Liberation Theology Blog Series, Post #6: Is Liberation Theology Ideology (Critique)?: Juan Luis Segundo’s Faith and Ideology

Faith and IdeologiesSilas Morgan brings us the sixth post in Percaritatem’s Liberation Theology Blog Series, which focuses on the work of Juan Luis Segundo. Morgan’s post will continue with a second post in which he engages Slavoj Zizek’s political-theological use of ideologue critique, highlighting continuities and discontinues between Zizek and Latin American liberation theology, as exemplified in Segundo’s position below.

Brief Academic Biography:

Silas Morgan is an Arthur J. Schmitt Fellow at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois. His research focuses on the relation of ideology to theology in political-theological perspective. He is also a section editor at Syndicate Theology.


In its original and classic variation, Latin American liberation theology (LALT) took its point of departure largely from Marxian social analysis, a matter that, although it is of historical and theological contention, continues to mark its sociopolitical and economic trajectory today.[1] This led early liberation thought to articulate a theopolitical partiality towards oppressed and marginalized communities of the poor, developed in relation to several grassroots social movements. This interpretation of the meaning of praxis within the immediate material conditions of Latin American life was theologically legitimated in various ways, most commonly through a political hermeneutic that relied heavily on Marxist principles.[2] The reception of Marxism, however, was uneven from the start, and became a major sticking point as Vatican leaders and other critics began their efforts to resist the growth of liberation theology in Latin American communities.[3]

One of the primary sites of this uneven reception and usage of Marxism by LALT is the concept of ideology critique. Even casual observers may note that ideology critique ought to be front and center of all liberation theological work. Fueling the Marxist critique of capitalism, specifically the bourgeois control over social relations and productive relations, ideology critique gives weight to liberation theology’s landmark characteristics: its prioritization of praxis, its suspicion of institutional and structural elements in contemporary society and politics, and finally, its desire to realize material conditions of freedom and responsibility for political subjects, notably the Latin American poor. And yet, the attention to ideology and ideology critique in LALT is absent and cursory at best.

One exception is the Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo. His explicitly methodological works, The Liberation of Theology[4]and Faith and Ideologies[5], discuss the relation of faith to ideology as a matter of serious theological and pragmatic import. Here, I hope to briefly overview Segundo’s position on ideology. In a subsequent post, I critique his position, contrasting it with major developments in the theory of ideology within critical theory, namely Slavoj Zizek, whose political theology has important continuities and discontinues with the Latin American liberation tradition.

What is ideology critique, according to Segundo, and what is its relation to the faithof liberation theology? Defining ideology critique is difficult, even for its proponents.[6] Raymond Guess discusses two major perspectives: (a) the negative and pejorative usage, exemplified in the narrow, critical Marxist definition, and (b) the positive and general usage, proffered by Paul Ricoeur.[7] Whereas for Marx ideology is the forceful use of distorted ideas that conceal the real workings of a system so as to directly benefit the interests of the powerful, Ricoeur sees ideology as an integrative force that binds a social group together around common values and goals.[8] It is a group’s collective opinion, its rhetorical performance of its positioning, “within”which a particular group thinks and acts: ideology is an integrative schematic for identity that it defines what membership and inclusion. It constitutes the social body as such.[9]

Where does Segundo fit in here? A major theme of the method outlined in the Liberation of Theology is a radical “reideologization”that seeks to properly link faith to ideology for liberative purposes.[10] He defines ideology as “all systems of means…that are used to attain some end or goal.”[11] But this strategy is not meant to liberate authentic Christian faith from the clutches of ideology, but rather to argue for its necessity. Ideology, according to Segundo, is neither false consciousness or illusion, nor is it solely a tool of class struggle. Ideology is the concrete means to achieve and actualize the basic system of goals and values, held by individuals and social groups alike.[12] Without ideology, any real action in history would be impossible.

And so, we see that Segundo aligns his position with the latter of the two views outlined above, although he does try to connect his work to the Marxist legacy by building this theology of liberation on a general philosophical anthropology.[13] Faith has a central place here, but again it is defined in more general terms as “the anthropological constant”whereby all human persons affix themselves to a core system of values and goals that governs both social agency and personal identity. ‘Religious faith’ is a type of an anthropological faith that, when paired to a specific ideology, like Marxism, can be morphed into a socially transformative force that can act in history towards particular goals, using ideology to accomplish itself.[14]

Faith is “the total process to which man submits, a process of learning in and through ideologies how to create the ideologies needed to handle new and unforeseen situations in history.”[15] As “a system of values and goals” that substantiate the content and motivation of all human action, faith is the psychological mechanism through which we adopt the meaning structures that generate the horizon of our action, it requires an ideological supplement in order to be efficacious in history and the social order. Ideology helps faith actualize its goals and to realize its values. For Segundo, like Ricoeur, ideologies are not false representations of the Real, but the instruments of faith’s effective actualization in history and society. When Segundo agrees with the Marxist axiom that that all religions are manifestations of ideology[16], he does not mean this pejoratively (as Marx does). It is not a normative-based critique of religion, but a description of how faith partners with ideological means to achieve its goals. A faith without ideology is dead; it cannot be actualized in history, and so cannot become a force for change. It is impractical and in this sense, rendered impotent. This, says Segundo, is part of the problem with western theology that liberation theology rectifies.


What, then, is the relation of liberation theology to the critique of ideology? As such, Segundo contends that the goal of liberation theology vis-à-vis Christian faith is not to divest itself of ideology, but rather to clarify how best to leverage its ideology against others, and to deploy its theological resources of its faith to create and sustain new ideologies that are capable of competing against the ones that are tantamount to domination and exploitation.

