Marxism and Religion Today
2004 SAMLA Panel
Roanoke, Virginia
12-14 November

Amy J. Elias
University of Tennessee

The Brotherhoods: Liberation Theology and Marxist Theory

Do not cite without permission of the author.



At one point in Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man , the protagonist goes to New York and meets a Marxist organizer, Brother Jack. Brother Jack, impressed with how Invisible Man has spoken ex tempore at a neighborhood eviction demonstration, tries to recruit him by distinguishing him from the old black couple whom he has just helped. "They don't count," says Brother Jack.

  "Men grow old and types of men grow old.   And these are very old.   All they have left is their religion.   That's all they can think about. So they'll be cast aside. They're dead, you see, because they're incapable of rising to the necessity of the historical situation."

"But I like them," I said. ". . . they're folks just like me, except that I've been to school a few years."

He wagged his round red head.   "Oh, no, brother; you're mistaken and you're sentimental. You're not like them. . . . History has been born in your brain." (291)            

Invisible Man's intuitive reaction to the old couple is empathy leading to social action: working with the poor on the ground, seeing the pathos and injustice of their situation, connecting with them through both their general humanity and their specific race and class position, he stirs up a localized protest about real economic injustice.   However, though the old people being evicted from their homes by slumlords are members of a (raced) proletariat and in effect embody the "historical situation," they are in Brother Jack's theoretical universe also hopelessly complicit with the oppressive   false consciousness of religious belief. They are lost.

In the Brotherhood, Ellison satirizes an antagonism between Marxism and Christianity that is well defined today only in the most fundamentalist sects of each philosophy. The vulgar Marxism of Ellison's Brother Jack has been replaced by a post-Soviet marxism, informed by poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theory, that seemingly welcomes Christianity into the historical fold.   These marxist theories generally claim a theoretical novelty to this perspective, failing to notice that theology has been examining the intersections of Marxism and Christianity at least since the 1930s; moreover, in these analyses the diversity of Christian beliefs tend to be reduced to a monolithic "Christianity" in a surprisingly ahistorical manner, as if all Christian sects were the same and offered the same historical and philosophical relation to Marxism.   Nonetheless, there is a new willingness to see some kind of value in the Christian tradition so defined, and this is a radical departure for Marxism, with its bloody historical record of religious persecution.1

This interpellative move is most apparent in the recent writing of Slavoj Zizek, where Christianity is called forth (and defined as a new subject) as a allegory for the psychic compensations offered by capitalism and as a sinthome begging marxist dialectical analysis.   ( Z izek defines sinthome as a universalized symptom in The Fragile Absolute , 117). The idea that Christianity offers a scapegoat logic of psychic reimbursement is an old argument going back at least to the early work of René Girard; more interesting is Zizek's statement in his earlier book, The Fragile Absolute, that "Christian 'unplugging' [from the Oneness of being of pagan religions and the unity of self and Other] is not an inner contemplative stance, but the active work of love which necessarily leads to the creation of an alternative community" (129-30).   This is the Christianity Zizek finds important to contemporary Marxism, but it is also a Christianity from which he quickly diverts his attention.

What results is an elision-ironically, an historical elision-in his and other current Marxist theories, an erasure of the history of social critique and liberation theology in Christian thought.   No contemporary Marxist theorist has to my knowledge recognized or analyzed the precepts of liberation theology. Yet liberation theology is precisely the Christian theology that is Marxist in orientation and would offer the most potent ally (or threat) to secular marxism.   Moreover, liberation theologists strongly articulated the philosophical links between Marxism and Christianity; almost 15 years before Specters of Marx , in which Jacques Derrida "revealed" a messianic promise and an eschatology at the core of Marxism (90, 91), the liberation theorist Geevarghese Mar Osthathios wrote, "A perfect classless society is only an eschatological possibility" (343).

