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The Meaning of Freedom and the Kingdom of God: A Struggle against the Fetishization of Our Present World

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2021

Joseph Drexler-Dreis*
Xavier University of Louisiana


In their respective contexts of Roman empire and global neoliberal capitalism, the Jesus movement and the Zapatistas announce that another world is possible and that this world has irrupted in the struggle for that other possible world. This article argues that the practical and theoretical work of the Zapatistas offers to theologians a way to articulate the meaning of the kingdom of God as a world of hope and struggle that is actualized in and informed by struggles to resist fetishization.

Horizons , Volume 48 , Issue 2 , December 2021 , pp. 302 - 319
Copyright © College Theology Society 2021

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1 Thank you to Jessica Coblentz and Steven Battin, as well as the anonymous reviewers, for their comments, which substantially improved this article.

2 Jon Sobrino describes three ways of understanding the content of the kingdom of God. The “notional way” thinks from the notion Jesus had of the kingdom of God. The “way of the practice of Jesus” understands the kingdom through Jesus’ words and actions. The infrequently used “way of the addressee” recognizes that, because the kingdom is good news for the poor, its recipients (that is, the contemporary poor, or communities excluded from and victimized by the present world order) can help to clarify its content. This article primarily operates within this third way of understanding the kingdom of God. See Sobrino, Jon, “Central Position of the Reign of God in Liberation Theology,” in Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, trans. Barr, Robert R. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 350–88Google Scholar.

3 Baronnet, Bruno, Bayo, Mariana Mora, and Stahler-Sholk, Richard, “Introducción,” in Luchas “muy otras”: Zapatismo y autonomía en las comunidades indígenas de Chiapas, ed. Baronnet, Bruno, Bayo, Mariana Mora, and Stahler-Sholk, Richard (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2011), 20Google Scholar.

4 The kingdom has, as Jon Sobrino puts it, a “final reality” for Jesus. Sobrino, See Jon, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Burns, Paul and McDonagh, Francis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 68Google Scholar.

5 Baronnet, Mora Bayo, and Staler-Sholk, “Introducción,” 23.

6 Marcos, Subcomandante, “In Our Dreams We Have Seen Another World,” March 1994, in Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos, ed. de León, Juana Ponce (London: Serpent's Tail, 2001), 18Google Scholar. In March 1996, Marcos wrote to “Latin America, in the pain-filled South of the American continent, Planet Earth,” the following: “Suppose it isn't true that there's no alternative…. Suppose that some madmen and romantics believe that another world, another life, is possible. Suppose the worst, that these madmen believe there are others, more madmen who think like them. Suppose the inadmissible, that all these madmen want to get together. Suppose they suppose that from this meeting of the madmen, some measure of reason will emerge. Wouldn't you like to attend such a mad meeting of suppositions?” “A Call to Latin America,” March 10, 1996, in Our Word Is Our Weapon, 178.

I follow Henry Gales in translating Subcomandante Marcos rather than leaving it in Spanish. His justification is the following: “Subcomandante and subcommander mean exactly the same thing; neither in English nor in Spanish is it a common military rank…. As far as the Zapatistas are concerned, it refers to the fact that Marcos is subordinate to the Zapatistas’ indigenous commanders, who he sometimes refers to as ‘bosses.’… Extensive use of unusual words creates a culture of exclusivity and barriers to understanding, or at the very least makes the text harder to read and unappealing for those who are not diehard Zapatista supporters…. The practice of using copious amounts of Spanglish is no different than using unnecessary amounts of academic jargon, it is nothing more than another sleight of hand that intentionally or unintentionally keeps people out of the club.” “Translator's Forward” in The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Final Public Speeches of Subcommander Marcos, ed. Nick Henck (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2018), 35–36.

7 Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Comunicado del Comité Clandestina Revolucionario Indígena—Comandancia General del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, December 21, 2012,

8 Sylvia Marcos, “La realidad no cabe en la teoría,” in El pensamiento crítico frente a la hidra capitalista III, 15.

9 Zapatista Army for National Liberation, “Letter from the Zapatista Women to Women in Struggle around the World,”

10 On understandings of freedom within neoliberalism, see especially Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Brown, Wendy, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 115–28.

12 My understanding of fetishization here is consistent with John Holloway's. See Holloway, John, Change the World without Taking Power (New York: Pluto Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

13 See Copeland, M. Shawn, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 127Google Scholar.

14 Horsley, Richard A., Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 71Google Scholar.

15 Horsley, Jesus and Empire, 110.

16 Ellacuría, Ignacio, Freedom Made Flesh: The Mission of Christ and His Church, trans. Drury, John (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976), 15Google Scholar.

17 Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 126.

18 Luke incorporates Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6 here. Michael Barram argues that “this text contains what we might call Jesus's own mission statement.” See Barram, Michael, Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 39Google Scholar.

19 Sobrino, Jon, Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, trans. Burns, Paul (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 2001), 76Google Scholar.

20 Sobrino, Christ the Liberator, 76–78.

21 Sobrino, Christ the Liberator, 76–78.

22 See Sobrino, Christ the Liberator, 15.

23 See Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 116–17.

24 Ellacuría, Freedom Made Flesh, 120.

25 Gutiérrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, rev. ed., trans. Inda, Sister Caridad and Eagleson, John (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 103Google Scholar.

26 Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 101.

27 Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 104.

28 Althaus-Reid, Marcella, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics (London: Routledge, 2000), 21Google Scholar.

