For Life and Against Death: A Theology That Takes Sides

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 26, 1980, pp. 1154-1158. 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.


We are faced with a total system of death, a threat to all life and to the whole life. It is our Christian privilege and duty to witness concretely and unhesitantly, with all the resources we have, to God’s creative and redemptive concern for life and against death!

I must confess that the question of how my mind has changed is one that has never exercised me much. The reason may perhaps be that, like most theologians from the so-called Third World, I have never set out to develop a theological program or to articulate an all-encompassing system. Rather I have spoken or written as questions came up, as issues were pressed upon me by circumstances or requests. Consistency or logical development has never been a conscious objective.

A Necessary Self-Examination

Occasionally, others have called my attention to changes or developments in my thinking. An American doctoral student announced that he identified three distinct stages in my theological development, moving from a church-centered to a world-centered theology. Perhaps he is right! An erstwhile colleague used to tell me that the decisive break in my thought occurred in 1968, at the time of the popular uprisings in Argentina against the military dictatorship of Onganía. Even more precisely, he timed it with the death in Rosario of a student killed by the police. He contended that my theology had since become more militant and political, that it had broken away from the captivity of a self-contained theological universe and had accepted the challenge of historicity. I had never intended to live in a purely theological universe -- but, again, perhaps he is right!

My wife -- who is usually right -- tells me that what I have consistently tried to do is simply to reread and explain the Bible: "Questions, issues and challenges have changed," she says, "but at bottom you remain what you have always been: a preacher bound to his text." I hope she is right this time!

Only once, in 1974, as I was preparing a series of evangelistic talks, I consciously raised for myself the question of the consistency of my thinking or, more deeply, of the unity of my life. As I pondered for some hours, this is the conclusion I reached:

When someone turns 50 and begins to view his life as something already defined and determined, like a well-traveled road, he begins to ask a question with some urgency: Can I really consider my life a unity? If I look at it objectively and dispassionately, I must answer: "I am not sure that it is like that." There are so many disconnections, so many gaps, so many dead-end streets! How many times did I have to tear out the page and start again? My intention of a few months ago to write an article on the development of my thought, another request which I finally turned down, renewed the impression: after I revised some things I had written at least two decades ago, how many inconsistencies, how many indecisions, how many starts and stops there were! [Room to Be People (Fortress, 1980), p. 25]

It is now again an external stimulus, the request that I write this article, that forces the perhaps necessary self-examination which I would hardly have undertaken otherwise.

Neither Despair Nor Indignation

Obviously, one has to begin with world events, and more particularly those in Latin America, which give the background -- nay, which enter constitutively (and this is perhaps already a major shift in my thinking) -- into theological reflection. The horizon has progressively darkened throughout the world in the past decade. On my continent, fragile hopes for a peaceful social and political transformation were dashed to pieces in Chile, in Uruguay, in Argentina and in Bolivia. The brutal regimes inspired by "national security" ideology have imposed their visible police repression and their relentless economic policies over two-thirds of the continent. The people of Nicaragua have paid an unbelievable price for a small and precarious space of freedom. In Brazil, El Salvador, Argentina, Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America the church mourns and celebrates its martyrs.

I have become more and more convinced that neither despair nor mere moral indignation is the right response to this situation. What is happening before our eyes is a revelation, the "unmasking" of "the logic of death" in the economic-socio-political order in which we live. Awareness of this fact came to me as I was reading Milton Friedman’s "theory of population" ("the production of human beings is to be regarded as if it were a deliberative economic choice determined by the balancing of returns and Costs") and his distinction between "human capital" and "nonhuman capital" (that distinction being hard to predict so long as "social arrangements" grant some human freedom -- should we say, as long as life remains to some extent human?) (Price Theory [Aldine, 1976], pp. 210-211). My quarrel is not with Friedman; it is with the logic of the system which he so clearly and consistently interprets. Life has been made finally only a function of the economic process.

As the economist-theologian Franz Hinkelammert cogently argues, the human subject vanishes and only the "fetish" (capital? property? the economic laws?) remains in control. Repression, torture, disappearances, the withdrawal of social, educational and health services, the cultural or physical genocide of native Indians, the suppression of all expressions of public opinion -- these are not the result of the whim or the cruelty of bloodthirsty tyrants: they are "the necessary social cost" of "freedom." It is the sacrifice that the highest god, "the economic laws," demands.

I am aware that the logic of this "compressed" argument will not be self-evident to many readers from the affluent world. In any case, I was not invited to change their minds, but only to explain mine. May I suggest, however, that a meditation on "the unavoidability of unemployment," "the mystery of inflation," the escalation of the programs of defense and the "need" to cut down on social and assistance programs could be a healthy exercise also for theologians?