The only way for a liberative Christian faith to realize itself effectively in history is through ideology. It is through ideological means that human social actors gather under a common rubric to achieve collective goals. The realization of these goals (‘Christianity’) is based on specific values (‘faith’), accomplish a set of effective means (‘ideology’). For Segundo, in contradistinction to Marx (and Gutierrez for that matter[17]), the goal of ideology critique is not to demolish or destruct ideology, but rather to understand it, to become more self-reflective about it in order to effectively challenge competing ideologies by creating alternatives. Within liberation theology, the aim of ideology critique is to think ideologically better. Put differently, it is to think ideologically in more self-informed way, so as to use ideology as a more generative and creative means of efficacy, of actualizing one’s values. If liberation theology seeks to generate radical and transformative social change, it must become more ideological, rather than less.

The ultimate aim of Segundo’s thinking on faith and ideology is to reconfigure their relationship in support of a Christianity that is socially and politically mediated, the goal of which is historically immanent: the concrete transformation of people’s lives through economic liberation. By uniting the values of the biblical gospels (faith) with its action-oriented dimensions (ideology), Segundo seeks to refashion theology as a critical social theory, with the theological commandment of neighborly love as its normative, ethical undercurrent. To do this, Segundo says, Christian faith must align itself with an ideology that is up to the task of efficaciously delivering this neighborly love into the Real.

With Segundo’s position firmly in view, my subsequent post will challenge Segundo’s ideology critique (or lack thereof), not on the basis that it is inadequately Marxist (as others have done), but on the ground that it is inadequately negative, and by that I mean, dialectical. To clarify this, I will turn briefly to Slavoj Zizek’s political-theological use of ideologue critique and outline some continuities and discontinues that I find between him and LALT, as exemplified in Segundo’s position here.


[1] LALT’s relation to Marxism has been characterized in various ways: conceptual borrowing (which may or may not include political alliance), appropriation, and strategic common ground (i.e., critique of international economic development as the cause of exploitation and alienation). What is clear is that while there is not a strict adherence to Marxist categories, liberation theologians applied principles with a loose, almost ad hoc, flexibility. For some Vatican theologians, (such as the then Cardinal Ratzinger), even this goes too far, while for others (Alister Kee), it is far from adequate. For Kee, liberation theology is not Marxist enough. It must incorporate Marxism in radically self-reflexive way, rather than simply “baptizing”its theory so as to fit its peculiar theological concerns and political aims. See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1984), andAlister Kee, Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990).

[2] Michael Löwy, “Liberation-Theology Marxism”in Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism, Jacquet Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis, ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 225. Here, Löwy gives the status of the question in reference to the Marxism of Liberation theology in Latin America, characterizes the type of usage as “‘neo-Marxists’- that is to say, as innovators who offer Marxism a new inflection or novel perspectives, or make original contributions to it.”(228) Examples include the concept of the poor, the critique of capitalism, and the affinity between idolatry critique and commodity fetishism. Unsurprisingly, absent here is the concept of ideology.

[3] Defending LALT from the Vatican critique that it was too aligned with Marxism, the Boff brothers argue that Marxism is only helpful for LATL when “submitted to the judgment of the poor and their cause.”Its relationship is one of a “decidedly critical stance.”Since Marx can be a “companion, but not a guide”, it is treated as an ‘instrument’and so liberation theologians “feel no obligation to social sciences for any use it may make, correct or otherwise, of Marxist terminology and ideas.”LALT “freely borrows from Marxism certain ‘methodological pointers’, one of which is “the mystifying power of ideologies, including religious ones.”Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 28.

[4] Juan L.Segundo, Liberation of Theology. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books), 1976.

[5] Juan L. Segundo, Faith and Ideologies. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books), 1984.

[6] A recent example of the plural and ambiguous meanings of ideology critique between those on the political left is the brouhaha over Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky’s dispute over the meaning of ideology critique in contemporary critical politics.

[7] Raymond Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[8] Paul Ricoeur, “Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology”, in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. ed. John B. Thompson. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 71-88ff. This more general understanding of ideology does not consider itself to impartial or neutral. Riceour, and Segundo, to point that he follows him, offers a critique of ideology but insofar as its integrative force produces an inertia that is resistant to otherness and change, and so becomes an undue legitimation of unjust forms of power (i.e., domination, oppression, exploitation).

[9] Paul Ricoeur, “Science and Ideology,”in Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. ed. John B. Thompson. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 226ff.

[10] Segundo, Liberation of Theology, 116.

[11] Segundo, Faith and Ideologies, 16, also see 27-28 and 121-122, respectively.

[12] Segundo, Liberation of Theology, 154.

[13] For more on Segundo’s understanding of Marxism within his liberation theology, see Faith and Ideologies, 200ff. In Faith and Ideologies, 117, he describes Marxism alone as “an efficacy—structure which forgets the values it is serving and gets carried away by its presumed autonomy and so will lose the achievement—ordered efficacy it exhibited at the start.”

[14] Segundo, Faith and Ideologies, 75.

[15] Segundo, The Liberation of Theology, 120.

[16] Segundo, Faith and Ideologies, 39.

[17] Although Gutiérrez does not offer a robust account of ideology critique, he clearly operates with a much more negative and critical – so Marxist – theory of ideology. See Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1973), 12, 234-235.

Book Plug: Philosophy Imprisoned. The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Incarceration.

