Liberation Theology

author: Marc Batko email Marc
Essay on Liberation Theology

Liberation theology originating in Latin America was described by Gustavo Guiterrez in his seminal book “Theology of Liberation” (1970). The prophets in the Old Testament (or First Testament) and Jesus in the New Testament (or Second Testament) were its heralds. Among its characteristics are (1) re-envisioning God as partisan and present, with feminine and masculine features (symbolizing warmth, tenderness and nearness, not only ruler, judge and warrior), (2) preferential option for the poor (the poor as our teachers, God’s partiality and protection of the poor and excluded, widows, orphans and strangers) and (3) action preceding theology. “Only the suffering God can help” proclaimed Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr and highest name in Germany. Here the horse is put before the cart. Faith can be liberating and not paralyzing. As expanding education is an antidote to a collapsing political and economic structure, liberating faith can awaken gifts and talents, sensitivity and passion for the future that often languish amid a vulgar materialism disparaging everything inward, spiritual and divine.

Traditional western theology was often over-conceptual and over-intellectual. Faith was often more paralyzing than liberating. People delayed acting until faith was perfectly defined.? A one-sided emphasis on God’s omnipotence encouraged resignation and passivity while concentration on human sinfulness and culpability eclipsed the original blessing (cf. Matthew Fox). Sitting silently in church for an hour a week, a negative anthropology focused on guilt and futility and the Constantinian turn when the emperor in the 4th century adopted Christianity led to an estranged, conformist church far removed from the critical and prophetic origins.

Liberation theology seeks to break the false dualisms of this side and the world to come, matter and spirit. The proclamation of Jesus and the experience of the early church are stressed. The reign of God is not an otherworldly hope but a seed in worldly reality. The neighbor is the place of God’s transcendence. Charity is the imperative of the reign of God that is both present and future.

Archbishop Romero championed the poor in El Salvador and Latin America, victims of unbridled economic exploitation and corporate power. Faithfulness to Jesus and the gospel involves resistance and solidarity, opposition to the false gods of economic idolatry and economic growth. Reagan’s Contra-war focused on removing the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and quashing their 1979 triumph over the Somoza dictatorship. The literacy campaign increasing literacy from 50% to 90% incensed the neoliberal designs of Reaganomics. Romero resisted the distortion and instrumentalization of Christianity into a counter-revolutionary force justifying the American empire and the American model.

The early church had all things in common and decried riches and militarism as false securities. The earth belonged to God, people were stewards and life was a gift, not a possession. “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3,28). The apocalyptic theme was proclaimed: The Lord is at hand, be not anxious for possessions or the future!

Liberation theology is connected with critical thinking, critical pedagogy, environmental ethics, feminist theology, black theology, Min-jung theology and eschatological theology. Women, nature and the third world have long been degraded and destroyed in the course of economism and corporate dominance. Nature is not a free good, external or sink in which to expunge wastes but like children has its own right to exist; nature is God’s beloved creation and the despoiled foundation of economic life. Where nature is only a collection of objects, it loses its transparency and symbolism (cf. Christian Link, On the Transparency of Nature).

Hope is the defining human characteristic, being able to surpass everything past and present in the power of the coming, the power of the promise, anticipation and vision.? Hope like the immigrant (and liberation theology) is often inconvenient and pressing, calling us to new paradigms, priorities and perspectives. The future should be anticipated and protected in the present, not extrapolated from the present (cf. Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope).

Faith is more interruption than custom. Life is necessarily fragmentary; happiness and understanding are moments breaking through lethargy and prejudice. The transformations in the Jewish-Christian dialogue are life-giving and could point to other necessary transformations in relating to nature and other cultures and religions. Judaism and the Old Testament are no longer depreciated as stepping stones to Christian faith; Jewish people are no longer disinherited but appreciated as God’s stubborn people. After long repressing the dialogue, Christians are finally seeing themselves as “younger brothers” (cf. Rolf Rendtorff, “We are Your Younger Brothers”).

The exodus from Egyptian bondage is a central tradition in the prophetic tradition of liberation theology. We are called to new beginning, to be people of the day, people of light, living in the imperative of reconciliation and resistance, solidarity and forgiveness. Our responsibility is to plant the seed, awaken the languishing powers of vision and empathy and to break through the false securities, false consciousness and false religiosity and not worry about success. Empowered with positive offensive strategies, we resist the fleshpots of materialism and the dance around the golden calf and the golden ego. We refuse to howl with the wolves of shareholder capitalism and to calculate defensively with the liberals! Life has enemies; children have enemies anxious that they not attend school or see doctors; trees and fish have enemies bent on commodification, enormous profits and short-term fixation. To paraphrase Jesus’ great challenge: “Seek the reign of God, a future friendly to children, trees and fish, and let the dead bury their own dead!”

Jesus’ parables like Zen koans have the power to turn life and the world upside down. Jesus often made women and Samaritans the models in his parables Making visible the invisible, Jesus’ passion was proclaiming the reign of God, the dawn of an inclusive future. Those who instrumentalized religion for their self-justification and self-righteousness were naturally incensed. Can we be people of double vision, people of universal and particular history? Can we be people with future responsibility proclaiming with all the excluded and degraded multitudes that the world is not for sale? Can we develop alternative visions with offensive strategies focused more on what unites us than on our differences?

Liberation theology pleads that swords become plowshares in the Third World.? The right of hospitality could supplant violence. Cooperation is the fundamental human experience (cf. Gottfried Orth’s “Cooperation, not Violence”). Nature calls us to interdependence; carrots and onions thrive together. The stars invite us to wonder, mystery and gratitude. “A people without vision perish”, the prophet Isaiah declares. We need one another more than money. Encourage means putting courage in one another. Re-membering means reconfiguring our perspective so we can survive as a family, not merely as a species (cf. Leonardo Boff). Can we come together as people of the future, people of vision, sympathy, self-criticism and encouragement?

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