Jesus in Ayacucho: How Useful is Liberation Theology?

First Published: 14/09/2020

Author: Alexandria Thurnherr

One of the most important bodies in the history of Latin America, only behind perhaps the Spanish and Portuguese empires and the United States, has been the Roman Catholic Church. However, the impact of the latter has been non-uniform, both in the broad malign/benign dichotomy, but also in terms of the theology promoted by the Church. One of the forms of theology most commonly associated with the continent is Liberation Theology, which as the name suggests places at its heart a Christian approach to the question of how to uplift the oppressed masses of the continent.

It may be useful, before we proceed any further, to draw a distinction (if only a temporary one) between the Church (note the capital C) and the Vatican. Here we shall use the former to refer to the body broadly, both globally and in Latin America, and the latter to refer to the central administration in Rome – the Pope and the Cardinals in particular.

It is important, if we are to usefully analyse the phenomenon of liberation theology, to place it in comparison with the two paradigms to previously come out of the Church: Old and New Christendom. Old Christendom, which had its heyday throughout the dark and middle ages, essentially referred to the Church and Vatican having an active role in the day-to-day running of nations. More relevant was the paradigm which held in Latin America prior to the emergence of liberation theology, New Christendom. While the details are complex, the main point to be brought to attention is that of the Church’s attitude towards politics, that attitude being best summarised by the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest generally considered to be one of the foremost liberation theologians:

“There is a classic distinction between politics as a global manner, as a search for a common good, and politics in a stricter, more technical sense, more partisan, also legitimate, but that does not correspond to the church. No one, not even the church, is saved from the first consequence. The church says something and it has political consequences.”

Put otherwise: insofar as “politics” was considered to be a matter of statecraft, the Church was not to interfere directly in the matter (prior to the ascent of New Christendom, the church had been known to formally endorse candidates and parties in elections, generally socially conservative ones), although the Church and its actors could still call behaviours and even specific policies counter to the will of the Divine or inhumane. This is the main area wherein liberation theology breaks with its immediate predecessor: it will, for lack of a better term, get its teeth into the political meat – and indeed, many far-right dictators across the continent started to bare their fangs in response; Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated in 1980 following his call to Salvadoran soldiers to cease following government orders, and although the murderer's identity remains unknown by the general public to this day, the general consensus (and the result of a 1993 UN investigation into the matter) is that the killing was ordered by Robert D’Aubuisson, a major in the Salvadoran army at the time.

However, when one looks at the continent in the here and now, one cannot help but notice that for all the fusions of Christ and Marx and all the revolutionary rhetoric to come from the South American Church, the left is on the back foot—Bolsonaro has taken a number of hard-right moves, such as accelerating the deforestation of the Amazon or leaving the Brazilian indigenous to die from the coronavirus, in between getting attacked by birds and catching the coronavirus every twenty minutes. Similarly, Bolivia has suffered a military coup on flimsy grounds and is now being lead by “interim” president Jeanine Añez, who has already taken to privatising state-run industries like a duck takes to water. Likewise, the liberationists failed to provide effective resistance to any number of far-right dictators in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Argentina’s Jorge Videla, Alberto Fujimori of Peru, or the 35-year reign of Alfredo Stroessner. The question, then, is why? Why have these practices been so ineffectual?

The explanation that would probably leap to the minds of many is that liberation theology is simply too contradictory to accomplish anything of great value insofar as resistance is concerned. How can one reconcile statements such as “Blessed are the peacemakers” or the intonation that “...all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” with the necessarily violence inherent to any revolution, no matter how just that revolution may be? Yet it seems that a way was found. Take, for instance, the Sandinista statement that “...Christians have been an integral part of our revolutionary history, to a degree unprecedented in any other revolutionary moment...”, or the need that the state forces of San Salvador apparently felt to have Archbishop Romero killed, as mentioned above. Even Christians who reject Marxism, or who predate it, have been known to take up arms for or against their native state (see the Crusades and Puritan leadership in the English revolution for examples); and the True Levellers (otherwise known as Diggers) could be plausibly interpreted as proto-anarchists. So it cannot be claimed that Christianity is incompatible with revolutionary fervour, at least not at so simple a level.

Other explanations exist for this phenomenon. Take, for example, the explanation given by Daniel M. Bell, who in his 2001 work Liberation Theology After the End of History: The refusal to cease suffering proposes that there are two major failures of liberation theology, historically speaking. The first of these is a failure to understand capitalism as not only an economic system wherein the means of production are controlled by those using those same means of production, but also a complex set of “technologies of desire” – put simply, a set of mechanisms that, to quote the introduction, “captures and distorts human desire in accord with the golden rule of production for the market”. (The author has Christianity as an opposing set.) The second main problem, so saith Bell, is that the liberationists place too heavy an emphasis upon the value of justice and insufficient an emphasis upon the value of forgiveness. In particular, Bell argues that by rendering justice in the sense of suum cuique (lit. “may all get their due”, generally referring to a theory of justice which treats the matter as one of distribution, reparations and so on), it becomes impossible for reconciliation to truly occur, thereby raising the possibility of a “terror of justice” and failing to fight capitalism on the grounds that it does nothing about the root of the problem – that is to say, about desire – still focusing as it does on how goods are allocated.

To be clear, when Bell refers to capitalism as making use of “technologies of desire”, he is combining Foucault’s notion of “technologies of power” with Deleuze’s “ontology of desire”. As he explains it in chapter one:

Desire is captured by capitalism and enslaved to the axiomatic of production for the market not merely by the repressive capacity of the state but also through the exercise of a pastoral power operative in a multitude of technologies of desire promoted in various spaces of enclosure (prison, factory, school, home), human sciences, civic programs, practices, and organisations, and so forth.

Nevertheless, the book fails in its stated intention to show that forgiveness is a better means of resistance to capitalism than is the current centralisation of justice in liberationist thought. Quoth the book’s own conclusion, the adoption of forgiveness is a “wager on God”. Given the stakes, I can hardly advise anyone to follow such advice as that. To his credit, he does acknowledge the possibility that any greater emphasis on forgiveness will be weaponised against the liberationists as a mere means of pacification and de facto neutralisation, and his point that reparations (as a suum cuique theory of justice would require) cannot suffice for certain crimes. In his own words:

“...injustice is irreversible. Once injustice has been committed, no future can ever make good the suffering of the past … Nothing can be set on the scales of justice opposite an infant victim of the Contras that will somehow balance it out, that will render that death amenable to a calculus of ‘what is due’ for the simple fact that precisely as an act of injustice it is irretrievably ‘that which is not due’. There is nothing… that can transmute that situation that death, into ‘what is due’; hence justice as a calculus of what is due is defeated. Justice as “rendering what is due” eternally impales itself on Ayacucho.”

Whilst forgiveness might be better for the souls of Latin America, it cannot suffice as strategy. Rather, it is the continuations from New Christendom that hold back liberation theology and often dull what revolutionary edge it does have. These continuations – namely the maintenance of the spiritual-temporal split wherein the Church is given full authority over the immaterial and only morally advises on questions of material conditions and the failure to consider Christianity as a fully-defined social, political, and economic formation is whence the failure derives. The unwillingness to engage in partisanship is understandable, given the horrors that were being implicitly and explicitly endorsed by the Vatican as recently as the 1920s, but if the masses are to engage with their oppressors rather than simply easing the pressure on the boot a little, then (to paraphrase Engels) the fight for the liberation of humanity must occur now and not later on. Only then can the cross in Ayacucho stand without a body.

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