Theology of liberation and Karl Marx by Anna Skagersten

Posted: February 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

The Swedish word is ”befrielseteologi”, literally translated “liberation theology”, but my proposal is that in this network and blog we use “Theology of Liberation”, based on the previous article from June Ver F Mangao.

Theology of liberation is already identified and interpreted on this blog, and my first contribution will focus on the coexistence of theology of liberation and Marxism. This issue is somehow considered as controversial, however my bias perspective may hopefully serve as the first part of a longer discussion.

Theology from grass root movement

The objective in Theology of liberation is the changes of systems and actions that maintain and support poverty, oppression and other violence of human life, Isaiah 58:1-ff. This theology is not based on the standards of welfare politics but on the reality of suffering struggling people. The poor people are the main players in a societal change, and theologians of liberation are focused on the establishment of alternative structures, they criticize the current system to lead to social injustice and environmental degradation


Theology of liberation started as a grass root movement, driven by the constituents of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it is natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.

In grass root movements the perspective of change is essential. Peoples movements are powerful and dangerous to those who hold the power in society. It is a reaction from frustration and anger, it´s like an avalanche or landslide and once its starting to move it will grow and be spread beyond control. The only method to limit the effects of the peoples movement is violence and killings. In modern times we have seen many examples of this, 2007 when the Buddhist monks rallied in Burma and challenged the present regime, and what happens now in Egypt and Tunis where people are walking against the national government and until today we can´t predict the consequences of this peoples movement. Theology of liberation is grounded in the situation of the suffering and poor peoples reality. Jesus was one of the leaders in this liberation movement, he challenged the oppressors and the emperor, he cried for justice and righteousness until the kept him silent through death, he was killed and after him an endless number of victims have been sacrificed for the sake of liberation.

Karl Marx

The philosopher, social scientist, historian and revolutionary, Karl Marx, is without a doubt the most influential socialist thinker to emerge in the 19th century. Although he was largely ignored by scholars in his own lifetime, his social, economic and political ideas gained rapid acceptance in the socialist movement after his death in 1883. Until quite recently almost half the population of the world lived under regimes that claim to be Marxist. This very success, however, has meant that the original ideas of Marx have often been modified and his meanings adapted to a great variety of political circumstances. In addition, the fact that Marx delayed publication of many of his writings meant that is been only recently that scholars had the opportunity to appreciate Marx’s intellectual stature.

Marx’s contribution to our understanding of society has been enormous. His thought is not the comprehensive system evolved by some of his followers under the name of dialectical materialism. The very dialectical nature of his approach meant that it was usually tentative and open-ended. There was also the tension between Marx the political activist and Marx the student of political economy. Many of his expectations about the future course of the revolutionary movement have, so far, failed to materialize. His stress on the economic factor in society and his analysis of the class structure in class conflict have had an enormous influence on history, sociology, and study of human culture.

Karl Marx was inclusive in his theses, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need” and his advocacy was clear in issues about equality.

Karl Marx and religion

In the close circle of friends around Marx there where also theologians and Marx relationship to religion was passionate but critical and has been a stumbling block in modern European Christianity.

“Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand.”

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

These quotes are used as a criticism of Karl Marx and a rejection of Marxist and socialist ideologies. Some scholars claim that Marx research is a scientific and deliberate continuation of the biblical-critical attitude to money and false gods. By a careful study of Karl Marx’s theories, we realize that he saw religion as a coin with two sides, as a conservative force and as a protest against an unjust system. The reason I want to clarify is that liberation theologians are inspired by Marx and therefore it is important to recognize the “Marx” as they refer to. So, is the religion an opium of the people?

Let us study the quotes in their entirety:

“The religious misery expresses the real misery and the protest against real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed of creation, a heartless world’s heart and the spirit of resolving the permit. It is the opium of the people.”