I am happy to announce that Philosophy Imprisoned. The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration, edited by Sarah Tyson and Joshua M. Hall, is now available for preorder via Below is a brief description of the book taken from from Lexington’s website (an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield) and a list of contributors, including myself.Philosophy Imprisoned

Brief Description:

Western philosophy’s relationship with prisons stretches from Plato’s own incarceration to the modern era of mass incarceration. Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration draws together a broad range of philosophical thinkers, from both inside and outside prison walls, in the United States and beyond, who draw on a variety of critical perspectives (including phenomenology, deconstruction, and feminist theory) and historical and contemporary figures in philosophy (including Kant, Hegel, Foucault, and Angela Davis) to think about prisons in this new historical era. All of these contributors have experiences within prison walls: some are or have been incarcerated, some have taught or are teaching in prisons, and all have been students of both philosophy and the carceral system. The powerful testimonials and theoretical arguments are appropriate reading not only for philosophers and prison theorists generally, but also for prison reformers and abolitionists.

List of Contributors:

Eric Anthamatten; Anders “Andy” Benander III; Natalie Cisneros; Michael DeWilde; Vincent Greco; Timothy Greenlee; Spoon Jackson; Arlando “Tray” Jones III; Drew Leder; Chris Lenn; John Douglas Macready; Lisa McLeod; William Muth; Cynthia Nielsen; Aislinn O’Donnell; Andre Pierce; Atif Rafay and Ginger Walker


Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #4: Gustavo Gutiérrez. On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent

The fourth post in Percaritatem’s Liberation Theology Blog Series is by Dr. Andrew Irvine and focuses on the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Dr. Irvine is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College. He is an editor of the volume Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion (New York: Springer 2009) and has written numerous articles and chapters on topics in liberation theology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and religion and science. You may read more about Dr. Irvine’s work here.


Job's SufferingThe 1970s and early 1980s were devastating years for Latin American poor and the liberation theologians who sought to accompany them. Dictatorships and paramilitary forces exercised massive repressive violence. Gustavo Gutiérrez shared intensely that suffering. At the same time, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (SCDF) issued condemnations of “certain aspects” of liberation theology, adding to the liberationists’ vulnerability.

By the mid-eighties, Gutiérrez’s writings bespeak a deepening discipleship in the spirituality of the poor. His vanguardism is tempered with closer solidarity.[1] In A Theology of Liberation (first published in 1971), Gutiérrez had defined theology as “critical reflection on practice.” Without abandoning critique or the reference point of practice, in On Job (published in 1986)Gutiérrez describes theology as “thought about a mystery” (xi)[2] He means no wholly indeterminate mystery, however:

[W]hen we talk of “mystery” with the Bible in mind, we do not mean something that is hidden and must remain hidden. The “mystery” in this case must rather be expressed, not concealed; communicated, not kept to itself. . . . The revelation of the mystery of God leads to its proclamation to every human being: this is the special characteristic of the biblical message regarding mystery. To think the mystery of God will mean, then, starting from God’s willing self-communication to “all the nations.”(ibid.)

Gutiérrez stresses two points. First, “with the Bible in mind” as the proclamation of divine self-revelation, what is mysterious about God is the gratuitousness of God’s self-giving. This has two aspects, paradigmatically revealed in Jesus Christ. Christ “reveals that the Father who sent him on a universal mission is a God of love”; moreover, Christ reveals that in that universal love, God “assigns a privileged place to the simple and the despised” (ibid.) It follows that defense of the oppressed and condemnation of oppressors is grounded in and inspired by the universality of divine love, and that faithfulness to God’s universal love demands emulation of God’s preferential option for the poor. (This is the book’s clear reply to the SCDF’s suppositions, that liberation theologians believe the poor merit God’s love more than other people, and that God loves the poor to the exclusion of others.)

Second, Gutiérrez stresses that the quality of one’s talk about God is connected directly to the quality of one’s quiet before God:

God is first contemplated when we do God’s will and allow God to reign; only after that do we think about God. . . . We must first establish ourselves on the terrain of spirituality [mística] and practice; only subsequently is it possible to formulate discourse on God in an authentic and respectful way. . . . The mystery of God comes to life in contemplation and in the practice of God’s plan for human history; only in a second phase can this life inspire appropriate reasoning and relevant speech. . . . In view of all this we can say that the first stage is silence, the second is speech (xiii).

So, no divine self-revelation without love given gratuitously and preferentially to the poor; no speech about God worth hearing without the prior silence of contemplative practice of God’s will.

But can these convictions endure the experience from which Gutiérrez maintains they flow, namely, the suffering of the innocent? Confronting the horrific violence he has witnessed, Gutiérrez poses perhaps a purer theological question than appears in any of his earlier writings: Is there any religious alternative to that reigning “orthodoxy,” which counts among the faithful the authors of some of the most foul deeds ever witnessed on the Latin American continent? Or is God who they say God is? If God is as generations of innocent victims of Latin America have been told – unmoved by earthly evil, unless to bless the status quo – if that is the secret of the divine mystery, then they were better never to have been born; their masters, torturers and murderers do them a favor:

In Peru, therefore – but the question is perhaps symbolic of all Latin America – we must ask: how are we to do theology while Ayacucho lasts? How are we to speak of the God of life when cruel murder on a massive scale goes on in the “corner of the dead”? How are we to preach the love of God amid such profound contempt for human life? How are we to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord where death reigns, and especially the death of children, women, the poor, indigenes, and the “unimportant” members of our society? (102)[3]

All these “how to” questions are formed under the fearsome weight of the possibility that the last word must be, We cannot speak of the God of life; we cannot preach the love of God; we cannot proclaim the resurrection of the Lord: God is who they say God is. If God is who the torturers, the murderers, and the willfully oblivious say, then obviously God has no special concern for the victims. Thus, for all the emphasis he puts on the “how to” questions, Gutiérrez realizes that the struggle for a liberating theology cannot succeed at the level of method alone. The questions the poor raise from their experience lead to the fundamental theological question of the times, “Is God who they say God is?” The analogy between the situation of the afflicted of Latin America and that of the biblical character of Job gives Gutiérrez the occasion to consider how divine self-communication might answer that question in his present day.

