The theology of liberation is a combination of Marxist philosophy with certain biblical motifs. It argues that we should reconstruct the whole of Christian theology by seeing it through the “axis of the oppressor and the oppressed.”
The theology of Liberation developed in the 1960s to argue for the liberation of various groups—primarily poor, black, women—from economic and political bondage. For these theologians, it is not enough to support the oppressed; one must be committed to social movements, even revolutions, dedicated to overturning the structures of society. For this purpose, liberation theologians adopt Marxism as an “analytical tool,” with which they make radical revisions to every traditional Christian doctrine.
The theology of liberation became quite pervasive in the last half of the twentieth century. To illustrate: Deane W. Ferm’s Contemporary American Theologies1 contains eight chapters, five of which discuss currently fashionable theological positions. Of these five, one is “evangelical theology,” one Roman Catholic theology, and three are various forms of liberation theology: Latin American, black, and feminist. Slogans, concepts, and arguments from liberation theologians have been appearing in Roman Catholic and evangelical theologies as well, and there has been much commonality between liberation theology and other thinkers, particularly Jűrgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Process theologians like John Cobb and Schubert Ogden.
As Ferm indicates, liberation theology has become a general name for several different movements: Latin-American, African American, Feminist.2 Latin-American thinkers include Rubem Alves, Gustavo Gutierrez, Hugo Assmann, Jose Miranda, Juan Luis Segundo, Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, Jose Miguez-Bonino. James Cone is considered to be the founder of “Black theology,” with other writers Albert B. Cleage, J. Deotis Roberts, Major J. Jones and W. R. Jones.3 Feminist theological writers include Mary Daly, Rosemary Reuther, Letty Russell, Sheila Collins, Penelope Washbourn, Elizabeth Johnson, Letha Scanzoni, Virginia Mollenkott, and Helen Longino. I shall focus, in this discussion, on the Latin-American form of liberation theology, and in particular Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation, considered by many to be the leading text of the movement.4
The theology of Gutierrez (1928–) deals primarily with the relations of rich and poor. Black theology, of course, focuses more on race, and feminism more on gender. But for all these groups it is a question of relations between one group considered oppressive and another considered oppressed. They argue that the Bible should be read from the perspective of the oppressed.
Liberation theology agrees with Bultmann that exegesis without presuppositions is not possible. Specifically, the liberationists focus on presuppositions derived from the socio-economic, race, and gender status of the exegete. The Bible looks different to the poor and to the rich, to black and to white, to female and to male. Those who are relatively prosperous often fail to note what the Bible says about poverty. So there is no exegesis that is socially, racially, economically, or politically neutral. We should not assume, for instance, that European or North American theology provides adequate categories for theology in the third world.
Understanding Scripture, for the liberationists, presupposes not only ideas but practical involvement—“praxis,” as they say. We need contact, experience with reality if we are to think rightly about it. So truth itself is something practical, as theory is part of practice. It is an event, something that happens.5 To know God is to do justice (Jer 22:16).6 Praxis is the only way by which truth can be verified: ideas for social improvement should be judged by how they actually work.7
Even more specifically, the liberationists emphasize that we must be involved in socio-political action if we are to rightly understand the Scriptures. Christ must be heard in every area of life, and here too neutrality is impossible. Everyone already has some social agenda. The only question is which one it will be. But socio-political action is, they say, necessarily “conflictual”8 in character. For the interests of the poor and the rich inevitably conflict.9 In this matter, we must choose sides.
Gutierrez considers the objection that such militancy is inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching that we should love our enemies. He replies that combat with one’s enemies does not necessarily involve hatred. It may be for the enemy’s good. In any case, one cannot love his enemies until he has identified them as enemies. Cheap conciliation helps no one.
So Gutierrez insists that all theology must take its bearings from the “axis” of oppression and liberation. In the Bible, such an emphasis will focus on the exodus, God delivering his people from slavery, and on the laws and prophets that call Israel to have compassion for the poor. Jesus’ redemption is a second exodus in which God again brings down the proud and exalts the humble.
Gutierrez says that Marxism presents the best analysis of the oppression/liberation conflict in terms of class struggle. So the liberation theologian must be committed to Marxism at least as an “analytical tool,”10 at most to socialist revolution as such. So theology is the critical reflection on praxis, from within praxis.
Its ultimate goal is that of Marx: not to understand the world, but to change it. Particularly, its goal is not to protect and defend a tradition. The theologian should venture beyond the traditional historical models, making use of sociological analysis to understand the cultures he seeks to change.
But most of all, the theologian should be involved in the social conflicts of his time. He should not seek theological “permission” for this involvement. Rather, the involvement is the presupposition of theology itself. Hugo Assmann says that commitment to revolution is independent of and prior to any theological rationale. In my judgment, this is wrong. It limits the scope of God’s word, forbidding it to judge whether a revolution is legitimate.
Liberation theology borrows many concepts and much rhetoric from the “theology of secularization” (as Jűrgen Moltmann and Harvey Cox). Gutierrez says that we should accept the modern development toward secularization.11 It coincides with a Christian vision of man: that redemption makes us more fully human. And it affirms creation as something distinct from God, and man as its lord. So, he says, the church should be understood in terms of the world, religion in terms of the profane, rather than vice versa. The church should not try to use the world for its own ends, but should be a servant.
So history is one. There is no ultimate distinction between the profane and the sacred.12 Creation is a saving act, and political liberation (as in the exodus) is a self-creative act. Salvation is re-creation, fulfillment, in which man is an active participant, in response to grace. The Incarnation of Christ underscores the sacredness of the profane (189-94).
