Birth Pangs: Liberation Theology in North America

by Frederick Herzog

Dr. Herzog was professor of systematic theology at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, at the time this article was written.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 15, 1976, pp. 1120-1125. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There can be no systematic theology in North America today without analysis of Marx. Theology that doesn’t take the poor into account from the outset isn’t Christian theology. Once considered exotic and fanciful, liberation theologies now have a good chance of becoming the way ahead for theology in the next century.

Once considered exotic and fanciful, liberation theologies now have a good chance of becoming the way ahead for theology in the next century -- if only they can manage to be true both to the aspirations of the oppressed and to the reality of the beyond in their midst ["Third World Theology, Fourth World Liberation," The Christian Century, May 19, 1976, P.477]

With all the myths still surrounding liberation theologies, it is important that those of us involved in these efforts attempt to state with some clarity the dynamics of the process in the United States. A fad it is not. Even Time sensed that: "If anything, liberation theology may well be just too demanding to become a fad" (September 1, 1975).

North American liberation theologies are not, of course, identical to those of Latin America. The Latins are confronted with poverty on a vaster scale. They have had to cope with liberation more concretely when socialists acceded to power. The present formulations on our part of the American continent are at best only beginnings. Could we think of them as birth pangs, agonies heralding a new life?

At least we have progressed to the point that U.S. Christians are no longer saying: "Liberation theologies are only for the Third World." We are also past the time when liberation theologies in the U.S. were concealed, like an unwanted pregnancy. Recently conflicts have arisen as some liberal theologians have sought to abort the liberation theology effort (cf. "Protestant Liberalism Reaffirmed," by Deane William Ferm, The Christian Century, April 28, 1976, p. 411). No matter -- in the crucible of conflict and affliction a new vision of theology may be formed. Some say that liberation theology is merely a thematic theology. Not so: it is one of the few unrelenting efforts to think hard about the theological task as a whole.

A fruitful debate has begun in the south, though much of it is still in the "oral tradition" stage. One characteristic of the liberation theology effort is that it is hammered out in oral communication. Especially from oral exchange we know which elementary presuppositions need to be challenged. Leroy T. Howe, editor of the Perkins Journal, has graciously made some of that dialogue accessible in print, stating among other things that liberation theology cannot make good on its claim to relevance in the southern situation by "looking in more kindly fashion on the poor" (Perkins Journal, Summer 1976).

The Objective Claims of the Poor

Whether in the south or in the country as a whole, we will not be able to understand what is going on unless we acknowledge the premise of liberation theology in this regard. To put it somewhat rashly: liberation theology in the U.S. did not emerge because some people were looking in more kindly fashion on the poor, but because the poor were looking in more unkindly fashion on some people. In a new encounter with the Bible, the poor crossed the threshold of the theological consciousness. God’s claim in the poor Christ was felt anew. The experience was not triggered by the kindly sentiments of do-gooder white theologians. Rather, "objective" claims made on us by God and by the poor on the margins of society turned us around. Unless this "objective" event is acknowledged, one does not get one step further in understanding liberation theologies in the U.S. The human condition is obviously characterized by a goodly number of dimensions. The relationship between the poor and the rich is one dimension among others, but one that has been widely overlooked in Protestant theology.

Are we expected to provide warrants for this dimension? Is that not like asking Christopher Columbus to provide warrants for the existence of the New World? For a long time countless people believed that the world was flat. There are still those who do. The only thing one can say is: take a look for yourself. What we are arguing is that the poor are part of the human condition -- and if in theology we overlook them, we will not encounter God. We can no longer theologize apart from the global social context. Liberation theology is created for us by the world’s poor and the God of the poor.

Why Begin Again with the Bible?

The discovery of the poor would probably be less offensive were it not coupled to a recovery of the Bible.

