Political Violence And Liberation Theology -- By: Frederick Sontag

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 33:1 (Mar 1990)
Article: Political Violence And Liberation Theology
Author: Frederick Sontag


Political Violence And Liberation Theology

Frederick Sontag*

It is impossible to remain loyal to Marxism, to the
Revolution, without treating insurrection as an art.
—Lenin, quoting Karl Marx

I. The Issues

Where liberation theology is concerned, perhaps no issue has been more controversial than its relation to violence. When it comes to Marxism/Leninism there is no question of its dependence on the use of violence, so that this question plagues all liberation theories. On the one hand, the ties that bind humans in bondage may be so strong that violence is needed to release us. On the other hand, it is well known that violence often breeds its own downfall and that terror, more often than peace, results.

Since the beginning of time, probably any theory seeking to release human beings to their full potential has had to consider the use of violence to achieve its ends and its known potential dangers. Yet this issue takes on a new urgency in our time due to two significant changes in our situation: (1) Communist proposals have resulted in worldwide change, but many have asserted the necessity to use force if we are to be set free. Yet (2) in recent times liberation theology has been espoused by some Christian theologians, and the adoption of pacifism or the abhorrence of violence by most Christian groups is well known. Religion’s intrusion into the political realm is problem enough, but to add the question of violence raises the issue to a new intensity.

Various approaches have well-developed positions regarding violence and nonviolence. Where Christianity is concerned, it is instructive to begin by looking at the life and words of Jesus. Christianity will be our frame of reference in discussing these issues, since liberation theology developed in a Christian context. First we have to ask: “Is the use of violence to achieve political ends always ruled out or do some circumstances justify it as an acceptable tool for Christian use?” Traditionally Jesus is pictured as rejecting the use of violence and as having suffered violence himself. Can anything change this image so that it would make violence acceptable on Christian grounds?

We first have to note that Jesus himself lived under political oppression. If we consider Jewish expectations for the Messiah, as this role came to be projected onto Jesus, it is the Jews’ hope for release from

* Frederick Sontag is professor of philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Roman oppressors that focused such high expectations on Jesus. Although Christians came to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, nothing could be more clear than that ...

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