Revolutionary theology comes of age

Written by José Miguez Bonino Reviewed By John P. Baker

These two books by the Dean of Postgraduate Studies of the Higher Evangelical Institute for Theological Studies in Buenos Aires deserve to be reviewed together, since they complement one another. Both display the same basic theological and political stance, that of an evangelical Christian theologian committed—though not uncritically—to revolutionary socialism. But the first work is written purely from within the Latin American situation, as an account of the background and rise of liberation theology in that continent, followed by a defence and critique of certain aspects of it. This remains true even though Dr Bonino shows an awareness of historical and contemporary European theological work as he writes. The second book, Christians and Marxists, is based on the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity (1974) chaired by John Stott and sponsored by the Langham Trust. A work of apparently maturer and more penetrating theological reflection, it surveys the possibilities open in the debate and encounter between committed Christians and/or Marxists, from a world-wide perspective, which is at once sympathetic to, and critical of, both Christianity and Marxism, while definitely committed to both.

This type of writing, and the theology of politics expounded here, are most unlikely to be adequately or sympathetically understood without awareness and appreciation of the situation of third-world countries and their problems past and present. This is the value of the first half of Revolutionary theology comes of age, which traces the historical background of the capitalist colonial exploitation of South America, the resultant oppression and abject poverty of most of its citizens, and the general marriage of the Roman Church with the oppressive landowners and of the Protestant with North American and other external business interests. The frustration of many priests and others with such an impossible situation led to an increasing number of Christians joining the revolutionaries, when other less drastic attempts to change the situation had failed abortively. This led to the formation of ‘Christians for Socialism’ and to a number of writers and speakers expounding a ‘theology of liberation’ on a Christian and allegedly biblical base. Bonino gives an account of and extracts from the works of many of these writers from different countries in the first half of this book.

The author writes from four or five basic presuppositions, which can be briefly listed: (1) An evangelical faith in Christ and a desire to translate God’s word into action; (2) A conviction that Marxism offers us an unrivalled set of tools for socio-economic analysis of the present situation, at least of South America and the third world; (3) The belief that the bringing of justice to the poor and oppressed (their ‘liberation’) so that they can stand a chance of ‘humanization’, is a very central concern of God in Old and New Testaments; (4) The certainty that all other politico-economic ‘solutions’ offered, except a total socialist revolution, have failed—whether capitalism, or the type of mixed economy ‘third alternative’ between capitalism and socialism espoused by many well-meaning Christians; (5) The assurance that biblical love implies concrete action and communal solidarity, over against liberal Protestant individualizing on the one hand and Hellenistic otherworldly idealist philosophy on the other.

In the light of these basic convictions, Professor Bonino examines the possibilities of a Christian approach to, and use of, revolutionary socialism of a basically Marxist type, and in the process subjects both the church and Marxism to a searching critical scrutiny, each in the light of the other. Subjects treated in the second half of the first book include hermeneutics, truth and praxis, love, reconciliation and class struggle, the kingdom of God, Utopia and historical engagement, and church, people and the avantgarde. One criticism of this book is that in its presentation of the theology of liberation, it appears to rely overmuch on some biblical words and ideas (e.g. love, peace, justice etc.), without any real attempt at detailed exegesis of them in their scriptural context. The result is that the book is historically interesting and challenging, but theologically unsatisfying and unconvincing.

This is not the case with the second book, Christians and Marxists. Readers who expect a naive and superficial treatment which evades thorny and difficult questions will be pleasantly surprised. Marxism is examined, not only in its social and economic strengths, but in its philosophical weaknesses and practical failures as well. Christian attitudes, actions and history are examined in the light not only of Marxist criticisms—often all too justified—but equally of biblical religion, especially the prophets’ and our Lord’s teaching. The nature, extent and limits of a possible alliance between Christians and revolutionary socialism (either violent or non-violent) are clearly sketched.

Obviously not all readers will agree with the position adopted by Dr Bonino, but no committed Christian could fail to share many of his concerns, and no honest one could reject many of his strictures of many prevailing attitudes of Christian churches in the west. It is doubtful if his political convictions will be widely accepted by Christians in the west without a still more thorough grounding of his position in biblical theology, including a treatment of such themes as ‘Those who take the sword will perish by the sword’, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, the nature and meaning of salvation/deliverance in the new covenant, etc., and also a much more thorough indication of how it is proposed to avoid the terrible injustices and atrocities many revolutions have brought in their wake, without any possibility of democratic redress at all. It is also not clear how far, if at all, Marxists will accept his redefining of Marxist positions at certain points, in order to make an alliance possible for Christians. Very possibly his beliefs will be widely welcomed as both acceptable and relevant in the third world generally, as similar views are already in Latin America and elsewhere. But we may be wise to doubt the long-term wisdom and rightness of reacting against an observed and regretted alliance between the Christian church and western capitalist colonialism (as well as liberal idealism), by swinging the pendulum completely in the opposite direction to an even more total alliance with revolutionary Marxist socialism. The Christian has obviously to articulate and express his concern for a just society, and this will involve political programmes as well as voluntary ‘good works’, to be effective. Yet whatever may be right for South America at the moment, the church of Jesus Christ is surely well advised to avoid contracting an indissoluble marriage with any particular socio-political economic system, be it communist, capitalist or any particular third option in between.

John P. Baker

John Baker is secretary of the Tyndale Fellowship Biblical Theology Group and vicar of a country church in southern England.