A Way Out of No Way: Religious Social Ethics in the Aftermath of Liberation Theologies


In the 20th Century, Liberation Theologies emerged within Latin American Catholicism and African-American Churches almost simultaneously. Subsequently, Feminist Theologies also sought to rethink Christianity and religion more broadly. Black Feminism and Womanism emerged in tension with this latter movement, as they sought to redress blindnesses perceived in Feminist Theology as well as secular (white) feminism. Although always a minority viewpoint among religious Americans, Liberation, Feminist, and Womanist theologies have had a far-ranging impact on the practice and discourse of religion in this society. For simplicity’s sake, the plural “liberation theologies” will be used to refer to feminist, Latin American, Womanist, and African-American theologies of liberation as a set, with more specific terms used to differentiate as necessary.

The general conviction that sets Liberation Theologies apart from conventional theologies is their insistence on this-worldly social problems and struggles as integral parts of the religious task. This stance departs from conventional theological support for existing social regimes as epitomized in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans v. 13:1 (KJV) “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God….” The 3 strands of liberation theology identified here as Latino, African-American, and Feminist/Womanist each target a specific system of oppression for theological critique and protest, namely class, race, and gender.

A persistent critique of Liberation and Feminist theologies have been that they are either too secular, worldly, and humanist to really be religious, or from the other side, some social activists reject these theologies as insufficiently worldly and secular. Although one might expect that the truth is to be found between the two extremes, an examination of the relation of religious communities to secular activism and society is an important task if one is going to understand a society such as the USA, which has among the highest levels of religious identification in the industrialized world. In this essay, attention will be primarily focused on the critiques of Liberation Theologies as too religious or otherworldly. Special focus will be on the criticisms of African-American Humanist Theology developed by Anthony Pinn. From Pinn’s work, the critique that Liberation Theology relies on an other-worldly fulfillment of liberation will be explored and affirmed, yet Pinn’s humanist alternative will also be challenged from the standpoint of Black Marxism and intersectional Black feminism. We will consider whether the social ethic of Pinn and other Black humanists such as Richard Wright is adequate for the larger challenges of Black struggle. From Black intersectional Feminism, a critique of both Black humanism and Marxism will be developed to point towards a larger social ethical perspective that can satisfy more strongly the deep human longings at the heart of Liberation Theologies, yet still affirm the common ground this radical social ethic shares with African-American humanism.

In short, the thesis will be that while Liberation Theologies have advanced the social consciousness of many Black American Christians and Christians more generally, yet they falls short as a practical social ethic addressing the challenges of an increasingly secular society, and today’s struggles require a different social vision that places religious and secular persons and communities into a better constructive relation for advancing the struggle for freedom and equality. African-American humanist theology will be considered as one important critical approach to the limitations of Liberation Theologies, though ultimately, a creative integration of Black Marxism with Black intersectional feminism will be proposed as a shaping a broader and more radical social ethic than one finds in the social ethics elaborated by Pinn’s humanist approach.

This ambitious thesis cannot be fully defended and explicated in this short essay, so the aim will be to sketch this perspective in fairly general terms, leaving the fuller task for future work. As this approach ultimately envisions a collaborative effort not to be completed by any single individual, this more modest goal is still worthwhile.

It is often thought that the phrase “Liberation Theology” was coined by Gustavo Gutierrez with his 1971 publication, Teologia de la Liberacion: Perspectivas, yet in 1970, James H. Cone published his second work in this field, A Black Theology of Liberation. Cone’s earlier 1969 text, Black Theology and Black Power, did not use the phrase “theology of liberation” but it can be argued that it was in fact the first systematic work in this then new theological tradition. Earlier contributions to Black Liberation Theology can be identified, and indeed Cone argues that he was not creating a new theology in the sense of building from scratch, but rather extending and deepening an already existing theological perspective within the Black Church and arguing its importance in the face of theological silence from White Christian theologians. Cone’s radical interpretation of Christianity can be summarized in this quote from Black Theology and Black Power:

For the gospel proclaims that God is with us now, actively fighting the forces which would make man captive. And it is the task of theology and the Church to know where God is at work so that we can join him in this fight against evil. In America we know where the evil is. We know that men are shot and lynched. We know that men are crammed into ghettos. … There is a constant battle between Christ and Satan, and it is going on now. If we make this message contemporaneous with our own life situation, what does Christ’s defeat of Satan mean for us? … The demonic forces of racism are real for the black man. (p. 24).

