Liberation Theology

views updated May 11 2018


LIBERATION THEOLOGY . Liberation theology is defined as critical reflection on the historical praxis of liberation in a concrete situation of oppression and discrimination. It is not a reflection on the theme of liberation but "a new manner" of doing theology. The perspective of the poor and the commitment of Christians to the transformation of the world are the privileged places of the theological task. This theology should be considered as a theological and pastoral movement and not as theoretical expositions by important personages.

The stages of development of liberation theology are: preparation (19621968), formulation (19681975), systemization (19761989), and diversification of specific perspectives (since 1990).

The Stage of Preparation (19621968)

The first reflections in the direction of liberation theology have their origins in the 1960s. This was a period characterized by a structural crisis (economic, political, and ideological) of the systems of domination, the proliferation of popular liberation movements, and the appearance of military dictatorships. Critical reflections from the Christian faith emerged as an answer to the challenges that were presented not only by the liberation movements but above all by Christians who became involved in those movements.

Although elements were taken from new German political theology (Johann Metz, Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Solle), the theological themes coming from the European academy were considered insufficient to accompany the faith of Christians in a time of an "awakening of consciousness" of belonging to a dependent and oppressed continent that needed to free itself. This "awakening of consciousness" appeared in different parts of Latin America and from different rationales. Among those, Frantz Fannon wrote against colonialism in The Wretched of the Earth. Paulo Freire of Brazil spoke out in Education as the Practice of Freedom (1967) and Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). Many writers expressed themselves through literature, for example, Gabriel García Márquez with his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Philosophy spoke of the social movements on the continent; economics produced the theory of dependence in confrontation with the theory of development (André Gunder, Theotónio Dos Santos, Celso Furtado, and others). In fact, the history of this continent was read from Eduardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America (1973). The awakening of Christians to the challenges of the liberation movements and their active participation in those movements led theologians to elaborate a theology that took seriously the reality of poverty and exploitation and to take up the clamor of the poor. The climate of the church in the Catholic world was opportune. The Second Vatican Council (19621965) had begun a great opening with its concern and reflections on Christianity confronted by the modern world, and the Medellín Conference of Latin American Bishops contextualized its significance for the "oppressed and believing" Latin American continent. Within the Protestant tradition there were also groups (ISAL; Iglesia y Sociedad en América Latina, or Church and Society in Latin America) and theologians (Rubén Alves, Richard Shaull, and José Migues Bonino) who bore witness on the basis of Christian faith in the face of a reality that needed liberation.

The Formulation (19681975)

Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Catholic Peruvian theologian, is the principal figure in the formulation of liberation theology. His classic book A Theology of Liberation (1972) appears as an amplified and deepened version of previous expositions. Among other important persons who contributed to the debate of this reformulation were, among Catholics, Hugo Assmann, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, Enrique Dussel, and later Clodovis Boff; among Protestants, Rubén Alves, José Migues Bonino, and Julio de Santa Ana.

In this stage, theology is defined as a critical reflection on historical practice in the light of faith. The poor, as in "exploited classes, marginalized races, depreciated cultures" (Gutiérrez), is the privileged place of the theological task. It becomes clear that liberation theology is more than a theology with a single theme, or one of fixed contents. It is a manner of doing theology. Interested in the relation of theory and practice, the major contribution of liberation theology is precisely its method, considered as "an epistemological rupture" with traditional theology in which ideas are applied to practice. Its newness, thanks to the method, is in the application of the social sciences as instruments that help it analyze the reality out of which the theological reflection comes. Theology, insists Gutiérrez, is a second act. It is the rationality or intelligence of faith that emerges from the praxis of transformation and the encounter with God in history: praxis and contemplation are the first act.

The Systemization (19751989)

This is a productive period in writings as well as in the growing eruption of Christian base communities. Theologians during this period took great care to spell out the method and to re-create Christology and ecclesiology.

As for the method in the process of the theological task, there are three mediations. The socioanalytic mediation analyzes the reality where theology is done. Here the social sciences are used as tools to reflect theologically on the analyzed reality. The hermeneutical mediation interprets the Bible and tradition to reflect theologically on the analyzed reality. The praxiological or pastoral practice seeks to make visible the commitment to justice in favor of the poor. This method is common in the Christian base communities; it is expressed in a simple way with the terms: "see, judge, and act." Later the term "celebrate" was added in the sense that within the communities, in the process of a contextual rereading of the Bible, God's solidarity is celebrated as read in the Scriptures and in life.

The utilization of some Marxist elements as instruments for the analysis of reality generated controversy with the Vatican and certain Protestant sectors. The Sacred Congregation for Doctrine and Faith published Instruction on Various Points of Liberation Theology (1984), questioning this aspect because of the risk of ideologizing faith. If indeed liberation theology has adopted some elements of Marxism for class analysis and social change, it has rejected its atheism.

The Christology of liberation theology is characterized by the insistence on following Jesus (Jon Sobrino), who preached not himself but the reign of God. The following of Jesus underlines the practical character of the demands of a liberating Jesus Christ, whose "passion is also the passion of the world," in the words of Leonardo Boff (1987), which suffers injustices. In the Christology of liberation, historic liberations also form a part of the eschatological promise of salvation in Christ, although it is not identified with salvation in Christ. Because of certain critiques, theologians are careful to make clear that the reign of God is not limited to human history. From the beginning Gutiérrez affirmed that the reign of God "is realized in liberating historical acts, but denounces their limitations and ambiguities. It announces complete fulfillment and moves toward total communion." Because of the "radicality of the salvific gift, nothing escapes it, nothing is outside the action of Christ and the gift of the Spirit" (1973, p. 240).

The ecclesiology of liberation has as its point of reference the experience of a new way of being a church in the Christian base communities. It is a church that understands itself and emerges from the poor. For that reason it has been called the church of the poor or church that is born from the people. This ecclesiology is critical of a form of church that gives privilege to power concentrated in hierarchy instead of privileging charisma. According to Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (1981), charisma is the spiritual force that maintains the life of institutions and is more fundamental for the church than institutional element. Neither the hierarchy nor the institution constitutes what is fundamental in charisma, though they are not excluded (p. 254). This theme caused certain difficulties with the official Catholic Church. In 1984 Boff was called on by Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to clarify some aspects of his book, published in English as Church: Charism and Power in 1985. Boff was silenced; the punishment was suspended a year later.

The term iglesia popular (church of the poor) was refuted in the document of the Episcopal Conference held in Puebla (1979) because of the danger of seeing it as a parallel church to the official church. In the 1980s a shift began within theology: reflection based on the deepening of the dialectical relation between faith-politics and life-economy. According to Enrique Dussel, it is not the Christian demand to opt for the poor and to commit oneself in the process of liberation, but rather "the hunger of the majorities is the imperative to modify unjust systems of production. It is the relationship bread-production and from there the centrality of the Eucharist as bread of life through justice" (1995, p. 152). La idolatría del mercado by Hugo Assmann (1989) and Franz Hinkelammert; Hinkelammert's A idolatría do mercado (1989); and the Costa Rican Ecumenical Department of Research's La Lucha de los dioses (1979) are reflections from the economy that mark Latin American theological thought. Within the movement of the theology of liberation there are different emphases; some give more importance to political action, others to church ministries, and others to liberating spirituality.

The Diversification of Specific Perspectives (from 1989)

New contributions followed in the 1990s. Among those that stand out are reflections on the significance of evangelization in light of the five-hundred-year commemoration of the Spanish and Portuguese conquest; human beings as subjects (agents); law and grace; and more contributions to Christology. But what was new at this time were two facts: the participation of new subjects in the theological reflection and the biblical movement.

Women, blacks, and indigenous peoples have always participated in the movement of liberation theology. Since the 1980s women and black theologians have declared themselves as specific subjects in writings and at congresses. Nevertheless, since the 1990s, the recomposition of the world and the strengthening of the struggles for the emancipation of women, indigenous peoples, and blacks have multiplied and given much more strength to these particular perspectives of liberation theology. New challenges appeared. Liberation theology had included the aspirations of these sectors in its preferential option for the poor. In fact, Gustavo Gutiérrez frequently made clear that the word poor was a broad term that included the races and ethnic groups depreciated by racism and women who are doubly exploited for being poor and being women. But that was not sufficient for these groups. On becoming agents of theological production and assuming the method of liberation theology, they prefer to speak of the "option for those excluded" because it is a more ample category than the "option for the poor." These groups are introducing new themes that challenge the discourse of liberation theology: racism, the spirituality of the non-Christian African and indigenous ancestors, and a nonpatriarchal ecclesiology and epistemology. These perspectives seek to transcend the limited use of economics and sociology in analytic mediation and introduce new tools that take into account sexism, racism, and culture. Liberation theology has also in this decade confronted problems that had not been dealt with deeply, such as ecology, culture, and interreligious dialogue. These themes are now being taken up from the liberation perspective by some theologians. Nevertheless, because of the Latin American context and the presence of men and women theologians in church institutions, theological reflection from the perspective of those discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and reflections on reproductive rights, especially for women, are still pending. Recently there have appeared timid initiatives produced by the new generation.

