Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Liberation Theology. . .

Had someone told me this time last year that CNN, Fox News and other major media outlets would be discussing the ideas of liberationist thinkers as a part of the current presidential campaign, I would have thought such a person to be completely out of touch with reality. What a difference a few weeks can make!

Most people have never heard of the concept, nor considered the tenets of the theological perspective offered by liberation theologians.

Of course, once you go there to investigate, if you are serious, you immediately recognize that you face a bit of a challenge, thanks to the fact that the concept, as reflected in the literature, takes off in so many different directions and is related to so many different people groups and issues. Further complicating any basic understanding of this particular theological point of view are the many ways the interpretive tool has been used and abused by countless and vastly different groups.

In summary, Liberation Theology recognizes the clear commitment of God and of God's various earthly representatives to the plight of suffering and oppressed peoples in every age and everywhere. The interpretive perspective of Liberation Theology will not allow one to read past the hundreds of scripture passages that fill our bibles dealing with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the victimized and the abused.

The liberationist "school of thought," broadly understood grew out of circumstances where extreme poverty, oppressive politics and organized resistance to any meaningful social/political change to improve living conditions for the impoverished intersected the world of faith, especially and initially as understood by poor Roman Catholics and their priests in Third World nations. The epicenter for the initial emergence of Liberation Theology was Latin America, though its influence now extends around the world.

Liberationists believe that God in both the Hebrew and the Christian bibles expresses and exercises a "preferential option for the poor" and the marginalized. This preference can be traced out in an unbroken line from the Law of Moses, through the historic narratives of Israel and Judah, on to the hymnology and wisdom literature of Judaism and culminating in the prophetic literature spanning the period from the 8th to the 5th centuries B. C. E.

For Christians, this same line can be picked up again from the birth of Jesus on through the gospel narratives, into the first community of Christians, in the early writings of the church and finally on to the Apocalypse.

An epistle like the book of James, for example, exemplifies the combination of Hebrew prophetic tradition and the influence of the life and teachings of Jesus on subjects that are very much bound to everyday human experiences such as work, wages, compassion, wealth and fairness in the marketplace.

Once scripture is held up to this thematic measure--God's commitment to those who suffer injustice, oppression and systemic marginalization--a broadening of one's understanding of salvation, redemption, community and mission sets in logically. Eyes are opened to what has always been present in the literature of faith, but blocked in various ways by other choices as to priority and interpretive weight or importance.

Most oppressed communities resonate naturally with this emphasis. Those who reside closer to and benefit from the centers of power that most often perpetrate the oppression, express bewilderment, concern, disdain and, at times, outrage at the ideas espoused by those who employ a liberationist lens to interpret the biblical texts.

Liberation theology resists the typical impulses of religion and the traditional religious to spiritualize out of the biblical narratives any real concern for the material world and its pain. While heaven or afterlife is a component of liberation thinking, the matters of here and now, of the earth, of the material, the economic and of the socio-political assume a central place in liberationist worldviews. As one writer once put it, "There is no way to heaven but through the earth." Sounds a lot like Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation who once wrote, "If I knew Jesus was returning to earth tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today."

Liberation Theology refuses to allow a system of personal salvation, redemption or justification to block or to wall off the faithful from their responsibilities to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with their God in the here and now of this present reality and life.

For the adherents of liberation thinking, no understanding of the faith that relieves believers from responsibility regarding the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the captive, the shut out and the marginalized can be considered a legitimate theological paradigm. No interpretive framework can be regarded as acceptable that places a concern for the poor at the margins of personal or corporate mission or that considers such concern as in any way optional for the person of faith or the larger community of faith.

Reading the gospels through this interpretive lens can be quite an experience, especially when coupled with a day-to-day experience of working and living among people who know and experience poverty.

[Note: the logo above is that of Orbis Books, one of the leading publishers of Liberaton Theology.]



Eric Livingston said...


You are right when you say reading the gospels from the plight of the poor is an eye opening experience. I'm not sure how to go back.

Thanks for your straightforward definition of L.T. The only area where I sometimes struggle with these ideas is in the realm of eschatology. If the world is all going to burn up soon, then it's hard to invest much into the here and now aspect of God's kingdom. I've slowly come to an understanding of how God is restoring his creation through a new heaven and a new earth, which allows for greater concern for the world in which I now live.

We've invited Dr. John M Perkins to speak at our church next Sunday. I'm interested to hear some of his ideas on this topic.

Eric Livingston said...

One other comment here:

As a worship minister, I find that an unbelievable number of hymns form our ideas in the exact opposite direction from L.T.

I think the escapism hymns of the late 19th and early 20th century have done so much to form Christians today. So many Christians live their lives with an attitude that "I'll Fly Away" to a "Mansion Over the Hilltop" so "This World is Not My Home, I'm Just A Passin' Through."

