Whither Liberation Theology?

by Mark Kline Taylor

Mark Kline Taylor teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary and recently wrote Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis (Orbis).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 12, 1990, pp. 1168-1171, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Trusting in God’s grace-full activity in our world, we need to try to halt the juggernaut of U.S. policy and redirect it toward liberation — whether it’s called a “restructuring” or a “revolution” — for all the Americas.

Book Reviews:

Liberation Theology and Its Critics: Toward an Assessment, by Arthur F. McGovern. Orbis, 281, pp., $14.95 paperback.

Liberation Theology at the Crossroads: Democracy or Revolution? by Paul E. Sigmund. Oxford University Press, 257, pp., $29.95.

The coming of perestroika to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-90 has not simply provided occasion to rejoice over newfound freedom from socialist tyrannies. It has tempted many to proclaim the beginning of a worldwide demise of socialist economic practice and an ascendancy of democracy and free-market capitalism.

Accompanying this alleged resurgence has been the suggestion by some that the cultural critics and theologians variously associated with socialism should repent and acknowledge market capitalism as the natural counterpart to democracy. Perhaps no one more than the Latin American liberation theologians have been admonished this way.

But the expectation that perestroika is somehow a political or intellectual defeat for Latin American liberation theologians is an all-too-simple generalization; it is undermined by a more complex understanding of these theologians and of the worlds within which they labor. In fact, when we work through the criticisms it may be more accurate to claim that we might expect an actual resurgence of liberation theology and movements. A careful look at our hemisphere reveals a need for a perestroika that may be just as turbulent and unsettling for the U.S. as perestroika in Eastern Europe was for the U.S.S.R. From the perspective of the poor in the Americas, late state capitalism is as much in need of restructuring as was late state socialism in Eastern Europe.

We have at hand two books that prompt reflection on these matters. In Liberation Theology and Its Critics: Toward an Assessment, Arthur F. McGovern, a Jesuit and a professor of philosophy at the University of Detroit, aims to provide an overview of liberation theology, its background, history and major theological themes. His principal focus, however, is on the political implications of liberation theology which have been so debated in theological circles. Liberation Theology-at the Crossroads: Democracy or Revolution? by Paul E. Sigmund, professor of politics at Princeton, focuses also on the political dimensions. Both authors seek a balanced and fair review of liberation theology and its critics. McGovern achieves this better than Sigmund, in part because Sigmund is more interested in developing a particular argument than in presenting the manifold voices and complexities of liberation theology that McGovern explores. Before examining this difference, however, we should note what the two both do well. Three features shared by the books are especially valuable for any who are prone to facile generalizations.

1. McGovern and Sigmund both insist on understanding liberation theology developmentally. Liberation theology has been a movement in change since at least the 1960s, and both volumes examine this change. The developmental perspective is crucial to Sigmund’s argument. He claims there has been "a movement away from Marxist reductionism to communitarian participatory radicalism in the development of liberation theology over the past twenty years." The first phase of "Marxist reductionism" and "mindless revolutionism" was followed by a second phase wherein liberation theology became oriented to the kind of grass-roots democratic populism embodied in the Christian base-communities. Sigmund celebrates this development, and he presses liberation theologians to move still further away from revolutionary language toward democratic liberalism.

McGovern qualifies Sigmund’s two-phase presentation in significant ways. He too argues that there was a major shift between the liberation theology of the early 1970s and that which began to grow through the 1980s and into the present. This shift was marked, however, not so much by clearly defined phases as by the less frequent occurrence of controversial stands (in favor of socialism, for example) and by a more consistent focus on spirituality. Sigmund overlooks the way Gustavo Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians themselves qualified their relation to Marxism and to revolution, even in the early days. The two-phase view also overlooks the way liberation theologians, according to McGovern, remain for all their changes "fundamentally anticapitalist and still convinced that Latin America suffers from a dependence on the world-capitalist economic system with its center in the North." Liberation theologians have not outgrown this viewpoint.

