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Józef Tischner "Liberation Theology And The Ethics Of Solidarity"

A lecture prepared for the colloquy organized by the Centre of Studies on the Development and Integration of Latin America. Caracas, 1989. Translated by Anna Fraś.
opublikowany: 1989

A comparison of Liberation Theology and the Ethics of Solidarity presents itself as a matter of course. In both we come across a massive social movement fighting against political and economic totalitarianism, in both there is a link between the issue of freedom and the issue of religion, in both there is a comprehensive co-operation between intellectuals and the oppressed, the exploited. Also the moral source of both movements seems to be alike: the source is a sensitivity of conscience to social harm done to man. The similarities of both are revealed in the very names by which they like to be referred to: liberation and solidarity. There occurs a reciprocal connection between liberation and solidarity: liberation without solidarity is as impossible as solidarity without liberation.
But there are differences as well. On the one hand, we have the image of a social movement of an international character which defines itself by means of theological terminology; this movement aims at reforming not only the state and its economy but also the Church, which arouses understandable opposition on the part of other theologians and the hierarchy. On the other hand, we see a movement of a prominently Polish character, which, regardless of its success, is still so immersed in its emergency affairs that it cannot find time for a deeper theoretical reflection; a movement which, though connected to religion, has no intention to define itself in terms of theology or to reform the Church; and yet it looks for its sense and justification in the sphere of ethical values.
Perhaps the most important difference lies somewhere else. It comes from the attitude of both movements to revolution. Liberation Theology, at least as presented by its prominent exponents, looks forward to revolution as a fulfilment of hopes cherished by the oppressed. The Solidarity Movement has already gone through revolution as a historical event which has brought more problems to be solved than solutions. The social order emerging from the revolution led to an unheard-of labour crisis. Social misery, apparently got rid of, came home to roost. What can be done to dispose of it? One thing is certain: revolution is no longer taken into account. Therefore, each movement has a different approach to ethics: while one group want to devise a way to transform ethics so that the door to revolution is open, the other one ask how to graft ethics onto the post-revolutionary world.
We are comparing here Liberation Theology with the Solidarity Movement. What is the purpose of this comparison? It is not a critique, though some critical remarks are going to be made. The purpose is a better mutual understanding. Both movements can be enriched by the undoubted achievements of each. Liberation Theology may help the Solidarity Movement define its relation to religion and its richness, and the Solidarity Movement can provide a great deal of food for thought as far as the relationship between the Liberation Movement and Marxism or socialism goes. It is all the more possible as both movements remain close to the Church, which can provide the desired common plane.
The roots of rebellion
The roots of the Liberation Movement and the Solidarity Movement seem to be similar: they originate from the experience of pain suffered by victims of social injustice. Liberation Theology defines them [victims] using the word “poor”. The “poor” are the reason for the moral movement of liberation and its theology. If there were no “poor”, neither the movement nor its theology would exist. The “poor” give meaning to and legitimize the whole of liberating actions. At the same time, Liberation Theology makes a great effort to endow the word “poor” with a religious, theological meaning. The “poor” are to become a kind of absolute value for the Liberation Movement. For this reason it is necessary to form a link between the concept of “poor” and its counterpart in the Bible. Yet, at the same time it is essential to bring out its political meaning. Therefore, it has to be admitted, though only tacitly, that the “poor” are the legitimizing reason of revolution. The “poor” of Liberation Theology must be the same “poor” (“cursed people of the earth”) who appeared and took on meaning during the Great Revolution. In such a way Liberation Theology makes the concept of “poor” a meeting point of theological, ethical and revolutionary thinking.
Let us consider with greater attention some statements coming from exponents of Liberation Theology. Gustavo Gutiérrez writes: “A ‘poor’ person is now someone oppressed, pushed to the margin, a member of the proletariat fighting for his fundamental rights, it is an exploited and oppressed social class, a country fighting for its liberation.” Referring to biblical passages, the author differentiates between spiritual poverty (“the poor in spirit”) and material poverty. The former means a soul’s opening to God and is a Christian virtue. The latter is a wrong crying out to heaven. And it is the latter poverty that the movement fights against. But there is yet another meaning of poverty: it consists in “solidarity with the poor and a rejection of poverty” as it signifies “taking on oneself the sinful condition of man to liberate him from sin and all its consequences.” That third situation can be called a poverty “through compassion.” We might guess that the poor in this sense are the proponents of Liberation Theology themselves, who do not usually come from the oppressed but share their tragic lot by choice.
