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Considering Liberation Theology as Utopia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


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Review Essay
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1990

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1. Cf. Richard Marius: “Since in his correspondence More calls his island ‘Nusquama,’ meaning ‘nowhere,’ it seems probable that he began by calling his book by the Latin title and later shifted to the Greek, liking both the double meaning of ‘Utopia’ and the way this strange coinage would mask the imaginary quality of the book from those lesser souls who knew only Latin” (Marius, Richard, Thomas More. A Biography [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985], p. 154).Google Scholar

2. Mannheim, Karl, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1961), p. 40.Google Scholar

3. Liberation theology has sparked a rich and extensive literature of scholarship, commentary, and polemic. Arthur McGovern's Liberation Theology and Its Critics, reviewed in this essay, provides an exhaustive bibliography. See also my Assessing the Impacts of Liberation Theology in Latin America,” Review of Politics 50:2 (Spring 1988): 241–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar and How Not to Understand Liberation Theology, Nicaragua, or Both,” Journal of InterAmerican Studies and World Affairs (forthcoming, 1990)Google Scholar and the references cited there. For an interesting recent commentary, see Yoder, John, “The Wider Setting of “Liberation Theology,” Review of Politics 52:2 (Spring, 1990): 285–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff state that “to pretend to ‘discuss liberation theology’ without seeing the poor is to miss the whole point, for one fails to see the central problem of the theology being discussed. For the kernel and core of liberation theology is not theology, but liberation” (Liberation Theology: From Confrontation to Dialogue [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986], p. 11).Google Scholar

5. The following sources are useful on CEB's: Azevedo, Marcelo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil. The Challenge of a New Way of Being Church (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1987)Google Scholar; Hewitt, W. E., Basic Christian Communities and Social Change in Brazil (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming)Google Scholar; Levine, Daniel H. and Mainwaring, Scott, “Religion and Popular Protest in Latin America,” in Power and Popular Protest. Latin American Social Movements, ed. Eckstein, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 203–40Google Scholar; and Levine, Daniel H., “Popular Groups, Popular Culture, and Popular Religion,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32:4 (1990): 718–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6. This perspective is advanced by key contributors to Rubenstein, Richard and Roth, John K., eds., The Politics of Latin American Liberation Theology: The Challenge to U.S. Policy (Washington: Washington Institute Press, 1989). See my discussion in “How Not to Understand.” McGovern provides an extensive bibliography on liberation theology and Marxism.Google Scholar

7. Throughout, Liberation Theology at the Crossroads is excessively and inappropriately partisan in the narrow sense of the word. Not only does the author rely on Marxism as a litmus test. He also regularly argues for Christian Democracy as the most valid and useful interlocutor for Christian commitment to social and political justice.

8. The author occasionally backs off from dichotomies, as for example when he states that “except in Nicaragua, where the situation had become polarized institutionally and theologically, it was not a question of either or (the hierarchy or the church of the people, liberation praxis versus the traditional social teaching of the church) but of both (the hierarchy in communion with the people, endorsing the preferential option for the poor, the Bible applied to the expenence of the oppressed.” But what is given here is immediately withdrawn: “Yet, as the Nicaraguan situation demonstrated, it could be used to support what Castro had called a ‘strategic alliance’ between Christians and Marxists, and the Marxists were aware of this” (p. 163).

9. Among liberation theologians this point has been the special concern of Segundo Galilea. A representative work is his The Way of Living Faith. A Spirituality of Liberation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988).Google Scholar See also Gutierrez, Gustavo, We Drink from Our Own Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985)Google Scholar, and Sobrino, Jon, Spirituality of Liberation. Toward Political Holiness (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985).Google Scholar

10. Raised, for example, by Frederick Sontag, “Liberation Theology and the Interpretation of Political Violence” or John W. Cooper, “Liberation Theology, Human Rights.and US. Security,” in Rubenstein, and Roth, , The Politics, pp. 96114 and 288305 respectively.Google Scholar

11. On this point, see Caldeira, TeresaElectoral Struggles in a Neighborhood on the Periphery of Sao Paulo,” Politics and Society 15:1 (1986–87): 4366CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Levine, and Mainwaring, , “Religion and Popular Protest” and Mainwaring, Scott, The Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil, 1916–1985 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), especially chapters 9–11.Google Scholar

12. Cf. Gustavo Gutierrez's well-known comment that: “theology is reflection, a critical attitude. Theology follows; it is the second step.” For Gutierrez, the first step is praxis that combines knowledge of and involvement in society. Gutierrez, , A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1973), p. 11.Google Scholar

13. Recent examples include Lancaster, Roger, Thanks to God and the Revolution Popular Religion and Class Consciousness in the New Nicaragua (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989)Google Scholar and O'Brien, Conor Cruise, “God and Man in Nicaragua,” in Churches and Politics in Latin America, ed. Keogh, Dermot (London: Macmillan, 1990), pp. 131–75. For general comments, see my “How Not to Understand.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14. On this point, see, among others, Zaret's, DavidThe Heavenly Contract: Ideology and Organization in Pre-Revolutionaty Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)Google Scholar or Hill, Christopher, The Century of Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982). Zaret quotes a critic of the time who wished that “all would not preach who can speak; because St Paul calls every family a church, would not turn every table's end into a pulpit; that the feet in this body should not presume to see nor the hands to speak; that the clue of predestination might not be sealed up at the spindle nor the decrees of God unravelled at the loom; that our lay divines would see themselves as well as the clergy leaving … the disputes of religion to the decision of the church” (p. 93).Google Scholar

15. Democracy in America (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc, 1961) passim, but especially vol. I, chap. 9: “The Main Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States.” De Tocqueville explicitly compares North and South America on this point in the same chapter.Google Scholar

16. For example, Humberto Belli, “Liberation Theology and the Latin American Revolutions” in Rubenstein, and Roth, , The Politics, pp. 199222.Google Scholar

17. On this point, see Weber, Max, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), I: 439–67.Google Scholar

18. Both citations are from Weber, , “Politics as a Vocation,” in Max Weber: Selections in Translation, ed. Runciman, W. G. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 222. For examples of this tendency in recent work on Nicaragua, see my “How Not to Understand.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19. Löwy is careful to point out that social conditions created no more than a likelihood that numbers of Jewish intellectuals would be pulled to the anticapitalist romantic pole of German culture. They did not make this outcome necessary or inevitable (p. 46). Possibilities were enhanced by the creation of a separate stratum of intellectuals and their ambiguously marginal status. Conditions in this region differed sharply from those prevailing in Western or Eastern Europe. In the former, assimilation was both possible and real. In the latter, Jewish revolutionary action had a significant mass base, and was in any case driven by extremes of official anti-Semitism (pp. 53–61).

20. Löwy's introduction is appropriately entitled “Les vaincus de l'histoire.”

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