Wednesday, October 11, 2006
In Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, Paul Farmer keeps referencing Liberation Theology as one of his inspirations. I had heard of the movement, but I really knew nothing about it other than it primarily cropped up in Latin America. Intrigued, I checked out the book Liberation Theology by Phillip Berryman to learn a little more about it. Written in 1987, the book is unabashedly in support of the cause. Berryman was an active proponent in the movement and was, in fact, with Oscar Romero the night before his assassination.
For a brief overview, I’ll let Wikipedia speak for me:
In essence, liberation theology explores the relationship between Christian, specifically Roman Catholic, theology and political activism, particularly in areas of social justice, poverty and human rights. The main methodological innovation of liberation theology is to do theology (i.e. speak of God) from the viewpoint of the economically poor and oppressed of the human community. According to Jon Sobrino, S.J., the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace. According to Phillip Berryman, liberation theology is "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".
Liberation theology focuses on Jesus Christ as not only Savior but also as Liberator of the Oppressed. Emphasis is placed on those parts of the Bible where Jesus' mission is described in terms of liberation and as a bringer of justice. Matthew 26:51-52  notwithstanding, this is interpreted as a call to arms to carry out this mission of justice -- literally by some. A number of liberation theologians, though not all, also add certain Marxist concepts such as the doctrine of perpetual class struggle. [TO READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE, CLICK THE LINK AT THE END OF THIS POST.]
The root of the movement sprang forth primarily from an increasingly radicalized group of Roman Catholic Priests who were dismayed at the poverty and human rights abuses they witnessed daily due to the corrupt political regimes of their respective countries. Taking their cue from Vatican II’s emphasis on inclusion and the “opening up” of the liturgy to the masses, these priests felt that the next step was to become politically active on behalf of the poor. This was ostensibly a non-violent movement, though there was a minority of priests and theologians that believed that to truly liberate the poor from their oppressors, Christians should take up arms and overthrow corrupt governments.
Enter the Vatican: Though the movement came about through predominately Catholic circles, the Vatican officially did not approve of this movement because of it’s focus on purely earthly matters as well as what were at times strong Marxist undercurrents. The official document outlining the Church’s stance on the movement was Instruction on Certain Aspects of “Theology of Liberation,” (1984) written by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now, of course, Pope Benedict XVI. Berryman’s book contains a rebuttal to this document. Both have valid points.
As for Berryman, I think he is right to say that you can look at political / economic situation through the lens of Marxism without being a Marxist. Just because Karl Marx is quoted doesn’t mean the one who spoke it is Communist. [In Fact, Marx is considered one of the founding fathers of Sociology, so the “conflict theory” approach is indeed based on Marxist ideas and is VERY useful in examining the real world.] As for the Vatican’s issues with the movement, I think they also had a strong point in that if you believe that revolution is the only way to go, you are just entering into the cycle of violence without addressing and fixing the broken foundations (and spirituality) of the society in question.
I’ll end it here, as these issues are deep, cover decades of theological thought, and I can quickly get beyond my personal understanding of the topic. But this is interesting stuff that still has an impact today. Some relevant links if you are interested in reading more about this idea:
• ”Liberation Theology,” Wikipedia entry, with many external links included
• Instruction on Certain Aspects of “Theology of Liberation,” (1984)