The 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse ought to prompt leftist churchmen to apologize for Liberation Theology, which tried to merge Marxism with Christianity, and aligned church groups with the Soviet Bloc. Latin America in the 1970’s and 1980’s was especially active soil for Liberationists, where leftist Catholics and Protestants claimed that Castrosim and Sandinistaism were harbingers of God’s Kingdom.
Thankfully, most of organized Liberation Theology has collapsed, with the notable exception of the Middle East, where Western and Palestinian prelates still try to portray Israel as the colonial oppressor and the Palestinians as the victim of imperialism. But the chief of Brazil’s Lutherans, who also is an officer in the Swiss-based World Council of Churches (WCC), is now claiming that Liberation Theology’s “death certificate” is premature.
Most of Brazil’s Christians are Roman Catholic or Pentecostal, so Walter Altmann, as president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession, cannot speak for more than a sliver of Brazil’s churches. But as moderator of the WCC’s appropriately totalitarian-sounding Central Committee, the Rev. Altmann presumably does speak for some European and U.S. Religious Leftists who still dream of class struggle.
“Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years ago, many critics have been quick to sign liberation theology's death certificate,” Altmann regretted in a recent column for the WCC. “Most of them did so because they understood it to be an apology of bygone Soviet-style socialism. It seems, though, that this death certificate has been issued prematurely.”
Altmann admitted that Liberation Theologians deployed “Marxist categories for socioeconomic analysis and for a critique of capitalism's evils.” But he somewhat defensively insisted that the “core of liberation theology has never been Marxism.” It was apparently only coincidental that Liberation Theologians were never very interested in “liberation” for communist Cuba or Nicaragua under the old Sandinista regime, since they were presumably already “liberated.”
Rather than Marxism, Altmann asserted that Libration Theology was merely the “compassionate identification with the poor and their struggle for justice, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus himself, which is at its heart.” Liberationists purportedly were only asking Christians to be faithful to the Gospel by overthrowing unjust social and economic structures. According to Altmann, “Liberation theology is spiritually grounded on – and gets its motivation from – the life changing encounter with Christ as liberator and with our neighbors,” whose suffering results from “systemic injustices and oppression.”
Among its many heresies, Liberation Theology strove to reinterpret Christ away from Savior of the world to political revolutionary and kindred spirit of Che Guevera. Rather than accepting orthodox Christian understandings of human nature, and the world, as naturally fallen, Liberation Theology’s utopians claimed that humanity was perfectible and only capitalism and imperialism artificially injected otherwise avoidable suffering into the world. Political and economic “liberation” would permanently deliver humanity from oppression and unhappiness. Revolution, and not salvation, was the answer.
Most Christians in Latin America, even when struggling with the rightist dictators of the 1970’s, never accepted Liberation Theology’s attempts to hijack Christianity. But European and U.S. educated church elites deterministically insisted that Liberation Theology was the future. Some of these elites still linger, many of them tenured in Western academia or clutching onto virtual tenure in fading church bodies, like Rev. Altmann.
Looking for a new breeze to reanimate imploded Liberation Theology, Altmann claimed that the “recent international financial crisis, produced by unrestrained capitalist forces governed by greed and private and corporate interests, has increased the number of the poor – or rather, the impoverished – in the world by hundreds of millions.” This is only a partial truth, as free market growth economic growth of the last 25 years, concurrent with communism’s collapse, has actually raised hundreds of millions globally from chronic poverty into the middle class or near to it.
Altmann celebrated that Liberation Theology had strongly influenced the ecumenical movement and the WCC during the 1970’s and 1980’s. He failed to admit that the Western-led ecumenical movement’s international decline also parallels this influence, as Global South Christianity surged under Evangelical Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism, and orthodox Roman Catholicism. Instead, he hailed the movement’s struggles against old Latin American dictatorships and South African apartheid. He preferred not to acknowledge that the collapse of rightist authoritarians in South America, with the old racist regime in South Africa, were concurrent with the Soviet Union’s collapse and the expansion of democracy in its wake, facilitated partly by reawakened U.S. influence and confidence.
Undeterred, and living in his own theological and political bubble, Altmann insisted that Liberation Theology was never “static” and has simply creatively morphed into new emphases, like “indigenous peoples, racism, gender inequalities and ecology.” According to the Brazilian Lutheran, “Nowadays liberation theology deals as well with the interpretation of cultures and with anthropological questions, for example the temptation of power. The goal of striving towards a more just society where there is ‘room for all’ persists, yet the way of achieving it has shifted towards civil society action.” In other words, Liberation Theology is no longer so much about guerrilla movements as angry anti-globalization rallies or, more aggressively, leftist populism in Latin America.
This is Altmann’s way of explaining that Liberation Theology has essentially redefined itself to include any struggle against free markets, constitutional democracy, and traditional Western Civilization. No longer specifically promoting Marxist revolution, it now is almost entirely a negative force, defined more by what it’s against than what it favors. Altmann enthused that Liberation Theology is vibrantly today shaping “Latin American political efforts towards a model of democracy that overcomes poverty and social injustices,” citing leftist presidents in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Paraguay. Supposedly all of these presidents have “close contact” with Liberation Theologians, he claimed.
Note that Altmann omitted Hugo Chavez, but not the Venezuelan strongman’s disciples, from this litany of liberationist Latin statesmen. Is Chavez too bold for a WCC column specifically to acclaim? If so, WCC-style Liberation Theology has lost some of its vertebrae. Liberation Theology was once far more confident. Altmann’s diluted version of a once potent revolutionary force evinces that Liberation Theology is mostly just a warm proletarian memory for aging leftist prelates.