To argue that Liberation Theology proper begins with Cone rather than Gutierrez is not to criticize Gutierrez by any means, but rather the implicit racial blindness inherent in claims of Gutierrez’s position as founder of Liberation Theology. Cone and Gutierrez are focused on different social dynamics and systems, and their theologies are therefore distinct. For our purposes, we shall treat them as generally compatible with one another. Cone’s work is nevertheless of primary relevance here as the original exemplar of Liberation Theology as we explore its relevance to constructing a social ethic that incorporates the African-American struggle within its central focus. Gutierrez is nevertheless indispensable to the perspective of this essay for his focus on economic systems, class struggle, and international political economy.
Gutierrez summarizes his Latino Liberation Theology thusly:

The theology of liberation attempts to reflect on the experience and meaning of the faith based on the commitment to abolish injustice and to build a new society; this theology must be verified by the practice of that commitment, by active, effective participation in the struggle which the exploited social classes have undertaken against their oppressors. Liberation from every form of exploitation, the possibility of a more humane and dignified life, the creation of a new humankind — all pass through this struggle. (Theology of Liberation. Orbis, 1973. p. 174)

To comparatively oversimplify their perspectives somewhat, Cone attacks White Supremacy as a totality of racial domination that was most radically developed in the USA’s slavery system, Jim Crow laws, and the white backlash against the Civil Right movement of the 1960s. Gutierrez attacks an international capitalist system that brutally subjugates impoverished populations in Latin America and other “underdeveloped” nations. Cone and Gutierrez both agree that Christianity reveals a God and Christ who fight within this world against these systemic oppressions. Cone’s inspirations are the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US, while Gutierrez is inspired by the socialist revolutionaries of Latin America.

The social ethic proposed by these Liberation Theologies is one of solidarity and identification. Systemic oppressions dominate corporate groups via racial and economic structures and social dynamics. It is the task of the person of Christian faith to see in the oppressed the incarnation of the crucified Christ manifest in the world. Faith in the resurrection confirms that these oppressions will one day be overcome by the hand of God. This overcoming by both Cone and Gutierrez is envisaged in a this-worldly eschatology for the most part, though Cone does seem to hold some heavenly “intermediate state” is still part of the Christian’s reward in faith, as evidenced in his public dialogue with Anthony Pinn in 2012.

Both Cone, Gutierrez, and their respective collaborators in Liberation Theology came under scrutiny as Feminist theology emerged in the US and European academy as well as within Latin America. African-American Womanist theology similarly emerged within the African-American theological scene as well during this period. The criticisms these theologians leveled at Liberation Theology paralleled criticisms within the broader Feminist movement against male-defined social visions. In brief, Feminist and Womanist theologies identified a systemic oppressive force in male domination — often dubbed “patriarchy” — that was not recognized nor critiqued within existing Liberation Theologies. As with Black and Latino Liberation Theologies, a critique of conventional theologies as being too quietist or passive with regard to established power structures was central to Feminist and Womanist theologies which focused their critical work against mainstream theology and Christian practice. Nevertheless, it is their critique of the male-centric focus of Liberation Theologies that are of concern to this essay.

This critique is summarized by Linda E. Thomas in her article, “Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm”, (Crosscurrents, Summer 1998.):

First generation black (male) theologians did not understand the full dimension of liberation for the special oppression of black women; this was its shortcoming. To foster the visibility of African American women in black God-talk, womanist theology has emerged.

Unlike black theology with its emphasis on race, feminist theology addresses the oppression of women, though primarily white women. The project of feminist theology did not deal with the categories of race and economics in the development of its theological discourse. As important as the work of feminist theology has been, its shortcoming is its lack of attention to the everyday realities of African American and other women of color.

With an eye towards our next task of developing a critical perspective on Liberation Theologies, it is worth underscoring that in Black, Latino, and Womanist liberation theologies there is a greater emphasis on three truths systematically minimized in mainstream theologies: positive human agency, the centrality of social struggle, and a confidence in a this-worldly manifestation of the salvation of humanity. Conventional theologies are far more pessimistic in relation to human capacities and the course of human history. Such theologies emphasize a strong doctrine of original sin and the inevitable failure of human societies to reflect the character of God’s Will. Rather than a historical manifestation of the “kingdom of heaven on earth,” conventional theologies displace the justice and fulfillment of God’s Will on to a far-off planet called “Heaven” where those humans who persevered in faith will be rewarded eternally. While we noted above Cone’s seeming belief in an afterlife of some sort, it is quite distant in emphasis from Cone’s central concern with the struggle against racism. All the liberation theologies under consideration share this sense of perspective to a significant degree. Thus, a critique of Liberation Theologies begins first of all with an affirmation of its importance in proposing a substantive reordering of the priorities of conventional theologies.

