In the days when the Superpowers were locked in a Cold War, Latin America seethed with revolution, and millions lived behind an iron curtain, a group of theologians concocted a novel idea within the history of Christianity. They proposed to combine the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Marx as a way of justifying violent revolution to overthrow the economics of capitalism.
The Gospels were re-rendered not as doctrine impacting on the human soul but rather as windows into the historical dialectic of class struggle. These "liberation theologians" saw every biblical criticism of the rich as a mandate to expropriate the expropriating owners of capital, and every expression of compassion for the poor as a call for an uprising by the proletarian class of peasants and workers.
This is hardly the first time that the Gospels have been read in a way that seemed designed to support a peculiar and wayward personal agenda. The history of heresy, usually Gnostic at its root (for its perpetual claim to have discovered some hidden meaning accessible only to the elect), is bound up with the history of megalomania and the search for power over others.
What gave liberation theology its currency was its appeal among elite theological students safely cloistered far from the workers and peasants so much in need of liberation. The sheer exotica of reading Christianity through Marxist eyes had an appeal, as did the political luxury afforded by the strange new respect secular intellectuals had for a version of Christianity that seemed to endorse socialism.
For that matter, scholarship over the last 20 years, when more mainstream academics have begun to think more clearly about the subject of Marxism, has noted the strange respects in which Marxism itself reads like a Christian heresy, in which a new age is to be ushered in by a transformation of human nature in a grand historical dialectic. In traditional Christianity, the ennobling of human nature takes place because of Christ's Incarnation; in Marxism, the State takes His place. Marxism offers a theory of sin (private property) and salvation (collective ownership), a church that dispenses grace (the State, as administered by the vanguard of the proletariat), and a litany of saints and sinners. (Of course, it was far more violent than even the worst of the excesses of the Inquisition.)
So, in fact, it is not too much of a stretch for Christian heresy to embrace Marxism as a creed, since, as G.K. Chesterton said, heresy is often truth gone mad. Liberation theology is the admixture of one small truth (God cares about the poor) with so much error that it resulted in a madness that saw Christians champion what amounted to terrorism against propertied elites. Of course, it didn't work out the way the theologians imagined it would.
Fr. Robert Sirico is director of the Acton Institute.
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