Liberation Theology and Marx

What is Liberation Theology?

  • Began in Latin America in 1964. The aim of the movement was to find ways in which the truth of the Christian message could work in the poverty of Latin America.
  • Latin America had problems such as: sharp distinction between rich and poor; extreme poverty; corruption of the government; gane warfare; drug dealers taking power. Latin America was used as a battleground during the cold war between the USA and the USSR. The competing claims of capitalism and communism caused violence.

Paulo Freire (book- 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed') - liberation theology was inspired by him. Friere used the term 'conscientisation' to describe ways in which a person becomes aware of the power structures in society. Friere believed in the transformative effect of education. He thought education was essential to enable people to ask the right questions about injustice, and so bring about change.

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Liberation Theology

  • Followers of liberation theology hold that action must come first, rather than abstract thinking: ORTHOPRAXY (right practice) should come before ORTHODOXY (right belief or right doctrine).
  • The concept of the Kingdom of God is central to liberation theology. They stress that the Kingdom is not just something Christians should hope for after they die. It is something they should try to bring about in this world. The Kingdom of God grows through the liberation of the poor.

Gutierrez (book- 'A Theology of Liberation') - he wrote that liberation happens in two ways: liberation from sin and liberation from social and economic oppression. He described how sin can be not just personal but also institutional. He meant that there can be whole methods of doing things that wrong God and disobey his commandments, so sin is not just done by individuals but can be done by society as a whole, as 'structural sin'.

  • It is a theology of hope, seeing possibilities that the world will overturn oppression. Christians form 'base communities' which were dicussion groups to share their challenges and think about practical solutions supported by Christian faith.
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Key Biblical Texts

  • The Exodus story. God sends Moses to Pharoah with demand that people are liberated from slavery: 'Let my people go' (Exodus 1:9).
  • The Magnificat (the song of Mary when she finds out she is expecting Jesus). Mary sings about how God will bring down the mighty and lift up the poor and oppressed: 'He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.' (Luke 1:52-53)
  • Jesus' teaching about wealth: 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.' (Matthew 19:24)
  • The Beatitudes, which list examples of groups who singled out for the grace of God, for example: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' (Matthew 5:3)
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Marx, Alienation and Exploitation

Marx (book- 'The Communist Manifesto') - he argued that the development of technology means that people become less immediately connected to the results of their work. Production becomes more mechanised. Many people's working lives focus on only one part of a process, so that people feel less pride in the finished outcome.

  • Labour itself is bought and sold, not just the finished products of labour.
  • People can also feel at the mercy of things they cannot control as individuals, such as governments, climate change or fear of war.
  • People become 'alienated' - they feel powerless. They are forced to work because they need wages in order to survive, but they feel no control over the goods they are working to produce.
  • In a capitalist society, private individuals own the 'means of production', for example factories and businesses. The workers rely on these private owners who are their employers if they are to survive. Employees feel as if they are part of a machine. They are unable to lead fulfilling lives because they are being exploited by private ownership of the means of production.
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Marx and Exploitation

  • Marx thought that capitalist society alienates workers and creates a divide between those who own the means of production for those who work for the owners. This class divide, he thought, leads to conflict and injustice. Eventually the people who are at the bottom of the heap will turn to violence as the only way of resisting the social structures that alienate them.
  • Marx was an atheist. He famously called religion 'the opium of the people'. He thought that the ruling classes (the owners by means of production) used religion to keep social classes divided so that they could stay in power. Marx thought Christianity teaches that God chooses what sort of lives people have, encourages the poor to be meek, and makes false promises of rewards in heaven to compensate for injustice in this world, as a way of dampening down any ideas about revolution.
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Liberation Theology and Marxism

  • Latin America in the second half of the 20th century was in a state of tension. The Cold War between the USA and USSR offered competing ideologies. The USA believed in a capitalist system of government while the USSR followed communism.
  • Latin America was at a crossroads between communism and capitalism.
  • Socialist governments were overthrown with support of the USA, and rebel movements developed. 

