When the ancient Russian plane landed at the Havana airport, it was raining. And I remembered one other time that I had been in this airport (an unforgettable day for me, and the happiest day of my life). It was raining that day, too, and getting late, and I had seen Havana from the air surrounded by a halo of opalescent mist, as if wrapped in a great sadness. Some Yankees, sunburned and smiling, got on the plane loaded with Bacardi rum, and I felt that they were coming from a depressing world. Airline attendants carried their bottles to the landing stairs. It was Batista’s Cuba. A cousin of mine who had been in Cuba had told me shortly before that a young man was fighting in the mountains and that his name was Fidel Castro. I was stopping off in Havana on a flight from Managua, Nicaragua, to Miami, but I was going to Miami only to enter the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani. This flight I later described as “a true flight to Heaven rather than a routine Pan American flight.” It was a flight to freedom. (And I remember that from the air I had seen far-off mountains and I had wondered where that fellow Fidel Castro might be fighting.)
From the book In Cuba by Ernesto Cardenal, 1974
I’ve been reading Latin American non-fiction lately. Mostly it’s been centered around Liberation Theology and the history of European and U.S. exploitation of the Americas. I have been surprised and fascinated by how often I read praise for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara from Christians. As you would correctly guess these are not U.S. Christians who have been rigorously propagandized against Fidel and Che. Rather, these are Christians who are far less bourgeois in their faith and far closer to the original Christians in spirit and experience. This can make one wonder. Do we U.S. Christians know the gospel? I continue to think we don’t.
The quote at the top is from the opening paragraph to the book In Cuba by Ernesto Cardenal and based on his diary from a stay in that country in the early 1970’s. The book is fascinating and gives a substantially different picture of life in Cuba and of Fidel than was generally been presented to the U.S. public. Cardenal does not pull any punches either. He both praises and criticizes. And he describes in detail life in revolutionary Cuba. In that sense I feel like it’s a very fair assessment, albeit from a Left-leaning, Liberation Theological, Latin American, Catholic priest.
But I still find myself a bit caught off guard (and not a little bit excited) to read Christians expressing fascination for, and even praising, the Cuban revolution and its leaders, and often doing so in ways that draw connections between that revolution and the gospel of Christ. This has been especially true reading The Gospel in Solentiname, also by Ernesto Cardenal.
In 1843, at the age of 25, Karl Marx arrived in Paris and tried to start a political journal. At this early point in his life he was forging a career as an editor and was not yet much of a communist, at least not yet the universal symbol of communism he would become. He was still exploring and formulating his ideas, reading a tremendous number of economic texts, and getting to know Friedrich Engels. He was also trying to find writers for the journal he and a collaborator were trying to start. Being a radical German in France, this was not always easy…
Language problems were not the only issue, since they had the help of Moses Hess, who spoke better French from a previous stay in Paris, as a translator. There were also political and intellectual differences that made cooperation difficult. Most of the French socialists the German editors met rejected political action as a means to bring about their new society, counting instead on the voluntary formation of communes, without the need for subversive activities or revolutionary struggles. These socialists also understood their social and economic plans in religious terms: communism was the authentic realization of the ideals of Christianity [emphasis added]. The radical, atheist German intellectuals, subversives in trouble with the Prussian authorities, were not at all congenial to these French socialists.1
I find this observation about the French socialists fascinating. First, it highlights that socialist and communist thinking was already in the air and had been in the air for a while. Marx of course did not invent communism, he embraced it. (Again and again whenever communism comes up it is assumed this means “Marx.” But there are other options, other histories, and multiple “communisms.”) Second, it is a good reminder of the fact that communism and Christianity have been understood by some as not only compatible with each other, but tightly bound for a long time—perhaps inevitably so.
The idea that Communism is the embodiment, in some way, of the Gospel is a more commonly held belief than most from the U.S. might realize or even be capable of comprehending. As I have been studying Liberation Theology, and going down various related paths, I keep coming across this idea. It seems throughout much of the world the idea that communism and Christianity are or could be compatible is not a surprising position to hold. We can see it with the French socialists above, and I have come across it reading about Italy and Germany and, of course, we find it in Latin America. For example, this nugget from The Gospel in Solentiname, when Coronel (José Coronel Urtecho) turned to Ernesto Cardenal during a discussion on the Gospels and said:
“With regard to Christianity and communism, some thoughts on the subject occurred to me recently and I intended to tell them to you, and I’ll tell them now to the whole community. Here they are: communism cannot absorb Christianity without ceasing to be completely communist and changing into Christianity, whereas Christianity can absorb communism (Marxism–Leninism) and continue to be Christianity and even be more Christian. To put it another way, the communist cannot become a convert to Christianity without ceasing to be exclusively communist and becoming a Christian, whereas the Christian can become a communist (Marxist–Leninist) and be even more of a Christian.”2
I am fascinated by this idea. The concern, as always, is that “importing” something other than Christianity into Christianity will eventually and inevitably skew Christianity. But if, as the French socialists in the mid-nineteenth century thought, that “communism was the authentic realization of the ideals of Christianity,” then communism isn’t an import into Christianity but resides already within it, perhaps waiting to be accepted and embraced. Huge if true as the kids say.