By the time of birth for this quotation the feudalism played a major role in Europe and thousands of people starved to death or died of poverty and misery. Feudal lords lived life of luxury at the expense of workers’ lives. But if the workers, grassroots protested against injustice and complained of suffering, they were contradicted by the churchmen who referred to the Bible’s words: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the left cheek”. The church tried to silence the people by promises of eternal life in which no sufferings would be. If you could endure the injustice here on earth you would have to live in eternal happiness and well-being after death. If these promises did not silenced the people they where threatened that if they defied their masters, they also defied God. In the time for Karl Marx writing the churched was also the major land owner. When neither promises nor threats silenced the protests, they used violence and accused the insurgents to rebel against God and religion. That is the reason why religion was regarded as the people’s great enemy, and here we find the reason for Karl Marx’s remark that “religion is the opium of the people”. According to Marx, religion is contextual and may be relevant to the situation, and for the people who are in the situation. He understands religion based on change perspective, and he study how religion works in different social contexts.

Theology of liberation is a movement in which people actively struggling to build a better society inspired by the biblical texts and Christian theology. Theology of liberation combines theory and practice, “A critical reflection upon praxis in the light of faith.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez) It´s about consistently side with the suffering and marginalized, with the oppressed and the poor people in society.

The understanding of Jesus unites liberation theologians. Jesus portrayed as a liberator who fights together with the people to create a better world, to construct heaven on earth, and this creation must start here and now. “The only justice is the definitive justice that builds, starting right now, in our confictfilled history, a kingdom in which God´s love will be present and exploitation abolished”. (Gutiérrez 1983)

Theologians of liberation puts the light on the fact that the Church throughout history been in alliance with the ruling power. Theology of liberation will break this pattern and argue that the Church’s primary mission is to proclaim freedom from actual sin which is poverty, violence and oppression against humans

Liberation theologians are constantly accused of being communists, Marxists, etc. without their accusers have any deeper knowledge or understanding of the relationship between Marxism and theology of liberation. . For theologians Marxism is a method, a tool for analyses, and some part of the ideology is most relevant to theology of liberation.

Finally in this reflection I want to mention the issue of vision, the vision of a new society. In theology of liberation this is an important vision, but what defines the new society? The building of a new society has its ground in Old Testament, the prophets proclaim a new kingdom, and Jesus side with the poor and marginalized, this is in short one of the cornerstones in theology of liberation, the construction of a new society a liberated community where humans live in equality and justice. Can we ask theologians how this will be done? What is the method for this new coming of justice? Until today we have not been successful in this work, as long as the institutionalized Christianity continue to be silent about human suffering and violence of Human Rights there is an urgent need of sharp theologians and prophets who will rebel against oppression and injustice, who will alarm the churches when religion becomes an opium to the people, an opium that blindfold and paralyzes, that make our theology impotent and irrelevant in our bleeding world.

Anna Skagersten

  1. Anna Skagersten says:

    the text is “disturbed by strange notes and bugs…we are sorry for that interuption

  2. June Ver Mangao says:

    Hello professor Anna Skagersten, your theology of liberation is very essential especially in terms of dialogical and contextual affirmations. thank you so much for sharing this swedish perspective. God bless us..

  3. Anna Skagersten says:

    June Ver, thank you for reading and for your comment, looking forward to your coming participation in wrighting.

  4. Some really interesting thoughts about Marx. Thank you professor Anna…

    I an sure that you all have already noticed this, but both parts of the marxian maxim “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need” are found in the Acts of the Apostles.

    Well apart from that i too share much of the marxist views, and when it comes to the analysis of the world no other philosopher och political ideologist have even come close to what Marx did.

    The way he describes the world as devided into the “haves” and the “have-nots”, the capitalists and the proletarians, the opressors and the opressed, is still valid, and not only today, but it can be seen throughout history.

    I sincerely believe that in order to understand the world we need to see these fundamental differences and realise the conflict between them.

    The solution presented by Marx, with the common ownership of all property and the provision for all mankind, is to me utopian, but so is the Kingdom of God, and we must still strive towards what is right and good, and cannot allow ourselves to settle for less.

    The common ownership is a genuinely biblical way of viewing property, but it is not the only biblical way of viewing things, and that we must remember, as those who support other views must remember that riches adn gluttony is never accepted in the teachings of Jesus.

    It might seem that i share most of the marxist views of these issues, and maybe i do, but i do not share the belief that a violent revolution is needed to acieve this end. As christians we are under obligation to keep the peace, and should do so at any cost. As christians i believe we should strive to reach our goals in a peaceful way. That is the radical path that Jesus took, and that is the path he leads us on.