29 Steven Battin's 2019 presentation at the Catholic Theological Society of America, “Exit Strategies: Grassroots Postcapitalist Alternatives for Another Possible World” (June 2019, Pittsburgh, PA), develops this further.

30 For critiques of liberation theology in this vein, see Althaus-Reid, Marcella, From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology: Readings on Poverty, Sexual Identity, and God (London: SCM Press, 2004), 124–42Google Scholar; Ivan Petrella, The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004); and Gonzalez, Michelle A., A Critical Introduction to Religion in the Americas: Bridging the Liberation Theology and Religious Studies Divide (New York: New York University Press, 2014)Google Scholar.

31 Zapatista Army of National Liberation, “Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona,” June 2005,

32 Maldonado-Torres, Nelson, Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), xiGoogle Scholar.

33 See Maldonado-Torres, Against War, 238.

34 Maldonado-Torres, Against War, 238.

35 Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “On the Coloniality of Being,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (March/May 2007): 256.

36 Maldonado-Torres, Against War, xi.

37 Subcommander Marcos, “National and International Caravan for Observation and Solidarity with Zapatista Communities,” August 2, 2008, in The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage, 114.

38 Marcos, “National and International Caravan for Observation and Solidarity with Zapatista Communities,” 117.

39 “Words of the Zapatista Women at the Closing Ceremony of the First International Gathering of Politics, Art, Sport, and Culture for Women in Struggle in the Zapatista Caracol of the Tzotz Choj Zone,” March 10, 2018,

40 The Kilombo Women's Delegation, “What Does It Mean to Live? Notes from the Zapatistas’ First International Gathering of Politics, Art, Sport, and Culture for Women in Struggle,” June 7, 2018,

41 See, for example, Subcomandate Insurgente Moisés, “Economía politica I: Una mirada desde las comunidades Zapatistas,” in El Pensamiento critic frente a la hidra capitalista I, 101.

42 Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, 53.

43 Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, 78.

44 Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, 88.

45 Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, 98.

46 SupGaleano, “El Muro y la grieta: Primer apunte sobre el método Zapatista,” in El pensamiento crítico frente a la hidra capitalista I, 194.

47 See Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Otra geografía,”

48 SupGaleano, “El Muro y la grieta,” 194–95.

49 Subcomandate Insurgente Moisés, “Economía política I: Una mirada desde las comunidades zapatistas,” in El Pensamiento crítico frente a la hidra capitalista I, 101.

50 See Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, 147.

51 “Second Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle,” in Our Word Is Our Weapon, 46.

52 SupGaleano, “El Muro y la grieta,” 196.

53 SupGaleano, “El Muro y la grieta,” 198.

54 SupGaleano, “El Muro y la grieta,” 199. The unity of the struggle for “another possible world” that situates the Zapatista uprising within five hundred years of struggle is not the positivity of the affirmation of an identity; rather, the negative struggle against the modern world-system and global capitalism unites the movement (see Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, 164).

55 Subcomandante Marcos, “Fourth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle,” in Our Word Is Our Weapon, 80.

56 See Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, 165–66.

57 Stewart, Dianne M., “Womanist Theology in the Caribbean Context: Critiquing Culture, Rethinking Doctrine, and Expanding Boundaries,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 80Google Scholar.

58 Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), 29.

59 Gutiérrez, On Job, 29.

60 Gutiérrez starts his classic, A Theology of Liberation, with the following claim: “There is present in all believers—and more so in every Christian community—a rough outline of a theology. There is present an effort to understand the faith, something like a pre-understanding of that faith which is manifested in life, action, and concrete attitude. It is on this foundation, and only because of it, that the edifice of theology—in the precise and technical sense of the term—can be erected” (3).

61 See Ellacuría, Freedom Made Flesh, 3.

62 Subcommander Marcos, “Neither the Center Nor the Periphery,” December 13–16, 2007, in The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage, 43.

63 Jon Sobrino, Spiritual Writings, ed. Robert Lassalle-Klein (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 29. Sobrino's understanding of “reality” is shaped by how Xavier Zubiri and Ignacio Ellacuría have developed the concept of “historical reality.” Ellacuría uses this concept to describe a transcendental openness of history: “Historical reality is the open and innovative reality par excellence. If there is a living openness to transcendence it is that of history. Intramundane metaphysics cannot close on itself precisely because history is open, because reality is in itself dynamic and open.” Ellacuría, Ignacio, Filosofía de la realidad histórica (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1990), 600Google Scholar.

64 Helpful summaries of Ellacuría's understanding of historical reality are Georges De Schrijver, “The Distinctive Contribution of Ignacio Ellacuría to a Praxis of Liberation: ‘Shouldering the Burden of Reality,’” Louvain Studies 25 (2000): 312–35; and Michael E. Lee, “Liberation Theology's Transcendent Moment: The Work of Xavier Zubiri and Ignacio Ellacuría as Noncontrastive Discourse,” The Journal of Religion 83, no. 2 (April 2003): 226–43.

65 See Sobrino, Spiritual Writings, 43; and Sobrino, Jon, Where Is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, trans. Wilde, Margaret (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 100–02Google Scholar.

66 Sobrino, Spiritual Writings, 43.

67 Sobrino, Spiritual Writings, 48.

68 Sobrino, Spiritual Writings, 48.

69 See Petrella, Ivan, The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto (London: Routledge, 2016)Google Scholar.