But why now should one want to begin again with the Bible, in an ecumenical age whose major thrust now appears to be from many quarters the recovery of tradition, a common Christian history? Return to sola scriptura seems regressive in an ecumenical age for whom Scripture is primary but whose available resources for theological interpretation are more encompassing than mere Scripture [Leroy T. Howe].

This is the kingpin of all the arguments against liberation theology in the United States. The counterargument is that all of us have been brainwashed by the model of theological education we grew up with. It was theory first, then practice. First, courses in church history, systematic theology, etc.; then, somewhere down the pike, application. What some of us learned in a new action/reflection encounter with the New Testament and its poor is that praxis comes first, and that theology is built into it as a second step. The New Testament writings grow out of a particular praxis. Theology today has to arrange itself accordingly.

To begin again with the Bible means to begin again with praxis. The model of theological education today is still much more the philosophical academy than Christian praxis. Theological schools are enclaves of self-perpetuating intellectual elites reversing the order of God’s priorities. Thought gives rise to thought -- world without end. In the New Testament it is the opposite. Praxis gives rise to thought, action/reflection including acknowledgment of the claims of the poor.

To call this a return to sola scriptura is a misnomer. We’re not going to the Bible for proof texts. We’re not appealing to a heteronomous authority. Rather, the New Testament Scriptures claim us in the, empowerment of Christian praxis. In its beginnings Christianity ushered in a whole new world of brainpower. As compared with biblical praxis, theological education as we know it today is an anachronism. Most theology still tries to interpret the world in terms of abstract theory, an ideal pattern at a safe distance from history. It does not really think. It dreams -- in the ivory tower. Hard theological thinking happens only as the mind pierces the granite of history and carves out the truth in toil and sweat in the midst of conflict. Exactly in this way it differs from pragmatic how-to concerns of practical theology courses. Theological education today is flooded with practical concerns but lacks brainpower.

In praxis empowered by the New Testament, it is not we who create theology, but the God of the poor. This is the way Christianity began. This is the way it still begins, making us immerse ourselves in history. So long as the fundamental necessity of praxis is not conceded, there is little hope for appreciation of the thinking which liberation theology tries to engender.

For those unfamiliar with the word "praxis," it should be pointed out that it does not mean sheer activism. Praxis seeks to get at the interaction of deed and thought, the holistic embodiment of meaning. David Tracy has offered us an unsurpassably clear characterization: "Such praxis, of course, is not to be identified with practice. Rather praxis is correctly understood as the critical relationship between theory and practice whereby each is dialectically influenced and transformed by the other" (Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology [Seabury, 1975], p. 243). The New Testament is that witness in the Christian tradition where dialectical influence and transformation are whole. Wholeness is its warrant.

Playing Chess Without the King

There are several kinds of liberation theology developing in the U.S. at present. Among white males involved in the process, we find at least two distinct types of theology -- the one empowered by biblical praxis, the other determined by secular priorities. It is a truism to say that the process of liberation is not exclusively tied to the church. Liberation is tied to multiple causes, in modernity the Enlightenment foremost among them. Thus countless claims on liberation are also made on secular grounds -- great! There is no reason, however, to force biblical praxis into straitjackets of secular liberation priorities. If they agree, fine. If not, so be it. But in an overreligionized society like the United States, people get nervous when they cannot maintain the fusion of religion and culture. Since much of Christianity does not jibe with secular liberation, some of it is compelled to conform.

Examples are legion. A recent instance is a book edited by Glenn R. Bucher, Straight/White/Male (Fortress, 1976), the moral of which is reflected in the demand that "the Bible will have to be reedited. Passages that reinforce the oppression of women and gays must be revised, reinterpreted, or eliminated altogether" (p. 66). Only one with a superfundamentalist hangover can still hanker for the Bible as literal authority for all occasions, if only in re-edited form. Its authors never expected to provide literalistic guidelines for the 20th century. But they did want to communicate the power of God (cf. I Cor. 4:20). The whole notion of authority has to be rethought in terms of praxis-empowerment.

