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Liberation Theology

Most forms of liberation theology were born in the social turmoil of the 1960s. It wasn’t the intellectual challenge posed by atheism and secularism that concerned these new thinkers but the social and economic and political oppression experienced by people in the present day. For liberation thinkers, theology needed to shift its focus from abstract speculation on the nature and existence of God to the concrete realities of how the gospel might serve to reverse the oppressive and burdensome conditions in which so many people languished.

God was reconceived as the One who was pre-eminently involved in and virtually identified with the struggle for liberation. The older theological emphasis on divine transcendence, in which God is viewed as distinct from and sovereign over the world, gradually gave way to divine immanence in which God is known and seen only so far as he is active in setting free the oppressed.

Contemporary Latin American liberation theology was birthed in August of 1968 in Medellin, Columbia, at the Second General Episcopal Conference of Roman Catholic bishops, known as CELAM II. At the heart of this meeting was a condemnation of the church’s alliance with the privileged and empowered of Latin America. This was followed by another conference in 1972 in Santiago, Chile where the First Latin American Encounter of Christians for Socialism met. CELAM III convened in 1979 and reinforced the radical conclusions to which the earlier conference had come.

So-called “liberation” theology thus emerged in the context of rampant poverty and political oppression in both Latin America and other third world countries. It was and is primarily a movement within Roman Catholicism. Priests who had worked and lived among the poor came to the conclusion that nothing short of a social and economic revolution would bring freedom to the disenfranchised masses. Thus the point of reference for all liberation theology was the plight of the poor and oppressed.

Primary among the spokesmen for liberation theology are:

·          Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928 in Lima, Peru), author of The Power of the Poor in History and especially The Theology of Liberation (he received his Ph.D. from the University of Lyon in France and had contact with revolutionary leaders such as Che Guevara and Camilo Torres).

·          Jose Miguez Bonino (b. 1924), a Methodist and the most prominent Protestant advocate of liberation thought. He was a special observer of Vatican II and served as president of the World Council of Churches. He is the author of Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution and Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (1975)

·          Leonardo Boff (b. 1938, Brazil), author of Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for Our Time (1978) and Church: Charism and Power; he was formally “silenced” by Rome in May, 1985, but the ban was lifted in March of 1986; following six more years of continual investigation by Rome, Boff left the priesthood in 1992

·          Hugo Assman (Brazil)

·          Jose Miranda (Mexico), ex-Jesuit and author of Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (1974)

·          Juan Luis Segundo (Uruguay), Jesuit and author of The Liberation of Theology (1976)

·          Jon Sobrino (El Salvador), Spanish Jesuit and author of Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach (1976)

Principal characteristics of liberation theology:

(1)           All theology is contextual, that is to say, is inextricably linked to and thus shaped by the unique social and cultural factors in which it is forged. Theology is not formulated “from above”, detached from the concrete historical dynamics of life on earth. It is the expression “from below” out of a specific cultural milieu and thus reflects the unique needs and aspirations of the people who articulate it. Liberation theologians “seek a truly indigenous Latin American theology that arises out of an involvement in its unique sociopolitical realities” (Grenz/Olson, 215).

(2)           The theologies that were formulated in European universities and American seminaries are largely unsuitable for the situation in Latin America. Indeed, having been articulated by the wealthy and privileged, they largely serve only to validate the socio-economic and political structures that perpetuate oppression and dehumanization of the poor. Western white theologies have been shaped by the questions asked by modern western non-believers. “The task of Latin American theology, in contrast, is not conditioned by the nonbeliever’s questions, but by the question of the ‘nonperson’: ‘the human being who is not considered human by the present social order – the exploited classes, marginalized ethnic groups, and despised cultures’” (Grenz/Olson, 215). Gutierrez put it thus:

“In a continent like Latin America . . . the main challenge does not come from the nonbeliever but from the nonhuman – that is, the human being who is not recognized as such by the prevailing social order. These are the poor and exploited people, the ones who are systematically and legally despoiled of their being human, those who scarcely know what a human being might be. These nonhumans do not call into question our religious world so much as they call into question our economic, social, political, and cultural world. Their challenge impels us toward an evolutionary transformation of the very bases of what is now a dehumanizing society. The question, then, is no longer how we are to speak about God in a world come of age; it is rather how to proclaim him Father in a world that is not human and what the implications might be of telling non-humans that they are children of God” (from Frontiers of Theology in Latin America, ed. Rosini Gibellini [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979], p. x).