What does it mean that contemporary marxisms recuperate Christianity as a useful ally yet ignore its actual history of revolutionary struggle?   Is this a commentary on the nature of contemporary marxist thought, now so far removed from its own origins that it has become Platonized in its own right?   Is it a repression signalling marxism's own fear of a symbolic father?   Or is the new marxist call for Christianity to drop its institutional belief the call of Western modernity, which subjugates and destroys the thing it appropriates in order to revitalize its own dead realities?  

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Dating to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the Second Latin American Bishops Conference (1968), the liberation theology movement brought poor people together in comunidades de base, or Christian-based communities, to study the Bible and to fight for social justice (   According to Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, liberation theology started when Catholic theologians (Gustavo Gutiérrez, Segundo Galilea, Juan Luis Segundo, Lucio Gera, and others) and Protestants Emilio Castro, Julio de Santa Ana, Rubem Alves, José Míguez Bonino met to reflect on the relationship between faith and poverty, the gospel and social justice.   Meetings of these theologians began in the early 1960s in the climate of worldwide political action.   Central to the development of liberation theology was a March, 1964 statement by Gustavo Gutiérrez at a meeting of Latin American theologians held in Petrópolis (Rio de Janeiro), which described theology as critical reflection on praxis. This line of thought was further developed at meetings in Havana, Bogotá, and Cuernavaca, Montreal, and Chimbote in Peru. The outlines for a theology of liberation were first put forward at the theological congress at Cartigny, Switzerland, in 1969 titled "Toward a Theology of Liberation." The second general conference of the episcopate of Latin America, held at Medellín, Colombia in 1968, spoke of the church "listening to the cry of the poor and becoming the interpreter of their anguish."   This was the first flowering of the theme of liberation, which began to be worked out systematically only after this Second Latin American Bishops Conference. The first Catholic congresses devoted to liberation theology were held in Bogota in March 1970 and July 1971, and the third general conference, held at Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, shows the theme of liberation running right through its final document (see Boff and Boff).

In December 1971, Gustavo Gutiérrez published his seminal work, Teología de la liberación . Gutiérrez had studied medicine and literature in Peru, psychology and philosophy at Louvain, and eventually took a doctorate at the Institut Catholique in Lyons; he is now the John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Translated into English as Theology of Liberation , Gutiérrez's work calls for a theology of praxis to intervene in Latin America, is now the classic statement of liberation   theology.

Gutiérrez starts from the assumption that there is a split within Christian theology from the 12 th century on between theology as "wisdom" (theology as philosophy based in Platonic and neoplatonc categories and divorced from material life) and scholastic theology as "rational knowledge." For Gutiérrez, both functions have become deformed ("wisdom" theology becomes increasingly esoteric, and after the Council of Trent 1545-63, scholastic theology is increasingly reduced to the function of defining doctrine). He argues that theology needs to return to a Pauline, and Augustinian, theology of praxis clearly associated with Marx's theory of social praxis.   He calls for an "orthopraxis" that works in tandem with "orthodoxy": theology "would be a critical theory, worked out in the light of the Word accepted in faith and inspired by a practical purpose-and therefore indissolubly linked to historical praxis. ... Theology does not produce pastoral activity; rather it reflects upon it" ( TL , 11).   Christian life as a creative commitment to the service of others is based in Gospel truth as well as doctrinal traditions, and a specifically Christian praxis is both an impetus to social action and the check-and-balance of alienated scholasticism.

In this context of faith, the theologian emerges as a new kind of Gramscian organic intellectual ( TL 13), "someone personally and vitally engaged in historical realities . . . where nations, social classes, people struggle to free themselves from domination and oppression by other nations, classes, and people" ( TL 13).   Like his fellow theologian Jürgen Moltmann, Gutierrez advocates a theology of hope that grows out of Christian commitment in history.  

