The Study of Liberation Theology in Latin​ America

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The Gospel of liberation, as it can be termed, originated in Latin America during a series of meetings in the 1960’s at the Second Vatican Council that focused on church unity and renewal. It wasn’t until the second Latin American Bishops’ conference held in Medellin, Colombia as a response to poverty and social injustice, that its best-known exponent Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Dominican theologian and priest from Peru, first presented and articulated the concept of liberation theology. These principles were later more clearly laid out in his 1971 magnum opus, “Teología de la liberación” (Eng. tr., A Theology of Liberation, 1974) that he defines as: “A theological reflection born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human.”[1]It’s overarching goal, he later states, is to give a reason for the hope from within a commitment to become more radical, total and efficacious, reconsidering the theme of Christian life and the new questions posed by this commitment.[2]Answering these basic questions through liberating action and political practice will balance the social-economical scale in relation between faith and human existence. Human and political reason are interrelated and the emphasis on the preferential option of the poor is the responsibility of us all in the building up of the world. Christianity can no longer be dismissed as the opium of the people and an active commitment to those considered “nonpersons,” are denied the basic dignity and rights as designed by the creator.[3]A thorough theological reflection on the philosophical foundations and reasoning will be analyzed in greater depth within this research paper.

Philosophical Praxis

            In the centre of its philosophical framework, liberation theology seeks for a ‘Copernican change in theology and approach that maintains a critical reflection on praxis. This is considered a necessity by Gutiérrez in theology for both spirituality and rational knowledge. The influence of Marxist thought in regard to its socio-analytical tools are found in theory but the argument of its commitments on religion or materialism are left out of the equation. The methodology of liberation theology can be found in Marx and Hegelian dialecticism within three different mediations; socio-analytical, hermeneutical and practical.[4]Hegel’s Phenomenology is adopted by Gutiérrez for placing the self-creation of man as a process, offering the possibility of a conception of the religious consciousness and man’s objective experience.[5]This allows for a genuine freedom through the essence of labor that seeks to transform and educate the rest of the world. Marxism is purely seen as an instrument and is never treated as a subject on its own but always from and in relation to the poor that focuses on economic factors, class struggle and ideologies according to Gutiérrez. This aids in the insight of the present state of the poor societies at large and provides a political program by which the unjust social systems can be dismantled and a more favorable one installed.[6]

The empirical, functional and dialectical explanation to the phenomenon of the poor place’s poverty as a vice and as a means of oppression. This is called the historico-structural approach that views poverty as a collective and also conflictive phenomenon whereby the social system is replaced through revolutionary transformation.[7]This is what Gutiérrez refers to as “the historical process of human liberation” in developing a mentality for a new Christendom. The Marxist language is evident throughout liberation theology in showcasing not only the institutionalized violence of the poor and weak but in its efforts to critical understand the situation of the poor and classes of the oppressed. The connection between Marxism and liberation theology are apparent but their claims presume differences in theory and practice. While doctrine is somewhat maintained and a strong adherence to biblical hermeneutics, capitalism and the affirmation of socialism is not considered a fundamental or political practice but instead, a call to the commitment of the poor is the centrality of the Gospel message.

 

Salvation for the Poor

            One of the questions that Gutiérrez imposes is on the relationship between salvation and the process of human liberation throughout history. Before we probe into the question, Robert McAfee Brown provides a robust definition in his book Liberation Theology; An Introductory Guide that explains liberation theology as:

            The God of the poor” and we are not poor. It’s about “the view from below” and we ’re on top. It’s about “good news to the poor” and that’s bad news to the rich. It’s about the third world and we live in the first world. It’s about social structures as carriers of evil and those same social structures are very beneficial to us. It’s about “subversion” and that’s simply an unacceptable word in our circles.[8]