The most developed current of the new theologies is feminist theology. An analysis of the origins and development of this theology appears in Pilar Aquino's book, Clamor por la vida. Teologia latinoamericana desde la perspectiva de la mujer (1992; in English, Our Cry for Life: Feminist Theology from Latin America, 1993). One of the pioneers and representative theologians is the Brazilian nun Ivone Gebara. In recent years three currents can be distinguished: feminist theology of liberation, ecofeminist theology, and black feminist theology of liberation.

Another innovating fact in liberation theology is the Bible movement that extends over the whole continent. In communities, workshops, and courses the Bible is being reread from the perspective of the excludedthe poor, blacks, indigenous peoples, and women. This reading, which employs a liberating hermeneutic, is called a popular (communitarian or pastoral) reading of the Bible. Among its founders are Carlos Mesters and Milton Schwantes. The Journal of Latin American Biblical Interpretation (RIBLA), founded in 1989, constitutes a permanent contribution to biblical hermeneutics of liberation. This movement is distinguished by a solid group of women biblical scholars.

In this time of theological formulation there were two convergences with other theologies of liberation that were born simultaneously: German political theology and black theology within the United States. History registers dialogue and tensions between these theologies: in Geneva in 1973 with European theology and in Detroit in 1975 with black theology and feminist theology. The convergence with European political theology is in the analysis of the relation of faith-world, but they differ in their theological discourse given the great difference of the interlocutors. While European political theology reflects faith from an atheist, secularized, adult world, liberation theology is challenged to reflect from the nonperson and the scandal of poverty. The convergence with black theology is the search for liberation in a context of oppression, but black theology permanently critiques the theology of liberation for not taking seriously the problem of racism in Latin American society.

Apparently the theology of liberation that was launched originally as a theology with a universal vocation became a theology of the Third World after the foundation of the Association of Third World Theologians in Dar es Salaam in 1976. During these last years it has been conceived more as a contextual theology of Latin America. Liberation theology and Latin American theology have become synonymous.

Black Liberation Theology

Black liberation theology was born among African American clergy and theologians in the United States out of the experience of humiliation and suffering of blacks in the historical and contemporary system of racism. Its task is to analyze that condition of oppression in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ with the goal of creating a praxis of liberation from white domination and a new understanding of black dignity among black people (James Cone). The praxis of liberation in a racist system and the affirmation of blackness are the privileged place of their theological task. To affirm God's solidarity with the oppressed, black theology refers to God and Christ as black.

The black slaves brought from Africa to the United States appropriated the Bible and read it in a liberation key, in spite of the fact that their white masters used the Bible as a tool of oppression. The book of Exodus was a source of inspiration for their own liberation. Before the beginnings of the formulation of black theology, a black community had already been founded by independent black churches, both Baptist and Methodist, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This explains why the clergy had permanent participation in the declarations, their position in the face of racism, and their place in the movements of black liberation. Also antecedent to black theology was the development of liberation thought among activists against slavery (Nat Turner, 18001831); against racial segregation (Marcus Garvey, 18871940), considered by many of his people "the apostle of black theology"; in the struggle for human rights (Martin Luther King Jr., 19291968); and in the Black Power movement (the Muslim Malcolm X, 19301965).

Black liberation theology was born within the heat of political and racial tumults of the 1960s and 1970s. It searched for a Christian answer to the black political movement. The first work of black theology as a formal discipline came out in 1969 with the title Black Theology and Black Power, written by the most important figure in the formulation of black theology, James Cone. A year later, Cone published his well-known work Black Theology of Liberation, in which he presents the contents of that theology. The fundamental question behind this work is, "What does the gospel of Jesus Christ have to do with the struggle of blacks for freedom in a society that denies African Americans as human beings?"

There are two important theological affirmations that distinguish black liberation theology: (1) The knowledge of God that reveals God's self as liberator. The God of Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus can only be known in the liberation struggles of the oppressed. (2) The blackness of God and of Christ as a theological symbol that looks to articulate the concrete presence of Jesus Christ in the history, culture, and experience of African Americans. Blacks are oppressed in the United States; therefore, God is on the side of the oppressed blacks and takes on the condition of the black. God is black, Christ is black; the blackness of God and Christ means that God and Christ have made the condition of the oppressed their own condition. For Cone, there is a distinction of colors. To say there is no difference means that God makes no differences between justice and injustice, between reason and irrationality, between good and evil. God is in solidarity with the blacks. As for Christology, Cone refers to Jesus as the Oppressed par excellence and the Liberator par excellence. The black Christ is the norm, the hermeneutical principle that integrates black theology, that is to say, the black experience, black history and black culture. This black experience, history, and culture are illuminated by the biblical testimony, but above all by the norm, that is, the black Christ. For Cone, sin is all that denies the liberating dimension of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Salvation, therefore, is not reduced to a future without transforming the situation of this world. The liberation of African Americans involves empowerment and the right of self-definition and self-affirmation, in addition to the transformation of social, political, economic, and religious oppression.

The debate between black theologians has been fruitful. The historians Gayraud Wilmore (1972) and Cecil Cone (1975) propose religious experience as the point of departure for black theology and not the political struggle or black power. Deotis Roberts (1974) represents a more moderate line by proposing the need for a liberating reconciliation in black-white relations. Cornel West (1979) underlines the importance of the dialogue with Marxism.

The new generation is working from three perspectives: womanist theology (Jacquelyn Grant, Katie Cannon, Delores Williams, Emilie Towns), who do theology from the experience of black women within a racist and patriarchal system; biblical hermeneutics, which questions Eurocentric scholarship and begins to discover the African presence within the Bible as well as the racial problems that the Bible itself presents. Another important perspective appears in the 1991 collective work directed by Cain H. Felder, Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, and the religion of the black slaves (Dwight Hopkins, George Cumming) that gathers the religious experience of the black slaves through stories, meditations, sermons, petitions and songs.

Of these three perspectives, the most developed is womanist theology. Since the 1980s black women have protested their invisibility in black theology and in white feminist theology. They feel that these theologies do not take into account the experiences of black women, who have to endure both racism and sexism in a context of poverty. The term "womanist" is from Alice Walker's work In Search of Our Mother's Garden (1982). It comes from the black folk expression "You acting womanish," meaning outrageous, audacious, courageous, and willful. Womanist theology takes into account the daily situation of survival as well as the structures that affect the lives of women.

Minjung Theology

Minjung theology is a Korean liberation theology. It emerged in the 1970s as a Christian response to the struggle of the minjung, meaning "the people." This term comes from the combination of two Chinese characters. Min signifies people and jung means mass. Minjung theology is the theology of people who are oppressed politically and economically. It is a political hermeneutic of the gospel and a political approach to the experiences of the Korean people. For this theology Jesus was a minjung, was in solidarity with the minjung, and his life was an example of liberation. Among its most important contributions is the use of the term han (accumulated anger, just indignation), introduced by Suh Nam Dong. The term is taken from a poem "The Story of Sound" (1972) by the poet Kim Nam Ha. The poem expresses the pain of a poor prisoner. This is better understood in the following words of the poet Kim: "This little peninsula is filled with the clamor of aggrieved ghosts. It is filled with the mourning noise of the han of those who died from foreign invasions, wars, tyranny, rebellion, malignant disease and starvation. I want my poems to be the womb or bearer of these sounds, to be the transmitter of the han and to communicate a sharp awareness of our historical tragedy" (Minjung Theology, p. 26). For minjung theologians the term han refers to the sentiments of interiorized injustice of the oppressed; one of the tasks of minjung theology is to help people to recognize these feelings. The most important figures of this theology besides Suh Nam Dong are David Kwang Sun Suh, Ahn Byung Mu, Kim Yong Bock, and HyunYoung Hak. Within this current has emerged the feminist Korean Chung Hyun Kyung.

After the founding of Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, in which theologians from Latin America, Africa, and Asia and blacks from the United States began their dialogue, theologies of liberation multiplied. These theologies were not imports of the Latin American or black theologies but critical theological reflections that arose from their own particular contexts. What unites the theologies of liberation is the objective of the theological task: "liberation." All the theologies of liberation are ecumenical.

In Africa there are four strong currents: South African black theology, inspired by black theology from the United States and the struggle against racism; African (Christian) inculturation theology, which has culture as its point of reference; African liberation theology, which underlines socio-economic and political analysis along with religious and ecclesial analysis; and African women's theology, with it theological focus against androcentrism and patriarchalism present in church structures and in African traditions.

