The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have led not only to widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racial bias, but have also led many evangelical Christians to pay more attention to the importance of temporal justice as it relates to the gospel.
The following is an essay I wrote as an assignment for a class on Liberation Theology when I was working on my first degree in theology. Several kinds of liberation theologies have been proposed since it was first articulated: Latin American, African American, Feminist, and one I find particularly intriguing: handicapped liberation theology.
What is liberation theology, does it have validity, and is there anything we can learn from it? Hopefully this essay answers some of those questions for you:
An Evaluation of the Key Contributions of Latin American Liberation Theology to Modern Theology
Latin American liberation theology is a distinct form of theology which originated in the Latin American situation of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in South America. Although it arose from this particular setting, liberation theology has contributed to modern theology by raising significant practical and theological questions for Christians, such as the nature of salvation, the proper approach to hermeneutics, e.g. the starting point and sources of theology, and what the Bible says regarding politics, poverty and oppression.
Liberation theology is unabashedly a product of a particular historical situation. Latin America, even today, is the region of the world with the greatest economic and social inequality, where an elite minority possesses almost all the wealth, and the majority of people live in crushing poverty, with the poor often suffering and dying unnecessarily from lack of adequate food, healthcare and nutrition.
In seeking a solution to this problem, and functioning from an Enlightenment, ‘modern’ view of the the world, attempts were made in the 1950s and 1960s to bring development to LatinAmerica. These efforts did not succeed in improving the lot of the poor masses and many turned to an alternative analysis of the problem: Latin America does not suffer from underdevelopment, but from oppression; the real problem being unjust political, economic and social structures, both within individual countries and between the region and the developed world, that created and perpetuate the poverty and suffering of the great majority of the population.
A major factor in the development of liberation theology was the social teaching of Vatican II concerning human dignity and the need for structural change. Latin American bishops met in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 to discuss the implications of Vatican II for Latin America; the papers adopted by this council became the founding documents of liberation theology. The bishops talked about what Christianity had to say to the poor that had been neglected in the way that the gospel had been presented, and about a link between salvation and liberation from oppression.
The consensus of this meeting was that in many places in Latin America there existed a situation of injustice that should be recognised as ‘institutional violence,’ because the existing structures violated basic human rights; they said that this situation called for ‘far-reaching, daring, urgent changes.’
Other notable influences in the formation of liberation theology are political theology, Marxism, and popular religion. Jürgen Moltmann and political theology in Germany challenged the typical European theologian’s detachment from political objectives, Marxism was used by liberation theologians as a tool of social analysis and philosophy of history, and popular religion brought attention to the cultural specificity of distinct people groups as regards religious practices.
Some of the most influential figures in the formation of liberation theology are Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. Liberation theology is a diffuse movement, but there are some defining characteristics, most notably its orientation towards the poor and oppressed.
In liberation theology, Scripture is not read from the standpoint of wishing to understand the gospel, but out of the concern to apply its liberating insights to the situation of the poor and oppressed. Salvation is interpreted in terms of socio-political liberation and there is the notion of ‘structural sin’ – the belief that society, rather than the individual, is corrupted and requires redemption. Political, economic and social structures that keep the poor down must be abolished.
There is a fundamental belief that theology is not and should not be detached from social involvement or political action. It is argued that political neutrality is not possible for the church and that to profess neutrality is to support the status quo, which in the case of oppression is to support the oppressors rather than the oppressed. To do so, as the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America did for many years, is to go against God, who, in the words of José Míguez Bonino, is ‘clearly and unequivocally on the side of the poor.’ Thus, if God is on the side ofthe poor, then the church must also be on the side of the poor, and act on their behalf; it is then, from that position of active involvement, that a person does theology. This is the reason why Gutiérrez describes liberation theology as ‘a new way to do theology.’
Whereas classical Western theology regarded action as the result of reflection, liberation theology inverts the order: action (‘praxis’) comes first, followed by critical reflection – thus there is a rejection of the Enlightenment view that commitment to an ideology is a barrier to knowledge. In fact, according to Sobrino, ‘the poor are the theological source for understanding Christian truth and practice’.
One of the ways liberation theology has contributed to modern theology is that it has brought attention to the biblical theme of God’s concern for the oppressed and the vulnerable members of society, which is especially apparent in the Old Testament law and prophets, but is also a theme of the New Testament, e.g. in much of Jesus’ preaching and in the Epistle of James.
In bringing attention to this biblical theme, liberation theology has contributed to the current concern across the spectrum of Christianity for issues of social justice, which, beyond simply giving aid to the poor, are concerned with taking action to change social structures that enable oppression and exploitation of some human beings by others – even by working to change policies to defend and protect the poor, weak, and vulnerable. This is certainly not something completely new to Christianity; others, e.g. John Wesley, were known for their concerns for social justice, but it is certainly a major focus in modern theology, and has influenced Christian views on such topics as civil rights for women, minorities and other people who could be seen to be kept down by social structures.
Closely tied to this is the movement in modern theology away from the Enlightenment view that faith and politics are two separate spheres. Liberation theology has raised awareness of the political nature of faith, and that theology is not just something to be learned, but also something to be put into practice in our particular historical and political settings.
