Liberation Theology as a Doubie Polarity

Christian O. Uchegbue*

"Liberation Theology - Marxist or Christian?" This question which appears as the caption of Emmette Weir's article in 1979 forms the main thrust and inspiration of this present paper. There has been a protracted and entrenched age-long intellectual and ideological duel over the status of liberation theology. At the one end of the pole are those who regard it as an authentic Christian theology and movement while at the other end of the pole are those who regard it as pure Marxism in the garb of Christian theology. In the light of this contest, this paper critically examines the position of liberation theology within the continuum of Marxism and Christianity in order to determine how authentically Christian or Marxist it is. Its argumerits lead to the conclusion that the two positions are indisputable and irreconcilable, and they stand on their own respective rights. As such, liberation theology should be seen from these two opposite perspectives.

A. Introduction to Liberation Theology
There has been a lot of changes in the theological thinking of Christian scholars in the recent past. Some decades ago, the theological field was dominated by the talk about "secularity" and later by the noise of the "death of
Dr. Christian O. Uchegbue is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Reiigious Studies, University of Calabar, Nigeria.


which support and perpetuate their condition. 4 a theology in the context of the struggle for liberation.. it is identified with Marxism. the issue of liberation seems to have become the dominant and the most popular household term in contemporary theological discussions.' we are referring to theology done from the perspective of those who have been traditionally powerless in society and voiceless in the Church. The term 'liberation theology' means different things to different people. oppression and injustice. violence and antiestablishment revolution. This definition is captured in the statement of Gonzalez and Gonzalez that: When we speak here of 'liberation theology. however. Its main theme is derived from the biblical notion of liberation with particular reference to the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt and its bondage.. Pauline Webb stresses that the concern of liberation theology is with the obligation of the Christian to "translate his commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord into specific social and political engagement for social one that does not accept the traditional distinction between sacred and profane realism. suffering. As a concept.' In a further explanation. a radical interpretation of the Christian revelation.^ In keeping with this understanding. In the minds of many conservative theologians. political or ideological ." But in more recent times. economic. between sacred and profane histories. In a wider sense."^ That is why Gutierrez understands liberation theology to mean .This is a recent trend in the Church. liberation theology simply refers to any theological enterprise on behalf of and from the perspective of the poor. oppressed and marginalized in society against all forms of structures ." 15 . Liberation theology rose to prominence in Latin America in the 1970s and its commitment is to make theology relevant amidst poverty. Bonino speaks of liberation theology as . especiaiiy among the oppressed nations.The term is most frequently associated with Latin America. deprived. classes and races towards a felt theological imperative for commitment to the struggle for liberation.Asia Journal of Theology God. 'liberation theology'has been used to include the liberation movements in Asia and Southern Africa.

the response to God's primordial manifestation in history . have been prompted by philosophical questions which lead them to a universalization or generalization of truth. the pivot on which it revolves and the pillar upon which it stands. Their eniphasis is on the transforming aspect of theology from mere idealism to realism and from mere abstract principles to praxis or social action. or making it more contextual than conceptual. on the one hand. as the only valid and authentic Christian theology. On the other hand.' In keeping with this thought. contextualization and praxis form the hub of liberation theology. in fact. a system of values that depends on. This emphasis.Asia Journal of Theology B. the structure of a society in a dialectical way.^ 16 . forms their main controversy with and point of departure from conventional or traditional theology. Gustavo Gutierrez. Latin American theologians have been challenged by situations which prompt them to relativize truth in order to clarify concrete conditions. Thus. the most famous and outspoken Latin American liberation theologian. they are even very suspicious of and they disparage the traditional theologies of the Church.[but contrarily as] a reflection on the system of values that constitutes the core of a given culture. The Two Poles in Contest Liberation theologians see liberation theology as an authentic Christian theology and. Bonino. the greatest and most significant difference in their approaches is that.^ He therefore concludes that "a correct theology cannot arise except out of and in relation to commitment to specific or precise actions and demands. According to him. As such. in their academic approach. affirms that undertaking the task of situating or contextualizing the Christian faith in a concrete situation is what really makes theology meaningful. western theologians. aptly reiterates the position of liberation theology. He conceives of Christian theology as not An autonomous corpus of belief . and reinforces. What informs this stance is their insistence and emphasis on making theology more practical and relevant to the concrete experiences of human existence than theoretical. In his attempt to contrast Latin American with Euro-American theological approaches."^ Gustavo Benavides also reiterates this theme of contextualization as the primary task expected of any authentic theology to accomplish. however.

