The Case for Liberation Theology

Editor’s note: Leonardo Boff is a Franciscan friar well known for his writings on liberation theology. He is an editor at Editora Vozes, a major Catholic publishing house in Brazil. This article first appeared in the November-December issue of Vozes, published in Petropolia, Brazil, as a “theological reflection on socialism” after Boff completed a 15-day visit to the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Russian Orthodox Church. leda Siqueira Wiarda, a political science professor at Amherst, prepared this abridged translation.

Can socialism be the object of ideological reflection? It can and it must. In short, we need to answer this question: how is the kingdom of God present in socialism? In order to answer this question, we need to reflect theologically about socialism.

Socialism is a social relation of production under which the means of production (land, factories, science, technology) are placed under the control of society (organized people) represented by the social state. Social and political relations are organized upon a social basis and the cultural production attempts to translate and give expression to the values of the collective in its great diversity.

In this sense socialism represents a true revolution against capitalism. Capitalism places the individual at the center: his action, his values, his private property, his privately accumulated gains. The predominance of the stronger in the economic, political, intellectual, military terms are paramount. The capitalist means of production gave origin to various social economic formations (central capitalist countries, countries in the periphery, capitalist countries with various elements of production, feudal, tribal, etc. as in Latin America), but all these under the hegemony of capitalism.

Socialism also gave origin to various social economic formations (Soviet socialism, Chinese, Yugoslav, Cuban, Algerian socialism, etc.), but all these as expressions of the socialism in which the social organizes society. In the Soviet Union one sees that socialism has been consolidated.

It is not as though one or another element is different from the capitalist system. There is a complete distinction between the two systems. Socialism is another way of organizing society by giving priority and a central place to the people (the great majorities that live from their labor) within the global processes of society. At once you perceive clearly that the collective issues gain more space and more complete realization in socialism: work, recreation, food, health, school, housing, transportation, basic services are guaranteed to all. For this reason a more egalitarian society emerges, less prone to conflict because the social asymmetries were amply reduced. In short, a revolution of hunger, a fundamental revolution, without which all the other revolutions are partial and elitist, was made. It fulfilled the millennial search for humanity: to guarantee life and the basic means for living, especially by the poor and by those marginalized.

Socialism was able to historically solidify this goal and to consolidate it in spite of internal and external threats from capitalism. Socialism showed itself as a way that was quick and effective and could integrate in development all the productive forces and that could organize the populations culturally and politically.

We cannot forget that there were historical prices paid for this accomplishment — millions died. The centralization of power by the Marxist-Leninist party created the social historical conditions for the despotism of Stalin. An immense bureaucracy emerged with such vices as laziness, corruption, and a lack of regard for the whole. These vices have been vigorously denounced and punished by the present General Secretary of the Party, Mikhail Gorbachev.

For religious people we must add the restrictions to their free public expression of religion. There has been a permanent suspicion against all the religious phenomena and, at certain times, a ferocious persecution against churches and Jews.

The freedom of expression is a problem that has not been resolved. The revolution of political freedom remains to be made. It is important to question the fact that the State is the only agent of the socialist process. Could not other social forces share and be responsible for the development and consolidation of the socialist project? The State is populist, that is, it does everything for the people; but it has not yet become popular, that is, a state that does everything with the people and through the people.

Community Is Paramount

For Christians the intimate nature of God is not solitude but community. God is the community of three unique beings, equally eternal, infinite, and good: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. They are united amongst themselves in such an absolute form that they are only one God-community.

The human community is a sacrament (a sign and an instrument) of the divine community. God can only be obtained, in His intimate reality, through the experience of community. For this reason, a society that places the social at the center instead of the individual at the center has greater objective possibility to represent the intimate essence of God. That is why we can say that socialism is a project that goes beyond mere reality, and that the God-community has greater chances of expressing itself.

Socialism is what it is, but because it places the social at the center of its organization it is more likely than any other system to bring the revelation of God- community into history. In real socialism, in spite of all the contradictions (the human price in its implantation, the urgency of the revolution of political freedom, etc.) we encounter more or less the social integrating itself in the social historical process. It creates models of living together that are more social and more community-oriented. The fulfillment of social-collective needs is better realized than in capitalism.

Even those most advanced capitalist countries, such as the United States or the European countries, present a painful contradiction in the large number of those who are marginalized and even in misery. Other contradictions of capitalism are the uneven integration of women, blacks, the Indians, the aged and the exceptional.

