actually works to fulfil Jesus’ message to help the poor.

For Libertation theologians the Kingdom of God is about fixing this world, not about the afterlife. Christians should work for justice by fighting exploitation and oppression. Latin America was undeveloped and was facing a choice between continued capitalism or socialism.

Liberation theologian Gutierrez thought there were two kinds of liberation. Firstly, social and economic – fixing the poverty and oppression caused by human action, secondly, liberation from sin by reconciliation with God. Gutierrez thought social and economic liberation should come first and then liberation from sin however Segundo thought it was the other way around since fixing the social and economic injustices of the world might actually be impossible.

Marxism and Christianity

The influence of Marxism on Christianity is controversial because Marx was so against religion. This is a difficulty for liberation theology which is Christian yet influenced by an anti-religious theory.

 Marx’s critique of religion. Marx thought the natural progression of History was that the workers/peasants would one day rise up against their oppressors and claim an equal share of the wealth of society. However, religion stands in the way of this progress since it persuaded the peasants to accept their low place in society because of the lie that they would eventually go to heaven if they just accepted their unequal position. Their belief that they would go to heaven then overrides their desire to change things in this world, delaying the communist revolution. Marx called religion an ‘opiate’. An opiate does two things: dulls pain and also prevents action. Those are the two things Marx thought religion did to control people. Dulling the pain of their life with the promise of heaven and dulling their desire to act to remedy the injustice with the lie that it’s all going to work out in the end in heaven. Religion is therefore about perpetuating the status of those with power. Marx would also point to things like the divine right of kings, the sale of indulgences (having to pay money to be forgiven for sin), the priests would read the bible in Latin to people while it was illegal to own a translation, and the Pope got involved in wars and overthrowing kings and so on.

Arguably liberation theology is actually a valid way for a Christian to respond to Marx’s critique of religion. If Christianity was reformed along liberation theology’s doctrines, it would no longer simply be a tool of capitalist exploitation. So, there is no problem with a Christian movement like liberation theology being influenced by Marx despite his anti-religious arguments since his anti-religious arguments do not apply to liberation theology. It shows that Marx’s critique of religion was of a particular negative form of religion and is thus not a critique of religion in general.

However, liberation theology is controversial within Christianity and isn’t accepted by the catholic Church. Marx’s critique could therefore still be correct about Christianity for the most part.

Guitierrez & Boff on the influence of Marxism

Liberation theologians argue that there is no incoherence for Christians in being influenced by Marx. Their basis for this argument is typically that one can accept Marx’s economic views without accepting his anti-religious views. Gutierrez only accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism, not Marx’s anti-religious views. Liberation theologian L. Boff also agreed with this stance, arguing that liberation theology can draw on Marx’s ‘methodological pointers’ to help understand ‘the role of the oppressed’.

The foundation of Liberation theology is an attempt to faithfully follow Jesus’ teaching to help the poor and the influence of Marx is merely in detailing the method for efficiently achieving that goal. There is nothing antithetical to Christianity about that kind of influence. In fact, it is helping Christians be true to the teachings of Jesus.

A. F. McGovern claims that liberation theologians are not Marxist because they are not atheists nor even materialists. They avoid starting their analysis with class struggle, which is where Marx starts.

Cardinal Ratzinger argued against the influence of liberation theology in Catholicism because of its Marxist influences. He said it should be remembered that atheism and the denial of human rights and freedoms is at the core of Marxism. Marxism is intrinsically unchristian and so Christianity should not use it as a lens to view society. The lessons we should learn from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century are that they come to power by violent and revolutionary means “precisely in the name of the liberation of the people”. The result is that those who employ revolutionary politics “betray the poor they mean to help”. Ratzinger said the Catholic Church should help the poor, but in its own way, not in a Marxist way.

Dom Helder Camara, in reaction to the Catholic Church labelling liberation theologians as communists and Marxists:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”.

Camara doesn’t regard himself as a communist and questions the logical consistency of the Church’s view that it’s saintly to give food to the poor but somehow communist to ask why they have no food. Camara is arguing that liberation theology is not connected to the atheistic anti-religious core of Marxist theory. Camara’s point here could even be taken to show that the traditional Church is fulfilling Marx’s critique of religion as serving the interests of the powerful, by refusing to deal with the economic structural causes of poverty.