Roger Vekemans. Today.. does not tally with the church's catechesis. Norman.'^ The most explicit reference to liberation theology as Marxist comes from Norman. Marxist tendencies and as founded on and inciting hate and violence.this conception of Christ as a political figure. many scholars have been suspicious of the tendencies. of denial of the human person. self-redemption of man.'^ This position is also aptly expressed and expatiated by Harry Antonides who maintains that: 17 . Both Charles Ryan and Wikipedia refer to an official statement of the Vatican which condemned liberation theology as "a perversion of the Christian message of God entrusted to the Church. Vekemans is cited as refering to what he describes as '1he brutal and unscrupulous assault known as liberation theology. a revolutionary.. we can say that what is predominantly a dialogue with Marxism in Europe has become indiscriminate and often outright collaboration with it in Latin America. many scholars."^ This statement accused the movement.Asia Journal of Theology As plausible and indubitable as the call to make theology relevant to the needs of the society may be. methodology and implications of liberation theology. as the subversive of Nazareth. political amorality. and Alfonso Lopez Trujillo (whose contribution is not discussed here). As reflected in an article by the Costa Rican Ecumenical Council. Wikipedia quotes Pope John Paul ll's speech at the January 1979 Puebla CELAM conference as saying that "."'" Not even the counter documents from Rome later in 1986 has been able to erase these biases from many minds. Some of them are even doubtful of the authenticity of identifying it with Christian theology. Weir quotes him in his Reith Lecture that: The content of the new theology does not come from received spiritual knowledge. Edward R. both Christians and Marxists themselves see liberation theology as Marxist. but from the Marxist concept of praxis: of the involvement of the oppressed in the historical process of change."'' He goes on to maintain that In so far as its view of Marxism is concerned. among other faults. seem to have been the three most outstandirig critics of liberation theology. Earlier evaluations of liberation theology by Roman Catholic authorities were quite condemnatory and intolerant.

. there cannot be Marxism without atheism. respectively. The Ontological Convictions of Liberation Theoiogy Our concern here focuses on the questions of beliefs about God and eschatological concepts in liberation theology. They have not proclaimed the 'death of God' or questioned the divinity of Christ. but to judge it outrightly as totally and entirely Marxist requires a fair consideration of the totality of its inspirational roots and heritage as well as the epi-centre of its internal philosophical content and convictions. Critical Evaluation of Liberation Theology That liberation theology does make use of Marxism cannot be denied. The biblical exegesis of the liberation theologians is in fact very conservative . its methodological approach as well as its logical inclinations. essentially suggests atheism just as the term "Christianity essentially suggests theism. This presents serious problems since Marxism is atheistic." In other words. namely. just as there cannot be Christianity without theism. its ontological convictions. It may seem out of proportion to attempt to examine all the major aspects of liberation theology in a paper of this nature.Asia Journal of Theology Liberation theology is an attempt to merge Christianity with Marxism.^ 18 . liberation theology is certainly not atheistic. otherwise it is no more Marxism. It is indeed rather orthodox in its concept of God and in its attitude to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. C.. its historical origins.'" Any worthwhile attempt at settling this entrenched dispute would call for a critical evaluation of liberation theology by examining some of its aspects to see the degree of their proximity to Christianity and Marxism.. as western theologians have done in recent years. 1. Norman himself admits this when he asserts that. limit the discussion to a consideration of just four important aspects of the phenomenon. The term 'Marxism' and. in fact. Karl Marx's theory of religion. It is more conservative than the more radical schools of thought in the West. proclaims the class struggles. Where then does liberation theology fall within these two belief systems? From all indications. and leads to disastrous consequences wherever its prescriptions are put into practice. therefore. otherwise it is no more Christianity. We shall. The question of theism and atheism is a dividing line between Christianity and Marxism.