I expect my dear reader to balk at the possible insertion of ideology into Christianity. I too do not want to warp or water down the faith with ideology. But, while trying to avoid “whataboutism,” I can’t help but highlight the fact that bourgeois and imperialist ideologies have been so deeply inserted into Christianity for so many centuries such that most Christians call those ideologies the faith itself. In the U.S., “Americanism” reigns supreme as the Christian worldview. The fact that there are some ideologies that are considered totally off limits, such as communism, and others that are considered nearly sanctified, such as capitalism and nationalism, has more to do with factors of cultural hegemony than faith. In other words, if one has to have the right kind of Christianity to get to heaven then probably most Americans aren’t getting there. Perhaps “unlearning” needs to be at the top of the U.S. Church’s agenda. In short, only by the grace of God… etc.
So, let’s assume the Christianity handed to us is not as pure as our preachers want us to believe. In fact, let’s assume a great deal of what most of us have been taught from our parents and the pulpit is a false gospel designed to obfuscate the true Gospel for the purposes of promoting and protecting other agendas. (I believe this is at least likely, given human nature, but the evidence seems overwhelming.) Regardless, if we take ideology to be a system of ideas and ideals, such that they form the basis of economic or political theory and policy, then we can’t help but bring ideology into Christianity. We don’t have a choice. The peril of insisting we will not bring ideology into the interpreting and the living of our faith is that we will bring ideology into our faith whether or not we are aware of it. The question is not one of ideology yes or no, for it is always yes, but of which ideology best helps us to extend the Gospel into personal, public, social, and political praxis. I have not settled the issue for myself about communism, but I find the assumptions of those French socialists and the ideas of Coronel from Nicaragua at the very least intriguing.
1Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 118.
2Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 232-233.
3A word about Toño Cardenal (aka Comandante Jesus Rojas): “Born in Nicaragua to a prominent family, Cardenal was one of the ten children of Julio Cardenal and Indiana Caldera. His father’s cousins included Ernesto Cardenal and his brother Fernando, both priests who adhered to liberation theology. Cardenal decided to pursue a career in the Jesuit seminary. After being sent to El Salvador as a priest, Cardenal was profoundly impacted by the anti-Jesuit violence he witnessed perpetrated by the Salvadoran government. Due to these events, he went underground as a rebel leader of the FMLN movement, in which he led the FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación) for several years. He was a major proponent of the peace talks with the government in the early 1990s, and worked towards a negotiated peace for both sides. On April 11, 1991, Cardenal was assassinated by a group of Army troops attempting to sabotage the peace process. However, the FMLN leadership decided to proceed with the talks at the expense of one of their commanders.” (From Wikipedia) Also, his aunt, Violeta Chamorro, was the president of Nicaragua from 1990 to 1997.
Marx, along with Freud and Nietzsche, is regarded by Paul Ricoeur as one of the great masters of “suspicion.” But somehow Marx does not seem to have ever entertained the suspicion that ideology could have warped the thinking of the theologians and the interpreters of Scripture so that they ended up unwittingly interpreting it in a sense that served the interests of the ruling classes. Marx does not seem to have shown any interest in trying to find out whether distortion had crept into the Christian message and whether a new interpretation favoring he class struggle of the proletariat might be possible or even necessary.1
I don’t know Marx as well as I should but I believe Fr. Segundo gives a fair assessment of Marx in the quote above. But I also want to be careful not to dismiss Marx because of his lack of suspicion regarding religion. I believe Marx had logical reasons, born from his life experiences, to not bother himself with digging deeper and developing a suspicious position in the manner we mean here.