Who is God in the Book of Job? Gutiérrez argues that Job’s is a story of God’s wholly gratuitous love for all creation revealed through a preferential option for the innocent sufferer. The only real reason – if such it can be called – for God’s preference for the poor is a universal love poured out without reason. God loves all people. Thus God is concerned for justice amongst them. Therefore, God opts preferentially for victims of injustice. “The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuituousness and universality of God’s agapeic love” (94).

Suffering the oppressive consolations of his friends, Job experiences the depth of dehumanization that poverty entails. Job, too, is forced to ask, “Is God who they say God is?” However, Job rejects his friends’ “orthodox” legitimation of his affliction. They suppose that God’s justice consists in rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. The implication, of course, is that Job must have earned his suffering. Accordingly, Job’s only hope for relief is to confess his guilt, even if he cannot find in himself any cause. However, Job refuses to be a pawn in this show trial. He stubbornly insists that there is no cause that would justify the afflictions visited upon him. Instead, he rails against God who causes the innocent to suffer, and demands that God give account for this dereliction of justice.

Eventually, God does answer Job. Significantly, God does not impugn Job’s claim to innocence. Indeed, God blames the friends for supposing God to be “simply the guardian of a rigid moral order” (88). If their doctrine of divine recompense and retribution were right, then religion could only truly be a practice of self-interest. But neither does God concede Job’s claim. God insists only on the freedom to love “for nothing,” overwhelming Job with a paean to divine creativity. Neither Job’s alleged guilt nor his maintenance of his innocence weigh in determining the case. The “free and gratuitous initiative” of divine love is the “only motivation for creation that can lead to a communion of two freedoms” (70-71).

As Gutiérrez points out, Job refuses to collude with God (or, at least, with the God of his friends’ theology) in his own victimization. But in the course of events, Job learns that castigating God for not being an immovable arbiter of moral desert does not save his dignity, either. Cleaving to that theologized morality delivers Job only a Pyrrhic victory over God: he wins his demand that God respond to his charges, but God responds by throwing out the case. Job, says Gutiérrez, needs to see God beyond his own demands for moral rectitude; and Job needs to see this because the real object of his quest for justice is not victory over against God, but a consummatory “communion of two freedoms” – both Job’s and God’s together.

For such a communion to be fulfilled, God cannot be compelled to be merely a law enforcer. Yet, the suffering of the innocent is destructive of human freedom. So, the “free and gratuitous initiative” of divine love in creation must somehow be a will for justice, even if it does not enforce its dispensation. Correspondingly, human freedom must somehow express the divine will for justice in the world.

Gutiérrez finds a key to a satisfactory understanding of the problem in Job 40: 9-14, a passage in which God offers a “defense” by taunting Job for his impotency to depose the proud and the wicked:

God wants justice indeed, and desires that divine judgment (mishpat) reign in the world; but God cannot impose it, for the nature of created beings must be respected. God’s power is limited by human freedom; for without freedom God’s justice would not be present within history. . . . [P]recisely because human beings are free, they have the power to change their course and be converted. The destruction of the wicked would put an end to that possibility. (77)

In sum, God’s own power is limited by and for the sake of human power. This condition of limitation and empowerment creates the possibility of a communion of human and divine freedom. Yet, Gutiérrez seems to say, it is the effects of human power which determine whether this communion is actual. For, “the all-powerful God is also a ‘weak’ God. The mystery of divine freedom leads to the mystery of human freedom and to respect for it” (77-78). Justice, then, is a goal in view of which God gives power over to human beings. What kind of power? Power to make history. Justice thus may be defined as the to-be-actualized harmony of divine and human freedom, embodied in the dynamics and structures through which (human) history is made. Justice between God and humankind is the environing condition for, and supernatural effect of, justice among human beings.

The pastoral appeal of this view of God’s presence in history is made patent in liberation theology. Where human beings more freely take up the historical task of liberation intended by God, theology will be more truthful in its talk about God. Conversely, where human beings are deprived of this freedom, theology will be less true. The exercise of human freedom accounts for whatever gap exists between the justice divinely intended and the justice actually experienced in history. A richer exercise of freedom for justice amounts to a richer, more faithful experience of divine presence.


[1] For a roughly contemporary, cautious appraisal of the contrast and possible complementarity of vanguardism and solidarity, see the 1983 address of Juan Luis Segundo, “Two Theologies of Liberation,” in Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, ed. with introductions, commentary, and translations by Alfred T. Hennelly (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990), 353-366.

[2] I quote from Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987). I have sometimes modified quotations after comparing it with the fifth edition of Hablar de Dios desde el sufrimiento del inocente: Una reflexión sobre el libro de Job (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 2002).

[3] “Corner of the Dead” is the meaning of the Quechua name, “Ayacucho.” This name was given in the time of Inca rule to a city and region of Peru where an uprising was bloodily put down. During the 1980s, thousands of civilians were disappeared and murdered there at the hands of Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) guerillas and government forces.

Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #2: Rosemary Radford Ruether in the “Terra Incognita” of a New Humanity

Below is part 2 of Dr. Lilian Barger’s post on Rosemary Radford Ruether. You can read part 1, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Women as the “First and Final Proletariat,” hereLiberation Theology Rosemary Ruether

Brief Author Biography:

Lilian Calles Barger, is an independent historian, her current book project The World Come of Age: Religious Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation is a long hemispheric history of the emergence of liberation theology. Contact her at [email protected].