In Asia, along with minjung theology, the Filipino theology of struggle and other contextual theologies of liberation stand out. The theology of struggle of the Philippines is seen in its struggle of resistance. Asian theologies of liberation differ from the rest of the liberation theologies because of their predominant context of religious plurality. Christians are a minority among large non-Christian religions. In order for a theology of liberation to have an impact in this context, Christians are challenged to dialogue with the other religions and to reconsider valuable elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Shamanism that promote liberation and an enrichment of Christian theology. Among other theologies coming out of Asia are Indian dalit theology, which struggles against the caste system, and Burakumin liberation theology, which focuses on persons marginalized by ritual impurity systems. In Asia, as in the theologies of Africa, Latin America, and minorities in the United States, women theologians have a strong voice. Their publications appear in the well-known theological journal In God's Image founded by Asian women theologians.

Among the minorities of the United States new theologies have emerged: Latino theology reflects their racial mixture, culture, and popular religion. It does theology in the symbolic framework of "being" on the border. Within this theology women's voices have created the mujerista theology. Native American theology does theology out of their experience without forgetting their presence in America before the arrival of Christians and Christian American colonialism. This theology rescues ancestral spiritual values. Asian-American theologies present the particularities of the Japanese-, Chinese-, and Korean-American experiences.

These theologies of liberation recognize that a good number of Christians in their own countries do not share their point of view because of, above all, the political commitment inherent in liberation. Nevertheless, new contextual theologies of liberation continue to proliferate as this new way of doing theology, in which subjects take their concrete reality as the point of departure to speak of God, has spread throughout the world.

See Also

Feminist Theology; Political Theology.


Boff, Clodovis. Teología de lo político. Sus mediaciones. Salamanca, 1980. English version, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations. New York, 1987.

Boff, Leonardo. Iglesia, carisma y poder. Santander, 1981.

Boff, Leonardo. Passion of the Christ, Passion of the World: The Facts, Their Interpretation, and Their Meaning, Yesterday and Today. Translated by Robert Barr. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1987.

Boff, Leonardo, and Clodovis Boff. Introducing Liberation Theology. New York, 1987.

Commission on Theological Concerns of the Christian Conference of Asia, ed. Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History. London and New York, 1983.

Cone, James. Black Theology and Black Power. New York, 1969.

Cone, James. A Black Theology of Liberation. New York, 1970.

Dussel, Enrique. Teología de la liberación. Un panorama de su desarrollo. México D.F., 1995.

Ellacuría, Ignacio, and Jon Sobrino. Mysterium Liberationis: Conceptos fundamentales de la teología de la Liberación. San Salvador, 1990. English version, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. New York, 1993.

Fabella, Virginia and R. S. Sugirtharaja, eds. Dictionary of Third World Theologies. New York, 2000.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. Teología de la liberación. Perspectivas. Salamanca, 1972. English version, A Liberation Theology. New York, 1973.

Hopkins, Dwight. Introducing Black Theology of Liberation. New York, 1999.

Loysius, Pieris. An Asian Theology of Liberation. New York, 1988.

Martey, Emmanuel. African Theology: Inculturation and Liberation. New York, 1993.

Musala, Itumeleng J., and Tlhagalr Buti. The Unquestionable Right to Be Free: Black Theology from South Africa. New York, 1986.

Roberts, James Deotis. A Black Political Theology. Philadelphia, 1974.

West, Cornel. Black Theology and Marxist Thought. Boston, 1979.

Wilmore, Gayraud, and James Cone. Black Theology, a Documentary History, 19661979. New York, 1979.

Elsa Tamez (2005)

Liberation Theology

views updated Jun 08 2018

Liberation Theology





Liberation theology, or theology of liberation, is among the movements for social change that emerged in the Americas in the 1960s. Born within Christian churches, it upholds an understanding of the Christian faith as demanding an option for the poor, that is, a continuous commitment to the self-liberation of the oppressed. From its inception, it has had important ties with grassroots organizations and actions for social changesiding with the victims of socioeconomic oppression and of political and military repression.

Since early on liberation theology attracted the attention of social scientists and policymakers, as its effects both belied scholarly assumptionsfor example, religion having a decreasing influence and a predominantly conservative function in the larger societyand raised fears of grassroots opposition to capitalism among the economic, political, and military elites north and south of the Rio Grande.


Several factors influenced the emergence of liberation theology. The growing resistance throughout the Americas in the 1960s to economic exploitation, political repression, and official complicity with both is indeed among these. This resistance, partially inspired by the Cuban Revolution (1959), found mounting echoes among urban youth, the poor, students, and intellectualsincluding a rising number of church activists and thinkers. These stimulated attempts (including a theology of revolution, Christian left, and Christian communitarianism) to ground the struggle against exploitation and repression in the biblical tradition, especially in Jesuss actions, words, death, and resurrectionand thus to disprove the claim (shared both by Christian capitalists and Marxist atheists) that the churches social role could only be a conservative one. Following suit, churches started not only initiatives for economic development and respect of human rights, but also theological foundations for such initiatives. The Second Vatican Council (19621965), the social encyclicals of Popes John XXIII (1963) and Paul VI (1967), as well as the 1968 Second General Conference of Latin American Roman Catholic Bishops, were all particularly influential in that change of directionparticularly through their explicit Christian affirmation of the divine right of all peoples to govern themselves democratically, and to have access to the material goods necessary to satisfy their basic material needs, even through revolutionary social, economic, and political change, if necessary. On the Protestant side, the World Conference on Church and Society in Geneva, sponsored by the World Council of Churches (1966), a follow-up Consultation on Church and Society in São Paulo, Brazil, sponsored by a provisional commission for the Unity of Latin American Evangelicals (1967), and the Third Latin American Evangelical Conference (Buenos Aires, 1969), all contributed to Protestant Christians embracing movements for social justice. In both Protestant and Catholic quarters, a growing chorus of voices, official and otherwise, affirmed much more clearly from the 1960s on than in earlier times the Christian obligation to fight for socioeconomic justice, political democracy, human rights, and world peace, especially in defense of the poorer populations. Entwined with these, in the United States, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the antiwar movement, the United Farm Workers movement, the womens movement, and the American Indian liberation movement, all contributed to the emergence of a rich diversity of theological reflections from the late 1960s on.

A first digest of some key ideas of a liberation theology, as well as a first Spanish use of the idiom itself, theology of liberation, appeared in the lecture Hacia una teología de la liberación (Toward a theology of liberation), delivered in 1968 to a clergy meeting in his native Peru by Roman Catholic priest Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1923), dubbed the father of liberation theology since. About the same time, the former Brazilian Presbyterian pastor Rubem Alves (b. 1933), exiled in Princeton Theological Seminary, used the expression in his dissertation Towards a Theology of Liberation, with ideas converging with Gutierrezs. In 1969 the African Methodist Episcopal minister/theologian James H. Cone independently finished his book A Black Theology of Liberation, the cornerstone of black liberation theologydeeply inspired by the revolutionary call of the Black Power movement for the black population in the United States to take in its own hands the task of achieving equality, autonomy, and respect by any means necessary, as well as by its criticism of the complicity of churches and theologians with white supremacy.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the movement grew in numbers, visibility, and influence across the churches in the Americas. In response, military dictator-shipsin at least ten countries of the Caribbean, Central America, and South Americaunleashed violent repression against those linked to liberation theology. Among the hundreds of thousands of lives thus lost, Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, murdered while celebrating mass in a hospital chapel in 1980, was the most remarkable victim of that backlash, becoming a popular saint-martyr symbolizing the Christian commitment to the liberation of the poor. That year, a document outlining the inter-American strategy of the Reagan administration stated: U.S. foreign policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the liberation theology clergy (Committee of Santa Fe 1980).

The military repression; the stifling of dissent in Roman Catholicism under Pope John Paul II (19782005), with parallel processes in many Protestant churches; the accelerating impoverishment of Latin American peoples under the new global economy; the emergence of fragile democracies in the wake of most military dictatorships; and the growing appeal of Pentecostalism among the Latin American poor stunned and beset liberation theology through the last two decades of the twentieth century.


For liberation theology God is the God of the poor. Gods self-revelation is first and foremost in, to, and through the poornot least in the incarnation, birth, words, deeds, persecution, torture, execution, and resurrection of Jesus, as expressed, among others, in Matthew 25: 3146. Modern poverty is not a result of accidental scarcity (as it might have been in other times and places), but of systemic exploitation by the few at the expense of the many. Poverty is the result of the sin of the powerful, not of the poor: the product of a free human rejection of Gods call for caring for the poor and oppressed. Salvation is, therefore, inseparable from the radical embracing of Gods option for the poor, and thus entailing, among others, a call against capitalist exploitation.

The theology of liberation has often been charged with reducing Jesus to a social revolutionary. Albeit the charge could be deemed unfair, the fact is that such an iconic image was quite pervasive during the first two decades of the history of the movementmore among some followers than amid the theologians in the movement proper. As the years went by, such images became less recurrent. As in any emerging movement fighting for deep structural change, liberation theology developed much more what distinguished it from conservative, dominant theologies, than what both might hold in common. Thus, an emphasis on the historical Jesus, on the human facet of the divine incarnation, and on the social dimensions of the life, message, passion, death, and resurrection of the Christ, have been critical in liberation theology. The image of Jesus in this theology is and has been that of someone essentially identified with the least among us, whose entire life was (is, and will continue to be) radically revolutionaryand not just marginally or accidentallyand thoroughly world-shattering in terms economical, social, political, ethnic, linguistic, and gender-based.