The poor are the axiological absolute of Liberation Theology. They are its highest and unquestionable value. And in some sense it has to be so if revolution is to begin in the name of the poor. A revolutionary risks death. One can risk death only where a value greater than life is at stake. That is why, according to Gutiérrez, the poor assume also the meaning of a religious absolute, become such a value as Christ. J. Hanesse believes that for Gutiérrez “Jesus Christ is God who became poor in the same sense as the Word became flesh.” To die defending the poor means to die for Christ.
Ascribing an absolute value to the meaning of ‘poor’ is nothing new to revolutionary thinking. Liberation Theology only repeats the tendency already present in the ideology of the French Revolution. The analogy is so striking that it calls for closer attention. Let us refer to Hannah Arendt’s studies.
We read there: “Poverty is more than [and different from ordinary] deprivation, it is a state of constant want and acute misery whose ignominy consists in its dehumanizing force; poverty is abject because it puts men under the absolute dictates of their bodies [pure corporality], that is, under the absolute dictate of necessity as all men [, the rich and the poor,] know it from their most intimate experience and outside all speculations. It was under the rule of this necessity that the multitude rushed to the assistance of the French Revolution, for this was the multitude of the poor [who incited it and pushed it on until the revolution was buried under the very rule of need]. When they appeared on the scene of politics, [corporeal] necessity appeared with them, [the old regime was shaken,] and the new republic was stillborn; freedom had to be surrendered to necessity, to the urgency of life process itself.”[1]
Liberation Theology strives to repeat the same conceptual operation. Ascribing an absolute value to the idea of “poor” makes the necessity that the poor are subject to a political force. And Liberation Theology has an absolute moral right to do so. Yet, a question arises: won’t the needs of the “poor” turn against freedom? Won’t the call for bread stifle the call for freedom? Won’t the success of the “poor” in a revolution entail its failure?

One more analogy needs to be recalled: it can be drawn between the compassion of Liberation Theology proponents and the compassion of revolutionists. Arendt writes: “The words le peuple are the key words for every understanding of the French Revolution, and their connotations [which are still valid] were determined by those who [thought themselves spokesmen of the people’s needs and sufferings and who] were exposed to the spectacle of the people’s suffering, which they themselves did not share. For the first time, the word covered more than those who did not participate in [the power and the abuse of] government, not the [inhabitants or potential] citizens but the low people. The very definition of the word was born out of compassion, and the term became the equivalent for misfortune and unhappiness—le peuple, les malheureux m’applaudissent, as Robespierre was wont to say; le peuple toujours malheureux, as even Sieyès, one of the least sentimental and most sober figures of the Revolution, would put it. By the same token, the personal legitimacy of those who represented the people and were convinced that all legitimate power must derive from them, could reside only in [that passion of compassion] ce zéle compatissant, in ‘that imperious impulse which attracts us towards les hommes faibles,’ in short, in capacity to suffer with the ‘immense class of the poor,’ accompanied by the will to raise compassion to the rank of the supreme political passion and of the highest political virtue.”[2]
What is the outcome of such process in which the “poor” have become an absolute? Hannah Arendt writes: “Pour aimer la justice et l’égalité le peuple, as Robespierre believed, n’a pas besoin d’une grande vertue; il lui suffit de s’aimer lui-même.”[3] It is clear. The people are innocent. They are innocent for the only guilt is private property and the people possess nothing. If the people sometimes steal and kill, it is only the fault of owners. The people are the moral absolute of revolution. For Gutiérrez, they are also an embodiment of Christ and therefore a religious absolute as well.
Liberation theology constitutes a serious problem for the Church. There are serious religious and moral reasons behind it. Can one refute the rightness of its rebellion against social wrongs? Can one condemn its protest against attempts at religious validation of totalitarian power? On the other hand, the uneasiness of theologians and the Church is understandable. Is it necessary to use such extreme means to love the poor and liberate the oppressed? Do we really need to re-interpret the fundamental religious concepts? I would not like to enter into the details of the issue which already has a rich literature. Let us only consider one statement made by John Paul II, who tries to sketch something of a “middle way”: “Yes, the Church recognizes the option for the poor as its own. I repeat: the preferential option. Then, it is not the only option or an exclusive option as the gospel about salvation is for all. Besides, it is an option essentially based on the Word of God and not on the criteria provided by human sciences or other ideologies that often see the poor purely in social, political or economic terms. Nonetheless, it is a firm and irreversible option.”
