Liberation theology & Marx A* grade summary notes


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The views of Karl Marx on economics and religion

  • Marx claimed that the reason for economic inequality and poverty is the way the economy is structured. 
  • So long as a minority – the owners – possess the means of production, there will always be a working class who are poor and exploited.
  • E.g. the owners own the factory and the machines and the workers work on the machines.
  • This is how capitalism works – a few people own businesses and everyone else works for them, thereby creating different classes of people divided by wealth inequality.
  • This also creates ‘alienation’, where workers feel disconnected from their work. Most of what they create – the product of their labour – goes to someone else. This causes them to feel a lack of investment in their work and a lack of value in their life – they become unhappy.
  • Fixing poverty will require challenging and changing capitalism.
  • Marx recommended a communist revolution where the workers would seize the means of production and make everyone equal.
  • Marx was against religion – called it the ‘opiate of the people’ – it is designed to keep people down.
  • Religion tells the workers to accept their life of injustice and inequality, because then they will go to heaven when they die.
  • Marx thought religion stood in the way of the communist revolution.

Guitierrez & Boff

  • Liberation theology claims that the teachings of Jesus show that Christians have a duty to help the poor.
  • They also think Marx was correct in his economic views about how to help the poor – about the causes of poverty.
  • So, they conclude that Christians have a duty to challenge and change capitalism.
  • This is what liberation theology is – Christian duty to help the poor PLUS Marx’s views on what helping the poor requires – challenging capitalism.
  • Guitierrez & Boff both claim to only be influenced by Marx’s economic views, not Marx’s anti-religious views.
  • Boff says it is valid to draw on Marx’s ‘methodological pointers’ – his method for understanding economics.

Ratzinger’s criticism of liberation theology

  • Look at all the people who died as a result of Marxism (it numbers in the 10s of millions at least).
  • Christians should not be influenced by atheist ideologies like Marxism.
  • He says atheism and denial of human rights is at the core of marxism.
  • Those who try to help the poor through marxist means end up betraying the poor they mean to help.

Optional: Dom Helder Camara as a response to ratzinger

  • Liberation theologians aren’t necessarily going as far as communism.
  • Camara is a liberation theologian, but not a Marxist. He said “when I help the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”.
  • Camara is saying that it is absurd for Christians to not address the underlying causes of poverty but only address its symptoms (through charity).
  • This can be done without going full communist.

The preferential option for the poor – from a liberation theology perspective

  • The concept of the ‘preferential option for the poor’ is part of Christian theology – it points out that Jesus gave more attention and care and help to those who needed it more – such as the poor.
  • This is what led to Christians thinking it a duty to help the poor.
  • Liberation theologians think helping the poor – fulfilling this duty – showing preferential option for the poor – means challenging capitalism.
  • Traditional theology puts orthodoxy (right beliefs) before orthopraxis (right action). 
  • Traditionally, the claim is that the correct theology must be figured out first and then from that we will figure out which are the morally right actions to do.
  • Liberation theology challenges this – it claims we must first do the right action (orthopraxis) – which is, whatever action will help the poor. If that involves left-wing or even Marxist economic policy – then so be it. We can figure out orthodoxy later.

JP2’s response

  • JP2 said that it’s wrong to focus so much on economic liberation (like Liberation theology does).
  • We also need to focus on spiritual liberation – he pointed to pornography and drugs and consumerism as examples of spiritual poverty.
  • The Church needs to figure out orthodoxy first – just focusing on orthopraxis first can result in this imbalance of focusing too much on economic liberation and not enough on spiritual liberation.
  • The church should just continue in its approach of helping the poor through charity. That is enough, that is all a Christian’s duty to the poor requires. Once properly understanding the Christian orthodoxy, the orthopraxis which results is merely charity.

Optional: counter to JP2

  • Guittierrez thinks that spiritual poverty is the result of economic poverty – he claims we need to first solve economic poverty in order to solve spiritual poverty.
  • So, acting (orthopraxis) to eliminate poverty should be the Christian’s priority.
  • There is also sociological evidence that crime issues like drugs are the result of poverty.

The biblical basis for liberation theology & its interpretation of preferential option for the poor

  • Jesus said things about wealth that seem to justify liberation theology.
  • “It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven”.
  • “Do not store up riches on earth … store up riches in heaven, for where your heart is, there your home will be also.”
  • “If you want to be perfect, sell all that you have and give it to the poor”.
  • Jesus sounds pretty anti-capitalist – it sounds like he thinks we shouldn’t have rich people – it sounds like he would be favor of making everyone equal economically, like Marx.

Kloppenberg’s response

  • Kloppenberg disagrees.
  • He points out that Jesus only ever spoke about the sin and salvation of individual people.
  • Jesus’ recommendations and commands and teachings were never aimed at the structure of society or the economy itself.
  • So, there’s no way to view Jesus’ teachings as making recommendations to challenge capitalism or anything like that.
  • Jesus is only recommending that rich people engage in charity – just like JP2 had said was all Christians need to do.


  • If everyone acted on Jesus’ commands – if all rich people gave all their money to the poor – the economy would be radically changed.
  • So, although Jesus’ message was aimed at individuals, not at the structure of the economy, the result would still be structural change, like liberation theology recommends.
  • The sale of indulgences show that the Church is corruptible by money. This means we shouldn’t necessarily trust what it recommends about poverty. It is likely to be self-serving.
  • Could this suggest Marx was right about religion…?

The biblical basis against liberation theology – Gospel of John and JP2

  • Jesus refused to defend himself at his trial – saying ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ (John).
  • This suggests that there is a radical separation between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. 
  • Political injustice is not really God’s concern.
  • 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 suggests that a doctrine which focuses on our socio-economic needs, like liberation theology, can also fail to have its heart focused in the right place: the higher spiritual dimension of human life.
  • Liberation theology cares about economics and poverty which is good, but Christians have to care about more than just that.

Reza Azlan’s response

  • Reza Azlan says you can’t trust the Gospel of John – it was written last. 
  • Over time, Christianity wanted to become the religion of Rome – so it tried to make itself seem less political, to seem more compatible with Rome.
  • So, Azlan claims, Christians wrote things into the gospel of John that made Jesus seem like less of a political revolutionary.
  • Azlan thinks Jesus was a political revolutionary – but the writers of the later gospel of John played down his revolutionariness.

Counter to Azlan: 

  • There are plenty of anti-political/liberation passages in earlier gospels
  • The jews were forced to pay an unjust tax due to roman occupation.
  • The pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him whether Jews should pay this tax.
  • If Jesus had said yes – he’d seem like a sell-out to the Romans, but if he said no he might be arrested.
  • Jesus pointed out that the coins have Caesar’s face on them – and JEsus said ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s’.
  • Jesus is basically saying – pay the tax – but he said it in a clever way which made him seem like he wasn’t a sell-ought.
  • Jesus is implying that economic concerns are not the concerns of God.
  • This is disastrous for liberation theology – which is all about how Christians need to challenge economic injustice.
  • Yet, this tax was a case of economic injustice – but Jesus is saying to not resist it, not challenge it – just go along with it.