In 1844, when he was only 26, Karl Marx took up the criticism of politics in a commentary of Hegel’s chief political treatise. In that document, Marx famously referred to religion as the opium of the people. A thousand times we’ve heard that phrase quoted. As expected, it set off a lot of Christians who ever since have claimed Marx’s ideas are incompatible with Christianity, thinking Marx is saying religion is merely a drug and if Christians will only pull themselves away from their stupor they might finally see reality. Other Christians felt Marx was showing his lack of knowledge about the social aspects of faith and if he were only willing to see then he would embrace the Christian gospel.
Let’s take a look at that phrase in context:
Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.2
By putting that phrase back into its immediate context we can see Marx’s understanding of religion is more nuanced than is often presented. Religion, rather being a mere drug of escape, becomes are kind necessary salve for real wounds, though not necessarily a solution to the cause of those wounds. Many Christians might disagree with Marx on this point, but it is an understandable conclusion for many who have had an experience of religion as a cultural force, which is most. As Michael Löwy says:
An attentive reading of the Marxian paragraph where this phrase appears reveals that it is more qualified and less one-sided than is usually believed. Although he is obviously critical of religion, Marx takes into account the dual character of the phenomenon[.]3
We can also see that Marx saw religion as symptomatic, that is, arising out of suffering. The implication is that if suffering were totally eliminated then religion would be no longer needed.
The more I ponder these words the more I think Marx was correct. First, religion is an opiate much of the time for many people, and I’m sure it made sense to Marx from the evidence around him. This seems undeniable. And the opiate nature of religion has been used by both oppressors and oppressed to manage, justify, excuse, and accept the structures of power. Many Christians push back because they don’t want to see this is true of themselves, but many more find a kind of escapist solace in forms of Christian worship that divert their eyes and minds from suffering and the material causes of suffering.
Second, it’s true that religion is a kind of sigh of the oppressed. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” We look to God for salvation; we seek healing and liberation. Christians are told God hears our cries. Many of our prayers are pleas to God for help. This sigh is built into our liturgies.
Third, when suffering is no more so also religion will no longer be needed. Christians believe that when Christ returns and there is a new Heaven and a new Earth and sin and all its effects will be vanquished. We will be in full communion with God, fully divinized, and thus will no longer need religion as a mean of perfection.
On the surface, Segundos’s assessment of Marx appears to make sense. Calling religion the opium of the people has the hallmarks of a quick dismissal, a rhetorical flourish and a wave of the hand at the local pub. However, given Marx’s theories of alienation and fetish, and given his formation under the philosophical force of Hegel and the Young Hegelians, it makes sense to consider his idea of religion being an opiate (he wasn’t the first to say this either) as a deep and rather insightful, though perhaps overly terse, critique of the society in which he lived.
Religion was not a merely personal, and certainly not a private, affair in 19th century Europe. Religion was overtly interwoven into the fabric of society. Marx’s father was a Jew who converted to Protestantism in order to have a chance at forging a career and supporting his family, a common choice for many German Jews at that time. Thus religion was a visible controlling tool used to create boundaries of social, political, and economic inclusion and exclusion and thus enforce a kind of caste system. Along with the “Jewish question” and the exclusion of Jews who remained faithful Jews, Catholics and Protestants warred against each other, not merely because of the Reformation but because of the Napoleonic wars which pitted the Catholic French against the Protestant Germans (and others). Many Germans were Catholic and this created tension for them in a post-Napoleon Germany. This created the world into which Marx was born.
And consider this bit about his high school education in Trier
His classmates were divided into two groups, largely by religion. Most of the Catholics were from modest backgrounds, typically intending to go on to the Tier Theological Seminary and become priests. By contrast, the seven Protestants [of a total of only 32] in the class were from families of government officials, professionals, or army officers: they were heading for the university to study law, medicine, or public administration. Forty years laters, Marx would remember the Catholic pupils in his class as a bunch of “peasant dolts,” probably reflecting the opinion their Protestant classmates from more affluent and better-educated families had of them.4
Arguably, Marx must have felt he understood religion enough to take it for how it presented itself. That he did not approach religion with an attitude of suspicion is a significant gap in his thinking, certainly, but not illogical.
More importantly is the prevalent lack of suspicion by the Church of its own history and received interpretations. When suspicion is thoughtfully and seriously elevated, such as with Liberation Theology, many Catholics see it as a threat. It is sad but predictable that many Catholics, especially those in the so-called developed nations or in positions of social power, cannot fathom the idea that distortion may have crept into the Christian message and purveyed via seminaries, homilies, and formation. But the world, and the Gospel itself, is in need of interpretations that favor liberation, focus on material conditions, recognize class differences and the struggle of the proletariate, the poor, and the oppressed. In fact, they (especially the Church hierarchy) have too often actively supported the suppression of such ideas. (This has been well documented so I won’t go into it here.) Thus religion does, in fact, become the opiate of the people and the Church pushers.
