Thursday, 29 September 2016

What Is Liberation Theology (according to me...)?








Have you ever noticed that there are a number of words and concepts that, when they are brought up, everyone just assumes that there is agreement on what they mean?

‘Feminism’;

‘Pacifism’;

‘Liberal’;

'The Gospel’;

‘Punk Rock’…

Am I right? That's just a few of the terms the definitions and understandings of which are simply held to be self-evident- and not only self-evident, but simple.

I’d like to add one more term to the above list, one that is very close to my heart:

‘Liberation Theology’...

Among its supporters and detractors, this is another term where everyone seems to assume we all agree what we’re talking about… which is odd, because I'm an expert in the field, and I’ve heard definitions of ‘liberation theology' that I thought were either extremely narrow or needlessly broad;

In an online forum, to a question asking what the key texts in liberation theology were, one answer given was ‘the Gospels’. Clever…

To some, it’s any Christian activity that is vaguely ‘activist’. Homeless activism? Liberation theology. Church food drive? Liberation theology. Habitat for Humanity? Liberation theology…

To some, it is pacifism; to others, it’s armed militancy;

I’ve met anti-globilization activists describe what they do as ‘liberation theology’, and I’ve met anti-abortion advocates argue that what they do is better described as ‘liberation theology’;

On a Facebook group ‘Interfaith Liberation Theology’ that I help moderate, someone left a long post laying out the tenants of the Unitarian Church; when we politely told him that we’d prefer not to have posts that appeared so openly to proselytize one view over another, he responded that he was confused, and thought that the group was about ‘liberation theology’;

Needless to say, just about anything that Pope Francis says or does is immediately described as ‘liberation theology’…

There are nubs of truth in all of these.

But ‘liberation theology’ means a lot to me; it has been a keen interest of mine for decades, right back to when I was a politically-minded university student in the Reagan era, working on anti-Contra and anti-Apartheid campaigns. Later, it formed the foundations for my Theology doctorate from Trinity College Dublin.

As anyone who has done post-grad work will attest, being able to credibly define the terms you use- and back up your definitions- is vital.

So, this piece lays out my explanation, within the context of my own theological work, of what ‘liberation theology' means to me, and what I think sets it apart from other theological movements and tendencies. Again, it’s just my view, but I think it stands up.

So, here we go…

Liberation theology, or as I’d specifically call it ‘Latin American liberation theology’, arose in the late 1960s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent meetings of Latin American Catholic bishops in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 and Puebla, Mexico in 1979.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, Latin American theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, and Jon Sobrino developed and broadened the movement, but liberation theology is not so much a corpus of their works- impressive as it all is.

Rather, liberation theology represented a new theological moment, an attempt to do theology in a new way.  

It was theology done with a very specific focus, priority, method, and direction...


Focus: Social Analysis


Social analysis represented a distinct focus of liberation theology- a focus on the role of theological reflection with specific attention given to the immediate social context.

This focus can be traced to a new language and understanding developing within the post-War Catholic Church of the late 1950’s and 1960’s with the publication of such documents as Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, the documents of Vatican II- particularly the document Guadium Et Spes- and Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. In these documents, the Church announced its intention to open itself to the modern wider world with levels of intellectual and spiritual engagement deeper than it had previously. The modern global situation, the Church observed, was now one where:


 ..One person out of every four is Chinese, two out of every three have not enough to eat, one out of every three lives under a communist regime (and) one Christian out of every two is not a Catholic.




It’s not that these facts were unknown before; it was that the knowledge of those facts didn’t particularly affect the theological process one way or another. Interviewed in 2007, theological scholar Ivan Petrella put it succinctly:


The UN Human Development Report once noted that it would take an additional yearly investment of $6 billion to assure basic education for everyone, while $8 billion is spent annually on cosmetics in the U.S. The report also noted that an additional $9 billion of investment would take care of clean water, while $11 billion a year is spent on ice cream in Europe. 

What does this data have to do with Christianity? Until liberation theology came along, nothing. And that's the point. 


Vatican II- and the theology of liberation that was developing alongside of it- brought new focus and urgency to the Catholic Church’s theological process and, by so doing, to the broader Christian world as well. The document Guadium Et Spes spoke of the need to be 'scrutinizing the signs of the times' and 'interpreting them in the light of the gospel'; it discussed economics, technology, social issues, culture, and ecumenism; Pacem in Terris spoke of understanding of the Gospel in the everyday affairs of humanity; essential human rights were recognized and laid forth, and the Pope was categorical that the role of the State was never one of domination or repression; it too was governed by reason and the law of God.