            There is a direct correlation between salvation and that of liberation in which encompasses aspects of social, political and economic endeavors. Salvation is considered the central theme of the Christian mystery from a quantitative to the qualitative that seeks to liberate the oppressed in their totality as persons, body and soul.[9]The universality of salvation is considered in its theological reasoning for the option for the poor. God is the sustainer of all life and desires to communion with human beings. The mystery in which He conveys the salvific message is expressed and communicated to a crucified people. One of the main biblical text used to justify the redemption of the poor is that of the Exodus story and Israel’s oppression of the Egyptians. The servants in Pharaoh’s court refer to the lower echelon of people who are members forced to live in a society that governs the affairs unreasonably and unfavorably. It wasn’t until Moses and the encounter with God on Mt. Sinai that the heart of the Father is revealed (Ex. 3:7,9). The Exodus recounts the epic of the politicoreligious liberation of a slave society who, through the omnipotence of God, became the people of God.[10]

History has recorded these events and according to Gutiérrez, there is only one unique dimension of Christianity that signifies the destiny of humanity in the salvific horizon. Two themes are seen to illustrate this point between creation and salvation and the eschatological promises. Beginning with creation, Gutiérrez refers to two dimensions of God’s action in history; the creation of the universe as the first salvific act inserted in the process of salvation and the second Isaiah which contains the exile in Babylonia is considered a new creation.[11]Creation language is used in the Exodus as the creation of God’s nation and people but Gutiérrez argues that structural sin is due to the society rather than the individual because of the mandate to have dominion over creation by God which has been abused. The creation and exodus stories reveal the “self-creation” of humanity by labor and social praxis and humankind should work towards revitalizing the handiwork of God towards a new creation.

The second theme is Eschatological and as human beings, we are rightful heirs to the promise, which in the Greek is rendered epangelìameaning word pledged, announcement or notification, and Gutiérrez attempts to draw the connection of the Old and New Testaments. As God’s promise of salvation unfolds gradually in redemptive history, Gutiérrez explains that: “it is already fulfilled in historical events, but not yet completely; it incessantly projects itself into the future, creating a permanent historical mobility.”[12]Gutiérrez adopts a Barthian eschatology that focuses on the transcendent and views eternity and time as end time affairs but with no ultimate reality and acknowledges a historical event as in all their completeness and significance. What this means for liberation theology is how the Bible presents eschatology as the driving force of salvific history which is radically oriented toward the future.[13]Its critics would say that this approach reduces salvation to just a worldly affair that focuses exclusively on humanity rather than the eternal purpose of salvation. This type of impact on the church may cause a dividing line from a fundamental and traditional standpoint that would see this type of historical outlook as veering off the salvific path and what the true Gospel means. This leads to our next account from the vantage point of Christ as the ultimate liberator and deliverer of the poor.

 

Jesus the Liberator

            The problem of sin is of utmost importance that has entered into this world through the fall of the first Adam. Gutiérrez regards sin as a social, historical fact, the absence of fellowship and loving relationships that separates humanity from a loving God and others.[14]It alienates our community from embracing one another and instead seeks to cause division. The answer to this dilemma is found in the second Adam. This new image of Christ becomes an important Christological fact in Latin America that conveys the relevance of Christ to an oppressed and poor people group. The identity of Christ is a liberating reality, crucial in the soteriological understanding of the good news and proclaiming the release to the captives (Luke 4:18). This historical Jesus set the stage becoming human through the incarnation that allows a view of Christology from below were liberation theology can begin from. This historical framework is what Jon Sobrino says is a new Christology that must give history of the flesh and blood Jesus its full weight and revelation.[15]

The public ministry of Jesus was centered on the establishment of the kingdom of God and admonished those who hear the good news to repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15). According to Sobrino, the Q source sums up Jesus’ mission programmatically in terms of good news to the poor which is equivalent to the good news of the kingdom.[16]This expression of the kingdom of God is particularly intended for the poor as demonstrated in the fulfillment of the law of love as seen in the good Samaritan. This message is viewed independently from Jesus as an example to His followers in expressing their faith in the context of poverty. The kingdom of God becomes God’s initiative in gift and grace that comes out of gratuitous love and not in response to human actions.[17]The first beatitudes in the gospel of Luke state, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). This relationship between God’s kingdom and the poor is established within the Gospels as facts according to liberation theology for those who are considered at the bottom of the heap of history, the oppressed who are socially casted out by those on top.

