Liberation Theology

There has been one important area of modern Christian concern with the political process which has been discussed in terms of basic political theory. The school of liberation theology (for it is systematic enough and universal enough to be regarded as a school) has allied theological categories with Marxist intellectual methods in a way which has achieved a good deal of prestigious support. The most seminal of its writings have come from the Peruvian pensador Gustavo Gutierrez, and especially from his work of 1971, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Here, and in the outpourings of the radical political criticism of which it was the first fruit, liberal Christians have thought to discover the authentic voice of the Third World. Gutierrez in fact combines pretty standard Marxist social analysis with primitive biblical exegesis and a theological understanding virtually unacquainted with most development in contemporary theological scholarship. It is his voice, identified as that of the world's powerless, which attracts the admiration of liberal Christians in the West. He was invited to give the keynote address at the start of the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1988, and what he said on that occasion was greeted by the assembled bishops with enormous enthusiasm. Few of these bishops, surely, can actually have agreed with the succession of Marxist precepts which Gutierrez offered on that occasion. Of all contemporary theological writing on political issues, however, liberation theology has been the most widely respected and the most widely read. Its origins lie in the radical political ferment of Europe and North America in the 1960s, whose idealism and intellectual dispositions were rapidly developed by Catholic priests in Latin America. These men were often themselves teachers in universities and colleges, or exercised their ministries among the bourgeoisie of Latin American cities. They were already acquainted, that is to say, with the well-established Marxist intellectual tradition of the Latin American intelligentsia. This existing tradition had been assembled in hostility to the Catholic Church, and was a crucial dimension of the secularism of Latin American liberalism. Liberation theology was always intended, therefore, to be something of a paradox: the priests who adopted the political theories of their ideological opponents; the members of the professional class who sided with the poor; the teachers of peace who nevertheless exhorted their flocks to revolution.

Christian love of neighbour has always inspired a continuing spiritual tradition of concern for the world's poor, in an attempt to follow the poverty of Christ himself, who had nowhere to lay his head. What was new in liberation theology was the concept of 'solidarity' with the poor—and a mass poor, who were now identified as 'the oppressed'. For poverty came now to be seen as the fruit of exploitation; the poverty of the Third World was recognized as the consequence of exploitation by the developed world, and the poverty of the peasants and the working classes was diagnosed as the result of internal capitalist exploitation. Here was a ready-made class analysis of social reality, and it was a single step to a realization that existing academic theology, which seemed inattentive to such matters, was the theology of the status quo. The Church had the duty, according to liberation theologians, of prophetic unmasking—to end the myth of a possible 'Christian' society within prevailing social structures, and to recognize that society in fact represented a conflict of social classes, just as the international order depicted the capitalist exploitation of the world's poor by the transnational corporations of the developed countries. What was needed, according to the liberation theologians, was for theology to become specific. Its agenda must be set by historical circumstance; in this case the conflict of classes. Ordinary people, the exploited themselves, must be, as the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire put it, 'conscientized'. They must be re-educated, that is to say, into a sense of their own social reality, removed from the false consciousness of social palliation and Catholic charitable relief, and made aware of their own humanity. Then they would grasp history: the apocalyptic tone is central to the appeal of Marxist analysis. The content of theology should be set, not by the prevailing learning of the academics and the ecclesiastics, but by the praxis of social reality. Thereafter the revolution was to be a real one, not just a shift of attitudes or the permeation of Christian good intentions. The poor were to seize their own destiny and create a socialist society; reformism was merely a disguise for the continuation of exploitation. Basic changes were needed in the consciousness of men and women themselves, so that they could become free, as Gutierrez expressed it, from all that impeded self-fulfilment. There are echoes here of the radical intelligentsia's rediscovery, made in the 1960s, of Marx's own early critique of 'alienation', and of Mao Zedong's concept of a permanent revolution of culture. Gutierrez sought a 'new man' purged of the psychology of repression, re-fashioned in each generation to be critically emancipated from the thrall of bourgeois values. This vision, common enough in the secular redemption breathlessly held out by the 1960s intellectuals, was now given a theological basis by the liberation theologians and made the foundation of a reappraisal of State power. For however much the newly emancipated, after the purification of the revolutionary experience, may find themselves able to dispense with the familiar structures of the bourgeois State, they would need a strong and centralized State power during the transition to social justice. At first sight the liberation theologians appear to embrace the scepticism about State power characteristic of the 1960's intellectuals; looked at from a closer perspective, however, it is plain that the need for perpetual renewal of the revolutionary experience, as the case of Marxism in China was to indicate, would always involve strong and effective centralized direction. In Latin American terms, that meant the retention of the enduring Hispanic tradition of a central power. It is diverting to wonder how aware of all this the bishops who applauded Gutierrez at the Lambeth Conference really were.

