Practicing Liberation Theology
Think, Question, Resist
Christianity is possibly the most important religion in the world. However, it is generally seen as having a conservative-bias, as if the Christian Right represents the entire spectrum of believers. In contrast there is a revolutionary tradition within the faith called "Liberation Theology" that not only calls for Christians to take action for justice, but actually requires it.
When analyzing Christianity's liberating potential one must first admit its history of failures. From medieval times it was used by monarchs to justify their rule as by "divine right." Governments invoked Church support in their wars against neighboring states, both in regular wars and in explicitly "holy wars" like the Crusades. European imperialists used religion to justify their colonization of Latin America, Africa, the invasion of North America and to pacify the indigenous inhabitants while practicing genocide. From slavery to South African Apartheid to segregation Christianity has reinforced racism.
According to Weber Christianity, or specifically Calvinism, helped build early capitalism — and since then it has often sided with the capitalist elites. The conservative churches have sidelined women, subjugating them to their husbands and often barring them from the ministry. Finally many so-called "Christians" are leading the struggle against equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, such as same-sex marriage.
However there are alternative traditions in Christianity dating back to the foundations of the faith. One should recognize that there is an extremely wide range of views and practices contained within Christianity. In the 16th Century, the Church went through a revolution against the traditional hierarchy that sought to make the Church more real for its members and to practice the authentic message, untainted by centuries of elitist interpretation. Unfortunately the revolution was compromised by feudal politicians and the growing bourgeoisie to serve their own ends and is now known as the Reformation.
In the 1960s, another social revolution swept much of the world and Liberation Theology emerged in Latin America. It came out of the peoples' experience of poverty, dictatorship and war. They began to relate these experiences of oppression with the Biblical message, reinterpreting the theology which previously had been taught top-down by the Catholic Church, making it their own.
Since then it has spread from Latin America to every imaginable oppressed group (women, blacks, homosexuals and Palestinians) who have replaced a foreign (white, male, straight and European) God, with one that comes from their group — one who suffers and struggles with them for liberation.
Liberation Theology recognized the bias in mainstream theology that was and still is denied by its practitioners and decided to replace the elitist bias with one for the oppressed. Mainstream theology is created by trained experts, who constitute a privileged class due to their educational requirements, who must often be certified by the Church elite. Liberation theologians looked at the Bible and found stories of the Old Testament prophets speaking out against injustice and of Jesus walking with the poor, women, Gentiles, prostitutes and criminals. Jesus spoke out for liberation, rebelled against the state and was killed with the cooperation of the Roman and Jewish elites. It is here that Liberation Theology finds its bias.
One of Liberation Theology's primary tenets is that unjust institutions are responsible for sin. Why do we live in a time of untold wealth, resource exploitation and production — and yet also one in which there are so many people who are poor and oppressed? Liberation Theology uses a semi-Marxist analysis to find the answer — namely that institutional forces (military, political, economic and social) such as the state, armed forces (death squads, army and police), capitalism, patriarchy, racism, sexism and heterosexism are responsible for much of the sin in the world. For instance if someone steals to feed themselves, they are not sinning; it is the system that made them poor that is sinful.
Another idea is that of collective salvation. While conservative Christians tell people to stop individually sinning to save their own soul, Liberation Theology recognizes the necessity of social change to end the root institutional causes of sin.
Liberation Theology calls for grassroots democracy. Adherents form Christian base communities, to do theology for themselves. Their own life experience is critical for the development of theology. Liberation Theology is spread by priests, nuns and laity — and suppressed by the Church hierarchy.
Members of these base communities use Praxis (a combination of practice and theory — action and reflection). They both study the Bible (developing theory) and work on practical issues to improve their lives (e.g. end poverty).
It is practical. While conservatives use promises of heaven to keep exploited people inactive and apolitical, liberation theology requires that people work to uproot sinful systems of domination — trying to, at least partially, recreate heaven on earth.
Liberation Theology is a system of analysis that generates slightly different theologies when applied in different contexts. Different varieties emphasize the oppression of the poor, blacks, women and gays and lesbians.
The Catholic Church at first accommodated and incorporated some of the teachings of this theory (ex. Catholic Social Teaching's preference for the poor) but stuck in the Cold War it has mistakenly attacked its larger thrust as being Marxist. Especially since Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church has moved to the political right, transferring, firing and silencing liberation theologians. Unfortunately as the Catholic Church (and most Protestant churches) has shown itself to be susceptible to institutional sin, it is up to individual Christians to inform ourselves about this suppressed revolutionary alternative to mainstream theology — and if you believe it, to transform your life.
Aaron Kreider's column appears every other Monday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, November 13, 2000