Communism and Religion--Part 2: Christianity (continued)

Liberation Theology and Real Liberation

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #913, June 29, 1997

There is a question that assumes great importance in the context of the whole "god-building" phenomenon that is so rampant today: What is the essential and fundamental flaw in "liberation theology" and in all attempts to use religious teaching, and more specifically the Christian religion and the "Judeo-Christian tradition," as the "grounding" for the struggle to uphold the interests of the poor and oppressed, and to abolish war, and so on?

The essential and fundamental flaw is that it represents an attempt to take very particular and limited historical experience (experience of the Jewish people thousands of years ago, as reflected in the Jewish scriptures and the Old Testament of the Bible, and experience of the Christian sect as it grew into a broader religion) and to "elevate" this to the level of universality. It is an attempt to "apotheosize" this limited human historical experience (to raise this human phenomenon to the level of something god-like, giving it a supernatural form and expression) and to superimpose this on reality and on the material basis of society today--to give it a universality which it cannot have. "Apotheosize" has particular and significant meaning here--what's involved is not simply an attempt to give this limited human historical experience universality in a general sense, but an attempt to reinforce that universality by giving it supernatural expression and power.

I often find myself wondering: why don't these "liberation theology" people--if they're really interested in uprooting oppression and getting rid of poverty and standing up for the interests of the poor and oppressed and abolishing war--why don't they give up this religious stuff? Why do they hang on to that when it's objectively a hindrance? And the answer--or a big part of the answer--is that, to the degree that people are as yet unwilling to give this up, to make this radical rupture, it reflects the fact that they have not become convinced that these changes can be brought about or should be brought about by the actions of conscious human beings themselves. They are clinging to the idea that such changes require some sort of divine intervention or some divine rule to make this possible and to make sure it goes the right way.

This is essentially what is involved with the outlook of people who are sincere and serious about serving the interests of the poor and oppressed but are still unwilling to get up off of religion, in one form or another, and can't yet take the step of rupturing radically with it. And a lot of times when you hear these people speak, or when you read liberation theology writings, you can see that they make a noble attempt to reinterpret religion, particularly the Bible, so as to make it serve the struggle against oppression and to eliminate poverty and war and everything. But, when they're all done, one fundamental problem they have is that they're still trying to hinge this, to make it depend on, a non-existent supernatural being, or force.

Some of these people will say, directly or implicitly, that we don't really know whether Jesus was divine, whether he really was the son of god or an emanation from god (or whatever interpretation of the Trinity they have). And they'll say that a lot of things that are asserted in the Bible, all those miracles and things--those didn't actually happen, or many of them didn't happen, or they're all questionable, or who knows? Some of them will at times even say, or imply, that we can't really know whether god actually exists, as a supernatural being apart from and above human existence, but it really doesn't matter because it is the set of beliefs--it is living that set of beliefs--that is important: if people live out these beliefs and principles, then good things will result, the world will be a better place, and that's the important thing. Many will argue that the important point of the Christian religion is not the way it's been officially interpreted--that you get salvation in another world--but the important point is to live these principles today, in this world: if everybody would live these principles today, then the economy, the political system, the social relations would all be better and the world would be a better place for the great majority of humanity, for humanity as a whole.

A Very Limited
Historical Experience

People like this genuinely care about the great majority of humanity, and about the fate of humanity, but the problem they have--they have a number of problems, politically and ideologically, but first of all and very fundamentally, the problem is that it does matter, it matters a great deal, whether or not Jesus was divine. It matters whether or not there is a God, or gods, or other supernatural forces.

It would be a far different world, a vastly different universe, if in fact there were such gods and supernatural forces. And in fact we communists would be fools--being atheists and not believing in this stuff--we would be fundamentally out of touch with reality, if in fact there were such a god (or gods). It makes all the difference in the world (or in the universe, you could say) whether there is some god out there who has given rise to all reality and who ultimately controls all this, whether it's all in the hands of God; or whether, in fact, the reverse is true--there is no god or supernatural forces and it's in the hands of people to transform society and the world through continually transforming necessity into freedom. It makes all the difference in the world--you can't slide around that question.

But there's also a further problem. Just put that basic question, of whether or not supernatural beings and forces of any kind really exist, to the side for a minute. Even if we take these sets of religious principles as they are interpreted by these people and say that people ought to live them out, there's still a problem that these principles are rooted in the Bible, or in the "Judeo-Christian tradition"--they're rooted in a very definite religious tradition.

While some of these people may say, "Well, I don't know if it's really true or not that this emanates from the divine, that it's divinely inspired," they're not willing to give up the religious tradition that it's part of. And this religious tradition comes with a lot of baggage. This religious tradition, and the scripture in which this tradition is rooted, is a reflection of society at a certain time--a limited historical experience, but also a limited historical experience which is grounded in and reflects and is the expression of all kinds of relations of exploitation and oppression and of rivalry between different sections of society, different peoples, nations, empires, and so on. It is rooted in this--it reflects it and gives expression to it--and you can't get away from that.