There are all kinds of variations and subtleties of emphasis within liberation theology. It is also true that the school has produced some writings of theoretical sophistication, at least as far as internal applications of Marxist methodology are concerned. As its influence spread to other areas of the developing world, and especially to Southern Africa, in the mid-1970s, the social analysis of liberation theology acquired considerable enrichment. In the Republic of South Africa, particularly, the conflict of classes was reread as a conflict of races, with the result that an existing inclination by liberals to ignore the fact that the anti-apartheid movement was penetrated with Marxist political elements was reinforced. In all other areas of the developing world, however, the agents of liberation theology have encountered tough resistance from traditional Christianity, sometimes in alliance with the ruling classes, and sometimes simply because the social diagnosis of liberation theology, with its emphasis on revolution and State power, has seemed religiously inappropriate and too secular. It has been within the liberal leadership of the Christianity of the Western world that liberation theology has enjoyed its most sustained following.

Behind liberation theology lies the assumption that when 'the Christian' policy for society has been identified it is legitimate to use political force to bring it into actual existence. There is much commentary in the writings of liberation theologians about employing political violence as an instrument of Christian love—to liberate oppressors from their own oppression. Using the power of the State to give institutional reality to Christian ideals, however, is in direct contrast to the methods envisaged within contemporary Western liberalism, and therefore condemned, at least in relation to their own circumstances, by most Western Christian leaders. Liberation theology, under the banner of Marxism, is in effect a resuscitation of the old 'Christendom' model: the ethical State is conceived as a unitary one. In Western liberalism divergencies of ethical thought and practice are recognized, if selectively, and it is not thought proper that the State should be entrusted with the enforcement of a single ethical norm if it is seen to be in conflict with the ethical ideals of other sections within the prevailing pluralism of values. The idea that the Christian community and civil society are co-extensive has long been abandoned in the face of acknowledged diversity. Historically, the notion of a single Christian society was first questioned because it was in clear conflict with divergencies of views among Christians themselves; later it was considered inappropriate that Christianity itself should receive the sanction of the State as against other systems of belief. Church leaders are themselves reluctant to resort to the power of the State for the protection or endorsement of their religious teaching. Where they do in fact call for State action—most commonly in social and economic issues—they do so beneath the umbrella of a consensus of the educated: the morality of a particular policy is thus in accord with an identifiable area of secular opinion. Reforms are sought not because they are in themselves embodiments of religious teaching, but because they are conducive to human welfare. The Church's necessary concern with the social policy is both a cause of its own internal secularization and also an indication of the extent to which it associates its teaching with the moral goals that are general in society. As the possibility of making the Christian community and civil society co-extensive recedes, the Church progressively recognizes itself, once again, as a gathered society. It sees its mission as that of a community within a community, a leavening agent, a witness to the society of those called by Christ to 'engage the world' (to use an expression common among contemporary theologians). The insoluble problem of public policy remains: some group, some system of belief, has to undertake government, and government, even at a very reduced level of activity, still moulds the public culture within which law receives its sanction and citizens are nurtured in virtue. Christians may decline to use the power of the State to implement their beliefs, but others, ideological rivals, will not hesitate to do so, though the moral incoherence of modern political society may for a time disguise the fact. Collectivism is, in effect, the old 'Christendom' model in a secularized form. Its supporting system of ideas is an ill-defined humanism which tends, often with no clear intention of doing so, to cultivate a materialist view of human life.

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