Just goes to show that what we sing really does form us as disciples - for good or ill.

Unknown said...

RE:Eric's later comment on our hymns, note that some (many?) of those "escapist" songs were not written by modern, affluent suburbanites, but were written by afflicted and, at least relatively, impoverished folks in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Some were even derivative of songs originated by slaves. So while they have resulted in a modern theology that split "this life" and the "hereafter" into a "never the twain shall meet" approach to discipleship that tolerates-cum-encourages materialism, selfishness and consumerism, they didn't necessarily grow from that kind of sentiment.

I also think that Richard Beck has written a thought-provoking essay on the conflict of Larry's perspective in this post and the reality of our own limitations - that is, how much is enough if we really believe what we say we believe?

Larry James said...

Thanks for the posts here. Jeff, I believe that the tension you describe--and I will read Beck's essay, though I have not yet--is a part of any interpretive or theological construct. I grew up in a "Restorationist" system and we faced the same question. The resolution is in attitude and application. And, the whole point is one of establishing proper life priorities. Keep battling.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Jeff, you are right. Songs like "Where Could I Go But to the Lord?" were not written by and for people who could just as easily go to the mall.

Karl Barth once observed that when people confess only in the language worked out by the previous generation, you can be sure their theology is bogus.

I think I've mentioned it here before, but the first few minutes of the movie "Romero" was a jaw-dropping experience for me. The Word became flesh on film. No, my own discipleship didn't take a 180 at that point. But my vision was altered.

Anonymous said...

I believe that Karl Barth was on the right track. Would “the language of the previous generation” referenced by Frank, also extend to The Bible? Perhaps the Bible is similar to the concept of the “Living Constitution”. Its meaning is constantly changing based on the current notions, or perhaps its meaning should be based on what is politically correct today?

Anonymous said...

RE: The question one might have is how you have read the gospels through the plight of the poor? Have you given up your suburban house in a middle class neighborhood, your mini van, your one income family,designer clothes, vacations, extended family, health insurance, comfortable income and become homeless and penniless. There is no way you can see it until you live it. You might have a better idea but you still have not walked in their shoes. You have not felt the hunger in their belly or the fear of living in drug infested neighborhoods. You probably send your children to middle income schools where even the lower income students have decent living conditions and have enough food. The reason Jesus made an impact was because he was one of the poor. He was real to the poor. They saw him living in and among them. The reason we aren't making the difference is because we are not REAL. We drive in to an area(a church building or "inner-city mission" in our minivans, clean cloths, cell phones, Palm Pilots, designer shoes and wonder why they don't trust us. Are we, "young rich rulers", willing to give it all up?

Anonymous said...

Question: "What is Liberation Theology?"

Answer: Simply put, Liberation Theology is an attempt to interpret Scripture through the plight of the poor. It is largely a humanistic doctrine. It started in South America in the turbulent 1950's when Marxism was making great gains among the poor because of its emphasis on the redistribution of wealth, allowing poor peasants to share in the wealth of the colonial elite and thus upgrade their economic status in life. As a theology, it has very strong Roman Catholic roots.

Liberation Theology was bolstered in 1968 at the Second Latin American Bishops Conference which met in Medellin, Colombia. The idea was to study the Bible and to fight for social justice in Christian (Catholic) communities. Since the only governmental model for the redistribution of the wealth in a South American country was a Marxist model (gained in the turbulent 1950's), the redistribution of wealth to raise the economic standards of the poor in South America took on a definite Marxist flavor. Since those who had money were very reluctant to part with it in any wealth redistribution model, the use of a populist (read poor) revolt was encouraged by those who worked most closely with the poor. As a result, the Liberation Theology model was mired in Marxist dogma and revolutionary causes.

As a result of its Marxist leanings, by the 1980's the Catholic hierarchy, from Pope John Paul on down, had criticized liberation theology as practiced by the bishops and priests of South America. As a result, they have been accused of supporting violent revolutions and outright Marxist class struggle by the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This perversion usually is the result of a humanist view of man being codified into Church Doctrine by zealous priests and bishops and explains why the Catholic top hierarchy now wants to separate themselves from a Marxist doctrine and revolution.

However, Liberation Theology has moved from the poor peasants in South America to the poor blacks in America. We now have Black Liberation Theology being preached in the black community. It is the same Marxist, revolutionary, humanistic philosophy found in South American Liberation Theology and has no more claim for a scriptural basis than the South American model has. False doctrine is still false, no matter how it is dressed up or what fancy name is attached to it. In the same way that revolutionary fervor was stirred up in South America, Liberation Theology is now trying to stir up revolutionary fervor among Blacks in America. If the church in America recognizes the falseness of Black Liberation Theology as the Catholic Church did in the South American model, Black Liberation Theology will suffer the same fate that the South America Liberation Theology did, namely it will be seen to be the false doctrine of a humanist viewpoint dressed up in theological terms.