The New Testament witnesses communicate the power of God in the Lord Jesus Christ, King of kings (Rev. 17:14). In the church we dare not give the lie to the specific Christian liberation experience. Much that is promulgated today as Christian liberation is playing chess without a king, an exercise in futility. The Bucher book claims: "Straight white males cannot define for others what liberation should mean -- the power of definition is a form of oppression" (p. 124). But in the church, defining God in Christ on our own secular or subjective terms is also a form of oppression. Christianity cannot be without the Lord Jesus Christ. We won’t get on with liberation in the church unless we let "the beyond" in our midst define itself again. Beginning with the New Testament, the Christian community has had a theological way of looking at liberation, not an arbitrary secular way. In the south this is our fundamental spiritual experience.

The tenor of present liberation-theology reflection is often excoriated as too political or sociological. In the south, we have had a completely different orientation. The first concern is a recovery of God as justice. This emphasis coincides with the best of Latin American liberation theology. Says Gustavo Gutierrez: "An authentic theology is always a spiritual theology." Liberation theology is also an act of prayer, of worship and of contemplation, but in the midst of politics and economics where all of us live. It seeks to evoke a dynamic evangelism and mission that embody God’s justice. Its motto is struggle and contemplation.

The Schleiermacher Cul-de-Sac

Quite a number of white male theologians, while not buying into the more secular demands of liberation, still want to retain the liberal starting point of theology developed by Friedrich Schleiermacher as they seek to tie into the liberation process. Most recently this approach has been perfected by Peter C. Hodgson (in New Birth of Freedom: A Theology of Bondage and Liberation [Fortress, 1976]):

"Schleiermacher offered a phenomenological description of religious experience formally similar to what we are proposing . . ." (p. 122). However, it is this very Schleiermacherian approach which tunes out commitment to God’s praxis as starting point of theology.

The bias of the approach is that the white male theologian already knows -- before he turns to God’s praxis -- what the essence of Christianity is. So what he first has to do is to develop the intellectual framework for making sense of the Christian faith. The theological argument thus begins by showing that theological doctrines "correspond to something essential in human being and experience" (Hodgson, p. 121). "Human being and experience" are here phenomenologically described as universally available without class determination. That is, there’s no serious reflection on the difference between the rich and the poor.

A careful study of Schleiermacher shows that he was explicating the human being and experience of the rising Prussian bourgeoisie. The liberal theologian thus usually defines as religiously possible what is possible for the bourgeois human being and experience. Over the years I have walked in Schleiermacher’s footsteps from the Herrnhuter dissenters to the Halle establishment to his king’s Berlin. I am no longer surprised that toward the end of his life he could declare:

Since the peace of Tilsit we have made tremendous progress, without revolution, without houses of parliament, even without freedom of the press. But always the people with the king, and the king with the people. Wouldn’t one be out of one’s mind to think that we would make more progress with a revolution? For my part, I’m very sure always to be on the side of the king when I’m on the side of the intellectual leaders of the nation [Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, by Friedrich Wilhelm Kantzenbach (Rowohlt, 1967), p. 145].

I know very well that Schleiermacher at crucial points of his career showed courageous independence of political judgment. My question is: to which class was he loyal? Which class interests was he expounding when he interpreted religion as the universal feeling of absolute dependence? If we copy his approach, will we not inevitably have to be loyal to the same class?

I’m not excoriating Schleiermacher, but rather our inability in our situation to think as creatively as Schleiermacher in his day. Liberation theology, as I understand it, makes a radical break with Protestant liberalism’s feeling of absolute dependence on Schleiermacher. It is important to see that Roman Catholics as well still orient themselves in this approach. We can learn much from David Tracy’s Blessed Rage for Order. But his Schleiermacherian commitment to the "community of the church" and the academic "community of inquiry" refined in a revisionist method of correlation inevitably relegates the explicit discussion of praxis to the end of the book. God’s commitment to the poor nowhere appears as part of the model of systematic theology determining the whole enterprise. In view of the approaches taken by white male theologians, Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, liberation theology in the U.S. is unfortunately forced to develop a model all its own, painful though it is to go it alone. There’s nothing to be gained from Schleiermacher anymore. In our day his approach has reached a dead end.