liberation theology is ontologically Christian rather than Marixst. acted to check oppression and to protect the interest of the weak. who stood against racial segregation in South Africa. From these two concepts.'^ it must also be maintained that liberation theology's literature reveals a strong religious foundation. Liberation theology. The Historical Origin of Liberation Theology Any authentic historical study of the origin of liberation theology must go beyond the recent articulation.Asia Journal of Theology While we must point out that there are among liberation theologians those who. like Camilo Torress. in South Africa where liberation theology has taken deep roots. 2. Although later generations might have had contact with and been challenged and rekindled by Marxism. but prophetic. Marxist naturalistic ontology posits an eschatology without theology . we can conclude that liberation theology is. which is the cradle or birth place of liberation theology. however. we notice that the leaders of the separatist movements and those early missionaries like Father Huddleston. and Jesus. systematization and christening of the movement. and is even opposed to the latter. the prophetic spirit of the Christian tradition is the inspirational and causative factor for its emergence. On this basis. it however. While Marxist analytical approach might be regarded as a contributive and enabling factor. not Marxist. Liberation theologians themselves point out that any revolutionary change that is without religion leads only to a new form of oppression. for denouncing and protesting against injustice. historically speaking. has a very long history of protest by Christians both clergymen and laymen . Long before Marx. This approach would reveal that Latin which death brings human existence and hope to a final end and in which life and community are destined to disintegrate and end with history. Roger Charles succinctly declares that almost none of the socioeconomic demands made in the name of liberation theology is a new insight or 19 . while liberation theology shares the sociohistorical implications of eschatological belief with Marxism. differs considerably from it in its eschatological concepts. On the question of eschatology. they drew inspiration from the 'revolutionary' stance of Israel's prophets. Similarly. "postpone" reiigious activity for the liberation struggle.who on the basis of their religious and scriptural convictions. John the Baptist. probably knew nothing about or had no contact with Marxism. speaks of life after death and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

"^^ In conclusion."^' He clarifies himself by quoting Paul Ellingworth's remark: "I think that they use Marx to make Christians read the Bible more carefully. he argues. Following this line of thought. However. the use of Marxism."'^ By using such analysis. liberation theology seems to define the essence of Christianity in socio-political and economic rather than inward or spiritual terms. in his criticism enumerates the negative implications of using Marx's socio-political-economic analysis as the authentic hermeneuticai model. According to him.radical or conservative.'^ 3. the Church loses originality and 'Ihe confidence to define the areas of public debate even on moral question. Weir explains. Norman. It is on this ground that he sees liberation theology as resulting from the Marxian concept of praxis. pointing out that "it defines the religious values of the Church in terms of prevailing realities of contemporary secular cultures. but a methodological borrowing to emphasize "doing theology" rather than "reflecting on" or "thinking theology. as J. It seems more certain. The Methodological Approach of Liberation Theology The hermeneuticai perspective of liberation theoiogy. they are ali demands that are compatible with the socio-economic traditions of the Church. it should be acknowledged that most 20 .Asia Journal of Theology discovery that had eluded the Church in past history. but to read the Bible in the light of Marx." Moreover. of Christian teaching and living. on the contrary. that socio-political and economic action is a consequence rather than the preoccupation. its preoccupation with praxis and the advocacy of violence in the process of social change reveal serious use and influence of Marxism. and simply follows the definitions made by others:"'^ In its preoccupation with socio-political and economic action or praxis. There is the actual use of Marxism in liberation theology's interpretation of scriptures and this has generated serious and inescapable criticisms. He points out also that there is no distinctively Christian or biblical reasons for identifying Christianity with any political ideology . Norman. one can assert that liberation theology's use of Marx's analysis does not suggest its identity in Marxism.E. a necessary rather than a sufficient element or essence. cautions against the expression of those consequences in terms of social ideals derived from contemporary and secular political ideology which redefines the very essence of Christianity. therefore. "is not a call to Christians to read Marx in the light of the Bible. while acknowledging that biblical teaching has social consequences.

all liberation theologians cannot be grouped as advocates of violence. The popular Columbian Roman Catholic priest and radical liberation theologian. rejects violence in its totality. resisted and rejected the unjust power structures of His day. is in advocating violence. I would prefer a thousand times to be killed than to kill. justice and love than in the force of wars. His caution to Peter at Gethsemane against the use of the sword (Matt. who left the priesthood to die as a guerilla fighter is a common example.. a structural revolution. Cámara. then the use of violence can be used in certain circumstances as a last resort if official violence cannot be overcome by peaceful means.. are advocates of non-violence. like Dom Helder Cámara. In Latin America. Allan Boesak. Detesting complacency."^" However. for while He criticized.. we Christians are on the side of non-violence. he writes: My personal vocation is that of a pilgrim of peace.. Manas Buthelezi. Rev.. condemned. murder and hatred. The most serious methodological problem with liberation theology. Some liberation theologians have argued that since the existing systems use violence in their oppression and exploitation of the poor and powerless. This personal position is based on the gospel. is not akin to or compatible with the Christian faith. Gustavo Gutierrez. Luán Segundo.. which Marxists would not accept. he did not take up arms or join with the 'guerrilla group' of the Zealots.Asia Journal of Theology liberation theologians maintain that the politicization of faith is out of their objective analysis. leading theologians of liberation. he explicitly calls for "a reform in depth. 26:51-52) is very illustrative of the fact that Jesus never supported violence.^^ Although the common reference to Jesus as a revolutionary can be accepted in the sense that He promulgated standards and values totally opposed to those conventionally accepted in the society. violence defined in any way. Jon Sobrino. personally. Beyers - 21 .^^ Socioethically speaking. for example. Non-violence means believing more passionately in the force of truth. it must be maintained that Jesus was not a revolutionist. to clarify what this kind of reform or revolution involves. which is by no means a choice of weakness or passivity. the liberation struggle has always been non-violent and liberation theologians like Rev. a profound and rapid change . which is undeniably Marxist and never Christian." In South Africa. Camilo Torres. However.. however. and many others.. Most of them advocate a kind of system which is neither Capitalist nor Communist..

