Fame Day: Liberation Theology (Can the Church be a Force for Social Justice?)

I grew up as an Evangelical Christian. There are many wonderful people I love who strongly associate with that title, but at this point in my life I no longer consider myself one. As I’ve struggled with certain tenants of the Evangelical movement over the last few years I’ve also struggled with the urge to write off Christianity entirely.

As I’ve gotten older and moved away from my previous home and (wonderful) community, I’ve started to realize that the “brand” of Christianity I was raised with is certainly not the only one out there. I also discovered that the emphasized conversion message that I was brought up in is actually a relatively new aspect of Christianity. While this method had a real heyday in the 80-90’s (think altar calls), here in North America things seem to be evolving yet again.

While I’d love to share more about what I’ve been learning regarding the evolution of Christianity sometime soon, for this post I want to focus on a branch of theology that I didn’t even realize existed until pretty recently: Liberation Theology.

Wikipedia defines Liberation Theology as:

“a political movement in Roman Catholic theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in relation to a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. It has been described as ‘an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor’s suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor’.”

The Liberation Theology movement is generally credited (at least partially) to Gustavo Gutiérrez, author of A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971). Gutiérrez spent most of his life working and living with the poor community of Lima Peru. There he witnessed a political system that, like many other systems in Latin America, condemned the peasantry to deep “rural marginalization” or “sprawling urban shantytowns”.

Unfortunately, Gutiérrez’s groundbreaking work is still on my (very long) to-read list. Luckily, an awesome friend sent me some resources from a course on the subject that break down his arguments very concisely. One of the main starting points of Liberation Theology is reframing the concept of sin. Yes, the traditional idea of sin is still included, but Gutiérrez also includes larger, social sins in his description:

Structures of sin

  • Sin is not merely an individual action or a “private” or “interior” reality…
  • It also exists in social structures that deny people dignity and treat them as if they do not exist – pushes them to the margins.
  •  Hording wealth while thousands live in squalor.  Upheld by military dictatorships ready to kill, torture, and jail anyone who speaks against it.
  •  This is sinful for it violates human dignity.

While Marx accused religion of being “the opiate of the people”, something to keep the poor distracted and prevent them from protesting their rich taskmasters, Gutiérrez argues that the church should actually be advocating on behalf of the downtrodden if it aspires to be the body of Christ.

Liberation

  • In response, to live the gospel is to actively encourage liberation from these structures.
  • Gutierrez says that to have faith is to be actively committed in this way – he says that this is how Christians are to be present in the world.
  • This is indeed how salvation itself is to be understood.  It is not just religious and spiritual but a redemption of everything, including all forms of enslavement.
  • Colossians – Through Christ God redeems all things.
  • Christ the liberator – he liberates men from all forms of slavery: ignorance, hunger, misery, oppression.  Replaces it with deep communion and fellowship with all human beings.
  • Especially the poor – they tend to get left out.
  • To seek to overthrow exploitation and alienation is to participate in this salvation – Christ’s liberation of the world from selfishness and sinful domination.

Liberation Theology, with it’s heavy emphasis on orthopraxy, has resulted in the involvement of Catholic priests in social justice movements. One of the better known examples of this is Samuel Ruiz García. Ruiz is “best known for his role as mediator during the conflict between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a Mexican political party which had held power for over seventy years, and whose policies were often disadvantageous to the indigenous populations of Chiapas.”

Liberation Theology is perhaps most famous in Latin America where it originated, but the ideology has since expanded to include many other contexts.

Here in North America, Black Liberation Theology took root through the work of founder Rev. James Cone. According to Cone, “the overriding message of Old Testament prophets — and Jesus Christ — is … a condemnation of the nation and of the religious [establishment] … for oppressing the poor.” He also argues that White theologians tend to focus almost solely on the internal elements of faith (ex. faith and grace) rather than address the “earthly” struggles and injustices that Black Christians are forces to interact with. He does, however, take time to point out White theologians, like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did choose to engage with the social issues of their time.

Two other branches of Liberation Theology include Feminist and Queer Liberation Theology. While they tend to have a variety of different streams, both of them tie in with the basic tenant of Liberation Theology: to stand up for the oppressed. Their foundation for this being that since Christians who accept Liberation Theology “must live in solidarity with the disenfranchised” they become more informed about the conditions in which the oppressed live (Kelly Kraus).

Since emerging from the protective bubble I once enclosed myself in, I’ve had to see first hand just how we as a church have been part of the problem of oppression, rather than part of the solution. Consequently, I’ve become
frustrated with the idea that conversion is of more importance than the global reality of oppression. As I’ve probably made clear in my past posts on issues regarding
feminism and the LGBT community, there are tenants in some denominations that I no longer agree with. That’s why it’s been so incredibly freeing to learn about an alternative hermeneutic that emphasizes correct action as more important than correct belief.

After all, only God can know your heart, but everyone around you can see your actions.

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One response to “Fame Day: Liberation Theology (Can the Church be a Force for Social Justice?)

  1. “I’ve started to realize that the “brand” of Christianity I was raised with is certainly not the only one out there.”

    Yes, but it is surely the one with the most guns, inside and outside of the military. You should visit talk2action.org, which keeps tabs on far-right Christian factions and their political machinations against the very legitimacy of democracy through an endless array of local offenses.

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