Liberation Theology: A History
A key to understanding the present social justice theology is understanding liberation theology, and the key to understanding that is by understanding its history. Our theological foundation and our teleological goals manifest certain actions.
So, what follows is a quick overview of the history of the Liberation Theology movement.
Ernst Bloch’s book, Principle of Hope (1954), juxtaposed Marxism and Christianity, declaring the two not enemies, but friends. Upon this foundation, Liberationism was built.
Mainly Roman Catholic Priests began the movement. Those who studied in Europe and then came back to their native countries looked to Fidel Castro as a model hero. Mostly in located in Central America, these priests sought to align the church with Castro’s ideology to export revolution.
Interestingly, these priests were silent about Castro’s persecution of Christians, his totalitarianism, and while all praised Cuba’s independence of America, remained silent about Cuba’s total dependence on the Soviet Union.
Then the “Dependency Theory,” played a key role. This theory blamed the lack of development in the global South on the (supposed) malicious and exploitive intentions of the North (read: America). As one Catholic writer, explains, “As liberation theology picked up steam and support, its relationship with the Vatican and the church hierarchy became chilly—and sometimes hostile.”
In the late 1950’s and especially the ‘60’s, the Latin American church become increasingly political. Priests and theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez (the father of the movement) in Peru, Leonardo Boff in Brazil, Juan Luis Segundo in Uruguay, lead the way with a new moral code.
Popularizing the phrase “the preferential option for the poor,” they solidified their hold on the moral high ground.
This movement saw so-called Social Justice gaining popularity, whereby the poor were considered more righteous and noble, and those that God had blessed with prosperity were seen as immoral thieves. It was assumed that if one person has money then he must have gotten from the man who does not have money.
However, this zero-sum fallacy has been debunked.
In 1973, an English translation of A Theology of Liberation was published.
A firestorm broke loose.
One of the bloodiest events of this decade related to the Liberation movement was the Sandinista take over in Nicaragua. The socialist revolutionaries overthrew the government, but never kept their promise of “wealth redistribution.”
The Nicaraguan Church was firm in its opposition, initially. Dr. Ronald Nash explains how the Sandinistas had “their own radicalized priests or pastors teach the peasants the “Christian” version of Marx. After the peasants’ initial opposition to Marxism wore down, efforts could be made to win the new Marxist “Christians” to the more radical views of Marxism-Leninism.”
Liberation theology was the anesthetic necessary for surgery—a gospel-amputation surgery.
The leaders eventually were so bold to proclaim that true Christianity was Marxism. Many “Christians” became atheistic communists. And just like in Cuba, the “Liberation Christians” hid from the world the Sandinista persecution of real Christians.
The Sandinista government amassed $700 million in property, which it never distributed to the poor. Claims to equality are hidden claims to power.
Of course, they still claimed to have a “preferential option for the poor” like the Liberationist as a whole. It was the “exploitation” of the American’s that kept the people poor. The Liberation movement follows the same dishonest tactics as the present Social Justice movement.
1980’s and 90’s
Eventually, liberation theology went mainstream after 1979’s CELAM III, a conference for Latin American Bishops in Mexico. Now reaching the popular masses, the Roman Catholic Church grew concerned, and began to oppose the new Marxist Christianity.
In response to the continued increase, Pope John Paul II sought to curb the influence of the movement by meeting it halfway. The Puebla conference in Mexico was this attempt.
The Pope condemned the attempt to make the gospel a political issue, affirming the validity of private property, but agreed that the church has a mission to teach society what is a “more just and equitable distribution of goods.”
Beginning with Marx, and running from Ernst Bloch, Jurgen Moltmann, Paulo Freire and Johannes Metz, Liberation Theology conquered the Central and South American church in record time. Ripples were felt all over the globe.
The ‘Liberation’ theologians excelled at blaming others for their problems. First World capitalist countries, America most of all, were said to be exploiting all their money and resources. Colonialism was the proof positive.
Facts show otherwise: Malaysia, Canada, and Singapore are prosperous First World countries who were colonized. Afghanistan and Ethiopia are some of the poorest nations who were never colonized.
The Liberation theologians did not care about these facts. They only sought to use language and rhetoric to gain power. And that, they did.
Thus was born the modern Feminist theology, Black theology, Palestinian Liberation theology, and various race theologies around the globe. Fracture and rebellion continues to spread, as Liberation Theology turns into the Social Justice movement in North America.
While the errors of Liberation theology have been documented, we must never forget the singular question of importance. Any evaluation of Liberation Theology (and Social Justice Theology) must ask: does it truly bring liberty (or justice), or does it (as it has historically) only decrease liberty and justice?
The devil’s favorite tool is to make promises he can’t keep. But God alone keeps every one of His.
Citations & References Kira Dault, What is Liberation Theology?, https://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201410/what-liberation-theology-29433
 Ronald Nash, Beyond Liberation Theology, p 43
 Nash, Beyond Liberation Theology, p 44
Robert J. McPherson IISee More Essays
Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.