Liberation Theology and a Theology of Hope (Part III)

Gutiérrez, Marxism, and Political Theology

The Marxist thought which underpins Gutiérrez’s liberation 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). 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 could be said to arrive 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 seemed to see it as only being built upon vague notions of promise and hope without providing a legitimate 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 advanced capitalist countries, such as 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. Gutiérrez 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. He 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 (one of the key pillars of capitalism). He adopts this critique and elucidates its theological corollaries, such as it running 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, and must view themselves as the driving force in history and the 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 our problems and create a just society; it is the poor who are to reform society.

While Gutiérrez believes that capitalism has failed to succeed in Latin America due to exploitation by other countries, 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 communist states).

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