In any case, it is this insight that has come to define the framework within which I try to do theology. Many things are complex, but a basic thing seems clear: we are faced with a total system of death, a threat to all life and to the whole life. It is our Christian privilege and duty to witness concretely and unhesitantly, with all the resources we have, to God’s creative and redemptive concern for life and against death! This conviction is not the result of some theological deduction. It is a commitment (shall I use the beautiful and daring Pauline word "discernment"?) that a growing number of Christians in Latin America and elsewhere have assumed -- or rather, that has been forced on us, we trust, by the Spirit. We cannot bracket it out of our theological reflection.

God Has Chosen Sides

I can express this same point in a different way, one which also corresponds to my experience and studies in the ‘70s. The insights derived from the social sciences (particularly from social psychology, studies on the meaning and operation of ideology, and the structuralist study of the functions of language) and observations of the role played by religious language, ideas and symbols in our past and present history combine to give us an acute awareness of the unavoidable social impact of theological thinking. It is not enough, therefore, that we "enunciate the correct doctrine"; we are responsible for "the correct social operation" of that doctrine. There is no socially and politically neutral theology; in the struggle for life and against death, theology must take sides. I have to ask myself: What is my "social location" as theologian? Whose interests and concerns am I serving? Whose perspective on reality, whose experience am I adopting? (And, since it is a conflict, against whom -- temporarily and conditionally, but no less resolutely -- am I struggling?) In this sense, my friend is right in saying that my theology has become (contradicting my temperament) more militant.

Let it be understood: theology is not the main subject of the struggle. We theologians are not the avant-garde of "the new society." It is the struggle of the people (particularly the struggle of the poor) for their life. Moreover, it is not we who "theologize" this struggle. God himself has chosen sides -- he has chosen to liberate the poor by delivering them from their misery and marginality, and to liberate the rich by bringing them down from their thrones. Christians and churches are invited to take the side of the poor, to claim solidarity with them in their struggle. And theology comes at the rear guard, as a reflection, as a help to rethink and deepen (and thus perhaps, also, if we are faithful, to correct and enrich) a commitment already undertaken as an act of obedience. To accept being simply this kind of theologian and to rejoice in it is the lesson that some of us have been trying -- not always successfully -- to learn during these past years.

Methodological Questions

Naturally I was not trained or conditioned for this kind of reflection. Like most of my fellow professors of the Third World, I was trained and destined to be a second-rate academic theologian (this is neither an accusation nor a sign of modesty: it is the simple recognition that we do not have the time, the infrastructure, the "milieu" or the "market" -- even if we had the intelligence and the will -- to pursue the rigorous course of the "developed" academic scholar). We found much in the resources of academic theology that was of value. The rediscovery of the Old Testament’s historicity, and particularly of the way in which the old traditions were reread and reinterpreted for new situations; the breakthrough in Roman Catholic theology at the time of Vatican II; the birth of "political theology" in Europe -- these and many other developments were of great help. But we were searching for a new way of doing theology, one that could begin at the point where our basic experience lay: with the struggle of the poor and the commitment of Christians to it.

For me it was very important to realize -- of course, we all knew it all the time, but seldom thought about it -- that modern academic theology, with its particular methods, was just one of the ways in which the church had thought through its faith. There was the "episcopal theology" which began with the burning issues in the life of the church in the early centuries; there was the spiritual theology of the mystics; there was free meditation commenting on Scripture in early medieval theology. This awareness brought about a great freedom to profit gratefully from the great riches of modern academic theology but to look at it as a timebound product of an age, a place and a social class which need not be taken as universally normative.

To be sure, the questions still remained. Latin American theological production has been concerned largely with methodological questions during the past decade. As social sciences took the place of philosophy as the privileged method for interpreting human experience, new questions emerged: How should we use these sciences? Were they "auxiliary" or "constitutive" in theology? How did they affect our hermeneutics -- both of Scripture and of history? How were we to choose between differing and conflicting interpretations? How was the question of "ideology" to be faced?

Although no one would claim that these questions have been sufficiently answered, I have no doubt that the joint work of a number of Catholic and Protestant theologians (here I must bear witness to the joy, the deep fellowship, the mutual support which has characterized our work, often in difficult situations) has helped to clarify some issues. This is not the place to enter into a detailed discussion of these questions. But I would like simply to indicate some of the main convictions and perspectives which I have begun to articulate during the past ten years or so.

Reflecting on Basic Motifs

In the first place, I am more and more convinced, after the first explorations and uncertainties, that theology must remain theology through and through. It will best fulfill its vocation in the struggle for liberation by retaining its specificity and refusing to dissolve its fundamental epistemological principle -- it is a knowledge of faith rooted in God’s self-revelation, centered and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Moreover, this basis must be explored and articulated in its full trinitarian dimension. The living triune God is the only reality from which we can face the complex social, political and economic issues which a theology of liberation must address if it wants to be meaningful for the life and witness of the churches and Christians in our time and situation. This is the service which we can render and our only justification as theologians.

