Saturday was the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, occasioning a slew of think pieces and hot takes (he was a genius! he was a monster!) – but here’s one that rarely gets made: Marx, that notorious skeptic of religion, was arguably one of the most influential figures in shaping 20th century Christianity.
On the one hand, this is obvious – Marx’s influence on world history generally is hard to overstate, and to the extent that Christianity partakes in world history, it must also have been influenced by Marx. Likewise, because so much of American Christianity, especially the fundamentalist and evangelical strains, embraced anti-communism, Marx obviously exerted a significant, albeit negative influence in the development of those traditions.
But I mean something more specific, and more positive – that Marx’s critique of capitalism’s inherent depredations and his yearning for a better, more just society shaped at least two significant Christian movements in the 20th century.
First, proponents of the Social Gospel, especially Walter Rauschenbusch, its primary articulator and theologian, borrowed liberally from Marxian analysis of economics and culture (although they were often reluctant to admit it), and explicitly advocated for a transition to democratic socialism. Rauschenbusch in turn was a major influence on Martin Luther King Jr.
I’d argue it’s not too much to draw a straight line from Marx, who reported on and celebrated the abolition of slavery in the United States, through the Social Gospel movement to the civil rights movement so admired by legions of modern Christians who have conveniently forgotten the Marxian rhetoric of the pacifistic and socialistic King (ironically, of the many epithets hurled at King by fellow Christians during his lifetime, “socialist” may have been the one that was closest to being accurate).
The second major Christian movement owing its existence to Marx is liberation theology, and that’s what I want to explore in some depth.
One of my favorite papers from grad school is one comparing the rhetoric of Marx with that of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian priest who founded Latin American liberation theology in 1968 and published the movement’s seminal book, A Theology of Liberation, in 1973.
It’s honestly not the best paper I ever wrote; it tried to pack too much into the page limit, and so didn’t delve as deeply as it could have if I narrowed the focus to one or two ideas. Nevertheless, I looked at four broad concepts readily found throughout Marx’s writing and adapted by Gutiérrez (I’ll be copying and pasting from the paper with a few asides from here on out):
- Liberation itself, specifically the notion that God desires the liberation of the poor from sinful systemic oppression as a part of a broader salvation of humanity from sin.
- Praxis, the concept of good works in service to the Christian command to love and serve others.
- Utopia, the eschatological reality brought about by praxis-based liberation in league with God’s transforming work in the world.
- Socialism, the political and economic reforms necessary to effect the process of liberating the poor from the sinful excesses of capitalism.
I should pause here to point out that it’s no secret that Gutierrez was heavily influenced by Marx. He said so himself! As he told The Christian Century in 1976:
I cannot think about my faith without taking into account a current of thought as important as Marxism.
Anyway, let’s delve into these four areas a little more:
Liberating Latin America’s poor, Gutiérrez wrote, is more than simply overcoming various forms of dependence, but requires humanity itself undergoing the process of its own emancipation. This emphasis on seizing the reins of history to liberate humanity and its poor is, as Gutiérrez notes, borrowed from Karl Marx’s historical materialism, which speaks of the working class liberating itself from alienation. While Marx sees alienation in secular, economic terms, Gutiérrez grafts it into the Christian notion of redemption: To achieve Marx’s social liberation from alienation, society needs Christ’s salvation from sin.
With the very concept of liberation derived from Marxist thought, it’s no surprise that Gutiérrez acknowledges Marx throughout A Theology of Liberation – even approvingly quoting Marx’s description of private ownership of the means of production as the “original sin” of capitalism. This theme continued throughout the 1970s: “Marginated nonpersons,” Gutiérrez told the 1975 Theology in the Americas conference, have tools at their disposal, including Marxism and socialism, that are “illuminative for thinking through faith in our day. Using these tools can help Christians rediscover such fundamental notions as ‘God as love.’”
So here we have a Catholic priest specifically saying that Marxism can “help Christians rediscover” that God is love.
“It is to a large extent due to Marxism’s influence,” Gutiérrez wrote in 1971, “that theological thought, searching for its own sources, has begun to reflect on the meaning of the transformation of this world and the action of man in history.” In “Liberation Praxis and the Christian Faith,” a 1983 essay, Gutiérrez combines Marxist liberation and Christian action: Liberation from sin is a gift Jesus brings through “aggressive, efficacious participation” in history, and political liberation is a necessary part of it. This forward-looking, history-grounded Christian participation, or “praxis,” is the hard work of liberation theology; Gutiérrez places praxis first, with proper theology a reflection on praxis, an attempt to understand faith as evidenced through concrete practice on behalf of the poor.
In A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez discusses what he views to be Marx’s notion of praxis. It is “necessarily advancing, with eyes fixed on the future and with real action in the present, towards a classless society.” Needless to say, Gutiérrez views Christian praxis through a similar lens, telling the conference on Theology in the Americas that Christians “enter into the class struggle” by engaging in liberation-minded praxis, which requires a transformation of history itself.
How does this happen? Through Christians re-creating their world and reshaping themselves. This means theology also must be liberated from anything that prevents its practitioners from working with the poor. Proper praxis performs this liberation and converts theology into a “prophetic force” that contributes to global understanding of how systems of injustice enslave the poor.