Liberation theology has also contributed to the recognition that all theological reflection takes place in a social context, and therefore different social situations give rise to different theological questions, so that the theological questions that are relevant in one part of the world are different than those that are relevant in another part of the world. For example, whereas Western cultures struggle with issues of faith in their post-Enlightenment context of skepticism, science and technology, other parts of the world like Africa and Latin America struggle with issues of faith in a post-colonial context of poverty, injustice and inequality. Whereas westerners might see defending the supernatural nature of God a pertinent theological issue, it may not be such in a place like Africa, where the supernatural is readily accepted, but where the pertinent theological issue is rather ‘where is the God of righteousness in a world of injustice?’ Liberation theology has contributed to the concept that if the Bible is a universal book, then it has something to say to people in every historical and social setting, addressing the issues they face.
Liberation theology has also shown a new way of doing theology – a new hermeneutic, shaped by praxis as opposed to the more traditional way of doing theology by a detached ‘objective’ determination of theological truth which then shapes ethical thought, which in turn drives practical action. Liberation theology has encouraged us to take more seriously the socio-cultural setting of the Bible and brought attention to the blindness of an interpreter to his or her own set of socio-cultural presuppositions.
Liberation theology does not even claim to be objective, because it begins not only with a situation, but with a particular analysis of that situation. It is in this way that Latin American liberation theology has provided a hermeneutical framework for other forms of liberation theology, e.g. feminist theology and black theology. This is also one of the inherent issues that the Vatican pointed out in 1984 in a document titled Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation. While it affirmed the ‘preferential option for the poor’ and urged Christians to ‘become involved in the struggle for justice, freedom and human dignity’, it also warned against starting with a revolutionary praxis rather than belief, because to do so means that all contrary ideas are automatically discredited as reflecting the class interests of the oppressors.
This is precisely the disagreement between the proponents of the various liberation theologies: since they begin doing theology with praxis, what do they do with parts of the Scriptures which seem to contradict their beliefs or predetermined analysis of the situation? How does feminist liberation theology deal with verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:34- 35? Since liberation theology begins with praxis, Scripture is not the primary source of theology, therefore the Bible will be interpreted in light of the given agenda and related experiences.
Liberation theology has also contributed to modern theological discussion by stirring up discussion of a number of theological issues, such as the nature of salvation, the significance of the incarnation, what a Christian’s attitude should be towards politics and the government, and the implications of various eschatological beliefs.
Liberation theology does highlight the important biblical theme of God’s care for the poor, but on the other hand, Jesus seems to say that having a good life on this Earth is secondary to the salvation of one’s soul (Mk 8:36).
Liberation theology presents a legitimate protest against the over-spiritualisation of the biblical theme of poverty, but on the other hand, the Bible speaks of the wealth and poverty in regard to spiritual things as well (2 Cor. 6:10, 8:9; Lk. 12:13-21).
Liberation theology stirs up discussion on eschatology as well; is this world doomed and only going to get worse, until it is eventually destroyed and replaced (2 Pet. 3:7-13), or is this world and everything in it being redeemed by God, and any work we do of liberation is taking an active part in the redemptive work of God?
Should we as Christians rightly challenge the governments of the places we live, even if they are evil; should we work for top-down change in social structures – or should we simply seek to be a blessing to the place where we live (Jer. 29:7) and submit to the governing authorities, accepting them as those appointed by God for us? (Rom. 13:1-7) After all, Jesus lived in an oppressed society, but although he could have, the New Testament tells us he did not incite political revolution, nor encourage his followers to do so. However, although liberation theology may have incited such discussions, finding answers for these questions by studying the scriptures is not its main prerogative. Liberation theology is focused on doing theology from the perspective of the poor and oppressed and for purpose of the liberation and empowerment of the poor and oppressed.
In conclusion, Liberation theology was one of the most significant theological movements of the twentieth century; it has irretrievably changed the theological landscape. It has been both a product and a catalyst of modern shifts in thinking. Liberation theology highlighted the liberative nature of Christianity and the biblical theme of the concern that God has, not only for the spiritually poor and oppressed, but for those who are physically poor and oppressed and suffering in this life. It has raised awareness of the social structures that support and propagate oppression and has challenged us to consider how God feels about both our actions and our inactions for our fellow human beings. Liberation theology has discouraged us from viewing life as sterile and compartmentalised, and encouraged us to see it rather as a unified whole, in which areas such as theology, sociology, politics and economics are not separate, but rather intimately related. It has also shown a new paradigm for doing theology, driven by praxis. It has provoked all people who do theology to realize their own cultural blinders and to listen to the cry of the poor and see what God’s word says to them.
Bauckham, R., ‘Jürgen Moltmann’ in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn, ed. by D. Ford and R. Muers (Oxford:Blackwell, 2005), pp. 147-162
Boff, L., ‘Christ’s Liberation via Oppression: an Attempt at Theological Reconstruction from the Standpoint of Latin America’, in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America, ed. R. Gibellini, (London: SCM Press, 1975), pp. 100-132
Chopp, R.S. and E. Regan, ‘Latin American Liberation Theology’ in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn, ed. by D. Ford and R. Muers (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 469-484
Cobb, J.B., “Wesley the Liberationist”, <http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1100> [accessed 08/02/2013]
Conn, H.M., ‘Liberation Theology’ in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by S.B. Ferguson, D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pp. 387-391
Ferguson, S.B., D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer, eds, New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
Ford, D., R. Muers, eds, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)
Hall, L., THY203 Issues in Modern Theology (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2011)
Keller, T., Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010)
Lane, T., Exploring Christian Thought, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996)
McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Norris, F.W., Christianity: A Short Global History (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002)
“Social Justice”, Christianity Today, <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/topics/s/social-justice/> [accessed 08/02/2013]
Vos, H.F., Exploring Church History, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994)