We might fault Marx for his lack of suspicion when considering religion, but the more significant fault lies at the feet of the Church. But so does the solution.
1Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology (Eugene, Or.: Wipf And Stock Pub, 2002), 17.
2Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels-Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: Norton, 1972), 12.
3Michael Löwy, The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (London: Verso, 1996), 4.
4Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 26-27.
In the mid-to-late 1970’s, over a period of years, a group of campesinos (peasant farmers) in Solentiname, an archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, gathered together to read and discuss the teaching of Jesus. They focused on the beatitudes from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Below is a small excerpt from their larger discussion, facilitated by Ernesto Cardenal. This discussion occurred during the brutal dictatorship of the Somoza family and the long Nicaraguan civil war. In the end the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship.
Let’s go now to the southern islands of Lake Nicaragua and read from The Gospel in Solentiname.1
Dichosos los que tienen espíritu de pobres, porque de ellos es el reino de los cielos.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
ALEJANDRO: “[…] The poor who are bourgeois, who are opposed to revolutionary changes, they do not have compassion in their hearts, and they are not the poor of the Gospel.”
LAUREANO: “A perfect communism is what the Gospel wants.”
PANCHO, who is very conservative, said angrily: “Does that meant that Jesus was a communist?”
JULIO said: “The communists have preached what the Gospel preached, that people should be equal and that they all should live as brothers and sisters. Laureano is speaking of the communism of Jesus Christ.”
And PANCHO, still angry: “The fact is that not even Laureano himself can explain to me what communism is. I’m sure he can’t.”
[Ernesto Cardenal] said to PANCHO: “Your idea of communism comes from the official newspaper or radio stations, that communism’s a bunch of murderers and bandits. But the communists try to achieve a perfect society where each one contributes his labor and receives according to his needs. Laureano finds that in the Gospels they were already teaching that. You can refuse to accept communist ideology but you do have to accept what you have here in the Gospels. And you might be satisfied with this communism of the Gospels.”
PANCHO: “Excuse me, but do you mean that if we are guided by the word of God we are communists?”
[Ernesto]: “In that sense, yes, because we seek the same perfect society. And also because we are against exploitation, against capitalism.”
REBECA: “If we come together as God wishes, yes. Communism is an equal society. The word ‘communist’ means community. And so if we all come together as God wishes, we are all communists, all equal.”
WILLIAM: “That’s what the first Christians practiced, who had everything in common.”
PANCHO: “I believe that communism is a failure.”
TOMAS: “Well, communism, the kind you hear about, is one thing. But this Communism, that we should love each other…”
PANCHO: “Enough of that!”
REBECA: “It is community. Communism is community.”
TOMAS: “This communism says: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
PANCHO: “But every communist speaks against all the others. That means they don’t love each other.”
ELVIS: “No, man. None of them talk that way, man. They do tell us their programs. And they’re fine.”
Increasingly, I’ve come to see the Gospels in a way similar to these Nicaraguans do. I used to think somewhat similarly to Pancho, who can only see equating Christianity and communism as outrageous. But I now see there is a kind of communism at the heart of the good news of Christ. In fact, I’m inclined to think it’s the communism; all others are imitations in degree, some very dark indeed, but others have been closer to the Gospel. But Christ must be the center and all other things ordered to Him, that is, to love itself. And unlike some Catholic apologists who publicly argue that a person cannot be both Catholic and a socialist (which is provably false), I’m inclined to go the other way – to be Catholic is to be, in one way or another, a socialist and perhaps even more specifically a communist (a distinct form of socialism). One can argue that without Christ at the center any form of communism will fail, but also one can argue that with Christ at the center then communism is inevitable. In this I empathize with Cardenal who did not waver in his conscience or commitments after being publicly reprimanded by Pope John Paul II:
“Christ led me to Marx,” Father Cardenal said in an interview in 1984. “I don’t think the pope understands Marxism. For me, the four gospels are all equally communist. I’m a Marxist who believes in God, follows Christ, and is a revolutionary for the sake of his kingdom.”2
Although I don’t call myself a Marxist (yet) because I don’t like overly loaded terms and I don’t want to be labeled an “ist” anything, I do find the use of Marxism as a social science useful in helping us get at the roots of economic inequalities and forms of alienation that both plague our societies today and are what Jesus preached against. And I find many of the core goals of communism at least interesting in the light of the Gospel. Long before communism came into existence as an ideology, I find Scripture pointing in that direction, especially in terms of liberation and freedom. In short, “liberation theology is nothing other than theological reflection on oppression and on the people’s commitment to freedom from this oppression[.]”3 I find this a fundamental and essential Catholic pursuit. But who am I? I’ve still got so much to figure out.
