Liberation theology & Marx


Liberation theologians think that the message of Jesus was that we should address poverty. They also think that Marx’s economic analysis of society shows 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: The rejection of charity as sufficient for living up to Jesus’ teachings and example in helping the poor.

Liberation theology

Liberation theology began in 1964 by young catholic theologians in Brazil claimed that the teachings and example of Jesus show that Christians should work towards addressing poverty. However, the traditional tactic of the Church for that has been charity. Liberation theologians are influenced by Karl Marx, whose analysis of economics claimed that poverty was caused by exploitation of the working class. Workers are exploited because they do not own the means of production. Workers 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 results in alienation. Marx proposed that radical change to the structure of the economy was the only way to address the root causes of poverty. The problems of inequality and alienation were caused by the private ownership of the means of production, but people could overthrow that system by political revolution. Marx believed that this communist revolution would eventually happen.

Liberation theologians think that truly living up to Jesus’ call to address poverty can only be adequately done if we take into account the economic reality of poverty in today’s world. If we accept Marx’s analysis of our economic situation, then a Christian should be informed by that to understand that helping the poor requires not merely easing the symptoms of poverty through charity but addressing the actual causes of poverty 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.

Guitierrez 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. Guiterrez 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 still be correct about religion for the most part.

Guitierrez & Boff on the influence of Marxism

Guitierrez only accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism, not Marx’s anti-religious views. Boff also agreed with this, arguing that liberation theology can draw on Marx’s ‘methodological pointers’ to help understand ‘the role of the oppressed’. Marx has understood economically how to help the poor. To help the poor in our time, therefore, we should follow Marx’s analysis of economic injustice.

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 unchristian about that kind of influence.

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.

Furthermore, if enough individuals followed Jesus’ teachings, the economic consequences would be structural. If individuals following Jesus’ teachings liberates the poor by destroying the structural causes of economic injustice and inequality, Jesus’ teachings should be seen as aimed at that.

‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ & ‘blessed are the downtrodden, for theirs is the kingdom of God’ – Beatitudes Matthew 5:3 – Jesus seems to be saying that the oppressed are good.

Counter interpretation: Jesus does seem to be saying that the oppressed are good. However he doesn’t seem to actively be recommending political change let alone revolution. Instead he seems to be saying they will get to heaven so it’ll all be ok. This was Marx’s criticism of religion – that it encourages those at the bottom of society to accept their place. So perhaps liberation theology can’t actually escape Marx’s criticism of religion while accepting his critique of capitalism.

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.

John Paul II draws on this verse, arguing that focusing on earthly progress leads to secularization and a lack of genuine spirituality:

“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” (Jn 18:36).”

Reza Azlan responds 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.

Luke 12:22-31 as biblical evidence against liberation theology

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 material questions you should ‘first’ seek the kingdom of God.