that the argument can be reversed in favour 22 . and reveals to us the absolute gratuitousness of God's love. In the first place. beyond any "selfperpetuation. despite its pragmatic appeal and admirableness. shocks us. leads liberation theology . later become the subjects and recipients of God's preferential love in utter gratuity. We can illustrate this observation from two angles."a change . it does not foresee or make room for the continuity of this dialectical process to its logical conclusion whereby the rich." "ideological conservatism" and thus. We here wish.Asia Journal of Theology Naunde. is a perfectly comprehensible God. therefore. Gutierrez's argument in support of this predominant theme of liberation theology is our paradigm. The Logical Inclination of Liberation Theology It may be very difficult to deal with the logical procedures followed in all the issues raised by liberation theology." He further states that: A God who loves the poor because the poor deserve it." This type of reasoning.the question of God's preferential love for the poor. which does not take into account 'Ihe moral and personal dispositions of the poor reveals the gratuitousness of God's love. God's preference for the poor is not due to the goodness of the poor. then Norman's stigmatization of it as Marxist is valid and indisputable since violence is alien to Christian teaching. it would be difficult and misleading to judge it as Marxist. This argument has been simplified and summarized by Benavides. this preference is grounded simply in the poor's poverty. to accept that God loves the poor simply because they are in a situation of oppression and exploitation. to consider just one important and central issue . Free choice. Bishop Desmond Tutu and others are all advocates of non-violent modes of change. This is in the sense that it seeks a change of situation in which the poor who are despised and relegated to the background are eventually brought to prominence while the prominent rich are consequently despised and relegated to the background. However. 4.^^ According to Gutierrez. If liberation theology means adopting violent methods of change. because of their eventual humiliation and disadvantage. to a self-defeating and selfdestroying logic. but rather. Yet once this initial change has taken place. as Gustavo Benavides has observed.demanding ideology" . But if it is the form followed by Cámara and others.

. Marxism provides him with the necessary rationalization. the biblical call on Christians to love all people is in direct opposition to the Marxist concept of class conflict.Asia Journal of Theology of the rich. As Antionides notes. he points out that Church unity cannot be reconciled with class struggle. Rather than being based on scriptural teachings. but His reconciliatory attitude towards both groups. The two can never be reconciled because while the one is clearly motivated by love. that God's love is absolutely gratuitous should not suggest His preferential. the other is prompted by hatred. Apart from the possibility of a redirection of oppression which may eventually lead to a spiral of oppression and a perpetuation of oppression in the society. not only without regard for the rich's goodness or evilness. For example.^' Conclusion Considering the ontological convictions and historical origins of Liberation theology. Gutierrez speaks of the class struggle as an inescapable fact in which remaining neutral is an impossibility.^^ The principle of class struggle which Gutierrez sanctions is quite alien to Christian teaching and betrays liberation theology as a Marxist ideology. merely leads to changing the direction and form of oppression in which the oppressed today becomes the oppressor tomorrow while the oppressor today becomes the oppressed tomorrow. reveals its emptiness. another implication of this logical perspective is that it adopts the principle of class struggle which is at the root of Marxism as an axiom.."^^ However. The scriptures condemn injustice and oppression. Secondly. but they do not divide mankind along economic lines. In this case. this argument. Furthermore. it can be regarded as an authentic Christian theoiogy. considering its methodological approach (especially its often advocacy of 23 .™ He concludes on this note that There is no biblical support for Gutierrez's assertions. but even because of the rich's evilness. In fact. a conservative theologian may argue "that God's absolute freedom allows him to gratuitously love the rich. However. liberation theology has almost always tilted towards this characteristically Marxist tendency and is therefore called to be more conciliatory than segregating. the liberator's mechanism becomes the oppressor's dynamism. the class struggle springs from a thoroughly atheistic ideology and is inspired by hatred and envy. Gutierrez is therefore forced to look to a source other than the Bible to support the concept of the class struggle. . and the concept of divine preference of the poor itself.