What is needed is a theology that emerges from and in turn addresses the unique needs of the oppressed people of the earth. Liberation theologians are therefore suspicious of western biblical interpretation. McKim explains:

“Since biblical commentaries were written by established scholars in positions of safety and power, the suspicion is that these have brought certain presuppositions and ‘ideologies’ to Scripture and thus have been blind to any scriptural challenge of these ideologies. Biblical scholars did not hear what Scripture said about the importance of the poor because they were ideologically captive to the social status quo” (What Christians Believe About the Bible, 136).

Hence, Bonino contends that “every interpretation of the text which is offered to us (whether as exegesis or as systematic or as ethical interpretation) must be investigated in relation to the praxis out of which it comes. . . . [Thus] very concretely, we cannot receive the theological interpretation coming from the rich world without suspecting it and, therefore, asking what kind of praxis it supports, reflect, or legitimizes” (Doing Theology, 91).

This emphasis on the contextual base for theology has often put the liberation theologians at odds with Rome and the latter’s tendency to impose its theological authority from the top down.

(3)           Liberation theology is largely shaped by the unique socio-economic conditions and needs of Latin American life. Poverty is pervasive and oppression is systemic. Evil and sin are structural and are perpetuated by the greed of a minority bent on maintaining their wealth at the expense of the majority. Hence, redemption must be more than the forgiveness of individual souls. It must transform the social structures of human existence as well.

The cause of such rampant poverty is imperialist capitalism imposed by North American corporations and violently enforced by ruling oligarchies and military regimes. North American “development” has come at the expense of Latin American “underdevelopment”. Gutierrez writes:

“What we are faced with is a situation that takes no account of the dignity of human beings, or their most elemental needs, that does not provide for their biological survival, or their basic right to be free and autonomous. Poverty, injustice, alienation, and the exploitation of human beings by other human beings combine to form a situation that the Medellin conference did not hesitate to condemn as ‘institutionalized violence’” (Power of the Poor, 28).

At its core, liberation theology calls for a radical break with the status quo in which Christianity has aligned itself with the ruling classes. Christian commitment requires identifying with the exploited and oppressed. This has often expressed itself in a call for the integration of Christian truth with socialist, leftist, and often Marxist economic policies. Most liberation thinkers believe capitalism to be inherently evil and the principal culprit in the exploitation of the masses. Obedience to God is expressed through (on occasion, violent) opposition to the present system and the reconstruction of society on socialist principles.

Capitalist oppression has dehumanized the masses and deprived them of their basic dignity as individuals. If individuals are to experience who they are as children of God the societal structures must be transformed by revolutionary means.

(4)           Theology is not a discipline whose principal focus is the discovery, refinement, and articulation of timeless truths. Rather, it is pre-eminently concerned with praxis or practical involvement in specific situations of oppression. Truth is found in concrete action, not theological abstractions. Consider the following representative statements:

“Correct knowledge is contingent on right doing. Or rather, the knowledge is disclosed in the doing” (Bonino, Doing Theology, p. 90).

“The only truth is the truth that is efficacious for liberation” (Segundo, Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity).

“Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology, a theology of the liberating transformation of the history of mankind and also therefore that part of mankind . . . which openly confesses Christ. This is a theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed. It is a theology which is open – in the protest against trampled human dignity, in the struggle against the plunderer of the vast majority of people, in liberating love, and in the building of a new, just, and fraternal society – to the gift of the Kingdom of God” (Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation, p. 15).