2. Both McGovern and Sigmund, in different ways, acknowledge the appropriateness of liberation theology’s critique of capitalism. This emerges especially in their assessments of Michael Novak’s defenses of "democratic capitalism." Novak has argued that dynamic free-enterprise systems promote "discovery and entrepreneurship among the poor at the base of society." For McGovern, Novak presents an "idealized picture of capitalism," and McGovern tries to show throughout the volume how many injustices have been created by and amid capitalism, even though Spanish colonialism inaugurated many of the problems.

Sigmund, who is strongly critical of liberationists’ rejections of capitalism, also takes Novak to task for trusting to "the magic of the market" and for being "no more willing to engage in criticism of capitalism than liberation theologians are of socialism." He insists that even those who urge liberation theologians to take capitalism more seriously need to acknowledge that the realities of politics and markets often choke democratic capitalism. Thus, he recognizes the "problem of structural employment and the concentration of landholding" that often are not addressed in the course of praising market economies.

3. McGovern and Sigmund identify and advance major criticisms of liberation theology and regard their criticisms as potentially strengthening for liberation theology. McGovern is exceptional in this regard, first by offering an overview of the different criticisms forged by North Americans, Latin Americans and Europeans. These criticisms are many, and one of the real gems of McGovern’s book is his summary discussion of them. For this alone I highly recommend the book.

McGovern sets his own criticisms within the context of acknowledging liberation theology’s "great significance." I would note two of the several major adjustments that he calls for. He contends, first, that liberation theology should free its social analysis from a preoccupation with global "dependent capitalism" and move toward more specific analyses of land reform and of other pressing needs which would help popular Christian movements be "more politically effective at a national level." Without denying the problem of Latin America’s dependency on North Atlantic capitalism, McGovern urges liberation theology to develop analyses of developments internal to the dependent nations.

Second, McGovern stresses that liberation theology needs to give more attention to the poor themselves, focusing not simply on their need for general "liberation," but also on their values, survival strategies and their need for "explicit ethical norms" to evaluate what "means" are appropriate to Christian change. McGovern helpfully suggests that the very notion of "the poor" can become a shibboleth, and needs to be used with greater precision.

Sigmund also sets his criticisms within an appreciation of liberation theology’s accomplishments. Even when noting these, however, he is more interested in pointing out failings or oversimplifications: liberation theologians’ early "mindless revolutionism"; their continuing support of Castro, the Sandinistas, and the FMLN in El Salvador; their "ignorance of contemporary liberal thought" and "closed-minded attitude" about reforming the market system in Latin America.

According to Sigmund, liberation theology needs to move into a third phase, one of "dialogue with liberalism." For Sigmund this means that liberation theology should shift its focus from making revolution to nurturing democracy. Hence his subtitle. He would like to see liberation theology take its cues from base communities’ populist "grass-roots communitarian democracy" and then extend this "populism" into a liberalism that, contra Marx, offers "democracy and equality to all human beings, regardless of sex, race or social class (Rousseau)" Sigmund’s agenda would purge liberation theology of much of its "early revolutionary fervor," but in its dialogue with liberalism it would still perform "a radical ‘prophetic’ role in reminding complacent elites of the religious obligation of social solidarity, and in combating oppression."

Through a series of brief questions at the end of his book, Sigmund invites liberation theologians to seek ways of fusing capitalist market "efficiency" with the "preferential love for the poor," to consider how private property is not always oppression but may in fact free people from it, to develop liberalism’s ideal of "equal treatment under the law," to nurture the "fragile new democracies" in Latin America, and, finally, to develop "a spirituality of socially concerned democracy, whether capitalist or socialist in its economic form," rather than "denouncing dependency, imperialism, and capitalist exploitation."

Thus, there is a key subtext in Sigmund’s book, a kind of subliminal message to be received by North American readers already caught up in celebrating perestroika: "Come now, liberation theologians, announce this day whom you shall serve, the revolution of old or the democracies that are growing in this bright new day."