Gustavo Gutierrez. as such. J. p. Marxism is. 1985). The Many Faces of Retigion and Society (New York: Paragon House Publishers. tbid. 2. Liberation Preaching: Ttie Putpit and the Oppressed (Nashville: Abingdon. 10/1/2006. 24 . No. 2. we can see liberation theology paradoxically as both authentically Christian and authentically Marxist. p. p. p. LXXXVII. Christianity and Socio-Potiticat Order in Nigeria (Ibadan: The Nigerian Association for Christian Studies. Vol. 3 (December. Currently. Bryant et al. No.. 196. Bonino. p. p. 'The Manipulation of CELAM" Cross Current. Theotogy of Liberation: History. Also. 1974). 1976). Wikipedia. LXXXVII. Pauline Webb.Asia Journal of Theology violence as a legitimate means of structural transformation) and its logical inclination in favour of the oppressed and the class struggle. 123. Vol." Wikipedia. 1 (Spring. a movement or ideology with two irreconcileable yet indisputable sides. p. 5 (February.wikipedia. p. Gonzalez. 1987). 62. J. Gustavo Benavides "The Discourse of Liberation Theology in Perspective" in M. 196-198. (eds). 15.M.L.G. Potitics and Salvation. 131. p. involves the use of the Bible and Catholicism in the formation of its framework for combating injustice. Charles P. Nevertheless. 1978). The claims on both ends seem so indisputable and irreconcileable that the only escape route is to allow them to stand side by side on their own respective merits as the two indestructible sides of the same coin. Gonzalez and C. (New York: Orbis Books. Therefore. Vol. however." The Expository Times. 147. This conclusion is supported by the paradoxical response given by Kerry Franchuk to the question "is liberation theology Marxist?" His answer is "Yes" and "No. liberation theology can be regarded as authentically Marxist. "Liberation Theology. Costa Rican Ecumenical Council. the Free Encyclopedia. it is "Yes" in view of the many elements of Marxism incorporated in and shared in common with liberation theology. Vol. Gustavo Gutierrez. 189. XXVIII." According to him. "Five Theses Towards an Understanding of the 'Theology of Liberation.. Adewale (ed. p.A. 66.D. Bonino. it is "No" considering the fact that liberation theology is basically a theology and. 7 (April. LXXXVI. 1980).M.). pp.^^ He further explains that: "Early liberation theology was without a doubt heavily Marxist. Retrieved from http:// en. No." The Expository Times. 1973)." The Expository 77mes. 1976). "A Liberation Theology for Nigeria" in S. merely an analytical tool."^^ J. No. "Salvation Today. p. 12. It is a double polarity.. "Christian Faith and Social Justice.

.magna. 261 Ray Hundley. Don Helder Cámara. O'öerafen Theology: A Secular Program for Revolutionaty Change {On^rio: Jesus to the Communist World. p. XC. "Marxism in Liberation Theology" Retrieved from http://www.htm. p. 2. See Christian O. • Ibid. 274-275. Ibid. 258. Vol. Emmette J. Uchegbue.' The Month. "The Ethics of Violence: A Christian Perspective" Sophia. 7. Vol. No. 128. p. 9 (June." Retrieved from http:// www. Ibid.Marxist or Christian?" Ttie Expository Times. Ibid. 128. Weir.. 62. 1. "Christianity and the World Order" The Expository Times. 1979). p. p. Vol. pp. 1398 (March. p. Gustavo Gutierrez. p. p. CCLXVI. Ray Hundley..calfranchuk/liberation. p. 1984). 126. "Liberation Theology . 7. "The Dangers of Liberation Theology. 258. Harry Antonides.pp. 1 (2000). Ibid. No.Asia Journal of Theology Ibid. Edward Norman. Kerry Franchuk. 1974). Roger Charles. 32. /öW. 9 (June. p. ibid.. 1990). No. 1979). 25 .. 62-65. 32.. p. 29. p. p. p. Emmette J. "Violence . p. p. Edward Norman. on 10/3/2006. p. 260. 142.the Only Way"? in Alistair Kee (ed) A Reader in Political Theo/ogy (London: SCM Press. p. Vol. p. Ï42-143. Gustavo Benavides. 261. 1987). "Catholic Social Teaching as Liberation. 87.html (December. Harry Antonides. XC. No. 260. Weir. pp.baptistpillar.