The Holy Ghost, the Engine of History

The Holy Ghost means the action of God through history. He acts especially in moments of crisis, when there are qualitative changes or when one decides which direction to follow. He is behind all creativity and all interruption of the new. In the revolutionary and liberating processes that were carried forward by the oppressed, the Spirit showed His special presence. The Socialist Revolution of October 1917 marked something new in the history of humanity. The revolution was not alien to the Holy Ghost, in spite of all the contradictions that the revolution encompassed.

The Holy Ghost is also the One that, after entering in the emergence of the new, helps to consolidate it so that it will not be supplanted by the forces of the old and of death. This is the Spirit that exists in the whole world and that is also blowing through the Soviet Union. It may be negated by all sorts of centralizations, dogmatisms, or bureaucratic laziness; He still animates sociability in all the means that produce and reproduce life.

The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God is a fundamental category in the Christian interpretation of history. The Kingdom of God represents a historical project of God in its human and cosmic creation. Nothing is outside of the realm of the Kingdom.

The Kingdom should always be considered dialectically. It builds on contradiction. This contradiction does not exist in its interior (in the heart) or in the exterior (in society) since it realizes both dimensions, but it exists in its frontal antagonism, the anti-Kingdom. The Kingdom, as we see in the practice of Jesus, builds itself against the anti-Kingdom. The goods of the Kingdom are the attitudes and their structures that produce more justice, more life, more possibility for freedom, for human beings and the forms of their interaction.

In the Soviet Union there is Kingdom and anti- Kingdom. At the level of infrastructure the Soviets produced life for the marginalized as had never been done before in Russian history. Here we see the goods of the Kingdom accomplished by those who even defined themselves against God, but not against life. Even without knowing and even explicitly opposing, people still remain agents of the Kingdom or of the anti-Kingdom.

Reconciling Religion with Socialism

The social victories of socialism, which are particularly great when analyzed from the perspective of the marginalized people of the Latin American Third World (my main point of reference), place before us theologians a grave question: all this was obtained without an explicit religious reference, on the contrary, struggling against religion, particularly Christianity. How is it possible that socialism contained significant goods of the Kingdom without passing through any religious mediation? Is it possible for the Kingdom to exist objectively where it is denied subjectively?

Our reflections help us understand that this is possible. The Kingdom is God’s, it represents God’s cause in history. God acts without asking permission from anyone. He can make an atheist a servant of His. It is like the parable of the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Those who helped the naked and the starving did so without knowing they were helping God himself. And they were amazed when, without knowing, they discovered they had served the Judge of the Universe. This is the same with many atheists and others who oppose religion (it is important to know what type of religion they oppose and what kind of God they do not believe in), but who assume a just and humanitarian cause.

Was Marx an Atheist?

We know that atheistic militancy characterized the first generations of the October Revolution. The Marxist-Leninist party defines itself by materialism and also by atheism. The Soviet state is secular, and for this reason in terms of the Constitution of 1977, article 52, it respects the freedom of conscience and of religion. It condemns religious discrimination. In this kind of religious freedom, the churches exist, and they reproduce themselves even though their freedom is limited to the physical space of the temples and the learning is reduced to the family. There is, furthermore, a situation of privilege for atheism. It is taught in the schools while religions cannot communicate their messages in the schools.

Marx in reality was never an atheist. That is, he never made atheism a banner or a crucial element in his system. His theme is alienation. Marx sees in religion the greatest expression of alienation, because religion addresses the other world and heaven as situations of reconciliation or pure happiness, without conflicts and contradictions. Truly, Marx sees that the important question is to discover this world, with its conflicts, misery, and un-heavenliness. While religion fills the mind of a worker with a sermon about the other world, it hampers him from discovering this world and from struggling to modify it and thus eventually obtaining heaven. Religion presents a fantastic theory of the world; it is important to build a real theory for a real world. Thus the attack of Marx against religion. It is a political attack because of the role that religion played in his time.

Marx goes further and tries to understand the role of religion: it is, first of all, an ex­pression of misery. The proletar­ian, extremely exploited, flees to­ward the fantastic as a way to withstand misery and to resist the exploitation of his labor. Religion helps him like opium helps; it deadens the harshness of real mi­sery. Secondly, religion is also a protest against misery. Religion tries to go beyond, even though in a fantastic form, the real misery of exploitation. For Marx, the real critique of religion helps the prol­etarian to develop a critical aware­ness and helps him discover the conflictive reality without illusion of religion: it is, first of all, an expression of misery. The proletarian, extremely exploited, flees toward the fantastic as a way to withstand misery and to resist the exploitation of his labor. Religion helps him like opium helps; it deadens the harshness of real misery. Secondly, religion is also a protest against misery. Religion tries to go beyond, even though in a fantastic form, the real misery of exploitation. For Marx, the real critique of religion helps the proletarian to develop a critical awareness and helps him discover the conflictive reality without illusion and without spiritual inversions. In place of a religious interpretation of misery comes a critical and scientific interpretation. This is the purpose of Marx. It is not opposed to religion per se, but it is opposed to the social and alienating effect that religion may engender.

