What is Liberation Theology?

Michael Deschamps

The left and right wing political paradigm is a very convenient one and has served political discourse since the French Revolution, when it was coined to describe the various sides of that conflict. In the religious world, especially the Christian world, the terms do not go away. In the Catholic world especially, the terms may be at their most potent and most accurate.

There is a clear chasm between the Left and Right in the Catholic world and has been for quite a while. While many American Protestant churches offer a moderate, liberal or conservative interpretation of the gospel (depending on if you’re a Baptist, which leans more conservative, or, say, a Methodist, who lean more progressive), the Catholic Church pushes towards extremes. Catholicism, with its drastic and sometimes intense traditions, is much more a hotbed of political radicalism than most Protestant sects.

The right-wing history of the Catholic Church is infamous and horrible. From the Crusades all the way to the sex abuse scandals, there is a long history of reaction, corruption, fear and repression from the Vatican. It took decades for Oscar Romero’s martyrdom to be vindicated while the church became associated with some of the world’s worst regimes. It failed to stand in the way of the rise of the Third Reich and, forty years on, allowed Augusto Pinochet in Chile, along with various right-wing fascists in Latin America, to use the church as a propaganda platform.

On the flip side, there is a fierce and hopeful brand of left-wing radicalism in the Catholic world. This radicalism is a beautiful thing and offers a more concise and cogent political view than perhaps any other religion in the world. Beyond that, it offers one of the few leftist world views, religious or not, that has a demonstrable record of success. The aforementioned Romero, along with Catholics like Cesar Chavez and Mother Theresa, succeeded in changing the world for the better. If we add in Protestant liberationists, who no doubt embraced these tenets despite not being Catholic, like Martin Luther King Jr., liberation theology shows itself to be one of the most potent political forces in society.

Left and Right views of the gospel may both come from the same root material but they come to radically different conclusions about its meaning. They are completely different worldviews and views of God. The right-wing world is far more literal; and their brand of faith, when tainted with what Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun Magazine, called “the right hand of God,” is often used as a justification for injustice. With this interpretation, people are led to believe that they are poor because God willed it, or the rich likewise have such wealth because it’s God’s will. The right hand of God appeals to people who need things to be concrete and kept as they are; in other words, those who tend towards traditionalism, conservatism and reactionary politics. There is a strong dynamic of fear in this worldview, possibly leading to the common phrase “God fearing.” And right-wing Christians often bring God in as a way of condemning those who would dare to “shake things up,” “rabble-rouse” or challenge the status quo, no matter how unjust it may be. In this sense, there is a strain of privilege within right-wing faith interpretations that becomes immediately clear.

In his book Power of the Poor in History, the father of liberation theology (LT), Gustavo Gutierrez, laments that perhaps he should have tried bringing LT to an organization less conservative than the Catholic Church. LT first gained popularity in the 1970s when Gutierrez wrote his Theology of Liberationand coined the often used term “preferential treatment for the poor.” But it’s only now, as demographics have pushed the Vatican to allow leadership and ideas from the developing world where the world’s majority of Catholics lives, that LT is finally being accepted in church leadership.

Creighton University, an excellent Catholic university in Nebraska, runs a podcast series that’s available for free from their website or iTunes. They published one special episode on liberation theology in which William Harmless, a specialist on LT at that university, explained LT pretty concisely. He described his experiences talking to poor workers in Latin America and doing Bible Study with them and how surprised some of them became when they read scripture. They’d been led to believe that it was God’s will that they were poor and had little.

Liberation theology directly refutes the right-wing worldview. While perhaps some radical and conservative Catholics might agree on elements like contraception, and maybe even gay marriage, the view of our economic world between right and left Catholics could not be more different.

From a theological view, this rift might be in that right and left-wing Catholics possibly see a different God. I cannot speak for all radical Catholics but Pope Francis, a clear enthusiast for LT who has invited Gutierrez to the Vatican and nominated Oscar Romero for beatification, has commented that Christians shouldn’t reject atheists because our “concept of God may be outdated.” Statements like that prompted Bill Maher, not the most nuanced person on topics like this, to say that Francis was really an atheist.

Most people see religion as being what the Right sells it as. Right-wing Christians are extremely literal – you believe in God as the trinity – a holy father who sent his only son to earth – or you do not believe at all – you are a “salad-bar Christian.” This is perfectly in line with a worldview that should be unmoving and free of fluidity and change.

Francis’ notion of God may be more in line with the Buddhist one (after all, he did enthusiastically walk into a Buddhist temple while in Sri Lanka to celebrate such ideas). Buddhists have said for 4000 years that the existence of God may actually be beside the point, and much of Buddhism seeks an understanding of what it means to be human, rather than a simple and reduced notion of how we got here.

We were given this world by forces more powerful than us that act independently of us. People have contentious arguments about how our creation took place – slow, meticulous evolution or sudden creation – and do not confirm and share in the obvious fact that we did not create ourselves. The world orbits the sun, plants grow, and animals procreate without us operating any of these things. The forces that make life possible have been hinted at in everything from the Buddhist Tao to “The Force” in the popular film series Star Wars.

