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.

Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #3: The Resurrection as Liberation: An Introduction to James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology

In the third post in our Liberation Theology blog series, we turn to black liberation theology and the work of James Cone.

Brief Author Biography:

Timothy McGee is a Doctoral Student at Southern Methodist University, working in the area of Systematic Theology. His research focuses on 20th century political theologies, especially as they draw on Christological themes and motifs in their analysis and critique of the political configurations of life and death.


God of the Oppressed by James ConeJames H. Cone, the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, is the first and leading proponent of “black liberation theology.” His theology developed concurrently—and not under the influence of—the liberation theologies based in Latin America. This post highlights a central theme that spans Cone’s work over the last forty years: articulating and promoting the freedom and power of black life in a world structured by white supremacy’s power to kill. By focusing on this theme as it informs Cone’s theology of the cross, this post introduces some of the broad conversations surrounding Cone’s work while also highlighting a few common elements in early liberation theology, both in the U.S. and in Latin America: (1) the practice of writing theology within and for the sake of a particular group’s struggle against oppression; (2) the claim that the person and work of Christ necessitates doing theology in the context of the struggle for liberation; and (3) the importance of human freedom within and beyond contexts of oppression.

“James Meredith has been shot!”[1] In defiance of the violence and intimidation that sustain white supremacy, James Meredith began his “March Against Fear” through the South in 1966, only to be shot and wounded merely one day into his journey. Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Floyd McKissick convened in Memphis to continue his march. It was during this march that the slogan and movement of “black power” coalesced and gained national prominence.

In April 1969, James Cone published his first book, Black Theology and Black Power. Central to the argument in that book—and all of Cone’s subsequent work—is the confrontation with the threat of death: “the structure of white society attempts to make ‘black being’ into ‘nonbeing’ or ‘nothing.’”[2] The institution of slavery and its posthumous extension through the penal system, lynching, Jim Crow, and various acts of violence created a situation in which the self-development and expression of black life was met with the threat of physical death. Biological survival—life itself—became linked to a severe restriction of one’s own potential development to the point of stasis, approximating a kind of living death. As Cone says in his second book, A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), the black community faces the following dilemma: “to assert one’s humanity and be killed, or to cling to life and sink into nonhumanity.”[3]

Within this context of a communal struggle against and defiance of the white communal sovereignty (the power to kill or let live), Cone draws heavily on the theme of Christ’s resurrection. Though killed by the sovereigns of the day, God raised Jesus from the dead: Christ’s “resurrection is the disclosure that God is not defeated by oppression but transforms it into the possibility of freedom.”[4] The resurrection means that God has granted to life possibilities that exceed the actuality and seeming invincibility of powers of death. The resurrection overturns the ability of anyone—including white America(ns)—to constrict the horizon of possibility, of freedom, of human life:

Christian freedom is the recognition that Christ has conquered death…The free are the oppressed who say no to an oppressor, in spite of the threat of death, because God has said yes to them, thereby placing them in a state of freedom.[5]

This freedom beyond death is grounded in God’s word of affirmation (“God has said yes to them”), and therefore comes to us from beyond ourselves. This transcendence means, for Cone, that this freedom beyond death is an always present and permanent possibility that exceeds the actual: it is neither present because of an idealized, “ontologized” black life nor can it be erased by the structures of death that constitute white American civilization. It comes from and as the living, resurrected Christ.

As Cone’s thought develops, this emphasis on the resurrection undergoes an important shift. In his initial books, resurrection means that death is not ultimate and thus a society founded and structured by the powers of death—the genocide of Indigenous populations, the enslavement of Africans, warfare against Vietnam—has already been condemned and defeated by Christ. Given that the cross is overcome by the resurrection, Cone will frequently discuss the resurrection on its own, without mention of the cross.

