Poverty, Marx & the Theology of Liberation

I've recently studied Liberation Theology. It was developed in the favelas and shanty towns of South America, a continent known for its poverty and powerful elites. Since 1945, right-wing military juntas supplanted left-leaning democratic governments, often with CIA help. Despairing at the levels of poverty and state oppression of the poor, many Catholic priests began to work against their respective governments, despite their common enemy of communism. The 1970s was its heyday, but European popes were busily looking eastwards at the Communist threat; John Paul II recalled the horrors of the despotic Left. As such, he had little sympathy for these socialist clergy and their opposition to military rule. 

Some, like Leonardo Boff, supported violent struggle against repressive government. It’s interesting that much of North American Christianity is capitalism dressed in religious habit (Hinn, Copeland et al) while in South America, Christianity’s most vibrant thinkers are allied to Marx. Karl Marx, author of Das Kapital, blamed capitalism and private land ownership for the exploitation and subsequent alienation of the working classes. Religion, he suggested, was both a tool of the haves to keep in check the have-nots.  Furthermore, it acted as an opiate pain-relief, discouraging the oppressed from breaking free of their oppressors. Half worked to death, promises of heaven and rewards for obedience kept them contented, despite the terrible working conditions and derisory pay. Communist states therefore persecute and ban religious groups; clergy are agents of the elite and opposed to the workers’ liberation 

Boff and his fellow liberationists contend that they are ‘fellow travellers’ with Marx on the road to the people’s liberation. Jose Miranda, however, suggested that Marx was ham-strung by his atheism. He argued that capitalism, the cause of inequality, was itself caused by the Fall and human sin. He also taught that the Ten Commandments’ prohibition of idolatry was to prevent humans thinking they could ‘own’ God, reducing him to a possession, much as they do with the underprivileged and vulnerable. Marx’s thinking is all the poorer for its lack of spiritual insight. 

Liberationists promote ‘the hermeneutic of suspicion’. They think the institutional church has imbibed too freely at the bourgeois fountain; Jesus, they argue, was a proto-Marxist, as were his first followers. They maintained a common purse, as did the apostolic church, of which Ananias and Saphira fell foul. Furthermore, Jesus frequently appears to side with the poor and outcast, while reserving harsh words for the rich, whom he proclaimed would struggle to enter the kingdom of heaven. As the faith matured and became powerful, it abandoned its original emphasis, instead favouring the wealthy and powerful. In the account of the rich young ruler, Christ pleads with him to give away his wealth. By doing so, he was hoping the man would cease oppressing the workers, tenants or slaves who made him rich. By rejecting Christ in favour of his wealth, he was also maintaining the system inequality and oppression of which he was a part.

Liberation supporters argue that the Bible is an incendiary book, supporting the cries of the marginalised and impoverished. Take this passage from James:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

When one encounters mass poverty, it’s hard to lack sympathy for this theology. And yet it’s not the gospel. It’s very this-worldly. The Kingdom of God is become a socialist paradise on earth; sin is oppressing the poor and little else. When Christ came to Jerusalem, He had the opportunity to expel the Roman invaders and establish a just and harmonious Jewish state. Instead, He went to the cross. We humans’ ultimate problem is not inequality, but our sin-sickness which kills us. Humans will only realise their full value and learn to love and respect each other when they have been changed on the inside by God’s grace; only when Christ returns in glory will we witness this on a mass scale. 

"But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:34-36

Image by Andreas Riedel from Pixabay