“Theology . . . is not an effort to give a correct understanding of God’s attributes or actions but an effort to articulate the action of faith, the shape of praxis conceived and realized in obedience. As philosophy in Marx’s famous dictum, theology has to stop explaining the world and to start transforming it. Orthopraxis, rather than orthodoxy, becomes the criterion for theology” (Bonino, Doing Theology, 81).

The praxis that brings liberation is the pathway to knowledge of God. Hence, praxis must always precede reflection. God is not simply revealed in Scripture but in and through the praxis of the church to the extent that she struggles on behalf of the poor. Ultimately, praxis becomes the criterion of truth. Truth is whatever best serves the transformation of society and the liberation of the oppressed. Theoretical evaluation does not validate scriptural interpretation. An interpretation is valid to the degree that it facilitates liberation.

(5)           Thus the basic starting point and ultimate hermeneutical criterion for all theological inquiry is the poor of the world, the marginalized, and their sub-human existence. At the heart of liberation theology is the notion of God’s preferential commitment to the poor. God is on the side of the poor and thus must the church be also. Being on the side of the poor does not mean God “saves” them on the basis of their economic status (indeed, most liberation theologians are universalists). “Preference for the poor means that even though God loves all people, he identifies with the poor, reveals himself to the poor and sides with the poor in a special way. Above all, it means that in the class struggle God sides with the poor against every oppressor who would exploit or dehumanize them” (Grenz/Olson, 218).

It also means that in Scripture it is in the plight of the poor and their struggle for liberation that God is most clearly revealed. The paradigmatic event in biblical history for liberation theology is the Exodus, as seen both in the oppressed condition of Israel under Egyptian rule and God’s activity of deliverance. They also appeal frequently to the ethical teachings of the OT prophets.

To properly understand and interpret reality one must view it from the perspective of the poor. Their vantage point “is closer to the reality of the world than the way the rich view it. Their ‘epistemology,’ i.e., their way of knowing, is accurate to a degree that is impossible for those who see the world only from the vantage point of privileges they want to retain” (Robert McAfee Brown, Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Themes [Westminster, 1978], p. 61). It is, therefore, from within the historical situation of the poor that all theological reflection must begin.

(6)           The knowledge of God, therefore, is found in identification with the poor and the historical effort to secure their liberation from oppression. Where social justice prevails, there is the knowledge of God. “The God of biblical revelation,” says Gutierrez, “is known through interhuman justice. When justice does not exist, God is not known; he is absent” (Theology of Liberation, 195). God is to be encountered, not in heaven, but in history insofar as one is integrally involved in bringing liberation to one’s neighbor.

(7)           Liberation theologians cast their lot with the so-called “base communities” or small groups of poor people who gathered to study the Bible and dialogue on social issues outside the hierarchy of the institutional (Roman Catholic) church. At its height in the 70s and 80s there were tens of thousands of such groups (from 10 to 30 people in each) which sometimes met under the direction of a priest but most often were lay-led. Such “base communities” were the cause of alarm to the Vatican for they represented a model of “church from below” that operated independently of clerical oversight.

Among the many criticism of liberation theology, Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar lists three:

1.             Liberation theology is regional and national in spirit and emphasis. Its excessive emphasis on the contextualization of theology fails to acknowledge that a genuinely Catholic theology must be universal.

2.             True Catholic theology, said Balthasar, never leads to schism from the church. It always maintains its distinctives within the unity of the body.

3.             Catholic theology has received its hermeneutic by revelation and does not need an alien intellectual system such as Marxism to understand divine truth.

Balthasar also resisted their emphasis on structural sin. “Societal situations can be unjust,” said Balthasar, “but in themselves they cannot be sinful. Only those persons can be sinful who are responsible for the existence of such situations and who continue to tolerate them even though they could abolish or ameliorate them” (cited by John Allen in Cardinal Ratzinger, 142).

Rome’s first official response to liberation theology came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, conservative head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Rome’s office for identifying and dealing with heresy in the church). In September 1984 he released the document, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation.’” A more moderate critique, “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation” was released in April 1986.