Karl Marx as Watershed

As we all know, Latin American liberation theologians are deeply engaged with Marxism. Recently at Maryknoll, just for the record, I asked Gustavo Gutierrez: "Why do you use Marx in your theology?"

"Because the people use him," he shot back. That’s a crucial point. We can’t say anything similar about the North American poor, at least not in the south. Our struggle took a different route. The black/white confrontation initially led us to face the horror of racism as the hermeneutical starting point of theology. In the south, theology has a focus strikingly similar to politics. We would have been out of our minds -- to use the Schleiermacher phrase -- had we failed to pay attention to politicians like Jimmy Carter, whose politics developed out of the same nitty-gritty: "To an amazing degree the lives of both black and white Southerners have been centered around the church. The ‘Bible Belt’ designation is substantiated in fact" (Why Not the Best? by Jimmy Carter [Bantam Books, 1976], p. 125)

I wish the constant carping on our use of the Bible could stop right here and now. Why do we use the Bible in our theology? Because the people use it. This does not mean that we have closed our eyes to Karl Marx. But we want all the world to know that our use of Marx in theology at this time is a matter of cerebration. In our neck of the woods there are no Marxist poor to identify with. Anyone who says otherwise is telling a tall tale.

What we are doing in North America by using Marx in theology is expounding the revolutionary significance of the poor for theology -- a task "dangerous" enough. There’s a brutal clash in theology on this point. And yet the clash need not be. There is simply the catch-up need to acknowledge the historical watershed position of Marx. When Schleiermacher was still taking sides with the intellectual leaders of the nation, Karl Marx was being readied for the discovery of the "proletariat." It did not enter Schleiermacher’s ken that the uneducated classes were an issue for theory as well as praxis. The cultured despisers of religion remained his theological orientation point throughout his life. In a sense, Protestant theology has had blinders on ever since. Whatever may have happened in Christian ethics, systematic theology systematically ignored the poor at its hermeneutical starting point. So ideological smokescreens more and more clouded the vision of the theologian. The whole focus on religion as the chief concern of systematic theology became part of the concealment syndrome of the ruling classes.

It is here that we are most at the beginnings. Through the young Reinhold Niebuhr, especially his Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Marx impinged on a significant segment of American Protestant thought. However strong the influence might have been, the impact remained primarily in the field of ethics. Systematic theology kept chiefly on the Schleiermacher track and paid little attention to the point Marx tried to make.

Now that can change. For liberation theology in the U.S., Marx initially is important in at least two respects: as demystification and as social analysis. There is still the terrifying abuse of God by society as well as the abuse of God by theology itself in legitimating the abuse by society.

A recent cartoon with two executives at a managers desk reflects the blasphemy as one tells the other: "Before God made profits, he made production, and before production, he made capital. So be it" (Time, August 16, 1976). Taking the Lord’s name in vain ain’t funny. God’s name here is taken in vain not in the abstract but in the socioeconomic and sociopolitical matrix where all of us live. Marx radically questions the idolatry implied. Without Marx’s theory, we will continue to take God’s name in vain in economics and politics. All we are saying now in liberation theology is this: in the United States we’ve finally got to take Reinhold Niebuhr’s pioneering step serious in theology as well as in social ethics.

There can be no systematic theology in North America today without the analysis of Marx. It has become a question of giving an adequate rationale for what Protestant theology is all about in the global village. Theology that does not take the world’s poor into account from the word "go" isn’t Christian theology. According to David Tracy, the Christian theologian "believes that the Christian faith is at heart none other than the most adequate articulation of the basic faith of secularity itself" (Blessed Rage for Order, p. 10). The justice articulated by the secularity in Marx is the justice that churches are still hiding behind the smokescreen of religion. Christianity is all about justice because God is justice. We get a "handle" on the historical process when we understand its momentum toward justice.