How, then, shall we articulate this relation? Is there a theologically responsible way of rereading the biblical testimony from within our present situation? How can the theologian bring out this "reserve of meaning" (as my colleague Croatto calls it) in the biblical stories without arbitrarily reading into them one’s own ideology? Catholic theologians, relying on an old tradition, emphasize the "sensus fidelium" and, as one listens to the living response to the text in the Bible study of the "basis" or "popular ecclesial communities" (reflected, for instance in Ernesto Cardenal’s Gospel in Solentiname), one becomes convinced of the truth that Jesus himself celebrated: "I thank you, Father . . . because you have hidden these things from the learned and powerful, and have revealed them to the little ones.

At the same time, as a Protestant, I look for other "intrinsic" controls. And I have come to the conclusion that the articulation of the biblical witness in terms of our situation has to be mediated by a deep consideration of basic biblical themes or "motifs," such as peace (shalom), justice, love, hope and solidarity. I am aware of the danger of falling back into an idealistic ethics. We must be on our guard, to be sure, but I don’t think that this is for us a great temptation. If we keep the reflection on these basic motifs closely bound with the story of God’s acts and with our concrete situation, I think it can enrich and give orientation to our commitment.

Sharpening the Tools

Then there is the use of socioanalytical tools. I find it difficult to understand that theologians in a tradition which oozes philosophy through all its pores feel free to warn us solemnly of the "ideological" danger in the use of the social sciences! For many of us it has been a painful and at times frustrating exercise to go "back to school" and sit at the feet of the social scientists, trying to understand their categories of analysis, to evaluate the results, to distinguish the different orientations, and to try to relate this knowledge with integrity to our theological work. But it has been a fruitful exercise in which a true and open fellowship has emerged. Interdisciplinary work born in a common commitment and carried out in mutual respect is now a reality for Latin American theology. We theologians should not forget that, after all, it was the social scientists’ reflection on "dependence and liberation" which awakened us to a basic biblical motif!

There are two points in relation to the question of "social analysis" which we have had to face. One has to do with "theoretical thinking." Not seldom is it pointed out that some of our work moves at a level of "abstraction." For most of us this is an existential question because we are engaged at the same time in pastoral and "academic" work (jacks of all trades!) and would not be ready to withdraw from either.

For my part, I am convinced that theology has to find expression in different forms and styles, all of them necessary but no one absolutely normative: the impassioned word of the prophet (witness many of the episcopal letters in our continent); the spontaneous, concrete response of the basis-community; the spiritual meditation of the mystic (Ernesto Cardenal’s poems or Arturo Paoli’s meditations on the Gospels), and the rigorous "theoretical" work of the academic. We are concerned with the unity of all of this, not with a reduction.

Now the academic work has a subordinate place: it depends on and draws from the praxis and experience of the community, and aims at serving it through the analysis of this experience and praxis. It is at this point that the theologian must try to sharpen the critical (socioanalytical and hermeneutical) instruments of the trade. Theory is one’s business! Sloppy and careless talk and alienated and irrelevant theory are the Scylla and Charybdis between which one has to walk.

Christians and Marxists

During these years I have had to face many misunderstandings -- some genuine, some contrived -- concerning the relation of liberation theology to Marxism. In Latin America, moreover, more than academic status is at stake in this issue. I have tried to clarify some aspects of this relation (see Christians and Marxists [Eerdmans, 1976]).

Let me try to express in a few sentences not the substantive question but my personal attitude. I have never felt attracted to Marxism as a system; neither have I felt inclined to enroll in any anti-Marxist crusade. Since my youth (in which I was attracted to the Argentine socialist -- non-Marxist -- party) I have believed that certain elements of the Marxist economic and social analysis were correct. I have never experienced the Entdeckungsfreude (joy of discovery) that my friend and colleague Jürgen Moltmann thought he had spotted in some of us. I have more and more come to think in terms of a long humanist-socialist tradition, with early Christian and Hellenic roots, which has developed in the modern world, in which Marx has played an important -- even decisive -- part, but which he has neither created nor fulfilled.

In this sense I firmly believe that we must -- now with Moltmann’s words -- "demythologize" the Marx question. On this basis I have found it possible to work together with Marxists and others -- on questions of human rights, for instance -- with clarity and mutual respect.

I must say it directly: this socialist option -- as Gustavo Gutiérrez defines it, the social appropriation of the means of production, of the political decision, and of human freedom -- is the immediate context of my theological work. It is not an absolute, not an object of faith, but simply a sociopolitical decision (a lucid one, I hope) which concretely defines my Christian obedience in the world at this time. Theologically, I think it is a historical project partially and ambiguously but really and intrinsically related to God’s Kingdom, and therefore to my Christian hope. The gospel does not stand or fall with the correctness of this view. But my theology does. After all, if the Century authorizes us to change our minds every ten years, why should we claim any greater permanence for our theology!