To reflect on the historical praxis of liberation . . . does not mean doing this from an armchair; rather it means sinking roots where the pulse of history is beating at this moment and illuminating history with the Word of the Lord of history, who irreversibly commited himself to the present moment of mankind to carry it to its fulfillment . . . It is a theology which is open-in the protest against trampled human dignity, in the struggle against the plunder of the vast majority of people, in liberating love, and in the building of a new, just, and fraternal society-to the gift of the Kingdom of God.    ( TL 15)

Gutierrez's liberation theology defines social development as "a total social process" including but not limited to economic growth, and he expressly correlates this idea to Karl Marx's discourse on "the whole man" in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 .  

More importantly, he references approvingly the Medellín Documents, a written response in 1968 to papal encyclicals and to the Second Vatican Council by Consejo Episcopal Latinamericano (CELAM) in Medellín, Columbia.   Gutiérrez   opposes secular First World "development"on grounds that would be compatible with the tenets of today's post-colonial theory. Liberation "has to be undertaken by the oppressed people themselves and so must stem from the values proper to these people.   Only in this context can a true cultural revolution come about" (TL 91).   This leads Gutiérrez to claim that while an organization such as the Workers' Catholic action is fine for stable societies free from public repression, its purely theoretical dialogue with Marxism holds little interest for Latin America, under different political pressures ( TL 104).

For the socialist Gutiérrez, "developmentalism" and the liberal state, predicated on individual freedom rather than communal cooperation, are the two enemies of Christian fraternity and justice for the poor.   "But only a class analysis," writes Gutiérrez, "will enable us to see what is really involved in the opposition between oppressed countries and dominant peoples. . . . there can be authentic development for Latin American only if there is liberation from the domination exercised by the great capitalist countries, and especially by the most powerful, the United States of America" ( TL 87).   Like other liberationist theologians of the time who argued the possible compatibility of Christianity and violent revolutionary action--such as Juan Luis Segundo ["Christianity and Violence in Latin America," Christianity and Crisis   4 (1968): 32-5] and José Porfirio Miranda [ Marx and the Bible , trans. John Eagleson (Wipf & Stock, 2004, orig. 1971)-but unlike the contemporary U.S. American pacifist Christian socialist Stanley Hauerwas, the Latin American Christian socialist Gutiérrez makes a place for violence in this struggle for justice in the world.   The Latin American political situation forces social justice groups to be clandestine, and, "as awareness of existing legalized violence grows, the problem of counterviolence is no longer an abstract ethical concern.   It now becomes very important on the level of political efficacy" ( TL 103).   

Thus the radical liberation theology of Gutiérrez, Secundo, and others directly advocates socialism or communism as its goal, in the interest of promoting justice for the poor and thus a Christian praxis on earth.   He and others are careful, however, to distinguish Marxist praxis from Marxist states, communism as a social theory from state Communism. As late as 1982, for example, José Miranda makes a distinction between Marxism (as a state) and communism (as a philosophy of life), claiming that the latter cannot be ignored by Christianity and in fact may have been started by it.   Citing Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35, he states that "the Bible teaches communism, ...[and] Jesus himself was a communist. . . .Marx did not invent the classless society. Except for the formulation, the idea is unequivocally in the most authentic and least disputed logia (Mary 10:21, 25) of Jesus Christ" (164, 165, 174).

John Pottenger notes that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 had a distinct influence on the Medellín proceedings and later liberation theologies, but that by the 1970s, when the failure of many Marxist revolutionary projects was apparent, there was also a move to include reformist as well as revolutionary calls to action.   Socialist liberation theologies came under attack from at least two fronts.   The first was the Vatican under Pope John Paul II, who criticized liberation theology and its advocates for wrongly supporting violent revolution and Marxist class struggle. The Vatican's major objection to liberation theology was its tacit acceptance of violence inherent in revolutionary struggle, but the Pope and others also criticized liberation theologies for assuming that they could implement Marxist social analysis without accepting the rest of the "philosophical-ideological structure" of Marxism (Pottenger 74).   There was a deep suspicion that revolutionary politics were gaining more influence within the movement than were Christian faith and Church principles. On the other hand, more conservative or revisionist theologians argued the unsound Biblical foundation of liberation theology's claims. Writes Brown, for example, "[The Apostle] Paul stressed the revolutionary act of God; to change the emphasis to the revolutionary activities of men is to falsify the original message" (9).   Brown claims that liberation theology "combines a mistake of classical heresies with one of classical liberalism" in absolutizing the feelings and experience of oppressed peoples as the source of divine revelation (11).