    There is much to be said about pacificm and christianity, and my views on that topic are firm. I have written a number of articles on the subject on my own blog, unfortunately in swedish, and will in due time share these views here on our common blog.

    All the best, and Gods blessings to you all!

  5. June Ver Mangao says:

    Dear, Lennart G C Johansson, I highly appreciate your critical and theological notions on Marxism, and i love to talk to you in personal so we can talk about what is peace means and what is radical revolutions means? for me when you mentioned about “radical path that Jesus took” it’s not means silent peace, or bow our heads because it is written on the bible but for me its a disturbance, something unpleasant to the eyes of the oppressors and capitalist rich men and women, and im pretty sure that what Jesus did on the Temple that was throwing all the vendors and businesses inside such jewish temple is one radical moves of preserving total changes that is to destroy the existence of unhealthy system of the temple of God. please be reminded that the oppressors or the capitalist will never allow to share their material privileges they don’t even extend at least the minimal cost of their ownership into the poor, so therefore if you ask solution into the side of the poor, definitely they will answer to us, we need total revolution to reclaim our rights and freedom… God bless us all.

    • You are completely right when you point out that the opressors never will give away their power freely, it has to be taken. A revolution will be necessary, i have no doubt about it, but a revolution of violence is not the way of Jesus.

      History teaches us that no violent revolution has led to freedom, but always to a different type of opression.

      Being non-violent does not in any way mean that one has to be passive or silent, but can indeed mean a radical involvement.

      Jesus actions in the cleansing of the temple is a good example to us, it is action in av very radical form, but action with a “weapon” that will not harm the wrong-doers in any serious way.

  6. Anna Skagersten says:

    Thank you, June Ver and Lennart;
    I want to give a short remark regarding violent revolution. A natural instinct among humans is to protect ourselves from all kinds of violence. We also rely on our declarations of Human Rights and not to mention our National law and constitution. To avoid violence is one of our basic learning from early childhood. But sadly we can observ how violence against humans ruin so many millions of lives, not only killings but also other physical or psykological violence. During my time in Philippine context I have been exposed to human suffering far beyond my previous experiances, suffering I couldnt imagine combined with frustration and anger, lost hope, apathy. People have nothing, no home, no food, no hope no future? They have been victims of violence all their lives, and so they will continue to be if there will not be a total change of system. We can not afford to quote the bible while this demonic actions continues. But remember also the words from Mary, mother of Jesus: He will throu the poweful down from their thrones, and cast out the rich, quite violent to me. I hope we can continue our discussion, thank you so much for replying. G B U

    • My experience from Uganda, another country ravaged by violence for generations, is quite similar. Demonic actions are committed by among others the LRA, who cut of the hands of children so that they can’t grow up to be soldiers.

      The basic reaction to violence in any animal or human is to respond with violence. That is our nature.

      Unfortunately we have no example of a violent revolution that has resulted in anything other than more violence. Even the christian freedom movements have resulted in this.

      Thats why we can indeed afford to quote the bible in situations like this. The way i see it, we cannot afford not to do it if we want to make a real, lasting change! If we resort to violence we give ourselves to the thought that whoever is the stronger is right, which is no better than capitalism!

      I myself have been promoting violent resistance for years. I have prepared for it and i have raised funds to support among others the IRA, the PLO and the ANC, so i do indeed feel for those who see no other option but violent rebellion. My feelings and my understanding, my anger and frustration is and cannot be a benchmark for what is right or wrong. As i christian i need to see to what Jesus teaches, and that it more often than not something that goes against my feelings and my nature.

      I have always thought that the most radical way is the path of violent uprising, but that is not radical in any way, that is just giving in to the hunger for power. The radical path is tha path of Jesus, a pacifist path, that was followed by the early christians.

      The christian history teaches us that it was the civil disobediance and the pacifism that was what established the faith in the roman empire. It resulted in the faith growing, but also in persecutions of the faithful. The moment the christians accepted violence, was the moment they started longing for power and that led to the opressive organized church that became part of the government.

      Overthrowing thrones and casting out the rich is indeed radical, but does not have to be violent.

  7. I have now translated my earlier articles on a christian view on the use of violence.
    I hesitated on posting this as a new post on this blog, so i made it available on my own for the time being.

    It can be found here:

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