For liberation theology, theology is only a second momenta moment of reflection on the actual praxis of faithand dominant theologies are, all too often, unconscious sacralizations of the self-interested faith praxis of the elites. Theological work requires, therefore, an effort of critical social analysis of the social conditions and interests shaping its course, so that all theology moves toward bearing the good news of Gods liberation for the poor and oppressed. But, as Gutierrez would put it, what matters is not the fate of theology (not even of liberation theology), but the fate of the poor and oppressed.

Possibly, however, the most significant and enduring impact of liberation theologyincluding in places as distant as Chile, the Philippines, Korea, South Africa, and Los Angeleshas to do with its emphasis on the obligation of theology and theologians to involve themselves in the actual struggles for liberation of the oppressed themselves. One major facet of this emphasis on praxis are the so-called basic ecclesial communities (BECs): small gatherings of lay Christian neighborswith or without a pastor presentto read the Bible in community, reflect on its practical demands for the larger life in community, and organize and mobilize to enact those demands in the real existence of the area. Such BECs sprouted in many places in South America and beyond (notably in Brazil, with estimates of more than 100,000 BECs in the 1980s touching the lives of several million people), turning the message of liberation theology into the actual development of neighborhood clinics, literacy campaigns, independent schools, labor unions, strikes, mass protests, housing projects, and neighborhood cleanups.

The social and political movements leading to the victories of more socially concerned leaders in Latin America from 1979 on (Nicaraguas Sandinistas, Haitis Lavalas, Brazils Workers Party, Venezuelas Chavez, Chiles Bachelet, and Bolivias Evo Morales), are probably inexplicable without factoring in the influence, large or small, of liberation theology and BECs.

These initiatives have placed liberation theology, on the one hand, in dialogue and cooperation with other movements (Christian or not) fighting for social justice, democracy, equality, and peace, and therefore, on the other hand, also in conflict with both the elitessocial, economic, political, military, and, often too, religiousof many nations, as well as with those Christians who view their faith from vantage points outside of the liberation of the poor and oppressed.

Liberation theology has been variously critiqued for being more Marxist than Christian; reducing the Christian faith, evangelization, and salvation to thisa worldly, socioeconomic agenda; promoting hatred of the rich, class warfare, and armed revolution; erasing the spiritual dimensions of the Christian faith; turning the church into a political party; and sacralizing the poor while demonizing the wealthy. Liberation theologians, responding more indirectly than directly to such accusations, have nuanced and deepened their reflections, especially from the 1980s on, while inspiring further critical analyses of the complex social and religious dynamics beneath the charges laid against them.


The reach, yield, sway, and publicized persecution of Latin American Roman Catholic liberation theology have often created the impression that it is only, or at least mainly, a Latin American and/or Roman Catholic phenomenon. Liberation theology, however, developed simultaneously in North America, too, and, not much later, in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Black liberation theology was the first North American liberation theology. U.S. Hispanic/Latino theologies followed not long after both Black and Latin American liberation theologies. Feminist, pacifist, Native American, Asian American, and Jewish liberation theologies came immediately thereafter, followed by lesbian and gay liberation theologies. Each one has both advanced the critique of the ways in which their own religious tradition has been an unwitting accomplice of oppression, and contributed to reinterpreting such tradition in further solidarity with the victims of oppression and with their struggles for liberation. In the process, several forums have contributed to the dialogue, reciprocal critique, and cross-pollination between these liberation theologiesthe most significant being the EATWOT (Ecumenical Association of Third-World Theologians).

At the onset of the twenty-first century, the multiplicity of liberation theologies, as well as the diversity of situations in which they exist, does not allow for any sweeping diagnosis or prognosis. It can be said, however, that it is not possible any longer to preach Christian theology without facing, sooner or later, knowingly or not, the key question raised by liberation theology: What have we done for the poor and oppressed in our midst? Simultaneously, at least in Latin America, it is hardly possible any longer to administer politics (leftist, centrist, or right-wing; civilian or military; governmental or oppositional; democratic or otherwise), without facing the demands of a significant sum of Christians for respect, justice, and peace for allbeginning with the most vulnerable.


The Committee of Santa Fe. 1980. A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties. Washington, DC: Council for Inter-American Security.

Cone, James H. 1990. A Black Theology of Liberation. 20th Anniversary ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1988. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Trans. and ed. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Levine, Daniel H. 1992. Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Christian. 1991. The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Otto Maduro

Liberation Theology

views updated Jun 08 2018


The broad definition of liberation theology stresses the interrelatedness of differing structures of oppression and domination. Liberation from oppressive structures necessarily involves political, economic, social, racial, ethnic, and sexual aspects. As a paradigm, liberation theology today places explicit emphasis on assessing different forms of human oppression and suffering, and liberation from them, as layers in a complicated process.

Liberation theology is one of the most significant currents in modern theology. Because of its multidisciplinarity and its emphasis on social, political, and ecclesial praxis, it has come to have importance far beyond academic theology or institutional churches. Liberation theology can be defined either narrowly or broadly. In the former sense, it is limited to Latin American liberation theology (teología de la liberación, teologia da libertação ), born of a specifically Latin American context in the late 1960s. In the broader sense, liberation theology also includes other theological currents, most importantly black theology (mostly in the United States and South Africa), feminist theology, and variations of Asian and African liberation theologies. In the latter sense, it would be even more accurate to speak of theologies of liberation in the plural. Among different liberation theologians, this understanding of liberation theology as plural, heterogeneous, and global (with multifaceted local expressions) is common. There are also non-Christian theologies of liberation, even if the term sometimes is not fully accurate in all contexts. However, there has also been dialogue between Christian and Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu theologians of liberation. This article will concentrate on Christian liberation theologies in the broader, global meaning.

It is often wrongly assumed that liberation theology first appeared in Latin America and then spread to other continents and contexts. Some classical works on black theology (for example, James Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation, 1970) and feminist liberation theology (Rosemary Ruether's Liberation Theology, 1972) were published at about the same time as the first major works of Latin American liberation theology, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez's Teología de la liberación (1972). It is more accurate to say that the term liberation theology arose simultaneously in different contexts. The different theologies within the liberation theology movement have had some dialogue with each other, most importantly in the context of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), founded in 1976. Counted among "Third World theologies" are liberation theologies inside the First World, especially the United States. Liberation theologians have learned from each other through critical dialogue: for example, the critique of the meagerness of the analysis of racism and sexism and the emphasis on economic and class issues at the cost of cultural elements in Latin American liberation theology; or for a feminist theology from industrialized countries that has been slow to admit that white, educated, and affluent women are a small minority.

Each liberation theology, whether black, feminist, or Latin American, is characterized by its distinctive viewpoint, but what they all share is a commitment to social justice. To some extent, all liberation theologies are situated in contemporary political struggles and movements (such as different human rights movements against Latin American dictatorships, the U.S. civil rights movement, and feminist movements in different countries and regions). Liberation theologians usually refer to this as praxis, not only as their aim or objective, but also as their point of departure.

Liberation theology stems from the conviction that giving priority to the poor and the oppressed in theology and in the church, and the concrete defense of their rights in different societies, is a central, if not the most central, element of the Christian faith. Christian liberation theologies aim their critical analysis not only at society but at the church and theology as well in order to judge to what extent they are accomplices in maintaining structures of domination.

Liberation theologies understand theology as critical reflection on the presence of the divine within different liberation struggles. This reflection is accomplished with the help of both sacred scriptures and tenets of the faith tradition, as well as other disciplines, in order to understand the root causes (and ways of eradication) of phenomena such as poverty and racism.

The concept contextual theology has been used interchangeably with liberation theology. It has been claimed that because all human activity, including the study of theology, is born in a particular context, all human activity is contextual. However, contextual theology has been used mainly to designate the changing character of Christianity as it took root outside the Western world. In this sense, contextual theology would be a wider term than liberation theology, Latin American liberation theology, for example, being just one form of contextualized theology from a particular colonialized and Christianized part of the world. In the sense that the term contextual theology refers to a local political, social, and religious contextfor example, Ghana or the Philippinesit is a narrower term than liberation theology, which stresses a global struggle against different systems of domination.

No single article can do justice to the contemporary richness of different liberation theologies, such as Dalit theology (India), gay and lesbian liberation theologies, minjung theology (Korea), indigenous peoples' theologies and spiritualities of liberation all over the globe, and the Palestinian theology of liberation, among others. In the remainder of this essay, to the discussion will be limited to Latin American liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology.