Of course, it is also quite true that conventional theologies still tend to rule the day in Christianity worldwide. Liberation Theologies are a minority voice usually drowned out by the crushing historical weight of centuries of social, anthropological, and theological pessimism. That earthly pessimism itself can be identified as fundamentally useful as an embedded ideology within the social structures within which Christianity has risen to prominence as the world’s largest religious tradition. Racism, capitalism, and patriarchy sit quite comfortably with a doctrine of original sin that justifies social subordination. The rise of Liberation Theologies as an immanent critique of this social passivity in the face of systemic domination of the poor, black and brown peoples, and women perhaps signals a larger paradigm shift within Christianity that could become as world-changing as the Reformation or the establishment of Catholicism as the official religion of the decaying Roman Empire.

With this brief consideration of Black, Latino, Feminist, and Womanist theologies in mind, our study will now turn to the critique of Liberation Theologies undertaken by African American Humanism. This perspective has been most fully developed in the work of Dr. Anthony Pinn, though here, too, Pinn engages in recovering and deepening a longer tradition of humanist thought in African-American society and applying it to a fresh examination of Black Religion. While African-Americans are generally more intensely religious than their caucasian counterparts, there has been a significant tradition of more humanist Black thought and culture. Signal representatives of Black humanism would include Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Richard Wright. Though Douglass is often considered as within Christianity, Pinn especially contests this claim in his text The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology by noting, “…Douglass does not posit a robust Christology as the center of theological and ethical commitments.” That key figures within African-American culture would distance themselves implicitly or explicitly from Christianity should not surprise us given the strong identification of Christianity with religious justification of slavery, especially in the Deep South.

Though Pinn does not develop the critique of Christianity as imposed by White Supremacists to enforce social subservience, this critique persists in a variety of common forms. If one simply considers the fact that most African captives brought to slave markets were adherents of either an indigenous religion or in some cases Islam, then the imposition of Christianity upon them can be seen as part and parcel of the criminal system of slavery. Nevertheless, as Pinn describes in his Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion, Black slaves did not merely mimic the religion of their masters, but transformed it. (p. 83ff). Pinn defines Black religion as “a creative and bold wrestling with history in order to place black bodies in healthier spaces, with a greater range of possibilities.” (p. 179).

However, Pinn also critiques Black Christianity as not adequate to the current situation of Black Americans. His text, The End of God-Talk articulates a rejection of theism, “the symbol God, as an organizing principle, has never contained any “real” substance and does not serve a purpose.” (p. 47) And, a critique of the specific form(s) of Black theology that deploy liberation as a central element, “the politics of identity embedded within liberation theologies doeds not address necessarily the postmodern posture …. I agree with [Mark C.] Taylor’s critique of the liberated self as possible, fully.” (p. 47)
Returning to Liberation Theologies, we can take up the role “God-talk” takes in these theologies. In Black Liberation Theology, God is Black and working in history to liberate Blacks from earthly oppression. In the Latino tradition, God is similarly involved with the liberation of the more broadly defined “poor.” In Womanist and Feminist theologies, “God” comes under specific scrutiny as a masculine projection that must be either rendered sexless, androgynous, or primarily female. Each retains the “God symbol” as part of their architecture, though their strong critiques of conventional theologies compel them to also challenge how this pivotal concept is understood.

Pinn lifts up the presumed intervention of the liberatory deity in fulfilling the work of liberation as problematic. Pinn specifically charges that all theologies — including liberationist — devalue the present, “the important moment is always a past or future moment, with the present only a problem to solve.” (End of God-Talk, p. 95) Pinn counterposes the effort to “live deep” in the present a la Thoreau as fundamentally important to his humanist ethics. This move is the first in a larger critique of “grand narratives” that “fail to the extent that it is not grounded in recognition and correction of the self.” (p. 96) Pinn summarizes his ethic thus, “what is important is a deep effort to be good and have that goodness guide all one’s dealings.” (p. 97) Pinn insists that this “complex subjectivity” does not isolate a person but connects them to community, struggle, and “perpetual rebellion” against injustice and cruelty. (Terror and Triumph, p. 153-154) Pinn underscores the ever-present possibility of failure and eschews larger grand goals of liberation.