By the time Cone writes God of the Oppressed (1975), the resurrection is still a major theme but it is now closely connected to the cross: freedom is “disclosed in the cross and resurrection.”[6] Most recently, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), the resurrection has become subordinated to the cross:

The cross speaks to oppressed people in ways that Jesus’ life, teachings, and even his resurrection do not. As the German New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann put it, ‘The resurrection is…a chapter in the theology of the cross.’ Or the cross is ‘the signature of the one who is risen.’[7]

If, in the earlier writings, the resurrection overcomes the powers of sin and death and mobilizes a righteous refusal of oppression that boldly risks suffering and even death (resurrection as defeating the cross), in this later work, the resurrection grounds the deep struggle to find meaning and affirm human dignity in the midst of oppression (resurrection as transforming the cross).

There are multiple explanations and reasons for this shift, all of which cannot be explored here. One approach I’ve found helpful is to interpret the growing prominence of the cross over the resurrection as a shift in Cone’s eschatology. Critics like William Jones, Delores Williams, and Anthony Pinn can be read as pointing to an overly-realized eschatology. Cone, drawing some inspiration from “hope” theologians like Jürgen Moltmann, can write in his early work that “we believe in the future of God, a future that must become present.”[8] His critics point out that God doesn’t seem to be able to or interested in bringing this future. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone is much clearer that this future of God is always the future of the crucified: it is and remains a stigmatic future.

There is much more to be said on these themes—both in terms of whether Cone’s most recent book is a successful response to his critics and in terms of how the shift in eschatological terminology connects to shifts in Cone’s understanding of and involvement with various political struggles throughout this time. Nevertheless, the entire corpus of Cone’s writings remain extremely important as we, theologically, must address the ways in which “life” itself continues to be tethered to whiteness (now couched in “postracial” language) and the control over nonwhite life continues to be sought, especially through the prison system and its connections to the neo-liberal state.[9]


[1] This startling line is the first sentence of Martin Luther King Jr.’s analysis of “Black Power” (chapter 2) in his last book, published in 1967, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 23.

[2] James H. Cone, Black Theology & Black Power (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 7.

[3] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 40th Anniversary Ed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 12.

[4] Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, 125, my emphasis.

[5] Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, 125.

[6] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, Rev. Ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 73, my emphasis.

[7] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2011), 26.

[8] Cone, Black Theology of Liberation, 150.

[9] On the connections between neoliberal capitalism, the modern nation state, and the prison system, see Löic Wacquant, “Bringing the Penal State Back In,” public lecture, London School of Economics and Political Science, Oct. 6, 2009. Available online,


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.



Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #1: Rosemary Radford Ruether and Women as the “First and Final Proletariat”

Liberation Theology Rosemary RuetherIn light of the overwhelmingly positive response to my recent post, Liberation Theology Reading List, I have decided to begin a blog series devoted to liberation theology and related liberative projects. When I issued a call for papers for the series, several excellent contributors stepped forward and presented creative proposals, all of which intersect with liberation theology and/or key themes of liberation theology. I hope that you enjoy the series as much as I have enjoyed interacting with and learning from the various authors who have made this series possible.

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].


The intersecting feminist, black and Latin American theolog(ies) that became know as liberation theology had its genesis in the 1960s cauldron of the hemispheric New Left. Through the 1970s, male liberationists focused on class and race oppression with gender asymmetry remaining at the center of their thought and discourse. Nevertheless, women found evident connections between race and class oppression and sexual oppression. The women’s movement, with its consciousness-raising groups, encouraged many to identify sexism in their faith communities and articulate a distinct theological narrative.[i] When the personal became political, many women sought to break through what they perceived as the impenetrable sexist veil of religious institutions. Like blacks and the poor, the struggle for women’s full participation in all areas of society included confronting the modern and liberal theology and religious practices that produced political and social exclusion.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, as a Catholic theologian, served as catalyst in the move from a fragmented liberal theological consensus to a new paradigm by challenging the language, interpretation of sacred text, symbols, and hierarchies that underwrote women’s subordination. Coming from the progressive wing of the Catholic tradition, as early as 1967 in The Church Against Itself, Ruether called for a radical reformulation of Christian doctrine. This was the beginning of her argument against the rhetoric of privatized religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, which hid the political and sexist nature of theological discourse. Ruether went on to uncover the political structure of theology and viewed the reinterpretation of Christian symbols and language as key to women’s liberation.

