Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part II)

Moltmann, Marxism, and Political Theology

As I’ve described elsewhere, Moltmann’s political theology stems from his return to Germany after World War II and the lamentable response he saw from the Church there. Moltmann’s political theology is often said to go together with Marxism, though this a pretty horrendous caricature. Moltmann primarily draws upon Marxist theory through the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, who in the 1950s published Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope), a book that combines Jewish eschatology together with Marxist social analysis. I’ve seen many evangelicals mistakenly think that Moltmann is merely presenting a Christianized form of Marxism, but this is an erroneous understanding of Moltmann’s thought, for he only really uses Marxist thought as a way of speaking on social and economic issues. I’ve discussed Moltmann and Marxism elsewhere too, so it will suffice to say here that Moltmann utilizes Marxist theory in order to free bourgeois Christianity from its capitalist fixation with consumerism and its fetishism of money.

Moltmann does not utilize Marxism to such an extent that it diminishes the Christian hope for the kingdom of God to something that can be accomplished through mere revolutionary political action. As Moltmann himself has said, his political theology “does not want to dissolve Christian faith into politics; nor does it want to replace Christianity with humanism” (“Political Theology”, Theology Today 28; 1971: 6-23; quote from pg. 22). He also says that he “does not want to make political questions the central theme of theology or to give political systems and movements religious support” (ibid 8). As Meeks says, “For Moltmann, political theology is essentially the theology of the practice and realization of Christian mission in the world” (Origins of the Theology of Hope, 129; Fortress, 1974). In essence, for Moltmann Christianity is not synonymous with political action, but political action is an expression of Christian faith.

Gutiérrez, Marxism, and Political Theology

The Marxist thought which underpins Gutiérrez’s liberationist theology is responsible for making it visibly political. In fact, an oft repeated critique of Gutiérrez’s liberation theology is it has a proclivity to reduce faith merely to politics. This is not a terribly surprising charge in light of Gutiérrez’s belief that theology and doctrine follow praxis, saying that “theology does not produce pastoral activity; rather it reflects upon it” (A Theology of Liberation, 9; Orbis, 1988). A way in which Gutiérrez emphasizes praxis is with an emphasis on theology as it relates to social structures. This, in various ways, is seen building to a better world, eventually leading to a kingdom of God on earth; the kingdom of God effectively arrives through a reorganized society. This understanding of the relationship between praxis and theology is, in part, what led Gutiérrez to not being entirely satisfied with Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, for he saw it as only being built upon vague notions of promise and hope without providing a legit plan for societal change. Gutiérrez sought to rectify this by offering up a viable way of effecting the change necessary in his Latin American context.

Gutiérrez develops his theology within his local context, in the underclass of Latin America. Latin American liberation theologians contend that the developing economies of Latin America are dependent upon First World capitalist countries, i.e. the United States, who wind up only perpetuating their exploitation by putting into place political regimes that are merely in support of the status quo. Thus, not surprisingly, Gutiérrez is particularly interested in salvation when it is seen as a political liberation for Latin America from U.S. hegemony. Because of all this, Gutiérrez is careful to exclude elements of Western theology that he considers foreign to his Latin American context, but he is nevertheless in agreement with Moltmann in that he sees the Christian gospel as inextricably consisting of a political element that is not reliant on any particular current political structure. He says: “The Gospel does not get its political dimension from one or another particular option, but from the very nucleus of its message” (ibid 139).

Gutiérrez incorporates some of Marx’s ideas, yet does so without becoming a full Marxist himself. His use of Marx can still be aptly summed up in the eleventh thesis of Marx against Feuerbach: “Hitherto philosophers have explained the world; our task is to change it”. In order to bring about this transformation of the world Gutiérrez employs the Marxist critique of religion in order to criticize bourgeois Christianity for supporting and legitimating the oppressor-oppressed structure of society. Gutiérrez draws upon the Marxist critique of the relationship between religion and capitalism, a relationship which perpetuates the poverty of the poor by reconciling them to their poverty through a hope for riches and justice in the eschatological upheaval when “the first shall be last and the last first”.

Gutiérrez also adopts Marx’s critique of individualism as one of the chief supports of capitalism. Gutiérrez adopts this critique and explicated its theological corollaries by taking it further and saying, for instance, that it runs counter to the biblical directive of solidarity. Another way in which Gutiérrez utilizes Marxism is by adopting Marx’s idea of class struggle. Gutiérrez believes that the oppression of the poor will not be overcome merely by understanding it in theory, but that the poor must see themselves as the oppressed and understand the causes behind their oppression, as well as viewing themselves as the driving force in history and instruments through which change can be implemented, reshaping society in accordance with the elevation of their own welfare. The poor are not meant to merely sit idly by and wait for God to solve the problem and create a just society; rather, it is the poor who are to reform society. Some see more than just a “preferential option for the poor” in Gutiérrez’s liberation theology. I remember seeing one commentator say that Gutiérrez uses the experience of the oppressed and the poor as a source of revelation (in conjunction with the biblical text), though this strikes me as being somewhat of an overstatement.

While Gutiérrez believes that capitalism has failed to succeed in Latin America due to their exploitation by the First World, he is not necessarily promoting a thoroughly Marxist economic system, as he concedes that Marxist states have failed. Instead, he advocates for a system that is unique to the needs of Latin America. He believes that any tangible social transformation can only really come about through small communities and must be a change from bottom up, as opposed to a top down change imposed upon citizens by an authoritarian vanguard party such as what is found in historic examples of socialist states. [Note, though, that not all liberation theologians adopt Marxist theory, e.g. Jon Sobrino seems to deliberately avoid the use of Marxian categories such as class struggle and a classless society in his writings].


In looking at liberation theology and hope theology through Moltmann and Gutiérrez, one can surmise that both are political theologies that attempt to orient theology towards the downtrodden of society, albeit from different contexts. There is also an undeniable common thread of Marxism to be found in both their political theologies. Moltmann himself notes that Marxism is used by most liberation theologians, including Gutiérrez, as “an analytical instrument – a way of grasping the situations of the poor in Latin America … Put in simpler terms: Marxist analysis, yes; communist therapy, no!” (Experiences in Theology, 245; Fortress, 2000). This use of Marxism, however, isn’t necessarily true for every liberation theologian (e.g. Hugo Assman).

Yet while both Moltmann and Gutiérrez have used Marxist social theory, both decidedly ditching Marxism’s dialectical materialism and atheism, there seems to be a stark difference in how they base their use of Marxism. Gutiérrez appears to start with Marxism and then seeks biblical verification, though naturally departing from Marxism when it comes to the obvious issues of death and God, etc. Conversely, Moltmann starts with the biblical depiction of the future kingdom of God and then employs Marxism as a critique on how the current way of things is opposed to this future hope. The primary appeal to Moltmann in Marxism (as he found it in Bloch) is its imagination for a better future society, rather than the Marxist strategy for proletarian revolution which is a more useful aspect to Gutiérrez.

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