While the North American liberal establishment of the 1970s was reticent in challenging homegrown liberation theologies, and compelled to focus on Latin America, early criticism came from Rosemary Radford Ruether. In multiple essays, she charged that black, feminist, and Latin American elites were struggling to identify with the oppressed through an intensely theoretical approach. The appeal to a common experience did not ring true as liberationist sought intellectual legitimacy. The rhetoric of sex, class, and race oppression failed to provide a way forward to an inclusive human liberation.

Before James Cone had published Black Theology and Black Power (1969), Ruether asked to what extent such theology was possible without being a form of parochial racist propaganda. She argued that a contextual black theology, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., had the potential to be universal and yet speak to the particular situation of the black church’s encounter with the alienating image of a Caucasian Christ.[1]Instead, she saw an emerging theology estranged from the people it professed to represent. She noted in 1971 that Cone, as the foremost black theologian, was on the agenda of every radical theological discussion, and represented the rise of “Negro intelligentsia…alienated from the living context of the black community.”[2] She viewed Cone as functioning within a male white power base addressing white people. This made his theology inadequate for the black community. It appeared that black caucuses within white institutions simply slid into bourgeois respectability disguised in militancy and abandoning the poor unchurched black masses.

Ruether viewed Cone’s theory of race and the association of whiteness with oppression and blackness with liberation as straining metaphors into an unworkable “contextual absolute.” He had failed to differentiate between kinds and levels of oppression, or to make clear that its manifestation was not intrinsic to a permanent racial identity. Blackness as a metaphor for universal humanity, and an uncritical claim to virtue in oppression, was wedded to denying humanity to white people and regarding them as evil. But not only did Cone reify racial categories, he failed to provide a theology grounded in black culture that saw black people as more than merely oppressed.

Besides the reification of race and alienation from the black community, Ruether identified a clear crisis developing between black theology, in the line of a “super-male-chauvinist tradition,” and feminist theology. They were pitted against each other in their respective enclaves within the white male dominated academy.[3] The complexity of the relationship between black and feminist theology was evident in the position of black women caught between racism, sexism, and concurrent with broader debates within feminism. Both black and feminist theology failed to see the terms on which they saw each other.

Ruether, whose profile was growing on the editorial board of Christianity and Crisis, addressed problems within the newly emerging feminist theology. Ruether’s critique of the feminist theology was similar to critiques of black and Latin American theologians as being insufficiently rooted in the people they claimed to speak for. The new group of elite women tended to be white, middle-class, childless, and career-focused, obscuring class and race in woman’s oppression. Their experience did not stand for the experience of all women. She saw clear evidence in the denigration of motherhood, with “abortion” the only word associated with it, which she saw as arising from the subversion of childbearing in the adopting of male career patterns.[4] Ruether, held that maternity represented the one source of power men did not have and thus used against women.Feminists’ inability to recapture motherhood as a positive experience accepted what Mary Daly had called “phallic morality.”[5]Ruether called for women theologians to unmask the false consciousness that produced misogyny even among feminists.

As early as 1970 Rosemary Radford Ruether expressed reluctance to replace the brotherhood of man with the sisterhood of the women’s movement. The idea of sisterhood raised the question of whether women constituted a people, similar to racial or ethnic groups. For Ruether sisterhood had a limited function as a “therapeutic community” to arrive at consciousness of oppression and alienation. The goal of feminism was a venture into a “terra incognita” to create an integrated “new humanity” free from the dualism of patriarchal power rather than to reify essentialism.[6] Modernity was struggling to overcome the hierarchy of traditional society in which subordinated groups experienced themselves through the definition of the dominant group. Through a cultural rebellion, women, blacks, and colonized people were seeking a communal recognition of their personhood yet they were in danger of reinscribing the false identities they were seeking to escape.

White men defined both the place and terms of rebellion for blacks and women. Ruether noted that blacks caught between assimilation, or embracing the traditional and unworkable identity of a slave, had a parallel in women’s history. The self-assertion of a new black identity, evident in the defiance of the Black Panthers, threatened to re-create the angry black man of the white imagination.[7] In the journey of revolutionary struggle, women either emulated men engaging in self-hatred, or embraced the societal definitions of womanhood. For women seeking to redefine themselves, the anger of radical sisterhood could simply read as acting out a dreaded feminine power. Both blacks and women needed to go beyond the parameters set by a hierarchal society in defining liberation.

A new ethos that recognized co-humanity required overcoming sexism as men and women in solidarity sought reintegration with nature and community. This was the meaning of biblical salvation – the overcoming of alienation. Quoting the apostle Paul, “there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek,” Ruether, considering herself a radical liberal, appealed to a spiritual androgyny and human solidarity rather than race, class or sex to arrive at a new humanity—a new universal. [8] Her position as a rising feminist theologian provided a platform to critique what confounded her male liberal cohorts operating under the modern notion of universalism. By doing so, Rosemary Radford Ruether initiated the way for subsequent revisions within black and feminist liberation theologies.


[1] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Black Theology and the Black Church” America (June 14, 1969), 684.

[2] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “ The Black Theology of James Cone,” Catholic World (October 1971), 18-20.

[3] Ruether, New Woman, New Earth, 116.

[4] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “ Crisis in Sex and Race: Black Theology vs. Feminist Theology” Christianity and Crisis (April 15, 1974), 72.

[5] Ruether, “ Crisis in Sex and Race: Black Theology vs. Feminist Theology,” 72.

[6] Ruether, New Woman New Earth, 159.

[7] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Women’s Liberation in Historical and Theological Perspective” Sounding, Vol 43:4 (Winter 1970): 371.