Make no mistake: Sigmund is no simple defender of capitalism and its entrepreneurial elites. His text is at points deeply appreciative of liberation theology, not only of its base-community populist group movements but also of particular individuals, like Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., one of the six Jesuits who was slain by members of the Salvadoran army’s Atlacatl battalion and to whom Sigmund’s book is dedicated. He is critical of naïve endorsements of capitalism and aware also of injustices worked by oppressive markets and politics in Latin America. Many of Sigmund’s admonitions to liberation theology are good ones, and heeding some of these may in fact strengthen liberation theology.

Seen against the background of McGovern’s book, however, Sigmund’s invitation to liberation theologians to make an either-or choice between "revolution or democracy" seems too simple, and in the long run it obscures the kind of fundamental freedoms for which Latin America still awaits. True, liberation theology should not underestimate the democratic openings where they exist. But Sigmund writes as though these "fragile democracies" in themselves are sufficient to begin redressing the suffering and oppression. There have been democratic openings before -- for example, in Guatemala between 1944 and 1954. They have quickly been closed when U.S. economic and political interests were threatened, as when the U.S. ended Guatemala’s democratic project in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954.

This coup in Guatemala and other cases of U.S. intervention in Latin America signal what Sigmund overlooks: that alleged democratic spaces in Latin America come and go, and almost always within the dominance exercised by the U.S. presence there. Although Sigmund rightly reminds us that not all of Latin America’s suffering is simply the result of external North Atlantic influences, unlike McGovern he hardly acknowledges the problem of U.S. domination and its intentional creation of "low-intensity conflict" in those nations so as to guard U.S. interests.

In this respect, Sigmund’s book reads disturbingly like many U.S. newspapers. It contains no stories drawn from the thousands of mothers, children, labor activists and university workers who have been "disappeared" or slain because of their efforts to improve living conditions. It has almost no structural analysis of the economic, political and military domination of Latin America by the U.S. government or by U.S.-supported business and capital-lending institutions.

McGovern will not let us forget those structural dominations. He reminds us that while U.S. foreign investment is not the sole cause of Latin America’s problems, U.S. transnationals "have aggravated conditions in Latin America, tending to reinforce the maldistribution of wealth and power there." McGovern even uses documents of the IMF and the World Bank to show that Latin American nations are regularly forced to occupy a "subordinate, reacting position" in relation to U.S. economy and policy. Further, he discusses how capital is extracted from Latin America by U.S. business practices, benefiting U.S. companies or other nations’ elites, but rarely addressing the needs of the poor.

McGovern also points out how U.S. economic interests regularly influence U.S. policy in favor of maintaining the political status quo, whether or not that policy serves the common good of Latin American peoples.

In a chapter devoted to Chile in the early 1970s, Sigmund argues that liberation theologians there became too enthusiastic about political revolution in a socialist mode, but he gives little if any attention to U.S. political involvements. Stimulated by IT&T and other U.S. multinationals, the U.S. government first tried to prevent the election of Salvador Allende (a Marxist) , and then financially underwrote the terrorists who murdered his chief military supporter. As McGovern summarizes it, Chile is a key example of the political effect of U.S. economic interests: "The U.S. cut off aid to Chile, influenced international banks to cut off credits and loans, and sought, in President Nixon’s words, to ‘make Chile’s economy suffer."’ How long can we go on being silent about such political interventionism?

Sigmund is also silent on the military dimension of U.S. domination. The U.S. has had a military hold over the countries on its own doorstep for a longer period than the U.S.S.R. dominated Eastern Europe, and the domination is no less disastrous. How can we even plan to celebrate a future freedom for Central and South America when this domination is not even articulated by writers like Sigmund?

One can see the fallout of this domination country-by-country. Since 1806 Mexico has suffered military intervention at least ten times by U.S. troops, and if there are no interventions in the offing now, perhaps it is largely because the U.S. has been shoring up the rule of one party, which wins rigged elections and then fails to challenge U.S. investment and business practices that increase human suffering for campesinos and urban poor there.

In Guatemala, the CIA-organized coup in 1954 began a period of ruthless military rule that still continues. Reagan and to some extent Bush refer to Guatemala as a democracy, but in reality it is a militarily dominated terrorist state which happens to have a constitution and elections. By the government’s own admission, 440 villages -- men, women, children -- were wiped out in the early 1980s. The military along with other elites keeps 60 percent of the country’s population, its Mayan peoples, in abject poverty.