The preferential option for the poor

The preferential option for the poor refers to the way the Bible and Jesus showed a preference for helping poor people. Jesus said the poor and less fortunate were blessed, especially in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. This suggests that addressing poverty is part of the example for us set by Jesus.

Belief in the preferential option for the poor is a mainstream Christian belief, the controversial question is what obligations it actually places on Christians and Christian Churches & institutions.

Liberation theologians think that Marx’s economic analysis of society shows that addressing poverty requires addressing the structural causes of economic inequality. Segundo, for example, argued that the preferential option for the poor meant that Christians should not be neutral when it comes to injustice and its political causes. The church should fight for the rights of all people but especially the poor, he thought.

Pope John Paul II thought that the preferential option for the poor was an important part of ‘Christian charity’. However, he added that dealing with spiritual poverty was an important focus not just economic poverty. Paul II talks about charity, implying the solution is charity not political action. Spiritual poverty Paul II defined as anything which results from overattachment to superficial material things such as drugs, pornography and ‘other forms of consumerism which exploit the frailty of the weak, tend to fill their resulting spiritual void’. He claimed that the cry for justice and preferential solidarity with the poor was “indispensable”, but that it need not be “mortgaged to ideologies foreign to the faith”.

Criticism of JP II: Charity is not sufficient to address the causes of poverty and it ignores Guitierez’s argument that economic poverty needs to be addressed before spiritual poverty since economic poverty is an impediment to spiritual liberation. Liberation theologians claimed that capitalism has failed the basic needs of people in Latin America, even though the government and business leaders are all Christian. The implication therefore is that Christianity plus capitalism are insufficient and so true Christianity should advocate for something other than mere capitalism.

The Biblical basis for Liberation Theology

Liberation theology is a Christian movement in theology and as such it is founded on the teachings and example of Jesus. It’s validity is thus dependent on its being Biblically supported, which is debated. Jesus certainly said many things that seem anti-wealth, but the question is whether they go as far as justifying liberation theology’s view that Christians should do more than charity by taking a structural approach to dealing with the causes of economic inequality.

Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ – Matthew 19:24.

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also”. Matthew 6:25-34.

If Jesus is saying give up all your possessions and that there shouldn’t be rich people – that sounds quite anti-capitalist.

Counter interpretation: arguably this at most shows that Jesus thought rich people should give to charity, it doesn’t suggest he wanted to overturn or address the causes of economic oppression/inequality. Kloppenburg, a Catholic Brazilian bishop, makes this point. He first argued that fusing theology and political action diminishes the spiritual message of Christianity. Liberation theology focuses on the injustice and sin in the structure of society, but Jesus spoke about the sin and forgiveness of individual people, he didn’t speak about society in general. There is too much focus on the ability of people to achieve liberation when in fact it comes from God, Kloppenburg argued. Jesus does seem to be pointing out that living for money is bad, but he doesn’t seem to be saying that we should actively try to overthrow the unjust social structures that result from living for money. In fact, when questioned whether Jews should pay an unjust tax, Jesus said yes: ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesers’. That quotes seems to suggest Jesus saw a fundamental disconnect between the human political society and living for God.

Exodus story shows Kloppenberg is wrong: Exodus involved the liberation of Jews from the oppression of the Pharaoh and arguably shows that God is not only concerned about liberation at the individual level. This could be taken to counter Kloppenberg’s argument. God clearly cares about freeing people from social oppression which seems to back up liberation theology. Christianity sees itself as an expansion of the Jewish covenant to all humanity, which would make this quote relevant to all oppressed people.

Biblical evidence against Liberation theology

At his trial, Jesus claimed ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, which seems to suggest that the kingdom of God is unrelated to the politics of kingdoms in this world.

Pope John Paul II draws on this verse, arguing that overly focusing on earthly socio-economic progress is “anthropocentric”, meaning human-focused. This leads to secularization and a lack of genuine spirituality. Focusing on our earthly socio-economic needs seems to inspire a tendency to focus less on our more transcendent spiritual needs and purpose.