[8] Rosemary Radford Ruether “Sexism and the Theology of Liberation” Christian Century (December 12, 1973): 1228.



Syndicate Theology’s Symposium on Jennings’s Book, The Christian Imagination, July 21-30

Syndicate Theology’s symposium on Willie James Jennings’s book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, begins tomorrow, July 21. Below I have copied (from Syndicate’s website) an overview of the book and the opening paragraph from each panelist’s review. Please join us for what will be, no doubt, an excellent and lively conversation. Christian Imagination @ Syndicate Theology


Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, failed in its attempts to heal social divisions? In this ambitious and wide-ranging work, Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained segregated societies. A probing study of the cultural fragmentation—social, spatial, and racial—that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals.

Weaving together the stories of Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy, and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race.

Using his bold, creative, and courageous critique to imagine a truly cosmopolitan citizenship that transcends geopolitical, nationalist, ethnic, and racial boundaries, Jennings charts, with great vision, new ways of imagining ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes we inhabit.

About the Author

Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, where he previously served as academic dean. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.


Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Cross the Sea and Cleanse the Temple” (July 21)

CHRISTIANITY IN THE AMERICAS is shrouded in a dark past of white supremacy and colonial violence. Given Christianity’s history of colonial captivity, is the Christian imagination exhausted or can it still speak meaningfully and creatively today? In The Christian Imagination Willie James Jennings lays out a persuasive case detailing the racist and capitalist underpinnings of colonial Christianity in Portugal, Peru, South Africa, and the United States, showing how this colonial legacy continues to dominate the establishment agenda of the theological academy. Despite these realities, he further argues that the Christian imagination can be fired once again if the church can reconnect to Israel, creation, and the Creator. His call to theological intimacy amidst a world of cultural fragmentation is prophetic, hearkening a post-colonial future for the world Christian communion.

Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Rending New Life From Mangled Places” (July 23)

WILLIE JAMES JENNINGS’ BOOK, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, is a revolutionary study in the ongoing conversation of the relation between race and Christian theology and practice. In my essay, I discuss key themes of the book, which include: the connection between land and identity, the role of whiteness as an evaluative form or racialized lens for interpreting others and the world, the injurious and dehumanizing effects of Christianity’s embrace of colonizing practices, and Jennings’ original insights regarding how such practices can be understood as expressions of de-formed Christian doctrines. Toward the end of my essay, I transition to a more critical dialogue, both for the purpose of furthering the conversation and for my own education.

A. J. Walton, “Supersessionist Sensibilities, Supremacist Imagination” (July 28)

PERHAPS IT’S A TAD ODD to state upfront the many ways a theologian has influenced a young academic. But setting aside worries that I may come across as some crazed fan—a Beyoncé or Beatles type of groupie, you know?—I find no need to deny the fact that Willie James Jennings—the teacher, the mentor, and the many other descriptors that can follow his name—has and continues to shape not only how I understand Christian theology proper (if there is such a thing), but also how I navigate the everyday complexities that is life and vocation in this our (post?) modern context. The truth is this: Jennings is a theological genius and a force with whom we must all reckon.

Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “The Colorblindness of a Diseased Social Imagination” (July 30)

AFTER DOING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC study of a white southern Protestant church that decided to become multiracial I have seen how crucial it is to better understand and complexify the subject of “race” and Christianity. Initially thinking this church was a real gem, given how few significantly interracial churches exist, I discovered all sorts of problems, including continuing white obliviousness about race. Some of the white members who intentionally formed this interracial church, performed racist behavior. Some decided the church was getting “too black” and left. Other whites reacted negatively when the founding white pastor was replaced by a black pastor. Many white members just did not want to talk about race. As a southern white girl raised in a white church in a family that totally ignored race issues, I did not think I was either racist or privileged. Not until this experience as an adult did I even begin to discover my own obliviousness.

Liberation Theology Reading List

With the generous help of several of my theology friends and other academic colleagues, I have put together a list of classic, contemporary, and secondary texts on Liberation Theology. The numeric list does not indicate ranking, prominence, or suggest an order in which the books should be read. However, the books marked “classic texts” were recommended multiple times by my colleagues and are seminal texts in the tradition. Lastly, I encourage you to leave comments suggesting other key works on Liberation Theology (or related liberating/emancipatory texts) that you have read and found valuable. Enjoy!Oscar Romero

[N.b. The book descriptions below are copied directly from and Goodreads unless otherwise noted.]

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own: The Spiritual Journey of a People. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “After twenty years, We Drink from Our Own Wells remains a classic expression of Latin American spirituality by a pioneer of liberation theology. Starting from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s counsel to root spirituality in one’s own experience, Gustavo Gutierrez outlines the contours of a spirituality rooted in the experience of the poor and their struggle for life. His aim is to reflect on the contemporary “road to holiness” — the passage of a people “through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection.”

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent.

Brief Description: “On Job asks a direct and profound question: How, in the face of so much suffering among the human innocent, can we talk about God? Theodicy is, of course, the business most central, intellectually, to liberation and theology, and Gutierrez is first and foremost a liberationist Christian. While On Job does not unravel the mysteries of evil (nor should it, Gutierrez observes), it does follow clearly mid with integrity Job’s progress toward God-talk and understmiding. In doing so, the author, by analogy, states movingly and potently the spirituality of Latin American Christians today. In his conclusion, Gutierrez offers us an explicit summary of his ministry and of the volume’s: “…for us Latin Americans the question is not precisely ‘How are we to do theology after Auschwitzt …In Latin America we are still experiencing … the torture we find so blameworthy in the Jewish holocaust But Christianity everywhere, Gutierrez continues, will be matured and perhaps even “…scandalized at hearing a frank avowal of the human and religious experience of the poor, and at seeing their clumsy attempts to relate their lives to the God in whom they have such deep faith.” All in all, not a shocking book; not an exciting book, not an easy book. Just an instructive, compassionate, graceful book, and one lacking in all politics save that of our shared humanity.”