© Copyright 2002-2008 Got Questions Ministries.

Anonymous said...

Boy, I just love it! A "ministry" that answers all of our questions! Thanks for the encyclopedia entry, Anon. The truth of course is so much different than your source's interpretation. What makes capitalism--the economic force that clearly stood over against the interests of millions of peasants and denied them any right to land or a means of production--moral, but any idea that opposes it immoral and heretical? Liberation Theology is no more humanist than the tripe that is put out in thousands of Evangelical churches in the name of God. Give us a break! By definition encyclopedia responses are ideological themselves.

Thanks, Larry, for expanding our vision and bringing forth new ways of seeing hard realities.

Luke R.

Anonymous said...

Liberation Theology was the perfect blueprint for the Sandinistas. It incorporated the very aim of Marxist-Leninism.
It presumed the classic Marxist "struggle of the masses" to be free from all capitalist domination.
And above all, the Marxist baby was at last wrapped in the very swaddling clothes of ancient [Roman] Catholic terminology.
From ....... THE JESUITS -The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church
By Malachi Martin
["Father" Martin, a prolific RC author, was a long time Jesuit and remains a Roman Catholic in good standing ...... JP ]
Published by Simon & Schuster, NY. .......... ISBN: 0-671-54505-1
page 56-62 .................. ............. THE TESTING GROUND
...... by the early seventies, at least seven years before their grab for power, the Sandinista leaders openly proclaimed their ultimate aim: to create a Marxist society in Nicaragua to serve as the womb from which Marxist revolution throughout Central America would be born. "Revolution throughout the Americas" was the slogan.
From their beginnings as a group, when they were nothing more than rag-tag guerrillas, bank robbers, and hit-and-run terrorists, the Sandinistas understood full well that they had no hope of installing a Marxist regime in 91.6 percent Roman Catholic Nicaragua unless they could enlist - in effect, inhale - the active cooperation of the Catholic clergy, together with suitably altered [Roman Catholic] Church doctrine and [Roman Catholic] Church structure.
Mere passive connivance on the part of the clergy would not be enough. If the Sandinistas wanted the very soul of the people, they knew the road: [Roman] Catholicism was inextricably bound up in the warp and woof of Nicaraguan culture, language, way of thinking, and outlook, and was integral to all the hope of the people.
Here, Fernando Cardenal, as [Roman Catholic] priest and Jesuit, was a towering influence.
For some time, certain [Roman] Catholic theologians in Latin America - principally Jesuits of the post-World War II period - had been developing a new theology. They called it the Theology of Liberation, and based it on the theories of their European counterparts.
It was an elaborate and carefully worked out system, but its core principle is very simple: The whole and only meaning of Christianity as a religion comes down to one achievement - the liberation of men and women, by armed and violent revolution if necessary, from the economic, social, and political slavery imposed on them by U.S. capitalism; this is to be followed by the establishment of "democratic socialism."
In this "theological" system, the so-called "option" for the economically poor and the politically oppressed, originally described as a "preferential" option by Catholic bishops in Latin America at their conference in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, became totally exclusive: There was one enemy - capitalist classes, middle and upper and lower, chiefly located in the United States. Only the "proletariat" - the "people" - was to be fomented by the imposition of Marxism.
Liberation Theology was the perfect blueprint for the Sandinistas.
It incorporated the very aim of Marxist-Leninism. It presumed the classic Marxist "struggle of the masses" to be free from all capitalist domination. And above all, the Marxist baby was at last wrapped in the very swaddling clothes of ancient Catholic terminology. Words and phrases laden with meaning for the people were co-opted and turned upside down.
The historical Jesus, for example, became an armed revolutionary. The mystical Christ became all the oppressed people, collectively. Mary the Virgin became the mother of all revolutionary heroes. The Eucharist became the bread freely made by liberated workers. Hell became the capitalist system. The American president, leader of the greatest capitalist country, became the Great Satan. Heaven became the earthly paradise of the workers from which capitalism is abolished. Justice became the uprooting of capitalist gains, which would be "returned" to the people, to the "mystical body" of Christ, the democratic socialists of Nicaragua. The Church became that mystical body, "the people," deciding its fate and determining how to worship, pray, and live, under the guidance of Marxist leaders.
It was a brilliant synthesis, ready-made and just waiting for the activists who would set about erecting a new sociopolitical structure on its basis, as a building rises from a blueprint.
The Nicaraguan people were the first guinea pigs on whom the theory was experimentally tried. And the priests who were charter members in the Sandinista leadership - Jesuit Fernando Cardenal Ernesto Cardenal, Miguel D'Escoto Brockman of the Maryknoll Fathers, Jesuit Alvaro Arguello, Edgar Parrales of the Managua diocese - made the experiment doubly blessed and likely to succeed.
