Recently, Pope Francis appealed to world leaders to seek a new economic model to help the poor, and to shun policies that “sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit”. It was the second time during his trip to South America that Francis used a major speech to excoriate unbridled capitalism and champion the rights of the poor. He urged politicians and business leaders “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit”.
Such eye raising statements to come from the pope which have even caught the attention of hopeful presidential candidates in the United States. Modern economics have widened the gap between rich and poor in society. This gap can be illustrated by the fact that the three wealthiest individuals in the world have assets that exceed those of the poorest ten percent of the world’s population. Recently in Christian theology and ethics there has been a drive to Liberation Theologies. Most forms of liberation theology were born in the social turmoil of the 1960s.
These theologies which aim to liberate oppressed people and groups and seeks to provide resources for their liberation. These theologies range from black theologies of liberation, to African theology which explores the relationship between Christian and African cultures, to gay and lesbian theologies to radical theologies such as queer theologies. In each of these theologies one finds an oppressed group seeking justice or liberation from oppression.
Liberation theologies have given a voice to marginalized egments of society wanting to be heard just as blind Bartimaeus “shouted all the more,”Son of David, have mercy of me! ” The term was first applied to the radical theological movement that emerged in the context of rampart poverty and political oppression in both Latin America and other third world countries. Up to this point economics was characterized and influenced by the dominant tradition. Whereby the powerful countries of North America and Europe had a stranglehold on poorer third world countries.
Wealthy countries and corporations controlled institutions such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund), WTO (World Trade Organization) to create a system where the interests of powerful nation, bent on maintaining their wealth and status quo, at the expense of the third world or developing nations. In August of 1968 in Medellin, Columbia, Liberation Theology was birthed. At the heart of the conference was a condemnation of the church’s alliance with the privileged and empowered of Latin America.
Priests who had lived and worked among the poor came to the realization that nothing short of an economic and social revolution would bring freedom to the disenfranchised masses. The primary spokesperson of the movement was Gustavo Gutierrez, whose book, A Theory of Liberation launched the movement during the late 60’s became a lightening rod for the movement. But what are the distinctive features of Liberation theology that allows a new perspective of theology?
First each of these theologies has as it’s starting point experience, and are, therefore, contextual. Each one of these theologies starts from a concrete experience of a particular group of people and in a particular situation. Therefore its theological approach is shaped by that particular context and experience. It is a theology determined from below rather that from above. “It isn’t a matter of sorting our your theological principles and applying them to a particular situation.
Rather, the way you read and interpret the bible will be shaped and filtered by your concrete experience in a particular context. ” (Messer, 144) Walter Altmann, Lutheran church president in Brazil characterized it in this manner. “Liberation theology is spiritually grounded on- and gets its motivation from- the life changing encounter with Christ as liberator and with our neighbours in need. Their suffering is not a result of fate, but of systematic injustices and oppression, which can be overcome by transformative action. ” (Altmann, 2009)
Liberation theologist have drawn on two distinctive sources: social sciences and scripture. Sociology and economics, gives theology a more informed understanding of the plight of the poor and oppressed. While critics have proposed that these theologies have a Marxist sympathy. This isn’t entirely true because the core of liberation theology has never been Marxist. “It is rather the compassionate identification with the poor and their struggle for justice, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus himself, which is at its heart.
Instead of social analysis, which was seen as a methodological tool, from the outset liberation theology placed greater emphasis on the crucial role of God’s people committed praxis- or, in other words, the Christian communities’ action inspired by faith and informed theological reflection” (Altmann, 2009) Secondly, scripture is another key source of liberation theology. However, liberationists insist that what you find in the Scriptures and how you understand them depends crucially on the perspective from which you read them. Too often the bible has been interpreted from the standpoint of a white, male, middleclass Westerners.
What is needed is a conscious effort to read from the standpoint of the poor and oppressed enabling you to notice things that would have gone unnoticed before. In his essay, Liberation Theology, Sam Storms asserts that “theologies were formulated in European universities and American seminaries and are largely unsuited to the situation in Latin America. They have been articulated by the wealthy and privileged, they serve only to validate the socio-economic and political structures that perpetuate oppression and dehumanization of the poor”. SamStorms. com/Enjoying God)
He goes on to say that what is needed is a theology that emerges from and in turn addresses the unique needs of the oppressed of the world causing some Liberation theologists to be suspicious of western biblical interpretation. “Since biblical commentaries were written by established scholars in positions of safety and power, the suspicion is that these have brought certain presuppositions and ‘ideologies’ to Scripture and thus have been blind to any scriptural challenge of these ideologies.
Biblical scholars did not hear what scripture said about the importance of the poor because they were ideologically captive to the social status quo” (What Christians Believe About the Bible, p. 136) Liberation theology also has it critics. Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar lists three of the many criticisms. There was concern that such “base communities” were cause for alarm to church hierarchy that such a model of “church from below” which operated independently of clerical oversight. His concern was that Liberation theology is regional and national in spirit and emphasis.
Its excessive emphasis on the contextualization of theology fails to acknowledge that Catholic theology must be universal. Secondly Balthasar maintains true Catholic theology never leads to a schism from the church. It always maintains its distinctiveness within the unity of the body. Thirdly, Catholic theology has received its hermeneutic by revelation and does not need an alien intellectual system such as Marxism to understand divine truth. Balthasar also resisted their emphasis on structural sin. “Societal situations can be unjust, but in themselves they cannot be sinful.
Only those persons can be sinful who are responsible for the existence of such situations and who continue to tolerate them even though they could abolish or ameliorate them” (cited by John Allen in Cardinal Ratzinger, 142) During the seventies and eighties liberation theology movement ad a strong influence on the ecumenical movement, including the World Council of Churches (WCC). The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) is the Angilcan Church of Canada’s agency for sustainable development, relief, refugees and global justice. These are two offshoots of liberation theology.
However, liberation theology has gone much farther than this. It was never intended to become static, dogmatic theoretical construction. Its intention was not to highlight a neglected theological theme, but rather to propose a new way of doing theology. What began as a focus on the living conditions of the poor, later on it incorporated other issues, like indigenous peoples, racism, gender inequalities and ecology. Nowadays liberation theology deals as well with the interpretation of cultures to the striving towards a more just society where there a place for everyone.