The Gospel in Solentiname has been a revelation for me. Jesus and His disciples were more like the Nicaraguans in Solentiname than the Americans in my neighborhood or parish. The insights from these campesinos, I believe, are closer to the kinds of insights one would expect from those listening directly to Jesus, or those of William Herzog in his book, Parables as Subversive Speech, than those spoken in a homily on the beatitudes in the tradition of Christendom. They are earthy, human, sensitive to the struggles of liberation, arising from a place of poverty, and more concerned with how to love one’s neighbor than in one’s interior spiritual attitude or a personal psychological definition of faith. In other words, they don’t overly “spiritualize” the Gospels but, in fact, more clearly preach the Gospel as it was delivered and heard two thousand years ago.
I am not willing to say the insights found in The Gospel in Solentiname are unproblematic, but they are refreshing in their frankness and challenging in their non-bourgeois perspective. They also highlight something important that I think many of us have lost—that basic human need to read and discuss the Scriptures with others in a kind of dialectical circle of interpretations. We Catholics tended to be trapped in a prison house of pedigreed teaching and official interpretations that we fear stepping out and taking the risk of speaking our own interpretations born from our own lives. But if we step back we discover the Church (if not, for example, Catholic Twitter) has a rich tradition of multivalent perspectives and rarely provides singular interpretations of Scriptural passages. Personally, I long for a Solentiname discussion group. What a joy it would be.
Finally, the last member of the group to speak was a person named Elvis. I believe this is Elvis Chaverría, a member of the Solentiname community and a revolutionary guerrilla in the fight for freedom. On October 13, 1977…
Nicaragua’s leftist guerrillas, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (F.S.L.N.), thought to have been decimated by years of repression, launched a new military offensive against the Somoza regime, attacking National Guard barracks at Ocotal in the north and San Carlos in the south, losing two rebels but killing two dozen soldiers.4
One of those two rebels killed was Elvis Chaverría who was involved in the attack at San Carlos. He “was captured during the raid on San Carlos, taken up the Río Frío, and shot in the head.”5 That attack precipitated the beginning of the end for the Somoza regime. Elvis is remembered as a hero and a martyr of the revolution. He gave his life in the struggle to bring about a more just society for his neighbors.
1Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 122-123.
I asked what they thought Herod would have said if he had known that a woman of the people had sung that God had pulled down the mighty and raised up the humble, filled the hungry with good things and left the rich with nothing.
NATALIA laughed and said: “He’d say she was crazy.”
ROSITA: “That she was a communist.”
LAUREANO: “The point isn’t that they would just say the Virgin was a communist. She was a communist.”
“And what would they say in Nicaragua if they heard what we’re saying here in Solentiname?”
Several voices: “That we’re communists.” *
Maybe you or someone you know has followed a path analogous to mine.
On January 16, 1991—a Wednesday, if I remember—I walked across the university campus to my cinema discussion group. I was a graduate student pursuing my first Masters degree. When I arrived the classroom was nearly empty and dim. A boombox sat on a table airing an NPR radio newscast. The bombing campaign had just begun for what was officially called Operation Desert Storm and which would eventually be called the First Gulf War. Put simply, my class was spontaneously cancelled because war had started. The few students that showed up milled around gloomily and then left one by one. It was the first time in my life I could recall war having a direct impact on me, and the first time I experienced people emotionally distraught from such an event.
The actual impact to me was objectively almost nothing—class was cancelled—but I was quietly shocked and didn’t know what to do with my feelings. My feelings, however, were not about the war itself but about not feeling what the others were feeling. The other students were upset and I couldn’t understand why. I knew something was wrong with me, and I knew this because I claimed to follow Christ. Should not I too be weeping?