The religious critique is thus transformed into a political critique. Incidentally, in 1875 Marx defended religious freedom. He emphasized the claim of the German Labor Party that “everybody has the right to satisfy his religious needs as well as his physical needs without the police having to meddle in this matter.”

But Marx went beyond this and thus revealed his irreligiosity. He demanded that the Party “liberate the conscience from all religious myths” in order to arrive at a pure critical awareness of those mechanisms that produce misery. He went on to say that everyone’s freedom of conscience must be preserved but, at the same time, that it was essential to struggle so that religion did not deflect an understanding of misery and so that religion did not project to another world the solutions to problems of this world, solutions that would be found here through a critical awareness and through the organization of the proletariat and through the revolutionary struggle.

In this context, Marx is above all an irreligious person, one who acts in the name of historical materialism. He is an irreligious person more than an atheist or one who practices atheism as a negative critique of God.

In any case, the Marxist-Leninist party presents itself as materialist and atheist. It impregnated Soviet society with other myths about religion and about Christianity. Today, however, we perceive that important groups of Soviet intellectuals have renewed the discussion about religion. They realize that, in the paradigm of Marx, once misery disappears (and misery, in that interpretation, is the cause or origin of religion), then religion also disappears. Well, socialism eradicated misery; in spite of that, religion did not disappear. On the contrary, it continues to exist, to reproduce, and to expand.

The human being is not satisfied with a minute of silence before the tomb of the unknown laborer who died because of the repression of the bosses. This is the reason why as serious a Marxist as Ernst Bloch in his book The Spirit of Utopia advances the hypothesis that metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) is a way to obtain justice for those who were unjustly killed in the cause of human liberation.

Revolutionary Hope

In religion there is always hope, there is always a promise of a heaven and of salvation. This does not mean an alienating distortion of reality. It can be a revolutionary perspective. The churches of the Third World are showing the liberating potential of Christianity. In its origin, after all, Christianity was the religion of slaves and of the condemned. It did not legitimate that condition but guaranteed the slaves and the condemned good tidings of liberation and life.

Marx attacked religious utopian socialism in favor of scientific socialism. Today we are aware that one type of socialism is not the enemy of the other. Given the historical context, it was then important to stress the scientific character, that is, the rational, critical, and analytical aspects of socialism, as opposed to capitalism. Today, since socialism has been established over vast portions of humanity, it is important to recover the viability of utopian socialism. It does not oppose but indeed composes scientific socialism.

Indeed, this type of utopian socialism acts in favor of socialism itself, because socialism has lost much of its utopianism. Utopia does not oppose reality, but belongs to the open possibilities of reality itself. Real socialism goes through the same crisis that all other revolutionary groups undergo. From being a revolutionary class the proletariat transforms itself into the dominant class. There will always be those who do not belong to the Party, who are not easily assimilated in the process of socialization. Utopia is protected by those who are oppressed and marginalized. They are the ones who are the agents of the subversive consciousness and who face the dangers.

Today this utopia is emerging within liberation theology. The fascination with liberation theology comes, in a large part, from its utopian side, more communist than socialist, for an ideal even more radical than that of real socialism as formulated at a certain time by Fidel Castro.

The Popular Church

Since we personally observed the interest that Soviet intellectuals had for liberation theology, we can presume that this theology will have an important role that will go beyond the dogmatic positions of the Marxist-Leninist party in reference to religion. One of the scientists of the Soviet Academy of Sciences recognized this clearly: liberation theologians are the privileged communicators in the study of the phenomenon of religion.

First of all, this is so because these persons assume a religious function and are religious. Second, they represent a revolutionary religion that assumes and articulates the interests of the oppressed. Thirdly, they did not reject Marxism a priori; on the contrary, they assumed significant categories from Marxism. They did not negate Marxism’s interest in the transformation of society, but they linked this interest to that of religion. Thus through long and in depth dialogues with Frei Betto and other liberation theologians, Fidel Castro, in the context of personal experiences, modified his vision of Christianity and its possible relation to socialism.

