Liberation Theology: The Gospel and Solidarity With The Poor

The roots of Latin American liberation theology can be traced back to Bartolome de Las Casas, a sixteenth-century Catholic priest who defended Native Americans against Conquistadors. More recent foundation stones were paved by the theological works of Juergen Moltmann and Johannes Metz; the social teachings of Second Vatican Council and Medellin conference documents.1 However, liberation theology is said to have really emerged from the grassroots ferment of small basic ecclesial communities (CEBs – comunidades eclesiales de base) comprising the marginalized and oppressed who seek to integrate their faith with daily sociopolitical realities.2

In this context, according to liberation theologians, poverty is a pervasive experience due to unjust structures where the rich gets richer at the expense of majority. External dominance imposed by European and North American economic powers and internal oppression by ruling military regimes combined to produce “institutionalized violence”. The solution proposed is often some form of socialism critical of liberal Western concepts of “development”. Marxist social analysis of poverty in Latin America in terms of alienation and exploitation has been adopted in an “uneasy alliance” with the Christian faith while critically questioning its philosophical rejection of the Triune God.3 Although liberation theology is by no means monolithic, certain broad emphases are discernible in how its practitioners understand the function of theological reflection. In

Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1992), page 211 2 Deane William Ferm, Third World Liberation Theologies: An Introductory Survey, (Orbis Books: New York, 1987), page 11-12 3 Miguel Bonino, Chrisians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1976), page 116


contrast with abstract metaphysics that seem disconnected with ordinary life, liberal theologians stressed that theology should proceed in dialectical relationship with the common experience of oppression and poverty. The theologian is not a disinterested and neutral observer. Rather his or her commitment to the poor against unjust structures which dehumanize God’s children becomes the particular, concrete context for critical reflection on praxis in light of God’s word. Committed action comes first, reflection follows as a second step. An understanding of liberation theology cannot be acquired by mere learning without actively taking the first step of embarking on its path.

In the words of Gustavo Gutierrez, the burning question in Latin America will not be how to speak of God in a modern world come of age as in Europe, but rather how to proclaim God as loving Father to ‘non-persons’ who regularly faced inhumane treatment in the world.4 The vantage point of solidarity with the marginalized “little people” instead of a detached academic setting is the criterion for biblical exegesis, theological thinking and ecclesial life. For, as some liberation theologians argued, that is also the vantage point of the crucified God who became poor for our sake.5 This new way of doing theology does not stop at understanding the world but also tries to be part of the process of transforming the world.6 Although one may say that this is true of all sound theology, liberation theologians have probably provided a more explicitly socio-political hermeneutics of the gospel.


The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, edited by Christopher Rowland, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999), page 3 5 Ibid., page 7 6 A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez, (Orbis Books: New York, 1988), page 12


Another key theme in liberation theology is God’s “preferential option for the poor”. It does not mean that God is prejudiced or show automatic favoritism towards poor people. Stanley Grenz offered this explanation, “Preference for the poor means that even though God loves all people, he identifies with the poor, reveals himself to the poor and sides with the poor in a special way. Above all, it means that in the class struggle God sides with the poor against every oppressor who would exploit or dehumanize them”.7 The church is also called to take sides with the poor in the ongoing and inevitable establishment of a just society. Despite the Catholic leadership support for this preferential option, its practical implications proved to be problematic. Would armed overthrow of oppressive regime be acceptable as ‘just war’? What would it mean to live in solidarity with the poor? A young idealistic friend once insisted to me that such liberating praxis obliges every believer to give up any possession beyond bare necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. Ironically, he did so through e-mails from his personal computer – a private asset hardly required for his mere survival.

In any case, our understanding of the mission of the church undergoes significant rethinking as “liberating praxis”. Transforming society to approximate the kingdom of God within history, creating awareness on the causes of poverty (“conscientization”), solidarity with the poor and exposing oppressive systems are all seen as “salvific work”. Nonviolent resistance is the ideal course of action but some liberation theologians like Bonino and Boff see armed struggle as a last resort or necessary evil. The concept of salvation as “integral liberation” is interpreted not as otherworldly spiritual salvation, but involving every aspect of human life with emphasis on the value of earthly existence.

Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, page 218


According to Gutierrez, encounter with God is open to all (Christians and non Christians) through one’s love of his or her neighbor (Matthew 25: 31- 45). He wrote of the sacrament of our neighbor, “We find the Lord in our encounters with others, especially the poor, marginated, and exploited ones. An act of love towards them is an act of love towards God.”8 The establishment of an equitable society is included as part of salvation history. We can see how such a reconstruction of Christian thought is consciously geared to disarm Marx’s critique of religion as opium of the masses.

Without a doubt, liberation theology in Latin America has inspired their counterparts in Asia and Africa to similarly oppose neo-colonialism, denounce injustice and alleviate the suffering of the poor. It forcefully brought to the church’s attention issues of orthopraxy, contextualization and social responsibility. Despite positive contributions, it has also attracted much criticism from both conservative and liberal scholars. In 1984, a Vatican document entitled “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation' published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has criticized aspects of its accommodation to Marxist ideology and warned the Catholic faithful of its perceived dangers. Those who sought to use Marxist tools of analysis on oppressive structures were said to be uncritical of its totalizing materialism, atheism and “ideological principles come prior to the study of social reality and are presupposed to it”.9


A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez, page 115 Introduction to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation' (Vatican City, 1984), reprinted in A. T. Hcnnclly, Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, (Orbis: Maryknoll, NY, 1990), pages 393 - 414


It may also be argued that their use of Marx is no different from the church fathers’ use of pagan philosophers like Aristotle or Plato. However, if it is not possible to divorce the social theory from its ideology, liberation theologians may unwittingly open the ecclesiastical gates to a Trojan horse. Perhaps some of the Vatican officials’ concerns were not unfounded in view of some priests like Camilo Torres who were actively involved in the violent overthrow of ruling regimes. The human cost incurred at Gulag Archipelago and the Cultural Revolution served as a grim reminder that revolutions do not often bring about justice or peace. At the same time, it should not be an excuse to neglect a prophetic voice against institutionalized violence perpetrated by oppressors.

Theologian John Macquarrie also found it problematic that Gutierrez tends to divide the human race too neatly into oppressors and oppressed, and urge others to align themselves to one party reminiscent of Marxist doctrine of the class struggle and the “innocence of the proletariat”.10 In reality, the dividing line of good and evil cuts across every human heart. We need to be reminded of the universality of sin and God’s gracious offer of salvation for all. If there is a divine bias to a certain social class, would it not raise problems to the church’s mission to the whole people of God? Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Ratzinger were seriously concerned that importing Marxist class struggles may polarize the church community along economic fault lines. The ministry of reconciliation based on principles of grace, repentance, forgiveness and restitution seems to be a more appropriate and biblical model for transcending these social barriers.


John Macquarrie, 20th Century Religious Thought, (SCM Press Limited: London, 1988), page 410


For critics, liberation theology has also been accused of making the situational context as its starting point instead of emphasizing the gospel. Or at least, the gospel is reduced to purely earthly terms without a proper balance on liberation from the slavery of personal sin and reconciliation to a holy God through the cross of Christ. Could the temptation of pragmatism cause liberation theology to use biblical texts to justify a prior ideological commitment if there is no norm for evaluating one’s praxis? Critic W. Dayton Roberts claimed that its heroes looked more like Judas Maccabaeus than Jesus of Nazareth.11 Instead of perpetuating a dichotomy of social liberation versus evangelism, Christian mission is better served with a focus on the gospel itself and working out its full orbed implications in all of life.