I realized I knew almost nothing about politics, or contemporary world events or having (let alone airing) opinions about any of that. I knew nothing about how my thinking about being an American was largely formed by others intent on shaping the world according to their image. My family never talked about politics. In fact, I can’t remember ever having a truly serious conversation about anything like this with my family. We just didn’t go there. I had a feeling I was somehow very late to the discussion and everyone else seemed to know something I didn’t. I wasn’t prepared to learn much from this event but that feeling stuck with me. I also wondered why no one in my Christian social group had a similarly distraught reaction to the war as did my classmates. All the Christians I knew either were excited about the war or didn’t care. I wondered if something was deeply wrong with the Christianity I inhabited. And then I forgot about it.
I forgot about it but I can trace the beginning of my slow conscientization, coming to realize I had uncritically and happily accepted the dominant paradigm of the ruling class.
Ironically, in grad school (and even as an undergraduate) I was being introduced to Feminism and Critical Theory, to Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Semiotics, and Deconstructionism, as well as to various Marxist concepts of power structures and superstructures, and of the manipulation of media by the ruling class. I read the Frankfurt School authors, also Jakobson, Gramsci, Parenti, Chomsky, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Ecco, Berger, and others. And I loved it. I still do, reading them from time to time. In a sense my head and my heart, both formed by my love for Christ and the Scriptures, were becoming informed by (pulled towards) a Marxist/Leftist/Socialist way of thinking, but I didn’t really grasp that was happening at the time. I didn’t even pick up on that fact that most of those authors were either Marxists or were writing in response to Marxism. I can just kick myself now for wasting that opportunity.
I was also a “good Christian boy” raised as a Baptist who voted Republican because that’s what my parents and all their Christian friends did. I was fundamentally clueless about politics or the “big picture.” Rather, I was enjoying being in the weeds of film and art theory, not realizing many of its political orientations. My focus was aesthetics not politics. Real world implications did tug at me but subconsciously knew (trained to “know”) the radicality of Leftist thinking and I retreated. I had been formed to believe there could never be any sympathies between the Christianity I knew (presented in culturally, nationally, and ethnically circumscribed forms as timeless and natural Truth) and Socialism (always presented as gravely evil and stupid).
Much of my formation came in the form of everyday conversations and actions from those in my social group. One’s beliefs are often carried along by the pervasive but subtle subtexts of conversations, social groups, unspoken presuppositions, and cultural aesthetics. I was careful not to take a misstep. Belonging and being accepted is a powerful drug.
A decade or so later I followed the Iraq War (the Second Gulf War) with far more curiosity. My initial interests in both the first and second gulf wars arose from a fascination with how powerful the United States military is and how was the rest of the world going to acquiesce. Military might in action is powerful stuff—shock and awe. It was exciting and excellently choreographed theater viewed from my television and computer screens. But soon my personal views began to change. The more I learned the more I became deeply skeptical of the narrative. I could no longer accept U.S. politics. I did not trust or respect our leaders who were clearly lying, even the “good ones.” I searched out alternative news sources, different perspectives, and a few voices I had listened to before. I learned of various anti-war positions and Leftist critiques, and I discovered for myself an entire area of Christianity I didn’t know existed. In short, I learned about anti-war and pacifist Christianity and Liberation Theology. I learned about American Christians who sharply criticized the pro-war, flag waving, God bless America version of Christianity. And it all rang true for me. It took a while, though. This is the short version, the reality was a complex, back-and-forth process. A lot of people have taken this journey I’ve learned.
I left the Republican Party. I came to believe I could no longer continue as a member of that party and be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. But I could not see how I could be a member of the Democratic Party. So I became an Independent. I wanted no requirements placed upon me to acquiesce to any party platform. This seemed like the right choice both in terms of my faith and for my own intellectual integrity. I still hold these views today (though at times I toy with the idea of joining an alternative party).
Eventually, and through a lot of twists and turns, I became a Catholic, in part, because the Catholic Church is a “big tent.” One finds a multitude of perspectives and proclivities in the Church. I wanted to be where I could continue to explore my ideas and thoughts on politics, economics, sociology, and more. I was attracted to Catholic Social Teaching, to people like Dorothy Day, and to papal encyclicals criticizing capitalism all within the boundaries of an orthodoxy going back to apostles. I also love how truly global the Catholic Church is compared to the myopic, self-absorbed, geographically limited, socially stunted, and often nationalistically American cul-de-sac Christianity within which I was struggling. I also wanted a Church that would allow me to explore Socialism, or any other politics, from within a Christian framework, encouraging me in my freedom to do so, but also providing some guardrails and cautions along the way.
I suppose this post is one where I get myself in trouble (with myself mostly) for finally admitting something I’ve wanted to admit for twenty-plus years in one way or another.