Thinking the Historical Process

This is an issue of uncompromising scholarship. The reasons for taking the Lord’s name in vain are the primal occasions for theological scholarship. Playing footsie with God’s justice is what theology is called to guard against. What de-deifies God dehumanizes humanity. It is the practical atheism of the West, exposed by Marx, that dehumanizes humankind. How to come to terms with practical atheism in the United States? Black theology, native American theology and feminist theology have given us the first clues. Without Marx’s analysis, however, we will never see -- and battle -- the practical atheism in economics and politics.

I am not blind to what has been developed from Karl Marx’s theories in communist countries. But abusus non tollit usum (the abuse does not undo the proper use) -- a good rule of scholarship. Karl Marx saw something in his day that theologians were blind to. It was not just a matter of not closing one’s eyes to the horrors of poverty among the working class. It was especially a matter of paying attention to the historical process -- climaxing in industrialization, with its reserve armies of the poor -- as a process subject to science and disciplined thinking. I also know the myth of science, and no less the myth of science in Karl Marx. Even so, we today have to try to think through the class contextualization of theology. The particular circumstances are, of course, different. But how else are we going to come to grips, for example, with the continuing presence of the Indian reservation in our midst? The average life expectancy of the native American is 44 years; the unemployment rate is 50 per cent on the average, ranging up to 80 per cent on some reservations.

Christ-centered tautologies don’t help us here. Pious sectarian withdrawal from history is unthinkable for the theologian. John B. Cobb makes a crucial point in this regard: "Since the actual decisions about the course of history are made on other grounds and on the basis of a situation that is not Christ-centered, one cuts oneself off from all that" (Occasional Papers, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 1:12, August 9, 1976, p. 6). This is the issue: liberation theology seeks to understand why the actual decisions about the course of history are made on grounds other than Christ-centered faith and tries to connect the faith with the actual course of history.

Making Praxis Come Alive

It is a misunderstanding, however, when Cobb assumes that the first priority of liberation theology in the U.S. is to mobilize rank-and-file Christians. As though we were generals in search of armies! The more immediate priority is to engender understanding of the impossibility of Christian theology apart from praxis. The worst dilemma lies in theology itself. Cobb is to the point when he states that theology today is sadly unthinking. It is not thinking through what the process of history actually is like. And it is unable to do so because it shuns praxis like the plague.

Making praxis come alive for theology will, of course, mean to tie into North American struggles over the course of history. But whether we turn to Michael Harrington, John Kenneth Galbraith or Peter L. Berger (to mention only a few examples), the thread of thought will always lead back to Marx’s watershed position in the "discovery" of the poor. All this cannot go on without Christian criticism of Marxism and other secular perspectives. But the basic watershed datum is nonnegotiable. It is nonnegotiable because of the struggle of real people -- warm, suffering, dying people.

In reordering the theological spectrum, liberation theology thus says: (1) biblical praxis-empowerment comes first and (2) social analysis follows. Thus Christian theology emerges. This may be a new way of doing theology.

In many instances theology is still doing the national henchman’s job of legitimating injustice, however subtly. Thus the "religious" problem in North America today is not that religion does not give us the right answers but that theology does not give us the right neighbors.

Against the hedonism infecting even theology in our society we are saying: the undisciplined life is not worth living. Much more is at stake than mouthing a few Marxist phrases. We are caught up in an awesome struggle over the character of human personhood. That is what the actual course of history is all about. Creating the new human being for the just society is God’s work. Our response will require sacrifice, self-denial and much secular asceticism. But in the agonizing struggle over the new piety, the new chastity and the new social order, we just may be surprised -- by justice.