Notes on Liberation Theology

I was asked to deliver a guest lecture on Liberation Theology for the Christian Theology class at Mountain State University. I jotted down a few notes in preparation. It’s certainly not a full statement of Liberation Theology, but hopefully it will be a helpful introduction.

Marxist Roots

Gustavo Gutierrez, Father of Liberation Theology

Gustavo Gutiérrez is known as ‘The Father of Liberation Theology’ since the publication of his groundbreaking work, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973). Gutiérrez was born in Lima, Peru in June of 1928. As one of the very few South Americans during that time period who was able to rise out of poverty, Gutiérrez had the opportunity to study in a number of European universities during the 40s and 50s where he engaged with Marxist political theory. The difference between Gutiérrez and his European classmates, however, is that he had actually seen in Peru the structures of power Marx was talking about. His own people were colonized, marginalized, poor and oppressed.

Painting with very broad strokes here, Marxism categorizes people into one of two ‘classes’: Members the rich and powerful ‘owning class,’ because they own the means of production, can and will oppress the poor and powerless ‘working class,’ forcing them to do their bidding for little reward. And the entire social structure supports this disproportion of power. For Marx, history is the story of the struggle between these two classes. He theorized that self actualization—the process of becoming fully human—could occur for both the oppressed and the oppressor only when this class warfare comes to head (often violently) in a radical restructuring of power.

For someone like Gutiérrez who had been raised and catechized in the Catholic Church, all of this talk about struggle, oppression and liberation had a strangely biblical ring to it. After all Jesus, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, stated his own mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”  (Lk 4:18-19, NRSV)

For Gutiérrez the biblical language of sin and salvation became closely identified with the Marxist notion of class warfare. In Liberation Theology, “sin is not considered as an individual, private, or merely interior reality. Sin is regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men.” (Gutiérrez, Liberation, 175). So also, salvation is not understood as a souls being rescued for heaven, but as the process of liberation from oppression and injustice

Preferential Option for the Poor

The God of the Bible plays favorites. First, God calls Abraham from among all the peoples of the world to make for himself a people that would be set apart. Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. God rejects Ishmael and chooses Isaac, it is through his line that God’s people will continue. Isaac also has two sons, and again God rejects the older son, Esau, and chooses the younger son, Jacob and so on down the line. One could argue—as I have elsewhere—that the entire book of Genesis is about, not the fact that God chooses sides, but that he always seems to make the least obvious of choices. Perhaps the only way to anticipate God’s choices in Genesis is to know that he never chooses the one you would expect. But the really interesting thing for the modern reader is that the author of Genesis seems to take for granted that God does in fact choose sides! Paul seems to be working under the same assumption in his letter to the Romans when he asks rhetorically “Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (9:20-1, NRSV).

The case that is particularly interesting for Liberation Theology appears in the book of Exodus when God sides with the oppressed slave-people Israel against Pharaoh and the oppressive Egyptian regime. Liberation theology submits that in the ‘class struggle’ for the liberation of the oppressed from sin and oppression, God always sides with the poor and the oppressed. Your book give four reasons liberation theology’s insistence on God’s preferential option for the poor (p. 44 ff).

Critical Reflection on Praxis

The methodology of Liberation, coming from Gutierrez, is termed “critical reflection on praxis.” It develops out of a response to the question: In what way does God side with the oppressed? Taking ques from the 20th cent. Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, Gutiérrez look first to how God has acted in Jesus Christ. Jesus could have exerted power over the oppressors, (overthrowing the Roman government, re-establishing the kingdom of Israel and so forth), but then he would have become one just like the oppressors. Instead, Jesus submits himself to crucifixion at the hand of the Romans, and through his suffering and death in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, both oppressed and oppressor are liberated. The New Testament is a reflection on the implications of the suffering and death of Christ.

In like manner, Liberation Theology does not start with a set of beliefs, but with compassion (from Latin, meaning “to suffer with”). Only as we live in solidarity with the poor, bringing liberation to both the oppressed and the oppressor, does the Holy Spirit guide our reflection on this activity. Or as Gutiérrez puts it “[God’s] word reaches us in the measure of our involvement in the evolution of history.” (“Faith as Freedom,” in Horizons Vol. 2 No. 1, Spring 1975, 32). Thus, in many ways, Liberation Theology should not be described as a theology at all. Liberation downplays the role of theology, insisting that it is an activity for nighttime, after the real work of compassion has been done.

From Liberation Theology to Liberation Theologies

Though classical Liberation theology is a fringe Roman Catholic movement which is deeply situate among the poor of South America, one can easily see how it could transcend these boundaries and be taken up by theologians in any community of suffering and oppression. Many such theologians have been deeply influenced by Gutiérrez’ work, most notably the Black American theologian, James Cone. In his book, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986), Cone argues that to be Christian in America is to be black. This is not to say that God judges us by our skin color. Rather, Cone’s point is that if following Jesus means to live in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed of society, following Jesus in America means identifying with the black community. Many others such as ‘feminist theology,’ ‘queer theology’ and the like have followed a similar line of reasoning.

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