Guttierez (book- 'Theology of Liberation) - agreed with Marx that the poor were alienated from society and that they were exploited by capitalism. He thought that the poor had a deep desire to overturn the current social system and be liberated. Guttierez did not endorse every aspect of Marxism, but he saw the task of Christianity through a Marxist lens and used Marxist terminology. He argued that Christians have a duty to involve themselves in politics, otherwise injustice just stays as it is. He thought it was the responsibility of the Church in Latin America to speak out against injustice, alienation and exploitation, because these things are dehumanising. The Church sshouls take political action to promote brotherhood, justice and liberty. Orthopraxy should be more important than orthodoxy. Guttierez thought that the Church should be working with the aim of building a classless. socialist society. 

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Structural Sin

  • Liberation theologians take many of the ideas of Marx but reinterpret them in context of Christian belief.
  • 'Structural sin' is a theological term used to convey the idea that a system can embrace inequality, oppression, alienation and exploitation, and so the whole system can be sinful> (disobeying the will of God).
  • Liberation theologians saw structural sin in capitalist society. They thought that capitalism has failed to meet the needs of the poor and has pushed them into greater poverty. Socialism is seen not as an ideal but as a better and fairer system.
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The Preferential Option for The Poor

  • The phrase 'preferential option for the poor' was first used by Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Jesuits (a scholarly organisation within the Catholic Church) in 1968.
  • It refers to biblical ideas about God having a special preference for people who are poor, outcast or on the margins of society.

Juan Segundo - Jesuit theologian made the 'preferential option for the poor' a key feature of his liberation theology. Segundo wrote that Christians should not remain neutral when there is obvious human misery and injustice. The crushing effects of pverty do not allow for the kind of peace, justice and love that are central to the Christian message. Segundo did not entirely agree with Gutierrez. Gutierrez thought that people needed to be freed from poverty and exploitation before they could be freed from sin, but Segundo thought that liberation from sin should come first, as freedom from poverty might be unachievable. Christians should give priority to helping the poor and should stand in solidarity with them. 

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The Preferential Option for The Poor 2

  • The idea of a preferential option for the poor started out as a motto of liberation theology but later gained wider acceptance by the Catholic Church

Pope John Paul II - used the phrase in an encyclical in 1991, although he made it clear that the concern was for those in spiritual poverty as well as those in social and economic poverty. The Pope thought that those who relied too heavily on material goods could be in spiritual poverty even if they had plenty of money. 

Pope Francis - took on the idea of solidarity with the poor when he began his papacy in 2013. He rejected extravagance in the Vatican and challenged Catholics to live more simply in solidarity with the poor.

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Liberation Theology and the Catholic Church

  • The Christians of Latin America are mostly Catholics, and liberation theology emerged within the Catholic tradition of Christianity.
  • When liberation theology first began, the leaders of the Catholic Church were concerned about the extent to which it embraced Marxist theories, because Marx was well-known as an atheist and countries with Marxist ideologies were not sympathetic towards Christianity.

Cardinal Ratzinger (later became Pope Benedict XVI) - gave reasons why the Church was uncomfortable with the messages of liberation theology: it is dangerous to adopt some of Marx's theories because Marxism contains intolerant aspects and can emphasise class and community at the expense of an individual, saying that the Eucharist is about a power struggle is a perversion of the Christian message, violent revolution should not be given more importance than Christian mission, only God can remove human suffering, Christian liberation should primarily be seen as liberation from sin.

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The Catholic Church and Liberation Theology

Bonaventure Kloppenburg - argued that practical opposition should not be emphasised even more than the teaching of gospels because it sidelines the spiritual message of Christianity. It emphasises structural sin over personal sin, whereas, the Bible emphasises personal sin and reconciliation through God's forgiveness and grace . Kloppenburg argued that only God can deliver liberation and salvation.

Richard McBrien - argued that liberation theology takes some biblical themes but ignores others completely, and it only sees oppression in economic terms.

  • Although the Catholic Church initially viewed liberation theology with suspicion, the election of the first Latin American Pope (Pope Francis) has brought about a more sympathetic attitude. Pope Francis invited Gutierrez to be a keynote speaker at the Vatican. However, the Church's official posiiton of opposing Marxism has not changed.
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Extra Scholars

Boff - "liberation theology used Marxism as an instrument." - took the pains to stress that liberation theology is not the same as Marxism. Marx's ideas were used as they were useful in a Latin America context.

Fitzgerald - "According to liberation theology, capitalism has clearly been incapable of satisfying the basic needs of Latin America, despite the fact that government and businesses are professed Christians."

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