Let us move on to the Solidarity Movement. What is the meaning of the “option for the poor” for the Solidarity Movement? Does the concept of “poor” appear here essential? Does it define the moral cause of the movement?
One needs to admit openly: the word “poor” does not play any important role in this movement. It is not that there are no poor or that their problems do not attract attention, quite the reverse. But the word does not define the essence of the Polish situation. The primary experience of the movement has been an unheard-of phenomenon of waste of labour: waste of resources, energy, time and people. The outrageous expression of waste was the stagnation of labour progress. Labour ground to a standstill in its development. It became archaic, inefficient, purposeless. Industrialization handled improperly led to upsetting of ecological balance. National health worsened rapidly. These phenomena were accompanied by the increase of totalitarian power of one party over the whole nation. Totalitarianism was damaging basic social relations, including the national bond. Undoubtedly, the outcome of all these proceedings was poverty. But it was a particular kind of poverty: a poverty of those who felt rich enough to overcome misery if only they were allowed to be themselves. Deeper than the pain of poverty was the pain of wasted richness: waste of resources, energy, talents and, first of all, a person’s good will. That is why the goal of the Solidarity Movement was to reform the system of labour: ‘work on the labour’. The point was to nip the social illness in the bud.
When everything goes smoothly in a factory and it yields profit, workers can call for higher wages. But what is to be done when a factory works badly and runs only at a loss? Then, one tries to change the board of directors. Truly the changes have to start at the top. But what is to be done if the owner is the state? Then, there is no other choice: the state needs to be changed. And that was also the goal of the Solidarity Movement.
Changing the state does not mean destroying the state. And it cannot involve resorting to violence, inciting revolution, not in the least. There has already been a revolution. The state that needs to be reformed is the very outcome of a revolution. Therefore, we need to look for other peaceful means. The Solidarity Movement becomes a self-regulating, self-limiting movement.
The idea of nonviolence fight is linked in a special way to the name of Fr Jerzy Popiełuszko, a martyr of the Solidarity Movement. The principle of his actions were St. Paul’s words: “Overcome evil with good.” These words perfectly met the needs of the time. They were not only an expression of religious faith but also a manifestation of an apt understanding of the moral and political situation in the country. Father Jerzy became a key figure for the movement, somewhat similar and yet opposite to Camilo Torres, a “father with a machinegun”. It happened so not only because Father Jerzy died tragically as a martyr but, first of all, because his martyrdom bore testimony to the principle of overcoming evil with good.
After this, necessarily sketchy, reflection on Liberation Theology and the Solidarity Movement’s understanding of the biblical poor and the poor of revolution, let us consider now the issue of their relationships with Marxism and socialism, which was very significant to both.
The dispute on possession
The connection between Liberation Theology and Marxism is not unambiguous. Various factions of Liberation Theology stress different aspects of this connection. Gutiérrez writes: “Only a radical challenge to the status quo, that is, a deep transformation of the system based on private property, gaining power by the oppressed class and a social revolution can lead to a change and creation of a new society, a socialist society, or at least can allow for such a society to exist.” These words were written many years ago. Would the author repeat them after the weaknesses of Stalinism have been exposed, now at the time of transition?
Leonardo Boff follows a similar line of thought. Firstly, he defends the charges levelled at Marxism: “Marxism is not simply that which is inhuman, as it is often presented by the leading ideology. Anyway, similarly to capitalism, it is not only that what is seen by the scathing (especially Leninist) critique; by the same token, Christianity cannot be identified with the mechanisms of the Holy Inquisition. It is high time we overcame such obstacles and saw what Marxism is really about.” Following Paul VI’s thought, Boff differentiates between four planes of Marxism, out of which he is interested only in one: “Marxism as a scientific theory of social and historical reality. Understood as such, obviously it cannot help us comprehend God, grace and the Kingdom of Heaven but rather the rise of conflicts and the development of human societies.”
Borrowings from Marxism have become object of many criticisms. They are also one of the subject matters of the famous Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Instruction highlights that although one can speak about various planes of Marxism, there is a close interdependence between them. We can read there that atheism and the negation of the human person, its freedom and rights, are at the core of the Marxist theory. Therefore, Marxism may lead to errors that put in danger the belief in the transcendental vocation of the human person. If theology is to embrace an analysis whose concepts rely on atheism, it will inevitably fall into fatal contradictions. Moreover, the lack of recognition of the spiritual nature of the person leads to its utter subjection to the collectivist goals and to the negation of the principles of social life and politics respecting the dignity of the human person.