Gutierrez follows Moltmann’s argument that theology ought to be “future oriented,”13 but he puts more importance than Moltmann on the present situation, citing biblical and historical examples. There is an “already,” as well as a “not yet.” He says,
The hope which overcomes death must be rooted in the heart of historical praxis; if this hope does not take shape in the present to lead it forward, it will be only an evasion, a futuristic illusion. One must be extremely careful not to replace a Christianity of the Beyond [like Barth and Bultmann—J. F.] with a Christianity of the Future; if the former tended to forget the world, the latter runs the risk of neglecting a miserable and unjust present and the struggle for liberation.14
I shall now summarize how Gutierrez treats the familiar theological loci. In his doctrine of God, he affirms God’s transcendence and immanence, but in both cases with a liberationist accent: God is transcendent, for the First Commandment brings judgment against all false gods, including those forms of Christianity that accept injustice. He is immanent in that he acts in history to deliver the oppressed,15 and he continually exists in and with mankind.16 His presence is universal: in Gentiles as well as Jews, and in non-Christians as well as Christians. Particularly, he dwells in the “neighbor,”17 which includes all people. To be united to God, we must be “converted to the neighbor,” and vice versa.18
Gutierrez says that within human nature there is an infinite openness to God.19 So there is no antagonism between the natural and the supernatural. Because of God’s “infinite salvific will” all are affected by grace and effectually called to communion with God. They are all in Christ.20 So the boundaries between church and world are fluid. “Some even ask if they are really two different things.…”21 So participation in liberation is a saving work. Sin is a selfish turning in on oneself, refusing to love neighbors and therefore to love God.22 Ultimately, man is therefore the source of poverty, injustice and oppression, both individually and by way of “structures” of collective society. Individual and corporate sin feed on one another. In a footnote, Gutierrez mentions Marx’s correlation between private ownership and sin. Because of private ownership, in Marx’s view, the worker is alienated from the fruit of his work. Gutierrez, however, warns us against “overestimating” the importance of this correlation.23
Most liberationists accept the biblical history in its main outlines, though there are some among them who are skeptical, like Leonardo Boff. They do not, however, put much emphasis on the miracles, atonement, and resurrection of Christ, except, like Moltmann, as incentives to expect God to work surprises in the future.
The liberation theologians do devote considerable energy to the question of why Jesus himself did not engage in political action during his earthly ministry. Gutierrez points out that Jesus had friends among the Zealot revolutionaries.24 He agreed with them on the soon coming of the kingdom, his role in it, and the seizing of that kingdom by violent men (Matt 11:12). But Jesus nevertheless kept his distance from them, because (1) His was a universal mission, not a narrow nationalism. (2) His attitude toward the law was different from that of the Zealots. (3) He saw the kingdom coming as a gift of God, not from man’s own effort. (4) He saw the root of the political problems in a lack of brotherhood. (5) He respected the autonomy of political action. Thus, says Gutierrez, Jesus’ revolution was more radical than that of the Zealots. His message is directed to the heart, and it is heart-change that best leads to structural change. Saving grace, therefore, destroys the root of the problems of society. But all human attempts to overcome oppression are also opposed to selfishness and sin, and are therefore liberating. So, again, sacred and secular work together.
The Church is the “universal sacrament of salvation,”25 a community oriented toward the future promised by the Lord. It should be preoccupied with the world, not itself. Indeed, as a part of the world it must be inhabited and evangelized by the world. So it reveals the world’s true nature as being in Christ.
Like Moltmann, Gutierrez opposes the “Constantinian model” and prefers the concept of secular theology, that the church exists to serve the world and should take its agenda from the world. Thus the church must be mobilized to fight poverty. He is convinced that capitalism is no solution to the poverty of Latin America and that Christians should encourage their societies on a socialist path.26 The establishment of socialism may require violence. But Gutierrez insists that economic oppression is itself the result of violence, so that removing that oppression can justify “counter-violence.”27
Like many philosophical and theological movements, liberation theology makes serious mistakes at the beginning of its thinking process (epistemology) that infect everything else it says. The liberationists demand that commitment to Marxist revolution is the presupposition of the theological task, so it requires no “theological permission.” Thus the word of God is silenced on the central tenets of liberation theology where it ought to speak the loudest.
Nevertheless (I think inconsistently), the liberationists provide a lot of insight into biblical social and individual ethics. God does care especially for the poor, and those who have contempt for the poor will bear special judgment. But the liberationists, by presupposing Marxism, cut themselves off from serious discussion about the best way to aid those trapped in poverty, leaving only violence as the means of settling the question. That so many Christians have fallen into this trap is a major part of the tragedy of the church in Latin America. And those liberationists who are concerned about the state of women, or of African Americans, should beware of encouraging similar results.
Note: This essay is a revision of a chapter by John Frame in A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 423–9.
Advocates and Descriptions of Liberation Theology:
- Boff, Leonardo, Introducing Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987).
- Bonino, José Miguez, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1975).
- Cone, James, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).
- Dault, Kira, “What is Liberation Theology?”
- Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973, 1988).
- Gutierrez, Gustavo, and Muller, Gerhard Ludwig, On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2015).
- Johnson, Elizabeth, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (NY: Crossroad Publishing, 2002).
- Lacugna, Catherine Mowry, ed., Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (NY: HarperOne, 1993).
- Singer, Olivia, Liberation Theology in Latin America
Analyses and Critiques:
- Doino, William, Jr., “The Errors of Liberation Theology”
- Ferm, Deane W., Contemporary American Theologies (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990).
- Frame, John M. A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 423-429.
- Novak, Michael, The Case Against Liberation Theology.
- Storms, Sam, “Liberation Theology”
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