This radical liberation from sin and oppression is found in Christ through his death and resurrection that redeems and sets free the poor. The cross becomes the means of liberation and the center of Christian faith that becomes a symbol which forces us to change our way of thinking about the most human realities: liberation, the meaning of history and God.[18]Christ died for a crucified people (poor) who are viewed as Yahweh’s suffering servants in a continuation by which the world deprives them of a reasonable livelihood. In the book of Isaiah, we see the suffering servant as a man acquainted with infirmity, despised, rejected, numbered with the transgressors and yet done no violence (53:3-9). The servant was chosen by God to bring forth justice to the nations and brings salvation to a martyred people who share in this same suffering.

 

The Role of the Institutional Church

            The church is a key theme in liberation theology as the sign and instrumental model in the sacrament of salvation. The early church took part in becoming the salvific love of God for all people in celebration of the universal salvation for the world.[19]Its involvement in society on all fronts became the staple for modernizing its structures in order to fulfill its role in meeting the real needs of the people. The base ecclesial community becomes a place where a true democracy of the people is practiced, where everything is discussed and decided as one and were critical thought is encouraged.[20]The overall scope and function of this universal church all share in the common good of the poor and utilizes all resources for their benefit. It’s in this existential element of faith that Leonardo Boff explains this experience as; “Truth is lived as a transforming encounter (metanoia) rather than being the mere presentation of facts, thus helping to ground the church as a community of faith.”[21]

The poor are to be seen as one with the church and not a separate entity in its identity. The sole characteristics of the church are to reflect the unity and fellowship of all people who are considered excluded from any participation in society. The liberation strategy or new ecclesiological perspective of the church see it as the “visible sacrament of this saving unity” that imparts to reality the “union of God” and the “unity of all humankind.”[22]The position of the church is significant in its internal structure to serve the task of engaging the poor, allowing the poor themselves to become the church, helping the whole church to become truly a poor church and a church of the poor.[23]The responsibility is not just a command but a challenge to use its power towards social upheaval as it was understood throughout western society. This also includes human dignity, rights and as a representative of the image and likeness of God to revitalize the communities in unity, love and service.

 

Closing Thoughts

In summary, Gutiérrez explains that the obligation to care for the poor means that the poor are not persons being punished by God but rather God’s friends.[24]“He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov. 19:17). The marginalized are considered a people in search of God for a more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31). The departure from Egypt during the Exodus meant a break from the power of death (enslavement) towards a journey of liberation, led by a liberator, who was called by the Father.[25]Solidarity with the poor and oppressed is prominent throughout liberation theology that acknowledges a new way of life as a people of faith to one another and the community. What liberation theology teaches us is that unification in the body of Christ has been neglected over the time. Its contextualization of doing ministry praxis has stretched our theological reasonings and biblical biases towards who we deem our neighbor. What liberation theology has failed to do is focus more on orthopraxy and minimalize orthodoxy which is detrimental in living out the Christian life. An overemphasis on practice shouldn’t be a replacement for doctrine as a means of creating a freedom from injustice by implementing social revolution in return for an abundant life in Christ. The very meaning and mission of the church go beyond our present comforts and its message is made available to all who would hear its call.

Bibliography

[1]Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014, xiii.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Boff, Leonardo. Introducing Liberation Theology. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1988, 8.

[4]Boff, Leonardo. Introducing Liberation Theology. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1988, 24.

[5]Allen, Diogenes, and Eric O. Springsted. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 203.

[6]McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology an Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, 205.

[7]Boff, Leonardo. Introducing Liberation Theology. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1988, 27.

[8]Brown, Robert McAfee. Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, 89.

[9]Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014, 83.

[10]Boff, Leonardo. Introducing Liberation Theology. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1988, 35.

[11]Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014, 86-91

[12]Ibid., 92.

[13]Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014, 92.

[14]Ibid., 103.

[15]Sobrino, Jon. Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003, 46.

[16]Ibid., 68.

[17]Ibid., 76.

[18]Sobrino, Jon. Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1993, 234.

[19]Boff, Leonardo. Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church. New York: Crossroad, 1986,6.

[20]Ibid.,9.

[21]Ibid., 15.

[22]Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014, 147.

[23]Boff, Leonardo. Introducing Liberation Theology. Maryknoll N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988, 59.

[24]Gutiérrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992, 40.

[25]Gutiérrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003, 74.

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