Liberation fits perfectly in to this notion of God. God in LT is more like a provider than an enforcer. God has provided us with a rich Earth filled with resources – enough for everyone. If inequality occurs, it has absolutely nothing to do with God, nor does injustice. In fact, if and when it does occur, LT preaches that God and scripture exist as a message of liberation for those who are oppressed on Earth. It promotes struggle, not apathy; justification for flipping the proverbial table, not for “accepting your lot in life” and leaving it be.

The Left spectrum of Catholicism is more widely spoken now than at any time in recent history. Pope Francis has unapologetically spoken from it and much of the Catholic world (though not all) has nodded their head in approval. It’s not a marketing ploy or some cynical creation of the Vatican to win over atheists and oppressed folks across the world; liberation theology is a deep movement, going back forty years, that addresses the most serious ills that exist and perpetuate in the world.
Feminist Theology

The very existence of feminist theology may seem strange to many outside of the Christian world. The Catholic Church played an instrumental role in creating nearly all of the standards we have for gender roles – marriage, courting, sex, matrimony and abstinence – and our concepts of them all have their roots in the past 2000 years in the Christian tradition.

My late fiancée, Jennifer Reimer, had a number of Catholic books, many of which helped me further a journey in to Catholic theology that I was already on. A number of them dealt with ecology. While I was working at Tikkun, an interfaith magazine based in Berkeley, California, I read a great deal of books by religious feminist writers – Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Most of them continued along the ecological line – many of the writers took a ‘mother’s approach’ to environmentalism and saw responsibility on the part of humans to protect God’s creation.

There’s a number of respected works in the world of feminist theology – one of the most famous isFrontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology: Shoulder to Shoulder. This work focuses on how women who put their lives in to discipleship can do so while maintaining feminist principles and standards of empowerment to and for women.

Liberation theology is a creation of Central America and its unique cultural experience – one that does not stop at gender lines. The impact of liberation theology continues on to feminist theology and a number of Latina theologians and writers have contributed to the field. Some of the most popular volumes in this field include Maria Pilar Aquino’s work – A Reader In Latina Feminist Theology: Religion and Justice and Feminist Intercultural Theology: Latina Explorations for a Just World. Aquino is longtime alum of the University of San Diego and one of the central protagonists of feminist theology.
Black Liberation Theology

Black liberation theology is an interesting thing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. almost certainly would fit in its category if the term had reached mainstream discourse when he was alive. For a minority population in the US that boasts much higher church attendance rates than many other groups, there’s a surprisingly low level of liberation theologians who are African American, or who embrace Black Liberation Theology.

Amongst the few is one man who I am certain anyone visiting the Hampton Institute knows of – Dr. Cornel West. West is alumni of Princeton and a longtime faculty professor at Union Theological Seminary.

West has made quite a few enemies on the Left recently. Despite the extremes of right wingers in the Republican Party, West has targeted Democratic president Barack Obama with criticism of his war policies, which have exceeded, in intervention, the number of campaigns that George W. Bush initiated.

Some have even said that West is on the payroll of Republicans – a claim that is laughable to anyone who has followed his work for more than five years. Despite these accusations, West remains a dedicated and important leftist. Christ informs him, as does his own scholarship. He can be a bit boisterous and his speeches, which are often as much sermons as they are talks, can be bombastic and over the top. Likewise, his writing can be extremely dense – obviously made for a university audience.

West has written that he grew up in a predominantly black world in Sacramento, California. Much of his writing is an attempt to synthesize the black experience, something that permeates his own life, with faith and the quest for liberation. One of his first projects on the public scene was a collaborative book with Rabbi Michael Lerner back in the 1990s called Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin. The book detailed a conversation held in Berkeley – Lerner’s home – which centered on the tension, sympathies and ideas of Jews and blacks.
Is It Catholic?

Gustavo Gutierrez has been a fellow at University of Notre Dame for many years. His writing is clearly and coherently Catholic. Liberation theology is filled with Catholic iconography and its core principles are rooted in the gospel of Christ, who was persecuted for appealing to the marginalized.

That does not mean that LT is primarily a Catholic thing. To be exclusive and reduced to one theology or understanding of the universe would go against the term “liberation” itself. There are a number of groups that I am a part of on social media which are centered on LT – including one called “Interfaith Liberation Theology.”

There is a long tradition in the Catholic world’s radical arena of figures who do not limit their experience to the Gospel. Thomas Merton, who I wrote about very recently, took interest in Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths in order to reach a greater understanding of the mind and spirit. Before he died a very strange death in Bangkok, Thailand, he said that these faiths had been “exploring these things much longer than we have.”

Simplified, liberation theology is about liberating and emancipating ourselves from man-made constraints that keep us from fulfilling our absolute potential as God’s children. It calls to the most disenfranchised among us – be they Black, women, poor, disabled or belonging to any other group that is faced with external constraints by society. The higher powers of this universe granted us with the resources to live fulfilled lives – nearly all of the problems and pitfalls we experience are things we have created for ourselves. God wants us to liberate from those pitfalls and we certainly can.

Suggested Resources

20th Century Theology #9: Gustavo Gutierrez and Liberation Theology. http://moses.creighton.edu/harmless/bibliographies_for_theology/Vatican_II_9.htm 

Latina Feminist Theology. Genesis Ibarra. http://www.usfca.edu/artsci/las/divisadero/spring2012/latina-feminist-theology/ 

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