Latin American Liberation Theology

The Catholic Church was, for centuries, one of the pillars of Spanish power in Latin America, which was Christianized more than five hundred years ago, unlike other areas later colonized by European countries. The circumstances that made liberation theology possible have deep historical roots; however, there are some more immediate causes, both secular and ecclesial.

The generally conflictive atmosphere, and the rise of authoritarian military dictatorships all over Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, created the conditions in which the Roman Catholic Church had to take a political stance regarding growing violations of human rights, deepening poverty, and organized, armed guerrilla struggle, culminating in some cases in a successful popular revolution (Cuba in 1959 and Nicaragua in 1979). An influential idea behind early liberation theology was the dependency theory, according to which the main reason for the poverty and underdevelopment of the Third World was its dependency on industrialized countries, which were largely developed through the use of, and profit from, dependent regions. Theologically, liberation theology was a radicalization and contextualization of the influence from European political theology and, certainly, in a tradition as long as Christianity itself, of prophetic denunciation of injustice and oppression and declaration of freedom and liberation to those suffering from them.

The Second Vatican Council (19621965) of the Roman Catholic Church established a global opening of the church to society and had an extremely important influence especially on Catholic churches in North America and Latin America. Ecumenically, the World Council of Churches took steps that encouraged Protestant churches to commit themselves to issues of social justice, especially the eradication of poverty. In Latin America, the Latin American Catholic Bishops' Conference (CELAM, Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano ) met in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, a meeting often interpreted as a critical point in the departure of the Catholic Church (as an institution) from its five-hundred-year-old relationship to the state. The church formally made "a preferential option for the poor" and aspired to become "a church of the poor." Some of the first important Catholic liberation theologians were Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, Hugo Assmann, Jon Sobrino, and Pablo Richard; on the Protestant side were theologians such as Rubem Alves, José Míguez Bonino, and Elsa Tamez.

At the grassroots level, priests, pastors, nuns, and laypeople started to work with the rural and urban poor, forming ecclesial base communities, or comunidades eclesiales de base (CEBs), in which people learned to interpret their everyday realities in the light of their Christian identity and faith. In some countries, such as Nicaragua and Brazil, the local CEBs played an important sociopolitical role.

According to Gutiérrez, liberation theology is "a critical reflection on praxis in the light of the Word of God." While there is a clear Marxist influence in liberation theologians' use of the concept of praxis, the Vatican's claim that liberation theology is camouflaged Marxism is exaggerated. Liberation theologians interpreted both Christianity and the Latin American situation from a new perspective, that of the colonized "Christian South," in which the majority of people lived in widespread poverty under extremely repressive governments. The method of liberation theologyto give primacy to praxis over theological speculationshas influenced nearly all contemporary theology.

In the 1990s, the influence of both liberation theology and the CEBs has diminished, partly due to the growing presence of Pentecostalism and the rise in Protestant churches in Latin America. Also, the Catholic Church has become much more conservative during the papacy of John Paul II, leaving very few liberation-theological bishops, such as Helder Camara of Brazil and Oscar Romero of El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s, in the Latin American Catholic Church. At the same time, ever-deepening poverty and the globalization of market economies, issues of sexism and racism, and ecological concerns raise both old and new questions for liberation theologians. An analysis of idolatry as well as of the common roots of Western theology and economy (for example, the sacrificial elements in both) has led to some of the new developments that have deepened the original insights of liberation theology. Capitalism as religion and the "necessary" production of victims as a basically theological belief have been theorized by Franz Hinkelammert and Hugo Assmann. Christianity should always side with the victims and defend their lives, which is why liberation theology is also called the theology of life, teología de la vida, reflecting on the meaning of the God of life, el Dios de la vida.

Liberation theology today might best be seen as forming part of the so-called globalization critique, which, along with theories and practices of alternative globalization, tend to bring together actors and theories from both the First and Third Worlds in order to create alternatives to contemporary economic policies. A lack of democratic control of economic policies, poverty, ecological disasters, the concentrated control of natural resources, and the concomitant issues of sexism and racism, remain as issues.

Black Theology

Black theology in the United States arose out of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s. However, its historical roots go back to the beginning of African slavery in the United States and the founding of black independent Baptist and Methodist churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Important contributors to this literature are James H. Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and Gayraud S. Wilmore. "In a racist society, God is not color blind," says James Cone. Also, if all humans were created in the image of God, it must not only mean that black people are created in God's image, as are whites, but also that "God is black." In a related sense, "blackness" is a category in black theology similar to that of "poverty" in Latin American liberation theology. To be black, or poor, is to be conscious both of one's oppression and of one's authentic humanity.

As in other liberation theologies, black women's voices, and their critique, have been central for the later development of black theology. In the United States, African-American feminist theologians prefer to call their work womanist theology, after a term borrowed from the African-American writer Alice Walker. Important Christian womanist theologians are Delores Williams, Jacquelyn Grant, and Katie G. Cannon. Most U.S. black and womanist theologians are Protestant. In a racist and sexist society, black women cannot prefer one identity at the cost of the other: they are marginalized both as women and as a racial minority.

As in the United States, the struggle against institutionalized racism, often legitimized by religious beliefs, has been the source of black theology in Africa, especially South Africa. Reformed Christianity in South Africa has been one of the ideological pillars of apartheid, the repressive political system of that country for decades, which is why black theology in the South African context has been different from that in the United States. Important black South African theologians such as Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, and Manas Buthelezi have often also been leaders in the churches and in movements against apartheid. A black theology of liberation, la teología negra de la liberación, including a feminist version, is also being developed in the Latin American and Caribbean context.

Feminist Theologies

By virtue of its large and varied racial and ethnic minorities, the United States has produced the largest variety of feminist theologies. At the same time, theologies from the United States are not only not applicable in other parts of the world but also often reflect the specific historical and cultural circumstances of that country. Thus, Latina feminist theology (exemplified by María Pilar Aquino from the Catholic tradition and Daisy Machadofrom the Protestant), womanist theology, mujerista theology (including Latina female theologians such as Ada María Isazi-Díaz and Yolanda Tarango), Native American, and Asian-American feminist theologies (for example, Kwok Puilan and Chung Hyun Kyung), have been influenced by feminist thinking from other contexts and countries, but also reflect the situation of women from ethnic and racial minorities in the United States. It is sometimes difficult to draw a clear line between Latin American and U.S. Latino or Asian and Asian-American theological production because individual theologians often have spent parts of their lives in both their countries of origin and in the United States.

Some important white North American feminist theologians who have done groundbreaking work are Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Catholic), Mary Daly (post-Christian), Judith Plaskow (Jewish), and Letty M. Russell (Protestant). Schüssler Fiorenza and Ruether also explicitly define themselves as liberation theologians.

In Europe, scholars such as Catharina J. M. Halkes, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, and Mary Grey identify themselves as feminist liberation theologians. The European Society for Women in Theological Research has been an important forum for the development of European feminist theologies. Both in Europe and the United States, there are also feminist thealogians (after thea, Greek for "goddess") who depart from the Judeo-Christian tradition by reclaiming different goddess traditions. Many feminist theologians in different parts of the world include eco-feminist and ecological concerns in their work.

All feminist theologies share the importance of the analysis of sexism in different religious traditions, women's exclusion from both theology and positions of power in religious institutions, and the often explicitly religious legitimization of the subordination of women. Many burning ethical issues, such as abortion and violence against women, cannot be adequately assessed without a critical feminist theological analysis of the religious underpinnings of ethical thinking; and dialogue with feminist theories from other fields is also important.

See also Authoritarianism: Latin America ; Christianity ; Feminism ; Human Rights ; Marxism: Latin America ; Poverty ; Religion: Latin America ; Religion and the State: Latin America ; Womanism .


Boff, Leonardo. Igreja, carisma e poder. Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1981.

Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1990.

Cone, James H., and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds. Black Theology: A Documentary History. 2 vols. 2nd rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1993.

Ellacuría, Ignacio, and Jon Sobrino, eds. Mysterium Liberationis: Conceptos fundamentales de la teología de la liberación. 2 vols. San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1991.

Fabella, Virginia, and R. S. Sugirtharajah, eds. Dictionary of Third World Theologies. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2000.

Gibellini, Rosino, ed. Paths of African Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas. Salamanca: Sígueme, 1972.

Isasi-Díaz, Ada María, and Fernando F. Segovia, eds. Hispanic/ Latino Theology: Challenge and Promise. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

King, Ursula, ed. Feminist Theology from the Third World: A Reader. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994.

Pieris, Aloysius. An Asian Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1988.

Ruether, Rosemary R. Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power. New York: Paulist Press, 1972.

. Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon, 1983.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1983.

Thistlethwaite, Susan B., and Mary P. Engel, eds. Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990.

Elina Vuola

Liberation Theology

views updated May 17 2018


Liberation theology is the name of a movement that arose in the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, of Latin America during the last third of the twentieth century. It also describes a theological trend that is found, often under different names and with somewhat different emphases across the world, as black theology in the United States and South Africa, as Dalit theology in India, as Minjung theology in Korea, and elsewhere in other forms.


