Washington Post Forum on Liberation Theology
There were, in fact, multiple theologies of liberation, with different themes and different stresses; lumping them together as “liberation theology” is, in some sense, a disservice to the originality of the various theologians of liberation.
Still, there were common threads running through the theologies of liberation and two were especially prominent: a commitment to “Marxist analysis” as the best tool for understanding the causes of Third World poverty, and a vision of the Christian community in which the Church’s primary task was political action (including, in some cases, violent political action) as the vanguard of the future egalitarian society.
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The late John Paul II could hardly be accused of favoring a publicly quiescent Catholicism, given his pivotal role in the collapse of European communism. In his epic address to a conference of Latin American bishops meeting in Mexico in January 1979, John Paul made it clear that the picture of the “subversive Man from Nazareth” propounded by some forms of liberation theology did not square with classic and settled Christian convictions.
John Paul wanted a social and politically engaged Church; however, he did not accept the idea of a “partisan Church” (which many liberation theologians advocated), for reasons that go straight back to St. Paul’s arguments with those obstreperous Galatians (whom some biblical scholars believe to have been transplanted Celts, and thus obstreperous by nature). The kind of Christian liberation that John Paul promoted was the kind he had modeled in Poland, where a revolution of conscience had cleared the social space for a nonviolent and democratic political revolution.
In Latin America, the John Paul II model was perhaps best embodied by the heroic archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo, who throughout the 1980s stood firm against the kindergarten Marxism of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, even as he bent every effort to move his country toward democracy and social justice.
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N.T. Wright's comment is brief, but to the point:
Jesus was a social revolutionary in the same way that Mozart was brilliant at counterpoint.
That is, it was a key element in a much larger package, but to imagine that it was the main or the only thing is to ignore all the other things that were going on.
Of course, it needs saying because for years the church has screened out that element of 'kingdom of God' teaching, but once the message has been heard -- which I would have thought it has been in many quarters though not all -- it needs to be re-integrated into the larger agenda which Jesus embraced.
About that, of course, I like many others have written quite a lot elsewhere!
Of course, there is another view of liberation theology, and on this forum, the proponent for liberation theology is the Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She argues that liberation theology is an appropriate antidote to comfortably wealthy Christians who ignore what Jesus has to say about the poor:
Right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus picks up a text from the prophet Isaiah and reads it in public, proclaiming that he stands in that tradition and intends to “bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18b) He feeds people, heals the sick and takes every opportunity that presents itself to criticize the rich and the powerful for their hypocrisy and their neglect of those who need help. But the rich and powerful feel threatened; they don’t want to hear it.
From that day to this, the rich and the powerful who have full stomachs do theology differently from those who have empty stomachs. No wonder the Catholic Church (and many Protestants too!) feel threatened by Gutierrez and all the Latin American liberation theologians who follow the teaching of Jesus and his simple commitment to the poor. Powerful and rich people just hate that and will do their best to get you crucified or suppressed or even labeled a “communist.”
But despite Cardinal Ratzinger’s efforts at suppressing the works of liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez, their influence is global and it is powerful. It helped bring down apartheid, it influenced South Koreans in their pro-democracy struggles, it is read on Native American reservations in the U.S. and by African American women who call themselves Womanists and by many others who are oppressed and by those who seek to live in solidarity with them.
Try it. Just watch what people do with their money and then go to the Bible and underline all the texts about wealth and poverty. The message of the Gospel will open before you like a flower in a warm spring rain. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:20)
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So what do I think? I think that liberation theology was an essential reminder to the rich and powerful of Jesus' charge that we take care of the least of these. More importantly, it called into question the scandal of church leaders in many countries of the world aligning themselves with the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor.
But, as Bishop Wright argues, in doing so, liberation theology may have come to emphasize only one part (albeit a forgotten part) of Jesus' teachings and salvation. Liberation theology also made an error in aligning itself too closely with one secular philosophy--and a materialistic one at that. Having lived in Poland as a student in 1980, I can fully understand Pope John Paul's deep concern, if not downright hostility, to a liberation theology so closely aligned with Marxism.
The challenge, it seems to me is to take the best of liberation theology--its appropriate focus on Jesus' clear teachings about the poor, social justice and the oppressed--while keeping it focused on the fullness of the life, ministry and resurrection of Jesus Christ.