The relationship between the Theology of Liberation and Marxism is still a hot issue. How does it look from the perspective of the Solidarity Movement?
It is well-known that it is a time of crisis for the Marxist philosophy in Eastern Europe. What is the source of this crisis? The source is the failure of the proposed system of labour. All other sources, although present, have only a subordinate meaning. Boff seems to reach wrong conclusions: he is right in writing that neither have the Inquisition discredited Christianity, nor have the Stalinism crimes discredited Marxism, and yet it does not follow that Marxism has not been discredited at all. The essential failure of Marxism was on the level of labour. Marxism did not lead to the promised liberation of labour. Labour organized in the Marxist way ceased to be… labour. What was this “organization” about? The key phrase was “socialization of labour”. The crisis of labour was the outcome of a doctrinal error of socialization.
Let us tarry at this point. As we know, the matter concerns the issue of private property and its “abolishment”. Marxism bears the tradition of criticism of private property, which was brought up earlier by the ideologists of the French Revolution. Private property became perceived as the source of all social evil. The criticism of private ownership comprises a wide range of phenomena and reaches deep. At first, it was wrong to possess “superfluous goods”, ones that remained after satisfying the immediate needs, but soon it became wrong to own land and any means of production. But it is not the end. Rejection of private possession had to entail a need of a deep transformation of the very nature of man. It was not only the vice of avarice that needed to be overcome but also the desire to have oneself as one’s own. Communist movements always tended to create a “new man” in the end. The “old man”, who was an obstacle on the road to progress, had to be got rid of, and it was only of secondary importance how and where he was to go. Marxism supported theoretically this pursuit. And since man is a social being by his very nature, then “socialization of man” was nothing else but “restoring him to his own essence.”
Forms of “socialization” of the means of production were manifold. One of the fundamental forms was “nationalization”: one day the state, by some special decree, became the “owner” of the means of production. Regardless of form, “nationalization” always relied on the assumption that the “private” is evil and that the “socialized” is not “private” anymore.
It led to far-reaching consequences.
On the level of economy, there starts a battle against private capitalism and private capitalization, which ruins craft, cottage industry, agriculture. According to Marx’s famous metaphor, “capital lives vampire-like by sucking living labour”, capital is born out of blood and lives to drink blood. Only the state has the right to own capital: the vampire closed in a state cage should turn into a sweet lamb. But in a contemporary society it is impossible to develop labour without capital. Capital is not only a miser’s wealth which delights its owner, but a reality embodying human labour and capable of giving birth to new labour, new wealth. There is a difference between owning gold buried in one’s garden and owning a weaving machine. The gold is mine: mine and private, whereas the machine, by the very fact of being a machine, is public. Marxism blurred the difference. It led to the battle against capital, which ruined rich and flourishing countries and taught people not to work creatively. In times of a great progress of labour, when the hot issues are overproduction and the need to shorten the working day, it turned out that countries having a socialized economy suffer from a lack of food, accommodation, medicine, a lengthened working day, bureaucracy and waste of labour, that their economies are dependent on “capitalist” countries.
The consequence of “socialization” is a growing need to strengthen the political power over economy. The state must reach everywhere to expose even a shadow of capital. A special attention needs to be directed at the spheres where capital, with the state’s consent, still exists (craft, farming, etc.). It causes a rapid growth of bureaucracy, whose only aim is to control the economic life. The economy has to bear on its shoulders a burden that constrains its action. But economy like a homestead cannot live without a free room for development, without independent and enterprising homesteaders. It needs a free market. Yet, if there are many enterprises and only one owner, there is no way of introducing free market. So, a “socialized” economy faces only contradictions: on the one hand, there is a need to strengthen the political power in order to fight capital, on the other hand, there are needs of free market, which serve its development.
Yet, the moral consequences of fighting “private” ownership are not any the less grave. Also in this sphere man is tangled up with contradictions. It is said that he should believe ownership to be morally wrong or at least suspicious. And it refers not only to objects but, in the end, to having oneself as well. The best thing would be to submit oneself to political power just as the tools have been given over. But man is not able to do away with the desire to own: the more he stifles it, the more it is felt. Man knows: in order to be, one has to have, first of all: one has to have oneself. Is there any way out of this contradiction? The only way out seems to be using: consumption. The one who uses has and has not at the same time: one has because after all one uses, but one has not as one only uses. Using becomes an ersatz form of having. So one uses not only things which are to be used (consumer goods) but also things which are not to be used, which are means of labour (factories, land, etc.). In such a way new form of consumer society is born, “consumer” in its radical sense: a society that, as opposed to capitalist society, does not use what it has, but uses what was not and is not its property.