The earliest and still definitive statement of the movement is A Theology of Liberation: History Politics, and Salvation (1988) by Gustavo Gutiérrez. The basic principles it sets forth are:

(1) Theology is critical reflection on Christian praxis. Faith, charity, and commitment to God and to others in the struggle for humanity and justice are primary. Theology relates this praxis to the sources of revelation and the history of the church.

(2) Biblical revelation commits the church to God's "preferential option for the poor." The poor are, by their condition, involved in a struggle to realize their humanity and to become "subjects of their own history," against the political, economic, and social powers that marginalize and oppress them. This struggle is revolutionary, not reformist. The church belongs with the poor in the midst of it, doing theology in a revolutionary situation.

(3) The struggle of the poor for social justice is a work of human self-creation that finds its source, meaning, and hope in God's work. Salvation history is at the heart of human history, in creation, covenant, Christ's incarnation, and the coming kingdom of God. Political liberation is a partial salvific event, a historical realization of the kingdom, that looks forward to its ultimate fulfillment by divine grace operating in the human struggle, informing its character and directing it toward ever larger goals of human community.

This is still its basic structure. In its development and spread, however, three major issues have arisen.

Critique: Defining the Poor

First, how are the poor defined? The Latin American theologians clearly have a dependent economic class in mind, created by exploiting landlords, industrialists, and bankers, along with their political and military agents. This definition, in terms of the dehumanizing dynamics of the capitalist system and class struggle against it, clearly borrows from Karl Marx. José Miguez Bonino (1976) acknowledges this explicitly as do many others. The Vatican, though affirming a preferential option for the poor, has been severely critical of this tendency to identify the poor of scripture with the proletariat that Marx defined. Liberation theologians claim, however, that this analysis is the secular expression in modern industrial society of a theme in Christian history that finds its source in the Hebrew prophets and the incarnation of Christ: the saving work of God liberating the people from the economic and political power of organized human sin. The Kairos Document, Challenge to the Church: A Theological Comment on the Political Crisis in South Africa (1986), without appealing to Marx, makes the same argument concerning the apartheid system, calling it prophetic theology, as opposed to (a) state theology, which justifies the status quo, and (b) church theology, which is cautiously critical but without social analysis or a strategy for revolutionary change. Minjung theology in Korea focuses on a politically oppressed people (minjung), given hope by biblical history and promise, to strive for their liberation in a messianic kingdom where Jesus the suffering servant is lord. For Dalit theology in India, like American black theology, it is a subjugated minority, the outcastes (the dalits), to which the promise of God comes, in their conflict with an oppressive majority. Black theology draws especially on the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to legitimate black people's fight for freedom.

All these movements agree that liberation is the basic theme of the Christian message. All see political, economic, cultural, and even religious powers as the instruments of oppression against which they struggle in God's name. They differ in their perception of how the poor are defined and which powers are their primary antagonists. The power analysis that Marxism provides is determinative for some and secondary for others. All of them, however, incorporate it into a more subtle and insightful guide that scripture provides to Christian understanding of the poor and to action that will realize God's promise.

Critique: the Question of Truth

Second, how is the truth claim of liberation theology validated? This question arises on two levels. First, the hermeneutic of suspicion, which probes the roots of all truth claims in social experience and defines theology as a reflection on social praxis, owes much to Marx. It contradicts the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas about the universality of reason and natural law as perfected, not destroyed by revelation. It reflects, however, the reformation understanding of reason distorted by human sin and is rooted, liberation theologians would claim, in the way God is known in the biblical history of calling, covenant, and promise.

The question remains, then, how divine revelation corrects and redeems the self-understanding also of the poor. How is truth, beyond the interests of one social group, known? Juan Luis Segundo (1976) describes the process as an expanding hermeneutical circle. Experience of reality from the perspective of the poor leads to ideological suspicion toward received structures of authority, morals, and dogma. This leads to a new awareness of God, which in turn creates a new hermeneutic for interpreting the biblical story. One does not escape ideology through this circle. But biblical revelation at one pole and the human condition of the poor at the other direct and correct it toward political and spiritual liberation. Paulo Freire develops the same line of thought as a teaching method in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), with its emphasis on learning to be human in Christian-base communities through defining and struggling against oppressive powers while being transformed by God's saving love in the struggle.

Critique: Sin and Hope

Third, is liberation theology a universal message that offers hope to all, or a theology of and for the oppressed only? Vatican critiques, primarily in Pope John Paul II's speech to the Latin American bishops at the 1979 Puebla Conference in Mexico and in two "Instructions" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1984 and 1986, were especially strong on this point. (cf. A.T. Hennelly, Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, 1990). Authoritative for theology is not contemporary social analysis but the truth of the saving gospel of Christ revealed in scripture and interpreted by church tradition. The human situation must be understood in the light of the experience of the church through the ages as it responds in faith to God and the world. In this context one understands that the basic bondage is not just political oppression, but slavery to sin in all forms, that preferential option for the poor is concern for all who are caught in this bonda, and that Jesus's transforming, peacemaking, pardoning and reconciling love is the true liberation. Therefore, the church cannot sanction the violence of class war. It cannot identify God with historical achievement. It cannot understand freedom only as political.

Replies to Critics

To these and to other criticisms, also from Protestant sources, liberation theologians reply variously. In replying to critics in his introduction to the revised edition (1988) of A Theology of Liberation Gutiérrez clearly addresses the community of the whole church with a call to join the poor in their struggle for liberation, confident of the reign of God, which is for all. Liberation, he says, is salvation on three levels: freedom from economic and political oppression, personal transformation, and ultimately redemption from sin. It is a movement with both historical and eschatological dimensions. However, his view of the church is less hierarchical and institutional than the Vatican critique. His emphasis on praxis as response to faith is also more social and historical.

Others, in their contexts, deal with the question in various ways. The Kairos Document calls the church to struggle against tyranny with appropriate force, with the hope that the coming reign of the risen Christ offers, but also with love for the oppressor and justice for all. Both Dalit theology in India and Black theology in the United States are more exclusively focused on the minority group whose faith they seek to express. Dalits, they claim, have their own participation in the liberating presence of the suffering Christ. They can only bear witness to God's promise for all people if they are not integrated into the ethos of the majority, of Hindu India, or even of the Christian church dominated by other castes. Similarly, for James H. Cone (1969, 1975), Christ's affirmation of black people is central to God's liberating purpose, and salvation for white people means identifying with this experience. Minjung theologians speak in and for the church, but they understand the experience of the people of God and the suffering messiah in the Bible as offering God's promise and hope to the suffering people of Korea today. It is the minjung who are the messianic people.

These theologies differ in their identification of oppressed peoples seeking liberation, though they communicate with and learn from one another. Their views on the relation between these peoples and the church are not the same, though all have grown out of the church and speak to it. They are not always of one mind about the use of violence in the struggle against oppressive powers, though they all would condemn hatred and seek nonviolent methods where possible. They do not all agree about the relation between the struggle of the poor for political, economic, and social liberation and the ultimate freedom promised in the coming of the kingdom of God. But for all of them Christian faith is fundamental. This means for them God's special concern for the poor in their fight for justice and freedom, God's identification with them in the servanthood and suffering of Christ, and God's promise of a world in which both oppressed and oppressors will be freed from power and domination. The movement has been called utopian, a term that Gutiérrez accepts as a provisional expression of Christian hope. Whether it is also realistic, history must judge.

See also Marxist Philosophy; Marx, Karl; Natural Law; Philosophy of Religion; Reason; Reformation; Revelation; Thomas Aquinas, St.


Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. New York: Seabury Press, 1969.

Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. The Power of the Poor in History. Translated by Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Translated and edited by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973. Rev. ed., 1988.

Hennelly, Alfred T., ed. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990.

The Kairos Document, Challenge to the Church: A Theological Comment on the Political Crisis in South Africa. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.

Kim Yong Bock, ed. Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History. Singapore: Commission on Theological Concerns, Christian Conference of Asia, 1981.

Miguez Bonino, José. Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976.

Miguez Bonino, José. Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975.

Nirmal, Arvind P., ed. A Reader in Dalit Theology. Madras, India: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute for the Department of Dalit Theology, 1994.

Rowland, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Segundo, Juan Luis. The Liberation of Theology. Translated by John Drury. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976.

Charles C. West (1996, 2005)

Liberation Theology

views updated May 23 2018

Liberation Theology

The term liberation theology was first used by Latin-American priests and theologians (mainly Catholic) and U.S. African-American clergy and theologians (mainly Protestant) during the latter part of the 1960s. It refers to an interpretation of the Bible and the Christian faith from the standpoint of the poor and their struggles for justice in society. Without knowledge of the political activities and theological reflections of each other, Latin-American priests working among the masses and U.S. African-American ministers working with exploited blacks began to claim that God was involved in the history of oppressed people, empowering them to fight against poverty and racism.