  1. Oscar Romero. The Violence of Love. [Selections from Romero’s sermons]

Brief Description: “These selections from the sermons and writings of Archbishop Oscar Romero share the message of a great holy prophet of modern times. Three short years transformed Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, from a conservative defender of the status quo into one of the church’s most outspoken voices of the oppressed. Though silenced by an assassin’s bullet, his spirit and the challenge of his life lives on.”

  1. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Twenty years ago, when the civil rights and “Black Power” movements were at their peak, James Cone introduced a revolutionary theology based on the African-American experience of oppression and the quest for liberation. The book brought a new perspective to theology in the United States. Cone contends that theology grows out of the experience of the community; the community itself defines what God means. Western European theology serves the oppressors; therefore theology for African-Americans should validate their struggle for liberation and justice. In seven brief chapters, he argues passionately that God must be on the side of oppressed black people and develops the concept of a black God, noting: “To say God is Creator means … I am black because God is black!” The anniversary edition recognizes Cone’s contribution to U.S. theology with a 50-page section of critical reflections by six leading theologians including Gayraud Wilmore, Robert McAfee Brown and Rosemary Radford Reuther. Cone responds to these commentaries in an afterword. The foreword points out Cone’s influence on Latin American liberation theology. The interplay among text, commentaries, afterword and preface provides a lively discussion and analysis of developments in black liberation theology over the past two decades. The book should be read for the clarity with which it demonstrates the relationship between theology, oppression and liberation, and for its historic importance in raising the consciousness of its readers about the possibility of viewing God from a black perspective. Anyone concerned about U.S. social history, liberation theology and racism will find the book of interest. It is particularly suitable for university and seminary libraries.”

  1. James Cone. God of the Oppressed. [Classic text]

Brief Description:God of the Oppressed remains a landmark in the development of Black Theology—the first effort to present a systematic theology drawing fully on the resources of African-American religion and culture. Responding to the criticism that his previous books drew too heavily on Euro-American definitions of theology, James Cone went back to his experience of the black church in Bearden, Arkansas, the tradition of the Spirituals and black folklore, and the black history of struggle and survival, to construct a new approach to the gospel. In his reflections on God, Jesus, suffering, and liberation, Cone relates the gospel message to the experience of the black community. But a wider theme of the book is the role that social and historical context plays in framing the questions we address to God, as well as the mode of the answers provided. Revised, including a new introduction by Cone, God of the Oppressed remains invaluable for scholars, students, clergy, and everyone concerned with vital, contemporary God-Talk.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator: A View From the Victims. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Jon Sobrino continues the magisterial christology begun in Jesus the Liberator. In that book Sobrino examined the identity of Jesus in relation to his message, his interlocutors, and the conflict that led to his death. In this second volume he takes up the Resurrection of Christ, the Christology of the New Testament, and finally the christological formulae of the early church councils. Throughout Christ the Liberator Sobrino writes from the reality of faith, as set in motion by the event of Jesus Christ, and from the situation of the victims — the “Crucified People” of history — particularly the poor of El Salvador, with whom he works. With Christ the Liberator Sobrino’s christology takes its place among the most significant contributions of Latin America to the church and theology today.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays [Classic Text]

Brief Description: The provocative title of these essays plays on a traditional Catholic slogan: “No salvation outside the church.” Insofar as it implies God’s response to a world marked by suffering and injustice, then the poor represent an indispensible test, a key to the healing of a sick society.”

  1. Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary source].

Brief Description: This book features a series of essays focusing on the history and key concepts of liberation theology. Part I deals with history, method, and distinctive features of liberation theology. Part II deals with the systematic contents of liberation theology.

9.  Leonardo Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “This work deals with the basic questions that are tackled by liberation theology – oppression, violence, domination and marginalization. It then goes on to show how the Christian faith can be used as an agent in promoting social and individual liberation, and how faith and politics relate.”

10. Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Wikipedia]: “A primary reality to which Juan Luis Segundo responds is the fact that liberation theology, like any theological movement in its developmental stages, performs theological work in traditional ways: by looking to the biblical and dogmatic traditions. Segundo explains that liberation theology performed its theologizing while “feeling a responsibility towards both the problems of real life and the canons of worldwide theology”. However, it did theology in the only way it knew how, with the “means at its disposal”. While liberation theology did not adopt the learned style of academic theology and conform to its standards of detail and form in presentation, it also did not theologize in an aggressive, abrupt, way in order “to meet some inescapable pragmatic necessity”. In other words, Segundo sees a need for a critical evaluation of theological methodology and seeks to aggressively attack all the inconsistencies and contradictions that fill the myriad sociological and theological understandings of the world. Segundo is not interested in the content of liberation theology as much as he is trying to think about “the method used to theologize in the face of our real-life situation”. Segundo is primarily concerned with the liberation of the theological process, and notices a problem with the way theology is done that constricts liberation theology from flourishing in Latin America.”

11. Christopher Rowland (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is widely referred to in discussions of politics and religion but not always adequately understood. The 2007 edition of this Companion brings the story of the movement’s continuing importance and impact up to date. Additional essays, which complement those in the original edition, expand upon the issues by dealing with gender and sexuality and the important matter of epistemology. In the light of a more conservative ethos in Roman Catholicism, and in theology generally, liberation theology is often said to have been an intellectual movement tied to a particular period of ecumenical and political theology. These essays indicate its continuing importance in different contexts and enable readers to locate its distinctive intellectual ethos within the evolving contextual and cultural concerns of theology and religious studies. This book will be of interest to students of theology as well as to sociologists, political theorists and historians.”