But who has a special right to “use” in the light of a “socialized” economy? Is this right common to all? Nothing of the sort. It is for those who are loyal to the political power and its ideology, it is for the nomenklatura members. They become the appropriate “users” of the means of production and they are endowed with special rights to have the fruits of labour at their disposal. So, a new class comes into being, a class called sometimes “red  bourgeoisie”. Yet, the “new bourgeoisie” differs fundamentally from the old one: the old one created industry and led to the flourishing of technology, the new one became the main factor causing stagnation and labour crisis. The history of real socialist countries is up to a great extent a history of workers’ fight with that “bourgeoisie”.
In short, an error in understanding the essence of socialization leads to the loss of control over the development of labour. Marx saw revolution as a means to liberate creative forces which were to bring about the flourishing of man’s labour. But Marx’s predictions turned out to be false. The fruit of revolution was an even greater constraint of labour. The costs of creating and maintaining an artificial system of labour turned out to be absurdly and tragically huge. Now, at the time of transition, when socialist countries are trying to come out of crisis, it can be clearly seen: it was not worth it.
Is the Theology of Liberation capable of taking these experiences seriously? Can it learn from someone else’s disaster? Can it understand the sense of John Paul II’s superb analyses of communism?
Many years ago, Michael Novak wrote about it in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: “In its hostility to the ideals and institutions of democratic capitalism, liberation theology is clearly socialist in inspiration, in vocabulary, and in its methods of analysis. It is especially socialist in what it says against. Positively, liberation theology is vague and dreamy. One reads it in vain for a critical assessment of the socialist experiments in Europe, from which it claims to distinguish itself. The liberation theologians claim originality of thought, but they do not show it. In virtually every respect, their ideas are derivative of European socialist ideas […]. From the Latin American theologians one learns little about the actual political and economic realities of the diverse societies of Latin America. One finds in them minimal concrete descriptions of persons, events and institutions. Their tone is inspirational and hortatory, marshalling the ‘awakening’ masses in rebellion against ‘oppressors’. Liberation theology is remarkably abstract.”
Undoubtedly, it is a harsh criticism. But one should not disregard it. Especially that now, at the time of transition, it does not comprise anything which is not heard now in real socialist countries. The past model of socialist order was questioned where it had come into being and Liberation Theology must draw appropriate conclusions from it.
The above deliberation focused in the first place on the differences and contrasts between Liberation Theology and the Solidarity Movement. As it can be seen, the differences come not only from the distinctness of their planes (the theological plane versus the ethical plane), but also form a different approach to revolution: for Liberation Theology revolution is still a great hope, for the Solidarity Movement it constitutes a tragic memory. But the differences should not overshadow similarities. There are lots of them, and our attention should be focused on one, at least.
Liberation Theology makes a fundamental statement that there is a close link between social liberation and religious redemption: man’s liberation from all that ruins or constraints his independence is a necessary condition for eternal salvation. For how can someone who hasn’t matured to be oneself be redeemed? How can a person who lacks one’s own will and reason be redeemed? A person who is exposed to primitive fears for surviving every single day? Such a being lives below the dimension of personal life and cannot become God’s Child for such a being hasn’t matured to become oneself. The Solidarity Movement’s thinking seems to be heading in the same direction. There is only a difference of emphasis, the idea of dignity of the human person is highlighted more clearly: life below the dignity of the person puts one’s salvation at risk.
In this way both social movements, bringing about great changes in their own countries, bring about a great change in the sphere of religion. The sensitivity to the situation of the fall of man tells them to depart from faith as an individualist relationship involving only a believer and his God. In such faith there is no room for our fellow men: no room to notice hunger, prisons, waste of the human spirit. What is easily seen instead is a common egoism of religious character.
The departure from an individualist religion and heading to a religion which is committed is an important achievement of both movements. We realize it is only a beginning. But the perspectives are difficult to comprehend. That is why co-operation and exchange of experience is all the more necessary. Having this important connection in mind, all existent differences seem less important.

[1] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, the Viking Press, New York 1963, p. 54. In the square brackets there are elements of Tischner’s rendering Arendt’s thought into Polish which are not found in the original.
[2] Ibidem, pp. 69-70.
[3] Ibidem, notes to Chapter Two, p. 294.
[4] Michael Novak, The Spilit of Democratic Capitalism, A Touchstone Book, New York 1982, p. 293.


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