Latin Americans focused their concern primarily on economic exploitation, particularly the great gap between large poor majorities and rich landowners. African Americans focused their concern primarily on racial oppression, the extreme dehumanization of black people arising from 244 years of slavery and more than a hundred years of segregation. Both Latin Americans and U.S. African Americans, however, emphasized that the world should not be the way it is and that it is therefore the task of Christians to change it.

Liberation Theology in Latin America

A key moment in the development of Latin-American liberation theology was a meeting of priests in Chimboté, Peru, in July 1968. A Peruvian priest and theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, made the first statement on liberation theology, delivering a paper entitled "Toward a Theology of Liberation." He outlined the methodology for which liberation theology has become famous. "Theology is a reflectionthat is, a second act that comes after action. Theology is not first; the commitment is first." Theology, therefore, does not tell people what to do; rather, it arises out of what they do. For Christians, therefore, the truth of the gospel of Jesus is discovered only in practice.

One month after the Chimboté meeting, the wellknown Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops was held at Medellín, Colombia, from August 26 to September 6, 1968. The Medellín conference marked a turning point in the history of the Church in Latin America analogous to the impact of the Second Vatican Council on the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. At Medellín, the Latin American Bishops, with much encouragement from Gutierrez and other theological advisers, "discovered" the world of the poor, the exploited masses who "hunger and thirst after justice." This inspired a continent-wide preferential option for the poor.

While the Medellín conference is often cited as the beginning of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation is regarded as its most influential text. Published in Spanish in 1971 and translated into English in 1973, the continuing and worldwide influence of this book is the major reason Gutierrez has been called the "father of liberation theology." The book is an extended interpretation of his Chimboté paper on liberation theology. In it, Gutierrez emphasizes that liberation theology is not a reflection on the abstract and timeless truths about God; rather, it is chiefly a new way of doing theology, a "critical reflection on historical praxis." Liberation theology "does not stop with reflecting on the world, but tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed" (Gutierrez, 1973, p.15).

Liberation Theology in the United States

The key moment in the development of black liberation theology was the publication of the Black Power statement in the New York Times on July 31, 1966, by an ad hoc committee of radical black clergy who later organized themselves as the National Conference of Black Christians (NCBC). In this statement, they opposed the white church's rejection of Black Power as unchristian and instead expressed their solidarity with the urban black poor in their communities, affirming the need for black self-determination and empowerment. Two years later, responding to the widespread Black Power movement in the black communities throughout the United States, James Cone published an essay titled "Christianity and Black Power." He defined the liberating message of Black Power as the message of Christ. Cone deepened the theological meaning of Black Power in the book Black Theology and Black Power (1969). During the same year, using Cone's book as the main source of their deliberations, the Theological Commission of the NCBC issued an official statement on "Black Theology," defining it as a "theology of black liberation." One year later, Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) was published, making liberation the organizing principle of his theological perspective.

Like Latin-American liberation theology, black theology also emphasized praxis. It was defined as a specific kind of obedience that organizes itself around a social theory of reality in order to implement in society the freedom inherent in faith. If faith is the belief that God created all for freedom, then praxis is the social theory used to analyze what must be done for the historical realization of freedom. To sing about freedom and to pray for its coming is not enough. Freedom must be actualized in history by oppressed peoples who accept the intellectual challenge to analyze the world for the purpose of changing it.

Liberation Theology in Africa and Asia

Soon after the appearance of liberation theology in Latin America and in African-American communities in the United States, other expressions of it appeared in Africa, in Asia, and among women in all groups. Black and contextual theologies of liberation were created by Christian communities struggling against apartheid in South Africa, with Desmond Tutu and Alan Boesak as prominent leaders. African theology appeared in other parts of Africa with an emphasis on indigenization and Africanization. John Mbiti of Kenya and Engelbert Mveng of Cameroon were prominent interpreters. An Asian liberation theology emerged out of Christian communities encountering the overwhelming poverty and the multifaceted religiousness of the continent. Aloysius Pieris of Sri Lanka and Samuel Rayan of India were important representatives.

Liberation Theology Among Women

Responding to their struggles against sexism, women on all continents began to develop theologies of liberation out of their experience. In the United States, Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether were among the leading voices in initiating the development of feminist theology; Delores Williams and Jacquelyn Grant helped to create a womanist theology out of black women's experience; and Ada Marie Isasi-Diaz made a similar contribution to the development of a feminist theology among Hispanics. Mercy Amba Oduyoye of Ghana, Chung Hyun-Kyung of South Korea, and Elsa Tamez of Mexico reflected on the liberating presence of God in the struggles of third-world women against patriarchal mechanisms of domination in the global context of the church and the society.

The Unity of Third World Theologians

Recognizing the commonality of their concerns, theologians of liberation in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and among U.S. minorities met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1976 and created the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). Their concern was to break with theological models inherited from the West and to develop a new way of doing theology that would interpret the gospel in a more meaningful way to peoples of the third world and promote their struggles of liberation. In more than twenty-five years of dialogue, visiting each others' places of struggle, liberation theologians have debated one another about the most important starting point for doing Christian theology. Latin Americans have emphasized their struggle to overcome economic structures of domination, pointing to the wide gap between the rich and poor among nations and within nations and stressing the need for theology to make use of the social sciences in analyzing the world of the poor. Africans have talked about their struggle against "anthropological poverty" and the "despoiling of human beings not only of what they have but of everything that constitutes their essencetheir identity, history, language, and dignity" (Mveng, 1983, p. 220). They have also stressed the need to liberate theology from the cultural captivity of the West. Asians have emphasized the need to develop a theological method that combines the analyses of religion, culture, politics, and economics. U.S. minorities, the smallest group in the association, have reminded all of the importance of race analysis in the doing of theology.

In their dialogues, which have often been intense, liberation theologians in EATWOT have learned much from each other. They have published eight volumes, including Sergio Torres and Virginia Fabella (eds.), The Emergent Gospel: Theology From the Underside of History (1978); Virginia Fabella and Sergio Torres (eds.), Irruption of the Third World: Challenge to Theology (1983); Virginia Fabella and Sergio Torres (eds.), Doing Theology in a Divided World (1985); Virginia Fabella and Mercy Amba Oduyoye (eds.), With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology (1988); K. C. Abraham (ed.), Third World Theologies: Commonalities and Divergences (1990); and K. C. Abraham and Bernadette Mbuy-Beya (eds.), Spirituality of the Third World (1994).

All liberation theologians agree that the Christian gospel can best be understood and interpreted in the context of one's participation in the struggles of the poor for justice. Faith is not primarily intellectual assent to truths about God; rather, it is a commitment to God and to human beings, especially the poor. Theology, therefore, is a reflection on the commitment that Christians make in their effort to put into practice the demands of faith.

The contrast between liberation theologies and the dominant theologies of Europe and North America is quite revealing. The identity of the dominant theologies has been strongly influenced by the European Enlightenment and secularism, creating the problem of the unbeliever. The central task of theology, therefore, is to make the Christian faith intelligible in a world that can be explained without God.

The identity of liberation theologies has been defined by oppressionpoverty, racism, colonialism, and sexismcreating the problem of the nonperson. In this context, theology asks, what is the relationship between salvation and the struggle for justice in society? Faith demands not only that it be understood, but that salvation be realized in the social, economic, and political lives of people.

Theologies of liberation have also emerged among gays, lesbians, and transsexual people and among other oppressed groups. Liberation theology is not limited to one group or continent but found wherever oppressed people of faith are empowered intellectually to reflect on their fight for freedom.

See also Black Power Movement; Catholicism in the Americas; Protestantism in the Americas


Boff, Leonardo, and Clodovis Boff. Introducing Liberation Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987.

Cone, James H. For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1984.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Translated and edited by Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1973.

Hennelly, Alfred T., ed. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1990.

Mveng, Englebert. "Third World TheologyWhat Theology? What Third World?: Evaluation by an African Delegate." In Irruption of the Third World: Challenge to Theology, edited by Virginia Fabella and Sergio Torres. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1983.

Wilmore, Gayraud S., and James H. Cone. Black Theology: A Documentary History, 19661979. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1979.

james h. cone (1996)
Updated by author 2005

Liberation Theology

views updated May 29 2018


The term "liberation theology" covers a diversity of theological movements. Historically and specifically, it refers to a recent theological line of thought within Latin America that focuses on the political, economic, and ideological causes of social inequality and makes liberation rather than development its central theological, economic, and political category. It not only analyzes the concrete Latin-American situation, but it argues that all theology should begin by analyzing its concrete social situation and by returning to its religious sources for means to rectify it. Some of the ideas liberation theology were taken up by the Second General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate (CELAM) that met in Medellín, Colombia in 1968. The Medellín documents describe the institutional violence and the exploitive relations of dependency in the social situation and they point to the need for cultural and economic liberation.