This argument also resonates with Jesus’ injunction to build up spiritual treasure in heaven, not treasure on earth, since where our treasure is that is where our heart will be also. Some might interpret that quote as justifying liberation theology, since it is a warning about gaining wealth. However, JP2’s argument also suggesting that a doctrine which focuses on our socio-economic needs, like liberation theology, can also failing to have its heart focused in the right place: the higher spiritual dimension of human life.

Nowadays the kingdom is much spoken of, but not always in a way consonant with the thinking of the Church. In fact, there are ideas about salvation and mission which can be called “anthropocentric” in the reductive sense of the word, inasmuch as they are focused on man’s earthly needs. In this view, the kingdom tends to become something completely human and secularized; what counts are programs and struggles for a liberation which is socio-economic, political and even cultural, but within a horizon that is closed to the transcendent. Without denying that on this level too there are values to be promoted, such a notion nevertheless remains within the confines of a kingdom of man, deprived of its authentic and profound dimensions. Such a view easily translates into one more ideology of purely earthly progress. The kingdom of God, however, “is not of this world…is not from the world” – Pope John Paul II.

Reza Azlan argues that this quote is from the gospel of John written 90 years after Jesus’s death, after Christianity had divorced itself from Judaism and became a roman religion. The earlier Gospels present Jesus’s Kingdom as something he was bringing about on earth. Azlan is suggesting this verse was added to de-politicise Jesus so Christianity could better fit into Roman society. The verse thus does not represent who Jesus actually was.

Evaluation of Azlan’s argument. However, Azlan’s conclusion fails. Even if we were to accept Azlan’s argument, there are still so many quotes from Jesus in the earlier written gospels that are just as suggestive of an apolitical attitude.

Luke 12:22-31. Jesus said not to worry about your life, even what you will eat because life is “more than food”. Birds do not farm yet God provides and we are more valuable than them. It shows a lack of faith to worry about these things God provides. “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” In Matthew this quote finishes with this statement: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow”.

Jesus here seems to be against us caring about where someone gets their food, drink or clothes from. In fact, he seems to be saying it is actually a lack of faith to care about those things. Taking no thought for tomorrow  nor asking where food, drink or clothes will come from, which is the state of poverty, seems incompatible with the focus of liberation theology on addressing structural social injustice and oppression. This arguably justifies Marx’s critique of religion as it shows how faith in God is used to distract people from their economic oppression.

Jesus here also seems to contradict Guitierrez’ view that liberation from economic injustice should precede spiritual injustice. Jesus is clear that before dealing with economic concerns you should ‘first’ seek the kingdom of God.

Give unto Caesar. Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by asking him whether Jews should pay an unjust tax which had been forced onto them by their Roman occupiers. If Jesus had said yes he would have seemed like a sell-out, but if he had said no he could have been arrested. Jesus’ answer was to point out that the coins used to pay the tax have Caesar’s face on them, saying “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is Gods’. This is found in all three synoptic gospels, which were written before the Gospel of John.

This was a clever answer from Jesus. He avoided seeming like a sell-out or traitor to the Jews with his justification that the money is Caesar’s. Ultimately though, he was saying to pay the tax. His reasoning seems to suggest that Jesus saw a fundamental disconnect between religion and political concerns. Even in cases of economic injustice like this tax, Jesus seems to be saying it is not God’s concern. It’s hard to see how Jesus could be considered a political figure aimed at liberating people by changing society. It looks more like the traditional view of Jesus is correct, that he is only the son of God recommending to individual people that they act morally for their salvation.

Defence of liberation theology & the liberator view of Jesus. If enough individuals followed Jesus’ teachings, the economic consequences would be structural. If all rich people gave up their wealth, it would liberate the poor by destroying the structural causes of economic injustice and inequality. It’s true that Jesus never aimed his teachings at socio-economic structures. He did exclusively focus on individuals and their choices. Yet, the outcome of individuals following his teachings is structural change. So, Jesus’ teachings should be seen as aiming at structural socio-economic change and therefore it is valid to see him as a political liberator.