12. Ivan Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Beyond Liberation Theology sets the stage for future liberation theology. Within, Ivan Petrella provides a bold new interpretation of liberation theology’s present state and future possibilities. In so doing, he challenges a number of established pieties: Instead of staying within the accepted norm of examining liberation theologies individually as if they were closed worlds, he dares develop a framework that tackles Latin American, Black, Womanist, and Hispanic/Latino(a) theologies together; instead of succumbing to the fashionable identity politics that rules liberationist discourse, he places poverty at the forefront of concern; instead of seeking to carve out a small space for theology in a secular world, he shows that only an expansive understanding of liberation theology can deal with contemporary challenges. The end result is a wake up call for liberation theologians everywhere and a radical new direction for liberation theology itself.”

13. Robert McAfee Brown. Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “In a manner that is vivid and lively, Robert McAfee Brown explains and illuminates liberation theology for North American readers who may have no previous knowledge of this dynamic Christian movement. Growing out of the experience of oppressed people in Latin America, liberation theology lends a transforming power to both the study of the Bible and the Christian duty to work for justice for all God’s people. With heartwarming, terrifying, and humorous stories, Brown shows the strength and significance of one of the outstanding developments in religious faith today and for the future.”

14. John J. Markey, Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North America. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “North Americans are enslaved by a false sense that self-centered idealism is morally good and necessary for achieving the common good. Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North Americans explores how those living inside the oppressive structures of the First World can be freed from false ideologies to achieve personal and socio-political conversion. Using the story of Moses and the Exodus, the book presents a spirituality of conversion for the privileged and develops a connection between the liberation of the oppressed and conversion of the privileged.”

15. Christian Smith, The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. [Secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is a school of Roman Catholic thought which teaches that a primary duty of the church must be to promote social and economic justice. In this book, Christian Smith explains how and why the liberation theology movement emerged and succeeded when and where it did.”

16. Ivone Gebara. Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Gebara’s succinct yet moving statements of the principles of ecofeminism shows how intertwined are the tarnished environment around her and the poverty that afflicts her neighbors. From her experiences with the Brazilian poor women’s movement she develops a gritty urban ecofeminism and indeed articulates a whole worldview. She shows how the connections between Western thought, patriarchal Christianity, and environmental destruction necessitate personal conversion to ‘a new relationship with the earth and with the entire cosmos.’”

17. Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Google Books]: “In this text, Mary Daly examines religion as a major cause of women’s repression over the last 3,000 years. From Genesis to the writings of contemporary theologians, she exposes the misogyny which still continues to flourish in Christianity.”

18. William R. Jones. Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Published originally as part of C. Eric Lincoln’s series on the black religious experience, Is God a White Racist? is a landmark critique of the black church’s treatment of evil and the nature of suffering. In this powerful examination of the early liberation methodology of James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and Joseph Washington, among others, Jones questions whether their foundation for black Christian theism—the belief in an omnibenevolent God who has dominion over human history—can provide an adequate theological foundation to effectively dismantle the economic, social, and political framework of oppression. Seeing divine benevolence as part of oppression’s mechanism of disguise, Jones argues that black liberation theologians must adopt a new theism that is informed by humanism and its principle of the functional ultimacy of wo/man, where human choice and action determine whether our condition is slavery or freedom.”

19. Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Eduardo Mendieta (eds.), Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latino/a Theology and Philosophy. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Decolonizing Epistemologies builds upon the contributions of liberation and postcolonial theories in both philosophy and theology. Gathering the work of three generations of Latina/o theologians and philosophers who have taken up the task of transforming their respective disciplines, it seeks to facilitate the emergence of new knowledge by reflecting on the Latina/o reality in the United States as an epistemic locus: a place from which to start as well as the source of what is known and how it is known. The task of elaborating a liberation and decolonial epistemology emerges from the questions and concerns of Latina/os as a minoritized and marginalized group. Refusing to be rendered invisible by the dominant discourse, the contributors to this volume show the unexpected and original ways in which U.S. Latina/o social and historical loci are generative places for the creation of new matrices of knowledge. Because the Latina/o reality is intrinsically connected with that of other oppressed groups, the volume articulates a new point of departure for the self-understanding not only of Latina/os but also possibly for other marginalized and oppressed groups, and for all those seeking to engage in the move beyond coloniality as it is present in this age of globalization.”

20. William T. Cavanaugh. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. [Contemporary, secondary text]

Brief Description [from back book cover]: “In this engrossing analysis, Cavanaugh contends that the Eucharist is the Church’s response to the use of torture as a social discipline. The author develops a theology of the political, which presents torture as one instance of a larger confrontation of powers over bodies, both individual and social. He argues that a Christian practice of the political is embodied in Jesus’ own torture at the hands of the powers of this world. The analysis of torture therefore is situated within wider discussions in the fields of ecclesiology and the state, social ethics and human rights, and sacramental theology. The book focuses on the experience of Chile and the Catholic Church there, before and during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, 1973-1990. Cavanaugh has first-hand experience of working with the Church in Chile, and his interviews with ecclesiastical officials and grassroots Church workers speak directly to the reader. The book uses this example to examine the theoretical bases of twentieth-century ‘social catholicism’ and its inability to resist the disciplines of the state, in contrast to a truer Christian practice of the political in the Eucharist. The book as a whole ties eucharistic theology to concrete eucharistic practice, showing that the Eucharist is not a ‘symbol’ but a real cathartic summary of the practices by which God forms people into the Body of Christ, producing a sense of communion stronger than that of any nation-state.”