As we saw with liberation, Gutiérrez does not adopt wholesale the conclusions Marx draws; rather, he accepts much of Marx’s analysis and adapts it for a Christian framework. Without accepting fully Marx’s definitions of liberation and praxis, Gutiérrez nevertheless sees them as indispensable lenses through which to view the Latin American situation and, more important, the appropriate Christian response to it.
In The Power of the Poor in History (1979), Gutiérrez sees humanity’s development, aided by liberation-focused praxis, leading not just to structural transformation, but to “a wholly new way for men and women to be human.” Gutiérrez calls this “utopia,” and he believes it will be the end result of human development, a single process overseen by Christ. Such eschatological utopianism relies heavily on the interpretation of Marx provided by German Marxist Ernest Bloch (and at least one scholar argues this emphasis, although found in the Bible, had been lost to the church for centuries before being recovered through Gutiérrez’s adaptation of Marx). “Utopia” for Gutiérrez serves a dual function: It connects praxis to liberation and gives it a purpose, and it corrects the extremes found in communist totalitarianism and church-supported capitalist oppression.
While less heavily reliant on overtly Marxist themes as in previous categories, Gutiérrez nevertheless takes time in A Theology of Liberation to disagree with one of his influences, the French Marxist Louis Althusser, on the role of utopia in Marx’s writings. Althusser had dismissed praxis-based utopia as a piece of Marxism; Gutiérrez claims it is a consistent feature of Marx’s writings. Regardless of who is correct, Gutiérrez clearly found value in once again making connections between the key elements of his theology and Marxism.
Running through Gutiérrez’s discussion of liberation, praxis and utopia is the thread of the political transformation he thinks necessary for releasing the poor from an oppressive, continuing cycle of poverty and institutionalized violence. “Only a radical break from the status quo – that is, a profound transformation of the private property system, access to power of the exploited class, and a social revolution that would break this dependence – would allow for the change to a new society, a socialist society,” Gutiérrez writes in A Theology of Liberation.
Socialism, therefore, is the politico-economic solution to the systemic sin from which the Latin American poor need liberation. Christian praxis must include shepherding the creation of a classless society. After all, socialism “represents the most fruitful and far-reaching approach” for those who have “raised the banner of Latin American liberation.”
There can be no doubt the early Gutiérrez advocated socialist government. He approvingly cited the Cuban example and explicitly advocated a classless society. He even toyed with the language of revolution, although never advocated a violent overthrow of the status quo.
Gutiérrez saw socialism as a step on the road to liberation. The political and economic liberation it represented fit into Gutiérrez’s larger theological system, which itself was Marxist in inspiration. Marx’s social analysis helped humanity develop the critical thinking it needed to begin moving away from capitalism, Gutiérrez writes. Socialism was not merely an attractive alternative to the brutal excesses of imperial capitalism, but was in fact the natural result of human development – a development overseen by Christ, shepherded by Christian praxis and resulting in an eschatological utopian liberation.
Practically, this played out in Gutiérrez’s support for and participation in the short-lived Christians for Socialism movement, which began with the rise of a democratically elected socialist government in Chile and ended with the American-backed coup that installed a repressive right-wing government.
The rest of my paper describes how Gutiérrez eventually distanced himself from Marx, likely because of political pressure within the Catholic Church (brought especially by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI) and the collapse of governments claiming the banner of Marx into totalitarian states that perpetuated the abuses to which Gutiérrez was seeking an end (Cuba especially was an example of this).
Of course, by then Gutiérrez didn’t need Marx. The church itself had adopted so many of Gutierrez’s arguments about God’s identification with and preference for the poor and oppressed that he could simply cite the pope – always a safer route.
But none of that changes the fact that liberation theology, which has become an indispensable part of modern Christianity, was founded on explicitly Marxist concepts. Beyond that, Gutiérrez used the vocabulary and themes of Marxism without specifically tying its concepts to his theology – such as in Liberation and Change (1977), where his brief history of “the ideology of modern times” cites Marx’s Capital and aligns in both language and emphasis with Marx and Engels’ own history of the modern economic state in Manifesto of the Communist Party.
Obviously, Marx was no Christian. His contempt for organized religion is well known, synthesized in his famous “opiate of the masses” line. Arguments can be made that historical materialism as a philosophy is fundamentally atheistic. Indeed, Alistair Kee, whose Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology (1990) I used as the basis for my paper, argues that Gutiérrez ultimately failed in creating a Marxist movement within Christianity because to be truly Marxist is to reject God entirely. I’m not sure I agree, and Gutiérrez clearly did not, as evidenced by his advocacy for a Christian version of Marxist materialism in The Christian Century:
If materialism is thought of as a philosophical doctrine which affirms only matter, Christian faith denies that kind. But if we understand it to be the presence of God in the material conditions of human life, this is something which increasingly must concern our theological thought.
So happy 200th birthday to Karl Marx, surprisingly – and, were he alive to see it, probably no one more surprised than he – one of modern Christianity’s major influences!