The Marxist Origin of Liberation Theology

Obama with Pastor Wright, Adherent and teacher of Black Liberation Theology.

Obama with Pastor Wright, Adherent and teacher of Black Liberation Theology.

by Todd Cameron Swathwood Jr

The Kabod, Liberty University

Vol 1, Issue 2 Spring 2015

(Excerpt appears below, click title above for full paper)


Gustavo Gutiérrez: Liberation Theology & Marxism

Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Dominican priest originally from Peru, was the first to articulate the concepts of liberation theology, a controversial notion that swept across Latin America in the late twentieth century. Beginning in the 1960s, the impact of this ideology is still felt to this day, though greatly fleshed out and clarified. The radical reinterpretation of the Bible required to support liberation theology has made understanding it a crucial step in interpreting the tumultuous times we occupy, and the theology’s singular focus on good deeds and solidarity with suffering people all over the world has drawn both praise and criticism.

Gustavo Gutiérrez primarily articulated his spin on theology through his seminal work, A Theology of Liberation, which was published in 1971 and translated into English two years later. Despite the radical ideas contained therein, Gutiérrez was hesitant when it came to fully articulating them and their logical conclusions. In his works, he prefers to spend a great deal of time discussing problems and then vaguely refer to a solution with broad, sweeping platitudes largely devoid of specifics. Further, Gutiérrez regularly seems to present ideas and retract them simultaneously. Richard Neuhaus notes,

There seem almost to be two Gutiérrezes. The one quotes Fanon and Che Guevara almost as Scripture, proclaiming we are on the edge of ‘revolutionary anthropophany’ in which historically inexorable forces are creating “the new man in the new society”. . . The second Gutiérrez comes out of the closet in the notes, carefully positioning his arguments in relation to the larger theological and political discourse both of the past and of the international community. He cautions the reader against understanding what he has just said as what he has just said.

Before embarking on an analysis of liberation theology, one must first examine how the founder himself defined this doctrine. In discussing the goal of his theology, Gutiérrez explained that:

[Liberation theology] is a theological reflection born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human, . . . to give reason for our hope from within a commitment that seeks to become more radical, total, and efficacious. It is to reconsider the great themes of the Christian life within this radically changed perspective and with regard to the new questions posed by this commitment. This is the goal of the so-called theology of liberation.

Strains of Marxist thought are immediately apparent, most obviously in the notion that current society is the source of all ills, and can only be reformed by its abolition. After this, a utopian society will emerge, righting the wrongs wreaked by the previous incarnation, but apparently imparting none of its own. Gutiérrez seems to recognize that this will be the message many people receive, and makes an effort to avoid spiritualized Marxism as liberation theology’s main building block. Specifically, he writes, “My purpose is not to . . . fashion a theology from which political action is ‘deduced,’” and that

[i]t is not possible . . . to deduce from the gospel a single political course that all Christians must follow; as soon as we enter the political sphere, we are in the area of free choices in which factors of another order (social analysis; the concrete histories of nations) have a role to play. The faith does indeed set down certain ethical requirements . . . but the requirements do not entail a specific political program.

It is apparent that Gutiérrez is at least paying lip service to the notion that liberation theology does not recommend a specific course of political action to bring about its goals. Regardless, a particular trend toward Marxism is still prevalent throughout his writings, so much so that Dr. Edward Norman, Dean of Peterhouse at Cambridge, called Gutiérrez “the most distinguished of the Marxist theologians in South America.” Leftism seems to be central to the tenets of liberation theology, enough so that at times liberation theology appears to be more Marxism in spiritual clothing than anything else. The covering does not even need to be Christian; Gutiérrez discusses other religions’ liberation theologies on just as high a level as his own nominally Christian one. The overriding theme in Gutiérrez’ conception of liberation theology is its anti-capitalist and pro-Marxist sentiments, demonstrated partly by his continuous usage of Marxist vocabulary. In his discussion of the poor, Gutiérrez constantly refers to the bourgeois, capitalists, and multinational corporations, and always in a negative tone. Additionally, he references greed as the driving force for the world’s economy, quotes Che Guevara, and discusses how the current economic system is “designed” to funnel all resources to the top, away from the oppressed masses beneath. Gutiérrez argues,

The underdevelopment of the poor countries, as an overall social fact, appears in its true light: as the historical by-product of the development of other countries. The dynamics of the capitalist economy lead to the establishment of a center and a periphery, simultaneously generating progress and growing wealth for the few and social imbalances, political tensions, and poverty for the many.