In tiny El Salvador, a country the size of Massachusetts, the U.S. government spent about $700 per minute ($1.4 million per day) , largely on military aid, over the past ten years fueling a deadly civil war and in effect paying the military slayers of the six Jesuits in November 1989. Sigmund glosses over the fact of the U.S.-supplied army’s role in this slaying, although evidence (unavailable to Sigmund at the time the book was written?) pointed to the military as perpetrators of the crime within weeks, if not days, afterward. Sigmund simply says the priests, and their housekeeper and her daughter, were killed by "armed men in uniform."

In Nicaragua the U.S. combined powerful military embargoes with military funding for a private guerrilla force, the contras, thus decimating that country. As McGovern points out, Nicaragua suffered more deaths proportionately in the 1980s than the U.S. did in all its wars of this century.

In Costa Rica, long a beacon of democracy in Latin America, there is now a remilitarizing of society generally, symbolized by the U.S. military exercises taking place in Costa Rica’s national parks, in spite of objections by the Costa Rican government.

The invasion of Panama last December, after already more than ten U.S. military incursions there since 1856, worked horrendous damage to the poor in that country, far out of proportion to the amount of good we claimed to be doing by ousting Noriega. As several studies are showing now, whole civilian barrio communities were razed by the hi-tech military invasion, displacing tens of thousands and killing many more than the 300 the U.S. government admits. Easily, more Panamanian civilians -- unwarned of the invasion and already impoverished -- died in last December’s assault than in China’s Tiananmen Square incident for which we so indignantly fault Chinese leaders. As U.S. leaders self-righteously lash out at Saddam Hussein and ‘Iraqi brutality," we dare not excuse our own brutal record of naked aggression.

While Central American nations on our doorstep are still beaten down -- economically, politically, militarily -- by recurring acts of institutionalized violence like these, there persists a future for liberation theology that names these acts "sin." There persists, further, a need and hope for a comprehensive and liberative restructuring that warrants the name "revolutionary." To be sure, this can be neither a mindless revolutionism nor a search for a socialist utopia. It would be, nevertheless, a full-scale and fundamental challenge to current U.S. government policy and to our market economy. It is unlikely that this challenge could occur without upheaval and pain in North American life. The call to U.S. Christians today is to struggle for this revolutionary restructuring and to prepare our fellow citizens for a painful structural adjustment to Latin Americans’ long-overdue freedom from U.S. exploitation.

In light of this call, we North American Christians perhaps do better to think less about how we would like Latin American liberation theology to change and more about how our Christian practice and theology might give rise to a resistance to those U.S. government policies that decimate not only Latin American peoples but also the growing numbers of poor in this country. In fact, U.S. liberation movements are already under way in women’s groups, community organizing efforts among the poor, the search for freedom by gay and lesbian communities, and in Native American, African American and Hispanic struggles against U.S. racism, and in a host of works for justice, peace and the wholeness of creation.

If perestroika is to come to the Americas, and not just be celebrated "over there" in Eastern Europe, then liberation theology in the U.S. needs to become embodied in coordinated movements of resistance that bring to an end our government’s decades-long rituals of domination in Latin America. Ulrich Duchrow has said rightly in Global Economy: A Confessional Issue for the Churches that the present perversion of economic, political and military institutions puts U.S. Christians in the situation of a status confessionis, a time that calls Christians to a special confession and resistance to the comprehensive wrongdoing in which we all are implicated. Our country, so long hailed as "the leader of the free world," rolls along enslaving other nations and now increasingly is subjecting its own peoples to economic deprivation and want.

In another distorted age, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that "if the coachdriver is drunk, we have to put a spoke in the wheel." Trusting in God’s grace-full activity in our world, we need to try to halt the juggernaut of U.S. policy and redirect it toward liberation -- whether it’s called a "restructuring" or a "revolution" -- for all the Americas. Liberation theology, whether south of the border or north of it, has not ceased -- and dare not cease -- dreaming, thinking and living toward that restructured freedom.