Though liberation theology lost influence under the scrutiny of theologians and after the Vatican withdrew its approbation for the movement, there are today arenas in which it is making a resurgence.   Contemporary Christianity of many denominations is reexamining the need for social justice action and grassroots activism in the service of the poor, but liberation theology is also gaining popularity with minorities interested in social justice issues.   Nancy Bedford writes, "Some of the insights provided by the first phase of liberation theology seem too important to let slip between the cracks--for instance, the centrality of the category 'the poor' for biblical interpretation; the awareness of structural, not just individual, evil; the use of the social sciences as dialogue partner for theological discourse; and the need to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to theology itself."   Black theologians such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and, later, James Cone have reinvigorated liberation theology in an American context.   In a recent dialogue with Cornel West, bell hooks observed of Sojourner Truth that "her emancipatory politics emerged from her religious faith. ... her sense that, by choosing God, she was choosing to serve in the emancipation struggle for Black people.... I didn't go to thinkers like Gutierrez to learn about liberation theology because back in Sunday school, I had internalized the chapter in Matthew which said, "Unless you give to the least of these, you haven't given to me" ( Breaking Bread ).

There are different kinds of liberation theology, and not all are anti-capitalist, but they do align "liberation" with socialist communitarian politics and grass-roots action campaigns geared to wresting Third World economies from overt or covert First World control.   The central tenets of all liberation theologies are that God is the God of the oppressed, and that Christianity is a praxis in the true sense of the word.   Min identifies six assumptions of Marxism that liberation theology adopts: the concept of society as a totality; the economic interpretation of history; an understanding of human history as sociological; the foundational nature of class struggle and the character of life of the proletariat; the unity of praxis and theory; and historical dialectic (23).

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Given that this Marxist branch of Christianity has been theorized and debated for almost half a century now, why is it ignored by contemporary marxist academics such as Eagleton and Zizek who are questioning the relationship between Christianity and marxist critique?

Perhaps the answer lies in the manner in which Marxism has become increasingly Platonized--in Gutiérrez's terms, a secular form of scholasticism in the latter half of the century.   Even in 1968, Alasdair MacIntyre was writing that Marxism had become "a set of 'views' which stand in no kind of organic relationship to an individual's social role or identity, let alone his real position in the class structure.   And in becoming like this, Marxism has been 'practiced' in precisely the same way . . . in which religious beliefs have been practiced in modern secularized societies. . . . The triviality of Marxism held only as a set of private moral opinions is in part the outcome of the status accorded to all private moral opinions in a liberal society" (123, 124).   From this view, Marxism may interested in Christianity because it now shares the latter's liberal and scholastic character.   More dramatically, this revisiting may be a return to origins.   MacIntyre and others have argued that liberation theology got the order of influence wrong: Christianity does not need to turn to Marxism, but to its own tradition of liberatory faith, for Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx "humanized certain central Christian beliefs in such a way as to present a secularized version of the Christian judgment upon, rather than the Christian adaptation to, the secular present" (MacIntyre 143).   Derrida's recognition of the eschatological, messianic core of Marxism may be the reversed image of this claim.