Let's take a particular example of this: the attempt by feminist Biblical scholars and others to rewrite the Bible to make the language "gender neutral." Instead of calling god "He," they just call it "the supreme being," or whatever. But what difference does it make if you call it "He" or "the supreme being," if that supreme being says all women must obey their husbands and puts out all kinds of other patriarchal stuff? What difference does it make if it's a male or a female or a neuter that says this?! The problem is, it's still enforcing and promoting patriarchal oppression. You can't get away from it by changing the words you use to describe the deity.

The same thing applies to all the other kinds of relations of oppression and of wars for plunder and exploitation, wars to expand empires, and so on--including wars to enforce one religious doctrine over another--which are put forward in the Bible (and in the Qur'an, for that matter, and the scriptures of other major religions in the world). You can't get rid of that by changing the superficial expressions of it, by changing the particular linguistic terms in which it's expressed. The point I'm getting at here is that Christianity, and the "Judeo-Christian tradition," and in general the religious traditions in the world, represent a very limited historical experience, but more than that, it's historically obsolete. These relations that are reflected and expressed through these scriptures are historically obsolete--they need to be overthrown and uprooted, along with all other relations of exploitation and oppression.

Letting Go of the Obsolete

In this regard, I want to recount a very interesting story. A lot of people, they read the Bible but they're so close to it and they've been so trained to regard and approach it with such mystery and awe, that in many cases they don't grasp what it's really saying. Even people who can quote you chapter and verse from the Bible--in many ways they don't really know what they're reading. This story deals with this contradiction--and to me it captures a lot of the contradictions we're going to have work our way through, throughout a whole historical epoch. I was reading this report from one city where there's a study group of masses who were reading the Morality essays.* This group includes someone who's very religious but also revolutionary-minded; it's a really intense contradiction.

Now, in these Morality writings, there are many places where passages from the scriptures are cited and it is explained what they're really saying--for example, passages in the book of Isaiah in the Bible, where god says enemies of Israel and of the God of Israel are going to be slaughtered and nobody is going to be spared--the women are going to be raped and the babies are going to be torn to pieces. This is in the book of Isaiah, which many liberation theology advocates want to quote as the basis for ending oppression and war, because it has verses about how "they shall beat their swords into plowshares". But you have to look at the context of this in Isaiah and see how that's going to come about--this will happen only after all of Israel's enemies have been trampled into the earth--then the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, according to Isaiah.

Reading this has set up a very intense contradiction for this one religious but revolutionary-minded person in particular: according to the report I saw, when she read these Morality writings, she took every Biblical quotation and went back to the passages in the Bible and very carefully read each of them to see if what was being said in the Morality essays was really true, if this was what the Bible was really saying, or if somebody was trying to make up stuff about the Bible and what it is saying. And she reported back that, yes, every one of these statements--every one of these characterizations of what is meant by these passages in the Bible--was actually accurate; the Bible was really saying what these essays claimed it was saying. And so at this point the synthesis that she's come up with--and this I find very humorous, but at the same time it also expresses some major contradictions we're going to have to correctly handle for a whole historical epoch, even after, as well as before, carrying out the seizure of power--her summation at this point concerning the author of these essays, is that God speaks through him, although he doesn't know it!!

This captures so many different contradictions, at so many different levels--of people on the one hand being drawn to communist ideas and analysis, recognizing the truth and power of them and how they do correspond to reality, but still clinging to and being unwilling to give up the religious tradition that's being brought under fire. Looking more broadly than this particular person--hopefully we can get her up off this and help her to make the next leap and rupture, but speaking in terms of society and the masses overall--these kinds of contradictions will continually reproduce themselves, in various different forms, throughout the whole epoch of proletarian revolution, until we get to communism on a world scale.

This story is in a way a particular illustration of the larger point that the Bible and the age and society it reflects--the social relations that are reflected in these religious principles--are not only historically limited but are historically obsolete.

Many different cultures have their own various myths, including myths of creation and of resurrection (of the king and/or of god or gods, and so on). Different societies have their different religious traditions. So why "privilege" one over another--why should one be upheld and insisted upon as the basis for all humanity? And, more than that, why should obsolete things be upheld as the basis for liberating humanity when these things reflect an era and social relations which humanity can and must move beyond?

All these myths and traditions are historically conditioned and limited--and are outmoded in this era--they all give expression to various forms of class division, exploitation, oppression, and various forms of plunder and war, and/or to a view of nature and society which does not correctly reflect material reality and its internal contradiction, motion, and transformation. What this illustrates, once again, is the need to make those radical ruptures Marx and Engels spoke of--the radical rupture with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas. Now, we shouldn't think, or expect, that these radical ruptures will be made by the masses of people all at once--as I've stressed, that is going to require a whole historical epoch--but at every point we have to be struggling, particularly with advanced people, to help them throw off this baggage and this burden and to make the radical rupture with traditional ideas as well as traditional property relations.


*"Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Between William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting and End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." Excerpts from these essays--including a series on "What Is Communist Morality"--appeared in the RW from January 28, 1996 through May 12, 1996.

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