This humanist social ethics reminds one of an older generation’s embrace of “chastened liberalism.” In response to the catastrophe of the two World Wars of the early 20th century, the triumphalist march of the Social Gospel towards the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth was discarded in favor of “Christian Realism” as articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr and others. In fact, the emergence of Liberation Theologies in the 1960s era was an explicit rejection of that “realism” that emerged outside the white male theological establishment as an act of rebellion. Buoyed by the stunning emergence of the Civil Rights movement and imbibing a certain impatience with its progress, Cone grasped the “more radical” ethos of the “Black Power” movement as source material for rewriting theology from the outside in. Similar moves can be discerned in Latino, Feminist, and Womanist theologies and the social movement inspirations that fed their development. The historical denouement of Liberation Theologies can be marked with some imprecision within the latter 1980s. On a world scale, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime turned the stubborn optimism of Latino Liberation Theology’s reliance on Marxist categories into something of a liability. Black Liberation Theology had never penetrated very far into the Black Church and successes of the Christian Right via Reaganism set the stage for a new period of conservative Black religiosity to flower. The new confidence in capitalism after the Soviet collapse inaugurated a new popularity for “prosperity theology” in the Black Church. Oprah Winfrey’s popularity as a soft advocate of “new thought” and “self-help” was symptomatic of this shift. Feminist theology made some inroads in mainstream liberal churches, but more radical versions of these theologies fell upon hard times.

Finally, the real death of grand narratives of liberation may be perceived in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Right-wing politics needed a new global enemy after the death of Communism and Osama bin Laden obliged with his radical Islamist ideology and calculated murder of thousands on American soil. Right up to the present, the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant continues to offer those who need such a bogeyman almost daily cruelty and evil as proof that humanity is no angel in waiting, but obviously a monster only held back by overpowering force. The election of Barack Obama signaled a new moment of hopefulness on the ostensible left of US politics, but as the denunciations of Obama by Cornel West and his public redressing by his former colleagues illustrate, Black Liberation Theology seems to have little to say to a wider audience in our moment. Perhaps the chastened socially aware self-beautification proposed by Pinn fits the current moment quite well, though we must acknowledge that Pinn has little truck with the grandiose prosperity mongering of New Thought, preferring Thoreau’s simplicity ethos.

And yet, perhaps rather than a focus on the present and problematics of meaningful self-creation, there is yet life in the dead grand narratives of both Christianity and Liberationist thought? In fact, the resources for such a rethinking are pointed to in the secular counterparts of Liberation Theologies. We will consider two of them, Black Marxism and Black intersectional feminism, for the remainder of this essay. Black Marxism is relevant precisely because of its vital combination of a nontheist humanism with the grand revolutionary philosophy of Marxism which formed a fundamental source tradition for Latino Liberation Theology. Black intersectional feminism is relevant as it addresses the limitations of Marxism directly by situating the Marxist analysis of class struggle within a larger set of social struggles. The contention here is not that Pinn’s “deep present” proposal is wrong, but that it, too, needs the larger contributions of the past and projected possibilities of the future to be truly worthy of the term “religion.” Religions have always had an understanding of the individual’s situation within its larger framework, and there is genuine value in detaching this human value from the implicit devaluation of human embodiment and earthly journey by an elevation of an immaterial deity to ultimate importance. Yet, to be fully religious and humanist, do we not need the past as well as the future to make sense of who we want to become in this present moment?

Black Marxism is a little-known tradition within African-American life. It came to prominence in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois whose career illustrates the twists and turns associated with attempting to integrate the class struggle analysis of Marxism with the horrific history of Black oppression. That oppression is not easily reducible to class struggle and is certainly out of sync with the Eurocentric assumptions of Marxism. And yet, as a recurring element in Black radical movements, Black Marxism stands as an important attempt to bridge the recalcitrant facts of history with a grand vision of world transformation. While Black Marxists have not always fared well within overtly Marxist organizations, the continuing appeal of Marxism in illuminating the structural power at work in White Supremacy is not surprising. As Anthony Pinn has lifted up the neglected lives and contributions of Black humanists to the African-American experience, so Black Marxists have a legacy that continues to this day to be elaborated in the work of many who are partisans of both the struggle against white supremacy and capitalist domination.

From Cornel West’s Toward a Socialist Theory of Racism (1988) we can garner the following assessment of Marxism’s value:

Marxism is indispensable because it highlights the relation of racist practices to the capitalist mode of production and recognizes the crucial role racism plays within the capitalist economy. Yet Marxism is inadequate because it fails to probe other spheres of American society where racism plays an integral role especially the psychological and cultural spheres.

