A Christian Understanding of Liberation Theology

By Dr. James Ricks        printer-friendly
 

Liberation Theology was vaulted to news prominence when presidential candidate, Barack Obama's Pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, decried that it was the basis for his controversial theology.  The concepts developed in the fifties and sixties were a combination of Christianity and Marxist Communism.   It was developed by intellectual, humanist priests in Central America to address income poverty.   Many intellectuals still believed in Communism at that time, for the redress of the poor, and still do. At its inception, Liberation Theology combined the most important and emotion-packed elements of Latin American culture,  nationalism, opposition to the United States, and revolution.
 

 It is a form of Christian Socialism and had a lot influence in Latin America.  In the 1980s its adherents were harshly admonished by Pope John II.  Some believe that Liberation Theology met its demise as a result of the failure of Communism in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the late 1980s.  Before its decline in Central America the concepts found a home among some black American theologians.
 

Pastor Wright stated on Fox News that his theology was primarily based on the work of James Cone.  James Cone grew up in the South after desegregation was first ordered.  He noted bias among white Christians.   Eventually Cone developed a “black theology” of liberation which he thought would foster freedom from oppression, racism, and poverty.   Cone argued that the white church and white theologians had all failed in their duties to uphold biblical principles of helping the poor and marginalized of society.
 

His “Black Liberation Theology” was promoted as primarily opposing racism but  ALSO includes  facets of Marxism as well, such as Anti-Americanism, and Socialism from an Afro-Centric point of view.  Although Cone’s most obvious target was racism, his message was actually much broader. He criticized middle-class black churches as well as whites.  His own version of class warfare is included in the Marxist Theology.   These Marxist, anti-American sentiments are buttressed by an over emphasis on the negatives of American history without noting the many positive accomplishments.  This OVERLY negative emphasis of the American experience is the gateway to increased bitterness.

 

WHY DID TOTAL SOCIALISM (COMMUNISM) FAIL TO HELP THE POOR

Communism can be classified as complete socialism which is Marxism. The government runs the entire economy in a Communist system.  Communism has been a colossal economic failure because it ignores basic human nature.  Over a billion people suffered in poverty before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once private ownership and profits were outlawed most incentives to industriousness were killed.  In practical applications Communism has left people demonstrably poorer and more destitute everywhere it is instituted.  This includes Europe, Asia and Latin America.  Compare communist East Germany’s poverty to West Germany’s prosperity, and starvation conditions in North Korea while prosperity in South Korea.  However, some intellectuals find the principles in theoretical Marxism so seductive that all the pragmatic evidence is ignored. They simply believe in the underlying principles so strongly, that they feel it MUST work, regardless of real-world failures.  Intellectuals are attracted to unrealistic utopian theories and believe in social engineering.  Their well-intended plans often create unintended consequences.  They want to inject the philosophy into theology as well.
 

Communism cannot help the poor because it harms any economy it attempts to run by government bureaucrats. Workers have no incentive toward industriousness.  Private ownership is forbidden.  The absolute power of the dictator corrupts the system.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely!  The leaders of a Communist government not only have a political dictatorship but also control all the economic power in the name of the people.  They have total power.  The Black Book of Communism, details how these leaders have murdered over 100 million of their own people.

Marxism entails a faulty view of justice
 
The Marxists mistakenly believe that justice is synonymous with equality.  It is not.  Justice is not having the same as your neighbor, regardless of differences in skill, investment, effort, ownership, worth and chance.  Nor is justice the same as confiscating the personal property of some in order to give it to those who have no moral or legal claim upon it.  Justice is not synonymous with either equality or coercive redistribution.  Justice is having what is rightfully yours by inheritance, by hard work, by legal purchase and by good fortune (Griffiths, p. 78).

Marxism entails a faulty view of Human Motivation
 
Most people are unable to make the painstaking, difficult and risky evaluations that are necessary to access the possibilities for success or failure of an entrepreneurial enterprise without the profit motive.  Investment capital cannot be accumulated except from the profits of prior endeavors.  In a low-efficiency system that Marxism creates, where profits are small, workers will be unwilling to work harder to raise a company’s profit margin or to take on  intensified deprivation to fund future endeavors that are not likely to be successful, or, if they are successful, will not yield profits to them.  When private property rights disappear, the entrepreneurial spirit is much diminished as well.  Incentive is tied to private ownership. 
 

Marxism entails a faulty view of wealth
Marxists seem to focus more on equal distribution of wealth than the effective production of wealth.  They seem not to understand that one cannot redistribute what has not been produced.   If a country’s system of production does not create, then no matter how you attempt to divide what you have, the economic status of the nation will not be raised. 

 

WHAT DOES GOD SAY ABOUT THE POOR AND REVOLUTIONS

Liberation Theology's greatest threat to Christianity is its tendency to allow the gospel of Christ to be swallowed up by Marxism.  Romans 13:1-2 clearly states that Christians should not engage in violent revolutions against the government.  The government at the time that the book of Romans was written was the pagan and imperial Roman Empire.  In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy God clearly instructs his people to voluntarily leave food in the fields for the poor.  They are told to give to the needy voluntarily. See Lev 25:35-37.   See also Deut 15:7-11.  The law also had Jubilee years which came every fifty years, and years of release when all property would revert back to the original family regardless of debts.  All debts were released at this time.  These laws would fight long term poverty trends.  God condemns rich people who oppress the poor by not paying them fair wages.  See James 5:1-6.
 

God relied on changing the hearts of people by requiring voluntary giving.  The giving to the needy was not handled by a vast central government.  The giving was voluntary.  The giving to the needy and widows was an act of worship.  God would reward them.  It was not government redistribution of income.  God owns everything and is the ultimate source of all blessings.  God wishes to change the hearts of men.  Liberation Theology is dangerous because advocating violence to obtain social justice could result in a bloodbath. Millions of innocent people could be killed by uncontrolled violence.  Secondly, the acceptance of Liberation Theology will almost certainly hurt Christianity. History shows that Marxism, happy for ecclesiastical support before a revolution, turns against religion afterwards because it is based on atheistic concepts.

Works Cited

James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. See quotes by here
Courtois, Werth et al “The Black Book of Communism,” Harvard University Press,1999.

Chamberlain, John.  The Roots of Capitalism(Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1959/1976).

Gider, George.  Wealth and Poverty(New York:  Bantam, 1981).

Griffiths, Brian.  The Creation of Wealth:  A Christian’s Case for Capitalism(Downers Grove: IVP, 1984).

Lane, Rose Wilder.  The Discovery of Freedom(New York:  The John Day Company, 1943).

Lewis, C.S.  That Hideous Strength.  (New York: Macmillan, 1946).

Mises, Ludwig von.  Money, Method, and the Market ProcessEdited by Richard M. Ebeling (Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990).

Muggeridge, Malcolm.  Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1998).

Sayers, Dorothy L.  Creed or Chaos? And other Essays in Popular Theology(London:  Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1947).

Smith, Adam.  An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis:  Liberty Press, 1976/1981).

Berryman, Phillip ‘Liberation Theology and the Great Revolutionary Fantasy, 1988.-

 

Breaking News Stories
Go here for the latest news stories on this subject. –news stories added 1 April 2008
 
Further reading:
Resources
Liberation Theology
Liberation Theology Resources
Christian Socialism
Trinity United Church of Christ-Chicago
Bill Moyers story [video] on James Cone
 

Photos:
Left: Jeremiah Wright
Center: Communist Manifesto
Right:  James Cone