The subtext of all of these documents was clear: the need to understand the realities of human conditions was an absolute necessity for theological reflection.

The meeting of Latin American bishops in the wake of Vatican II at Medellín, Colombia in 1968 was the moment when the Latin American Church gave official recognition to this new contextual focus. The bishops explicitly declared their solidarity with the continent’s poor and called for structural- not just individual- economic and political reform:


We consider it irreconcilable with our developing situation to invest resources in the arms race, excessive bureaucracy, luxury, and ostentation, or the deficient administration of the community.


The Third Conference of Latin American Bishops in Puebla, Mexico in 1979 further developed on this foundation, with the conference devoting much of its energies to discussion of the ‘sinful structures’ evident in the region. What is notable about this language was the assertion that sin was not simply an amorphous spiritual condition; it could also manifest itself systemically, concretely. Moreover, any and all manifestations of sin must be resisted. This represented formal ecclesial recognition that ‘the people of God in Latin America, following the example of Christ, must resist personal and collective injustice with unselfish courage and fearlessness’.  

This can all sound a bit broad and vague, but the focus that liberation theology attempted to give to this new emphasis on social analysis should not be understood as the collection of data ‘about’ the poor or research conducted ‘on’ the poor. Rather, it was to be a process that emphasised engagement, and participation- the life of faith as one of discovery and understanding. 



Priority: Experience and Consciousness


The ultimate aim of liberation theology’s focus on social analysis was a more expansive vision of the people of God, which meant focusing on the life of the community, particularly that part of the community that was being repressed or marginalized because it was poor or of little social or political value. For this reason, liberation theology fostered a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, inverting both the common model of political hierarchy as well as the traditional Catholic hierarchical model, fostering the priority for drawing on the experience of the community when approaching the biblical text and building a new consciousness in the people of God. 

The platform for this priority was the local community of believers and,  in Latin America, the most notable model for these communities were the Christian Base Communities (also referred to as ‘base ecclesial communities’), autonomous laity-led cell-modeled small groups which began in Brazil in 1956 and proliferated throughout the region in the next two decades. The movement was designed to facilitate local worship, discussion, and biblical reflection due to a severe shortage of clergy in the region. 

By way of an active reading of the biblical text through the lens of the experiences of the community- immeasurably indebted to the work of Brazilian education theorist and activist Paolo Friere- the liberationists sought to highlight the place of God in the experience of the people- even in the midst of the reality of Latin America’s pervasive structural poverty and oppression. By doing so, they sought to provide a theological underpinning for the denunciation of that oppression, as well as developing a renewed consciousness on the part of those experiencing oppression or marginalization, reminding them of their value as unique subjects of God’s love and liberation.

Consciousness, then, for the liberationists, was the discovery and development of previously unrecognized or undervalued life, humanity and community, ‘the creation of a new humankind and a qualitatively different society’.

At the heart of this different society is not simply socio-political development but a deep spiritual life as well. While the temporal aspects are undeniable, it has its roots in the transcendent. For if Christ is who says he is, reasoned the liberationists, and accomplished what the Church said he did, the implications for those inflicted with poverty, marginalization, and violence are profound.


Method: Praxis


Of critical importance to Latin American liberation theology was its commitment to praxis, the positive action that follows on from theological reflection. This was its underlying method. Theology as praxis makes explicit the assumption that the critical exercise of theology leads to- or at least should be leading to- a practical outworking, not orthodoxy (‘right belief’) as an end in itself, but ‘ortho-praxy’ (‘right acting’).

The concept of praxis as it existed in Marxist theory- as a practical understanding of the unity of both theory and practice- was well known by the theologians of Latin America. Marx envisioned praxis as a revolutionary mechanism that precipitated a move beyond both abstract philosophy or critique and un-directed activism toward a historical changing of social conditions- revolutionary praxis. Marxist theorists also saw praxis as a way to move beyond pragmatism and determine objective truth; knowledge becomes useful because it is true, not vice versa. Thus, Marxists could point to the success of an action as proof of its validity; a successful praxis served as the confirmation of truth within a theory.