I am still figuring things out for myself, still on this journey. But when I look at the social and economic options available in the world, when I look at the example of the early Church, when I take seriously the commandments of Christ, what I find is that Liberation Theology strikes me as the most Gospel-oriented, most Christ-centered socially, most humanitarian economic and political position to take. And with Liberation Theology one gets a rich interaction with Marxist ideas and Socialist praxis, both of which are merely subservient tools of the ultimate Truth of Christ who is the standard. If we insist on using the very limited terms of Right and Left, then I would say the Gospel of Christ, arising from and rooted in the very person of Christ Himself and in the ultimate goal of divinization, leans politically, economically, and socially more Left than Right, more to the future than the past, more to love of neighbor than protection of the self. **
Responding to real-world situations of colonialism, capitalism, authoritarian violence, exploitation, and foreign influence in Latin America, Liberation Theology sought to address these evils from a truly Catholic perspective, rooted deeply in Christ, rooted deeply in Scripture, rooted deeply in Vatican II, ever seeking the examples of those who have struggled before, and helped by cautiously leveraging the tools of Marxist critique and communist praxis. [Queue the bourgeois American eye roll.] Ironically, by focusing on the unique historical situation of Latin America, Liberation Theology addresses the universal situation of humanity—bondage and suffering across the globe because of sin, the poor besieged by the rich, labor unfairly exploited by capital, lack of democracy, propaganda promoting ideologies of oppression, social and legal systems in place to ensure the poor and weak are perennially oppressed and their own human flourishing suppressed, and finally, Christian/Catholic pastors turning their backs to the poor and preaching in support of the ruling class and a bourgeois church.
Beginning with Christ, Liberation Theology seeks to fashion a Gospel response to the evils of the world, and it did so, in part, by finding truth in the fundamental insights of scientific Marxism (not unlike Thomas Aquinas finding truth in Aristotle). But the Church hierarchy has, since Constantine, sided with the ruling class and with capital, thus the work of Liberation Theology tends to fall on the shoulders of a few theologians, priests, and ordinary Catholic laity willing to take the risk and put in the labor out of love and necessity. Carrying the gospel and Catholic social teaching to their proper and logic ends, Liberation Theologians found connections with the goals of many Leftists. Consequently, and employing various tactics, the Church denounced Liberation Theology. But I find Liberation Theology both true and refreshing. I am convinced by its understanding of the gospel, and I am moved deeply by the martyrdom of many faithful Catholics, including laity, bishops, priests, and nuns, at the hands of evil men merely because they stood for the poor against the rich as Christ commands us. I am disgusted by the efforts of Catholic prelates to squash Liberation Theology, denouncing saints such as Oscar Romero (but now they can’t because he’s finally and properly declared a saint) and supporting evil structures of power. The church is peopled with many who hate Christ in the name of Christendom and national politics; this even includes bishops. Sadly, much of this vilification is as much about race as it is about class.
So here I am, a devout Christian, a white middle-aged American working class man with inherited bourgeois values, a husband and father, a happy convert to the Catholic Church, leaning fairly hard to the Left and thinking maybe I should lean harder, and finally realizing that much of Christendom probably was and still is largely a human construct designed to “protect” the Church and the ruling classes from the convicting nature of the Gospel, from the internal revolutions of the Holy Spirit, and from the burdensome cries of the poor. Will I be marching in the streets waving a red flag? Will I be joining DSA, wearing a Karl Marx t-shirt, calling my friends comrades? Not likely, but I do want to be more sensitive to the liberating and this-world message of the Gospel. I want to be a follower of Christ.
A crazy journey I guess. I hope yours is going well. God be with you.
* Quoted from The Gospel in Solentiname by Ernesto Cardenal from the chapter on the Magnificat. This book is a collection of discussions of Gospel passages that happened in the artist/peasant community on the big island of Solentiname in Nicaragua between 1976 and 1982. Cardenal, Ernesto. Gospel in Solentiname. REV One-Vol ed., ORBIS, 2010.
** I hope the reader understands that Right and Left in the US does not map to Republican and Democrat. Rather, Democrat and Republican are center-Right and further Right. The Democrats are arguably the primary nemesis of the Left.