Indeed, Marxism’s focus on the struggle to control economic resources as a central (not the central) motor of human history offers us a powerful tool in understanding the origins of the historically specific forms of African-American racial domination. European and North American colonialism served as a direct example of how the transformation from agriculture to industry within Europe was carried out on the back of violent enslavement of African bodies as devalued human laborers. Capitalism in Europe required that the masses move from farming and artisanal labor to the routinized mass production required for the new forms of wealth creation. Slavery of the poor within Europe lacked structural support as a result of the revolutions against feudalism and the rise of representative democracy. However, outside this newly created space of (white European) human freedom, feudal and pre-feudal practices such as mass enslavement served new purposes. Marxism offered important clues to the meaning of this history, even as it missed important elements of it.

The historical course of Marxist politics and revolutions offers a mixed picture. Few living Marxists today would defend Josef Stalin’s brutal regime, but in its heyday millions around the world rallied to the proletarian cause impressed by the power of early Soviet Union achievements in industry and social engineering. Those who would seek to separate the useful and powerful tools of Marxist analysis from their embeddedness in a grand historical failure will have decades of careful work to do, perhaps guaranteeing long careers in academic research.

For our purpose, it is worth noting that class struggle does still persist despite the triumph of capitalism in the West. Poverty and exploitation continue to be important realities that capitalist development cannot overcome on its own terms, as capitalism is structurally based on class domination. White supremacy may have faded somewhat within the US, but even in supposedly peaceful European social democracy, African immigrants face powerful structural obstacles to their freedom. The present condition of the African continent in the aftermath of colonialism gives us little reason to propose that what Africa needs is more capitalist development, not to mention the ecological devastation inherent in such a vision.

As far as religion and Marxism goes, it is worth recalling that Marxism itself sprang from Christian roots in Hegel and Religious Socialism despite Marx’s disavowal of that pre-history. The situation is not unlike the way modern humanisms all have an often unacknowledged debt to Christianity. A true strength of Pinn’s humanist theology is its explicit appreciation of religion and Marxists need to learn a few things from such approaches. After all, if the international socialist revolution is intended to embrace all of humanity, how could it not make a strong and practical alliance with the working masses of Christians, Muslims, and other religious populations?

However, parallel to how Womanist and Feminist theologies had to critique male liberationists, there is work to be done here as well. After all, the toiling masses of humanity in whose name Marxists agitate and organize must include the eons of women’s labors to make human life itself possible. If Marxism fights in the name of the vast majority of humanity who are exploited and oppressed by capitalist economics, Feminism must also fight in the name of that half of humanity that has been systematically excluded from the center of history, politics, economics, and religion. Of course, the anti-racist struggles of Blacks around the globe constitute another enormous population of humanity with which aspiring revolutionaries must partner and learn from. This leads some of us to seek a new grand theory of revolution that is not hampered by class myopia, gender blindness, nor racial supremacism. For this task, we finally turn to the work of Black intersectional feminism. This perspective was publicly announced in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective Statement that in many ways still sounds profoundly contemporary:

We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.

This new “intersectional” vision answers the question of whether a grand narrative is still possible with an affirmation but also a challenge. No longer can radicals simply accept grand narratives handed down as the work of white male liberators. A new collaborative struggle for human emancipation needs to be carried out that does not shrink from the tasks of reconstructing what humanity should be fighting for, as well as fighting against. A positive horizon for radical transformation seems only reasonable, despite the present incomplete vision of that horizon. Indeed, the way now seems open to reclaiming much of the discarded past of radical political thought and activism.

Finally, identifying this intersectional revolutionary perspective as our future horizon leads in our present study to ask what of religion and humanism? That this perspective is compatible with humanism seems fairly straightforward given its genesis in the postmodern struggles to go beyond the failed visions of Marxism and Liberation Theology. Does it offer a new stance towards religion as well? Since not only envisioning a new future is involved, intersectional revolutionaries must also reclaim our histories, including religious histories. In a world where Christians and Muslims claim the allegiance of over half of all humanity and the non-religious make up the largest fraction of the remaining populace, there must be a dedicated effort on the part of radical visionaries to reclaim and re-invent religious practice and tradition.

Religion is perhaps the oldest form of cultural unity, beginning with stories around a campfire to early ritual forms and ethical norms. Marxism’s postulate of a “primitive communism” at the dawn of humanity suggests that our evolution favored those who could unite around these shared practices. How to scale such elements up in our new global interconnected reality is the really big question. Can we afford to be pessimistic about the possibilities? Must we not rather fight all that much harder to both enlarge our complex subjectivity and inter-subjectively liberate ourselves?


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