The key contribution made by liberation theology to theoretical praxis was two-fold. First, there was the addition of the ethical and moral dimension- a spirituality- which Marx saw as superfluous. The liberationists saw their reflection on social conditions as taking place in the light of Christian faith. Secondly, while the basic idea of ‘doing’ following on from ‘thinking’ existed in theology long before liberation theology, the Latin Americans emphasized a specific commitment, a specific solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed and a definitive intention for social and political transformation.  This was an understanding of praxis as the Christian revelation of God’s love encountering the reality of structural poverty and oppression- the way things should be as opposed to the way things are. Theological reflection was seen as action and reflection aimed at the transformation of the oppressive situation.

This set liberation theology apart- the action and the reflection were both integral and ongoing parts of the theological process; reflection was not merely investigation of the biblical text leading to a better understanding of God, nor was Christian action on behalf of the poor an end in itself. Taken together, both reflection and action became a dynamic, cyclical process of Christian fellowship and struggle for justice, what Gutiérrez referred to as the poor Christian community’s ‘active presence in history’- religious devotion and religious action.


Direction: A Preferential Option for the Poor


As intimated earlier, Latin American liberation theology did not represent so much a new collection of doctrine but a new intention, a new commitment to see theology from a new location- it was theology with a new direction. That direction was toward the poor. ‘Option’ here means ‘choice’- when decisions must be made, resources allocated, or needs considered, liberation theology asserts that the God of life and liberation demands that the needs of the poorest come first.

In the rigidly-stratified social structure of mid-20th-century Latin America, the overwhelming majority of the population- small farmers, agricultural workers, physical laborers, Amerindians, blacks, mestizos (those of mixed race), children, and the vast majority of women were almost totally absent from public policy and social commentary, given little notice and deemed of little value. They were ‘poor’- economically, politically, and socially.

The ‘option’ for the poor was more than simply the Church ‘taking an interest’, as it were, in the affairs of the poor at a policy level- although that was certainly part of it. Ideally, liberation theology saw the people and the Church envisioning their relationship in light of each other. Brazilian priest and theologian Frei Betto described it this way: 


After (Vatican II and Medellín in 1968)... It wasn’t so much a question of the Church’s opting for the poor as of the poor’s- forced by the repression of the people’s and trade union movements- opting for the Church. In other words, the poor turned to the Church in order to remain organized, articulate, conscious, and active... the poor invaded the Church (and) Catholic priests and bishops began to be converted to Christianity.


Liberation theology asserted that, because of their faith in Jesus Christ, the poor and the marginalized needn’t simply accept their poverty and oppression; God didn’t accept it, either. ‘God’, wrote Mexican theologian Elsa Tamez,’ is not indifferent to situations of injustice’:


God takes sides and comes on the scene as one who favors the poor, those who make up the masses of the people... God identifies with the poor to such an extent that their rights become the rights of God: ‘He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him’ (Prov. 14:31)...


Tamez roots the theological struggle for liberation in a prophetic vision that God himself makes a choice. Jesus came not as an emperor, a king, a chief priest, a wealthy landowner, or even merely as a Roman citizen. Rather, he was a humble man, a carpenter, someone of no social or geopolitical importance, and who lived out almost his whole life in a small, insignificant village. He did not simply love the poor or care about the poor; 

he was poor. 

Jesus took a position and a direction toward the poor and the marginalised and, said the liberationists, by extension, so should God’s Church.     
 
These four elements-

doing theology with a focus on an analysis of social reality;

with a priority of drawing on the experience of the people and of building their consciousness;

by means of a commitment to theological praxis;

and in the direction of the most poor and the most marginalized-

form a significant legacy of Latin American liberation theology. The developments of Dalit theology in India, the work of Sabeel in the occupied Palestinian Territories, the Kairos Document in South Africa and other African theologies, Minjung theology on the Korean Peninsula, Black liberation theology in the US, Latino/a theologies in the Americas, Feminist theology, and Queer theology all represent, in various ways, legacies of Latin American liberation theology’s commitment to reflective theological praxis.

In each context, the vision of liberation and transformation is distinct; theology is being de-limited, making it more relevant, more inclusive, and therefore, as they saw it, truer to the Gospel of Jesus.

Feminist theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid I think put it best:

‘liberation is for everyone or it is for no one’.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciated the tie of like theology with other religions.I am a liberation theologian and, really can't read holy scriptures any other way. I think, however, that liberation theology was initially introduced to humankind through Moses (the first?) and Exodus. Even I, a white, middle class U.S.A. female, need liberation.

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