If such men, duly ordained as priests, could successfully get this new "theological" message across - that the Sandinista revolution was really a religious matter sanctioned by legitimate Church spokesmen - they would have both the [Roman] Catholic clergy and the people as allies in a Marxist-style revolution by armed violence.
[no R. C. was ever excommunicated for engaging in violent revolution ..... JP ]
Without a doubt, the plan had been carefully thought out and elaborated, based on a profound analysis of the Nicaraguan people and of its clergy.
No doubt, too, the first connivers in the scheme were the priests themselves; there are even those in Managua today and among prominent Nicaraguan exiles in Panama, Honduras, and Miami, Florida,who point the finger at Fernando Cardenal as the prime architect of the scheme. But what evidence there is does suggest that he was not the only Jesuit involved.
In any case, the Sandinista undertaking was ever more brilliantly explained, refined, and dinned into the ears of seminarians, nuns, university students, and the popular mind by increasing numbers of their Jesuit, Franciscan, and Maryknoll teachers and lecturers throughout the schools of Central America. The seeding time was well spent in the view of ultimate Marxisation. The pathetic court testimony of the young Nicaraguan Edgard Lang Sacasa told the world as far back as 1977 that it had been his priest educators who had persuaded him and thousands like him to join the Sandinista guerrillas.
Hand in hand with this new Theology of Liberation went, of necessity, the establishment of a new and "pliant" Church structure to replace the old one.
In the traditional Roman Catholic structure, knowledge about God, Christ, Christian salvation, personal morality, and human destiny derived from the hierarchic pastors of the Church - namely, the Pope and his bishops.
They were the only authentic source of knowledge about the faith; apart from them, there was no accurate knowing possible about Christianity. Submission to them and acceptance of their teaching and laws were necessary for salvation.
It was precisely this structure, in which ultimate control is Rome's, that stood between the Sandinistas and the people. And it was precisely this structure that the earlier, European-based architect-theologians of Liberation Theology had criticized. This structure was, Liberation Theologians said, dictated by "a view from above" and "imposed from above" on the people "below."
Franciscan Liberation Theologian Leonardo Boff, teaching in a Brazilian seminary, put it in terms Fernando Cardenal and his clerical colleagues could champion: "There has been a historical process of expropriation of the means of production on the part of the clergy to the detriment of the Christian People." Boff was not talking about industry or commerce, but about theology and religious doctrine; the means of production - the "plant," as he called it - was the preaching of the Gospel.
According to the new theologians, "Roman" and therefore "alien" imposition of religious doctrine was the very reason social injustice and political oppression flourished in lands where this hierarchic [Roman Catholic] Church flourished. In lands such as Latin American countries. In countries such as Nicaragua. On top of that, the argument went on, Christianity and specifically [Roman] Catholicism was not merely alien in and of itself, but had always accompanied actual invasion by alien European cultures. "Alien" - that was the key word.
To counter that alien, imposed structure, the new theologians looked "from below." From the level of the people. From the perspective of oppression and injustice - because that, they said, was all they found "below" among the people. The task, in other words, was to impose the "preferential option" on all the people, rich and poor alike. Immediately, as Fernando Cardenal and the other Sandinista priests quickly realized, a new concept of "Church" was born.
The ordinary body of believers, by revised definition, would become the very source of revelation. The faith of believers would "create" communities among those believers. Base Communities, they are called in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Latin America - "comunidades de base" . And those Communities taken together would form the new "Church," the "People's Church."
These Communities began to form years before the Nicaraguan revolution stormed onto the stage of geopolitics in 1979. Groupings of laymen and laywomen would gather regularly to pray, to read the Bible, to sing hymns, to discuss their local concrete problems in economics and politics; to choose not only their political leaders but their priests as well; and to determine not only the solutions to their secular problems, but how best to worship and what to believe.
It was a dream come true. A dream put into clear words by the same Father Boff: "The sacred power must be put back in the hands of the people." No teaching or directing authority would be allowed "from above," from the alien, hierarchic [Roman Catholic] Church. In fact, the very symbols of that Church must be firmly rejected.
Symbols and all else must only come "from below." From the people. From their Base Communities - nearly 1000 of them in Nicaragua alone, in time; and nearly 300,000 in Latin America at large. The idea of Base Communities spread to the United States, where they are sometimes called "Gatherings."
Fernando Cardenal, Ernesto Cardenal, Miguel D'Escoto Brockman, Edgar Parrales, and Alvaro Arguello were the showcase priests of the Sandinistas, the intended and willing legitimizers of this new "People's Church" that would appropriate