The validity of Marxism

Liberation theology claims that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is useful. Arguments against the validity or usefulness of Marx are therefore be arguments against liberation theology.

The 1968 Medellin document was a manifesto of a new church committed to social and economic transformation. It blamed Latin America’s poverty on its economy of exporting of raw materials and resulting dependency on the richer countries who bought them. This had a Marxist reading of inter-state struggle being a new form of class struggle. However, this economic theory fell out of favour when rich countries like the USA also became a big exporter of raw materials, and furthermore when east Asian countries like Japan and South Korea overcame their extreme poverty by embracing capitalism.

The economy of Latin America in the 1960s was arguably not really capitalist, but precapitalist, because the government still controlled 50-60% of the economy and directly or indirectly was involved in a similar amount of the jobs.

Capitalism in Jesus’ time was much more exploitative, in fact it wasn’t really capitalism but precapitalism. These days, for someone to get rich like Bill Gates, they have to create something that makes peoples lives better so they will pay for it. So because Bill Gates is rich, we all have computers. So perhaps Jesus’ criticism of rich people was meant to be valid only for his time.

Adam Smith was the philosopher most involved in the founding of capitalism. He regarded poverty as unacceptable and unnecessary. Smith’s claim was that human nature involves selfishness, so a capitalist system is the best way to harness that selfishness because to satisfy your selfishness in a capitalist system you have to provide others with products or services which they are willing to pay you for.

The Liberation Theologians arguably view the sins of selfishness and greed as part of a capitalist free market economy and therefore as something which can be overcome. However, capitalists would point out that it is in countries which have the freest markets that you find the freest communities where human rights are upheld and violated less.

In 1960, 70% of the world lived in extreme poverty. In 2012 it dropped to 17%. Capitalists would argue that this shows that capitalism is working after all and that Marxist analysis is based on faulty economics.

On the basis of these arguments, capitalists argue that it is capitalism which is the truly liberating approach. Although it’s not perfect, the desire for perfection is utopian and simply has not worked out well throughout history when you consider the historical consequences of Marxism.

However, income inequality has not improved, in fact it is getting worse, and there is evidence from sociology that economic inequality is destabilizing of society. Therefore, Jesus’ critique of wealth still applies to this day, and liberation theology is justified in drawing on it. Furthermore, new economic issues like globalisation have shown how capitalism actually leads to corporations ruling the world and manipulating the market for their own profits. Smith claimed that market competition will create innovation and economic growth. Yet capitalism has led to globalisation which ironically actually destroys the benefits Adam Smith claimed free-market capitalism would bring by creating monopolies. So, there is still lots of room for anti-capitalist economic theories, despite the success of capitalism during the mid 20th century.

Possible exam questions for Liberation Theology and Marx

Should Christian theology engage with atheist secular ideologies?
Is it right for Christians to prioritise one group over another?
‘Christians have nothing to learn from Marx’ – How far do you agree?
Should Christians have a preferential option for the poor?

Does Christianity tackle social issues more effectively than Marxism?
How appropriate is liberation theology’s use of Marx to analyse social sin?
Should the Church concern itself with ‘structural’ causes of social sin?
‘The Gospel demands that Christians must give priority to the poor’ – Discuss.
‘Christianity has nothing to say about capitalism’ – Discuss.
“Marx’s teaching on alienation and exploitation has no relevance for Christianity” – Discuss.
How important in Christianity is solidarity with the poor?
Should Christians criticise capitalism?
What do Christians have to learn from Marx’s concepts of alienation and exploitation?

Has liberation theology engaged with Marxism fully enough?
Should orthopraxis occur before orthodoxy?
“Capitalism and institutions are the cause of social sin” – Discuss.

Quick links

Year 12 Christianity topics:
Augustine. Death & afterlife.
Knowledge of God’s existence. Person of Jesus.
Christian moral principles. Christian moral action.

Year 13 Christianity topics:
Pluralism & theology. Pluralism & society.

Gender & society. Gender & theology.
Secularism. Liberation theology. 

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OCR list of possible exam questions