An even less generous a reading might posit that the new marxist call for Christianity to drop its institutional belief is a call signaling Western secular modernity's-or, specifically, Marxism's--perception of its own moral and political bankruptcy. Analysts of Cubism, for example, have revealed to us how the West is adept at appropriating the cultural productions of others in the name of the revolutionary and the new.   It is a lesson that Zizek himself teaches in The Puppet and the Dwarf , and at the end of that book he gives readers a object lesson in how this process works: through mirroring and reversal.   But one could apply the lesson to the reading of Christ and Christianity that Zizek himself offers.   He gives us a "falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake" who is the ultimate Lacanian lack-He: Christ's declaration "I don't want anything from you" is the call for total surrender based in a logic of reversal that is foundational to desire, and it keys us in to the psychic economy of desire undergirding capitalism itself.   But any good reader of the synoptic Gospels knows that in fact Christ never says "I don't want anything from you," but rather "I want all that you are."   If the process of psychic reversal is true, then Christ is really saying he wants nothing from us.

Or it may be that Zizek isn't revealing the Christian repression here; he is revealing his own.   Substituting only a few words in Zizek's own Hegelian analysis of Derrida reveals his own gaze is the ideological gaze that mirrors and appropriates: "when a disenchanted Western subject perceives Christianity as a solution to his crisis, Christianity loses its immediate self-identity, and turns into a sign of itself, its own 'oppositional determination.'   Here, in the case of [the atheist] Christianity-worshipper, the utter rejection of Christianity, the betrayal of Christianity, is accomplished in the guise of its opposite, of admiration for Christianity" (see Puppet 142).   From this perspective, the call for Christianity to drop its dogma and recognize the absence at its core is made from an empty imperialist center through the gesture of the annihilating, admiring gaze.   If this is the case, there are no favors being done to Marxism or to "Christianity" here.   Or, perhaps, the impulse is more admiring: it is Zizek, after all, who notes that "We should not oppose something just because it was appropriated by the wrong guys; rather, we should think about how to reappropriate it" (Rasmussen).   Nonetheless, it is troubling that the claim is made by a historical materialist who doesn't know that liberation Christianity sacrificed its orthodoxy to maintain its essence a long time ago.


1. For current information, see and

Works Cited

Bedford, Nancy E.   "Whatever Happened to Liberation Theology?"   Christian Century , Oct. 20, l999.

Boff, Leonardo, and Clodovis Boff.   Introducing Liberation Theology.   Trans. Paul Burns.   Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1987.

Brown, Harold O.J.   "What is Liberation Theology?" Liberation Theology .   Ed. Ronald Nash.   Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984: 5-15.

Derrida, Jacques.   Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International .             New York and London: Routledge, 1994.               

Ellison, Ralph.   Invisible Man .   New York: Vintage, 1952.

Ferm, Deane William, ed.   Third World Liberation Theologies: A Reader.   Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo.   A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation .   Trans. and ed. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson.   Mayknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973.

Herzog, Frederick.   "Birth Pangs: Liberation Theology in North America."   Christian Century, December 15, 1976, pp. 1120-1125.

hooks, bell, and Cornel West.   Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life.   South End Press, 1991. Excerpted by The Other Side ,

MacIntyre , Alasdair.   Marxism and Christianity .   New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Min, Anselm Kyongsuk.   Dialectic of Salvation: Issues in Theology of Liberation.   New York: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Miranda, José.   "Christianity is Communism."   From Communism in the Bible .   Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1982.   Rpt. in Third World Liberation Theologies: A Reader. Ed. Deane William Ferm.    Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986.

Moltmann, Jürgen.   Theology of Hope . San Francisco: Harper, 1991. (Orig. published in1964 as Theologie der Hoffnung .)

Osthathios,   Geevarghese Mar.   "The Reality of Sin and Class War." From Theology of a Classless Society.   Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1980.   Rpt. in Third World Liberation Theologies: A Reader. Ed. Deane William Ferm.    Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986: 341-7.

Pottenger, John.   The Political Theory of Liberation Theology: Toward a Reconvergence of Social Values and Social Science.   Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.   Available through

Rasmussen, Eric Dean. "Liberation Hurts: An Interview with Slavoj Zizek. "   EBR: Electronic Book Review .   Posted 7-1-04.

?i?ek, Slavoj.   The Fragile Absolute-or, why is the christian legacy worth fighting for?   London and New York: Verso, 2000.

--.   The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 2003.