This dialogue will be greatly facilitated if the churches (or religions) open themselves to the challenge of socialism. It hurts to hear during various dialogues with Orthodox theologians and with Catholics from Lithuania and Estonia that the theological and religious academies did not study Marx. This study is essential for evangelization and also for better understanding of the national reality itself.

How can we have a dialogue in terms of evangelization if we do not know the universe of the other? The old Christianity always started from the position that there are values everywhere, in the Greek, Roman, and barbarian cultures, that they carried expressions of the Word and of God. In real socialism there are undeniable values that should be positively so judged by a Christian as the common basis for a frank dialogue. We have to go beyond an obstacle that is common among Christians in the official positions of the Church, totally to reject socialism because of its irreligious side and its concrete atheism. That would be to judge socialism by only one of its many elements. There is a whole social dimension that must be considered.

In the same way that socialism needs to reconcile itself to religion, the religions (particularly the churches) must reconcile themselves to socialism. First of all, they must admit the fact that we are at an irreversible point in the existence and consolidation of socialism as an economic and social system. Secondly, we have to see to what extent the churches can coexist and incorporate socialist culture, and finally, to what extent religions, Christianity specifically, can collaborate in the building of socialism.

In other words, just as socialism has found its political, economic, cultural, folkloric, aesthetic expressions, so it must find its religious expression. Only in this manner can we give a homogeneous historical basis to those socialists who believe within their culture and way of living that they can express religiosity.

Socialism also represents a challenge to the social structure of the Church. What type of historical social Church is adequate to socialist society? In the Church there are structures that come from the New Testament, that are linked to the practices of Jesus and the apostles. However, these structures assume historical forms, each form depending on the social phase. A Church-society adjusts itself better than a community-Church to a capitalist society, where there is a powerful division between those who have capital and those who live from the sale of their labor.

Socialism asks from the Church organization a form that is more participatory, with a better ecclesiastic division of religious labor, in which sacred power is also socialized among all the members of the community. This means that we still have bishops and elders but that they will also assume different functions and will incorporate a style of coordination and action that is distinct from that exercised by the Church-society.

A Church of Basics is fundamentally constituted by basic communities, with Bible circles, and one that facilitates the participation of the Christian people, that comments upon the Word of God, that builds, along with the pastors, a Church as community that is the functioning model of the socialist system. There is a certain parallel between the social organizational form and the ecclesiastical organizational form. One would not be subordinate to the other, but would have a certain structural harmony. Furthermore, this type of ecclesiastical structure would permit a better evangelizing of socialism and a better living of Christian ideals within socialist society.

From these reflections we can see the prophetic character of the Church of the Poor of Latin America. Here we are building already a model of Church-being that will be adequate to a future society that, we are sure, will emerge, a Church that is more social, less discriminatory, and based on a democracy of popular foundation in which the organized people will be the great historical subject in social construction. The Christians will not be the last ones to arrive, looking for a place in a society that they did not help build; on the contrary, from the very first they were present. They bring a promise not only of eternal life but also an inspiration to human life that is appropriate for this world.

For this reason this new society will contain Christian elements from all levels, all those who were in all the trenches and all the fronts, struggling shoulder to shoulder with others in the building of a society that conforms itself to the utopia of Jesus and to the designs of the Father. This society is also egalitarian, participatory, and respects the diversity and is open to communion with each other and to the great Other who is the Father of all and the godfather of the poor.

Our visit to the Soviet Union helped us think through the Kingdom of God in history in a society that is very different from ours. The Jews during their Babylonic exile discovered that outside Judaism there were those who respected God and who were just and who shared. From this experience, Isaiah elaborated his understanding of the great Jehovah as the only God and the universal God for all beings and all men. All are called to be people of God, even the Soviet people. Let’s hope for the true liberation, that is, the reconciliation of socialism with the religious dimension of the human being, and let’s hope for churches that can live together with socialism as a form of possible coexisting and in the realization in the social vocation of the human being. It will then be possible to invoke the name of God and see in the human victories His presence and His grace. Without alienating the conscience, religion will impart its ultimate determination and depth; only then will it be meaningful to talk about God-community and His Kingdom in history.


  • Leonardo Boff

    Leonardo Boff was born 14 December 1938 in Concórdia, Santa Catarina state, Brazil. He is a theologian and writer, known for his active support for the rights of the poor and excluded. He currently serves as Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology at the Rio de Janeiro State University.

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