The daughter of a Catholic mother and an Episcopal father, Ruether grew up in a humanistic and ecumenical household. After earning a doctorate in the history of Christian thought at Claremont School of Theology, she went on to teach at the predominantly black Howard University School of Religion in 1966. As a white woman and a feminist at Howard, she read the emerging black theology and participated in the peace and Civil Rights movements. Unlike her cohort Mary Daly who rejects all monotheistic religion, Ruether did not leave the Catholic Church or Christianity; she stayed to remake them from within through an expansive ecumenism.

Trained in the classics, Ruether drew from a wide history of Western thought to write a collection of essays published as Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power in 1972 and New Woman New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation in 1975. She called for an abandonment of all forms of dualism founded on Gnostic body–soul dichotomies and the subjective–objective dualism of modern science. Platonic anthropology was the source of the idea of a male mind and female body. A dualistic view of reality impeded the development of a true liberating theology that addressed alienation from the body, community, and the earth.[ii] Ruether perceived dualism as infesting every area of life, resulting in sexism, racism, and classism. The goal was the reconciliation of nature and grace, individual and community, the oppressed and the oppressor. In the triad of race, class, and sex, the oppression of women was nevertheless the oldest in human history and the basis for all other forms of oppression.[iii] As a subordinated caste within every race and class, women made up the “first and final proletariat.” [iv] For Ruether addressing sexism was the key to solving the problems of both class and race.

Ruether regarded sexism and racism as integrally and historically linked with the white male ruling class pitting blacks against women in a strategy of divide and conquer. White feminists, argued Ruether, did not understand the underwriting of racism by the “feminine mystique” and the “cult of the ornamental ‘white lady’.”[v] Black feminism was in the position to illuminate the intersection of race, class, and sex, and challenge the tendency among liberationist groups to emphasize polarity, pitting one oppressed group against another.[vi] She also looked to Latin America, as part of the Third World, for a cosmopolitan theology that could provide a key interpretation of the Christian faith and revolutionary struggle. Through development of a critical consciousness, the poor and oppressed were becoming a prophetic community and perceiving the ideological content of Constantinian Christianity that simply “baptizes the [U.S.]empire.”[vii] Liberal feminism would remain a movement of the privileged unless women in the developed world engaged in creating the socioeconomic conditions for the liberation of all women. Race and class liberation would follow.

The contributions of Ruether and her cohorts, including Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Sheila D. Collins, and Letty M. Russell completed the triad of race, class, and sex of the emerging liberation theology. As an intellectual movement, feminist liberation theology drew from black and Latin American theological discourse, but also represented an immediate challenge to the new theologies that categorically elided women’s oppression. A key difference between women and other groups was the basis of the challenge. While blacks and the poor in Latin America were struggling against oppressors outside their communities, women found themselves in intimate relations with their oppressors; fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons characterizing the struggle as not only one of social structures but located within a lost female self. Rosemary Radford Ruether’s body of work, including many essays written in the 60s and 70s, remains one of the most significant early interventions in the development of liberation theology as a hemispheric movement.


[i] Rita Gross, Feminism & Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 39. For the religious roots of the North American New Left, see Douglas C. Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[ii] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Foundations for a Theology of Liberation” in Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power” (New York: Paulist Press, 1972), 16-17.

[iii] Ruether, “Is Christianity Misogynist? The Failure of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the Church” in Liberation Theology, 95.

[iv] Ruether, New Woman, New Earth (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 162.

[v] Ibid.,121.

[vi] Ibid.,132.

[vii] Ruether, “Latin American Theology of Liberation” in Liberation Theology, 180.