The Jesuits of UCAII watched television in amazement one night as Molina made a campaign broadcast on behalf of the PCN “candidate” General Romero. The president stood before a large blackboard with a piece of chalk in his hand. Then he slowly drew a line down the middle and announced that on one side of the line were to be found the enemies of El Salvador, and on the other, the friends. “Starting with the enemies,” he went on, “number one: liberation theology.” 1
The quote above references the 1977 presidential election in El Salvador. Liberation Theology, and many other forces, were at play in that country. Opposition to the murderous thugs who ruled the country and their oppressive policies was growing. The Vatican sided with the government. Many of the priests in El Salvador sided with the people and especially with the poor.
I think about the opposition to the beatification of the martyred Archbishop Óscar Romero by men such as Archbishop Emanuele Gerada because he disapproved of Romero’s breaking with the El Salvadoran government.2 I also think of Pope John Paul II’s disregard of Romero’s warnings, a disregard that arguably3 contributed to the Archbishop’s death. I think of these things and I cannot help but believe fear of the radical Gospel of Jesus Christ is an underlying constant in the life of the Church and especially of powerful men of the cloth. Of course, I cannot pass judgement on others if I don’t also pass judgement on myself. I know of no one more fearful of the demands of the Gospel than myself. It is a fear that plagues all human beings, perhaps Christians most of all.
But under that fear is a deep longing; a longing for true and complete liberation. This is why Liberation Theology increasingly reveals itself as one of the truest expression of the Gospel in our world today. However, I do recognize many claim Liberation Theology is too interested in Marxist ideas at best or outright leftist ideological heresy at worst. I would counter by saying if someone such as Molina publicly states Liberation Theology is enemy number one, maybe that’s because the darkness hates the light and Liberation Theology deserves a more honest look than many are willing to give.
Liberation Theology has not only been a threat to the sin of oppression and arrogant rulers who grind the poor into subservience, and to governments who prop up dictators, it has also been felt as a threat by many in the Church who sadly fear a truly integral salvation. Fortunately not all are threatened.
1 Teresa Whitfield, Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuria and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador (Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaPA: Temple University Press, 1995), 100.
3 Claire Saldana, “Oscar Romero: The Fight for Beatification,” STMU research scholars, April 5, 2022, https://stmuscholars.org/oscar-romero-the-fight-for-beatification/. I must also note that Saint John Paul II has been a kind of hero of mine and his example played a role in my becoming Catholic. And yet, the more I learn of his pontificate the less I can stomach some of the hagiographies of him. Nonetheless, I think he was a generally good pope and a very good and holy man. I do believe, however, the Church should not have rushed his canonization for sainthood.
States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.
~ Noam Chomsky
Wars, foreign policies, economic meltdowns, immigration laws, state of the union addresses, military budgets, pomp, closed door meetings, state secrets, police forces, fear, all point to what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of the World. It is a world of “power over” others, as Greg Boyd describes in his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation. Power clings to power, wealth builds protection around itself, and for good reason. Those without power, without wealth, sometimes what to tear down, or at minimum call into question, power and wealth. And for good reason as well. Power over others inevitably leads to cruelty and death, to loss of fundamental rights and freedoms, and to official lies and false promises.
“Power over” also produces tactics of self-protection, including violence and overwhelming force.
A lot of people claim to like or even love Jesus. I would guess that many, maybe most, of those people also cling to and justify kingdom of the world ideologies. We have a tendency to seek security and comfort. We we often give up many freedoms as long as we are promised personal peace and prosperity. We like the example of Jesus, but all too often fall into the trap of believing in the safety of “power over” social structures. Sometimes, however, people rise up to challenge “power over” assumptions.
The first three videos below, from Press for Truth, were made in the weeks prior to the recent G20 Summit that took place in Toronto. The fourth video documents some actions at the summit, including members of the Black Bloc causing property damage, and large numbers of police harassing protesters in the official protest zone. The fourth video also asks the question of whether disguised police infiltrated the Black Bloc and helped to lead some of the riots in order to justify other police actions and an enormous security budget. The news reported that the protest riots got out of hand at the summit. Hundreds of people were arrested.
I find these reports fascinating.
Clearly, the use of violence is exactly not in the tradition of Jesus. In fact, the Black Bloc is committed to a “power over” position as much as the bankers of the WTO or the IMF, or the police forces they so love to hate. Their use of violence, regardless of anything else they might say, gives them away. But the others, those that seek a new paradigm through peaceful protest (that is designed to publicly call into question the prevailing ideologies), are living, at least in part, within the tradition of Jesus – even if they would never call themselves Christian or darken the door of a church.
Although I have yet to research the history that Chomsky talks about, it seems to make sense, and it highlights how much things change over time and how much we tend to lose touch with our past. I find this fascinating.