Even in its analysis of situational context, liberation theologians are often faulted for offering simplistic diagnosis and proposals for complex economic issues such as poverty. A sympathetic scholar described their view thus: “the Kingdom belongs to the poor (Luke 6.20) and the rich as such have no part in it (Luke 6:24; Luke 16:19-31; Mark 10:23) because money is an idol which becomes an absolute value: we cannot serve God and Mammon (Matt. 6.24) - private property is by definition exclusive.”12 Democratic capitalism is understood to be founded on private accumulation of capital by individuals and firms at the expense of massive environmental destruction and human suffering. According to the dependency theory, the progress of rich countries in the “North” is achieved on the back of exploited poor nations in the “South”. In the words of Gutierrez, “the dynamic of the capitalist system leads to establishment of a center and a periphery,

Dayton Roberts, “Where Has Liberation Theology Gone Wrong?,” Christianity Today, October 19, 1979, page 28 12 Valpy Fitzgerald, “The Economics of Liberation Theology”, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, edited by Christopher Rowland, page 219


simultaneously generating progress and riches for the few, and social disequilibrium, political tensions and poverty for the majority”.13

Michael Novak, a Christian supporter of democratic capitalism, argued that at the founding of America, both North and Latin America were once on equal footing as dependent colonies of dominant powers like Spain, Portugal and Great Britain. But the economic strength of the Spanish empire, along with its colonies, weakened when church and state impugned the religious value of commerce and favored state monopolies over private mercantilism. The control of capital resources at the hands of ruling elite, clergy and military powers afforded little opportunity for enterprise for the masses. This is in contrast with the Northern counterparts whose property and powers were more evenly distributed. In response to Latin American Catholic bishops’ claims to be victims of oppressive systems, Novak wrote, “They accept no responsibility for three centuries of hostility to trade, commerce, and industry… After having opposed modern economics for centuries, they claim to be aggrieved because others, once equally poor, have succeeded as they have not.”14 Joseph Ramos, an economist for the UN International Labor Organization, observed the same internal socio-political dynamics still exist in Latin America as obstacles to its economic development: “the initial extreme concentration of economic and political power (since Colonial times) in the hands of a few, and the consequent limitation of opportunities.”15 Is it possible, or more fruitful in eradicating

13 14

A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez, page 51 Michael Novak, “A Theology of Development for Latin America”, Liberation Theology, edited by Ronald Nash, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984), page 26 15 Joseph Ramos, “Reflections on Gustavo Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation”, Liberation North – Liberation South, edited by Michael Novak, (American Enterprise Institute: Washington, 1981), page 56


mass poverty, to construct a liberation theology based on the best virtues of democratic capitalism instead?

In conclusion, any notion of liberating praxis depends on some prior theory of what is true and right. Andrew Kirk cautioned that “the task of modern theology should be a consciously critical reflection on God’s Word in the light of a contemporary praxis of liberation. If this is not the order of our methodology then the phrase (in Gutierrez’s definition), “in the light of God’s word,” ultimately becomes emptied of content”.16 More often than not, a costly commitment could only be made after careful reflection. Recognizing the contextuality of all theology should not reduce us to crass relativism. Otherwise, liberation theologians cannot legitimately judge the actions of others such as those who live in capitalist countries. The need for a global theology today calls for not only contextually relevant thinking but also gospel-centered integration that avoids the pitfalls of tribal fragmentation. In a balanced evaluation, the late Carl Henry wrote, “We must stand firmly for a championing of the gospel’s irreducible relevance for oppressed multitudes, and in places of human exploitation and oppression we must actively identify evangelical Christianity with the justice that God demands.”17



J. Andrew Kirk, Liberation Theology: An Evangelical View from the Third World, (John Knox: Atlanta, 1979), page 193 17 Carl Henry, “Liberation Theology and the Scriptures”, Liberation Theology, edited by Ronald Nash, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984), page 202


1. 20th Century Religious Thought, John Macquarrie, SCM Press Limited: London, 1988 2. 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, Stanley Grenz & Roger
Olson, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1992

3. A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez, Orbis Books: New York, 1988 4. An Asian Theology of Liberation, Aloysius Pieris, T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1988 5. Liberation Theology, edited by Ronald Nash, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids,
Michigan, 1984

6. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, Edited by Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, 1993 7. The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, edited by Christopher Rowland, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999 8. Third World Liberation Theologies: An Introductory Survey, Deane William Ferm, Orbis
Books: New York, 1987


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