In a more extended sense, liberation theology refers to any theological movement making the criticism of oppression and the support of liberation integral to the theological task itself. Black theology and feminist theology are therefore seen as major types of liberation theology. The term has also been appropriated by other minority groups. Because of its relationship with specific groups, some view liberation theology negatively as simply a specific cultural movement in which specific groups appeal to religious beliefs in order to legitimate their particular agenda and goals.

Common Methodology of Liberation Theologies. In its more fundamental and extended meaning, liberation theology refers to a theological method. Notwithstanding the diversity of liberation theologies they share a common theological methodology. This methodology brings to the fore within theology an awareness of the sociology of knowledge, since it underscores the interrelation between theory and praxis. It outlines the social and cultural conditions of theological concepts and institutional patterns. Therefore, it encourages theology to become more self-reflective about the socio-political basis of its religious symbols and their consequential praxis. It advocates a practical as well as theoretical role for theology as a discipline. Several basic traits constitute the common methodology of liberation theology.

Starting Point. The starting-point of liberation theology is an analysis of the concrete socio-political situation and the uncovering of the discrimination, alienation, and oppression within it. The discrepancy between the rich and poor within individual countries and between the advanced and developing nations leads Latin-American liberation theology to single out the relations of dependency between nations as the cause of this inequality. It therefore censures theories of development reinforcing rather than correcting the exploitation. It therefore demands liberation and not development. Feminist theology argues that the discrimination against women in society and Church is not only factual, but has been given cultural and religious legitimation. Black theology not only points to socio-economic discrimination, but also underscores its cultural causes. All liberation theologies therefore undertake to demonstrate by their analysis of the concrete situation not only the existence of discrimination or oppression, but also its economic and cultural causes.

Reflection on the Religious Tradition. Secondly, liberation theology studies the religious tradition in relation to this contemporary analysis and experience which provides a new perspective for reading and interpreting the tradition. Does the tradition support or allow the unjust situation? Or does it work against it? Much of Latin-American liberation theology examines how the Church's mission has been understood. Has the distinction between priests and laity led to a dichotomy in which the priest has a spiritual mission and the laity a worldly one without much interrelation? Has the Church's mission been bifurcated by separating its salvific function from its concern for the world? Feminist theology describes how masculine language and patriarchal images have specified the religious understanding of God and how anthropological misconceptions have become institutionalized as religious taboos. Black theology not only uncovers how the oppression of blacks has been legitimated in church history, but also shows how fundamental images of blackness and whiteness have led to this oppression. In each liberation theology, therefore, the present experience and analysis of injustices has led to a critique not only of the present but also the past with its cultural and religious traditions.

The Reconstructive Task. Thirdly, liberation theology proposes that theology has the twofold constructive task of retrieval and reinterpretation. Theology should retrieve those forgotten religious symbols or neglected ecclesial practices that could serve to overcome the oppression. It equally proposes a fundamental reinterpretation of traditional religious symbols and beliefs that legitimate oppression or discrimination. Latin-American liberation theology seeks not only to retrieve the public dimension of faith and the political mission of the Church, but also to reinterpret traditional conceptions of sin, grace, salvation history, and eschatology. Sin is rein-terpreted as social sin in reference to social structures. Developmentpolitical, cultural, and economicis related to God's Kingdom not merely as sign, image, or anticipation, but as a causal relation that underscores continuity and fulfillment. Black theology discovers in black experience, history, and culture the resources to overcome alienations. It reinterprets traditional conceptions of divine providence, suffering, and salvation. Feminist theology retrieves images of the femininity of God and views of the equality of the sexes within the history of religions and Christianity. It also reinterprets traditional religious symbols and beliefs. It does not simply urge that sexist language be excluded from biblical, liturgical, and theological texts, but seeks to revise dominant images of God. Likewise it suggests that the traditional conceptions of original sin as pride or the desire for power often expresses masculine rather than feminine experience.

Praxis as Criterion. Fourthly, liberation theologies make concrete praxis not only a goal but also a criterion of theological method. Present experience and praxis provide not only a source from which tradition is questioned, but also a criterion by which the truth of theological affirmations can be judged. Much diversity exists among liberation theologians in regard to the norm of theological affirmations. Within Black theology James Cone takes a Barthian position, where J. Deotis Roberts is more Tillichean. Often Latin-American liberation theologies so underscore the primacy of praxis that their positions could be described as a sort of theological consequentialism. Feminist theology along with the others places a premium on personal experience and partisan commitment as a source and criterion of theological affirmations. Since all liberation theologies focus on the relation between theory and praxis, they emphasize the significance of praxis as a source and goal. They demand that theology concern itself with concrete social and political goals. Moreover, these goals should be more than those established by the present structures of society. Instead they should involve a restructuring of society itself. Only if society is restructured and its culture revised, they believe, can their visions of emancipation and liberation be achieved.

Criticisms. Both the individual liberation theologies and the common methodological basis have been criticized, the criticisms centering on the question of criteria and goals. Firstly, since liberation theologies strive to eliminate social discrimination and political oppression, they are criticized for identifying the Church's mission as an immanent socio-political goal rather than as a transcendent, eschatological end. Secondly, since liberation theology appeals to personal experience as a source and norm of theological reflection, it is criticized for replacing objectivity with partisanship. Thirdly, since the goal of liberation is a standard by which the religious tradition is evaluated, it is objected that such a standard is unspecified unless one already has a vision of what constitutes genuine liberation. In response liberation theologians strive to show how precisely the transcendence of the Christian vision contributes to political reform and how this vision provides the ultimate norm of theological reflection and praxis. Its aim is not to eliminate transcendence, but to link this transcedence with social, political, and cultural reform.

Bibliography: General surveys of Latin-American theology and liberation theology: h. assmann, Theology for a Nomad Church (New York 1976). j. miguel bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia 1975). f. florenza, "Latin-American Liberation The-Theology," Interpretation 28 n. 4 (1974) 441457. g. gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, tr. c. inda and j. eagleson (New York 1973). j. segundo, A Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity, tr. j. drury (5 v., New York 1973); The Liberation of Theology, tr. j. drury (New York 1976). History of the movement: e. dussel, History and Theology of Liberation (New York 1976). Documents of a conference bringing all liberation theologies of North America together: s. torres and j. eagleson, Theology in the Americas (New York 1976). a. t. hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1990). h. mckennie goodpasture, ed., Cross and Sword: An Eyewitness History of Christianity in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1989). p. c. phan, "Method in Liberation Theology," Theological Studies 61 (2000) 4063. l. and c. boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, tr. p. burns (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1986). c. cadorette, et al., eds., Liberation Theology: An Introductory Reader (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1992). f. e. crowe, "Bernard Lonergan and Liberation Theology," in w. l. ysaac, ed., The Third World and Bernard Lonergan: A Tribute to a Concerned Thinker (Manila 1986).

[f. schÜssler fiorenza]

Liberation Theology

views updated May 18 2018

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology is a variegated Christian movement—present, in one form or another, in most major denominations and regions of the world—emphasizing the Christian obligation of active, practical solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and with their struggles against poverty and oppression.

The term and its synonym "theology of liberation" began to be used in about 1969—in Spanish, Portuguese, and English—by Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians throughout the Americas.

Several foundational texts of liberation theology—the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation, the U.S. American James Cone's Black Theology and Black Power, and the Brazilian Rubem Alves's A Theology of Human Hope —appeared almost simultaneously, independently of each other, at the end of the 1960s.


The language of liberation has gained currency since early in the 1960s across the world, among groups and movements such as political, union, and community organizers; democratic and socialist movements; and guerrillas against colonial rule. Movements of oppressed peoples to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism (Vietnam, Mozambique, Puerto Rico), military dictatorships (Cuba, Philippines, Zaire), capitalism (Tanzania, Chile), racism (South Africa, the U.S. civil rights movement), or communism (Czechoslovakia, Poland) often identified their thrust with the term "liberation"—as in the many fronts of national liberation of Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the 1960s.

The Christian churches—especially in Third World countries and in the United States—found themselves increasingly challenged by these movements of liberation. First, this was because these movements frequently saw and denounced the churches as tools of domination in the hands of the oppressors. Second, it was because a growing minority of church members were participating in such movements, taking time and energy away from church work, and, most significantly, provoking confrontations with the powers that be—which often led their pastors to disavow them. Last but not least, it was because a growing number of churches experienced a steady drain of youth and working-class members toward the liberation movements, such members rarely finding support to reconcile their religious faith with their commitment to liberation movements, and thus frequently distancing themselves from organized religion or rejecting religion altogether.

Christian Responses

These challenges provoked disparate reactions from church leaders, theologians, and activists—depending on their background, allegiances, outlooks, and so on. Some churches, religious orders, congregations, denominations, individual church leaders, and lay activists took a militant, antiliberationist stance, seeing in any liberation movement a sign of the Anti-christ, and justifying the use of armed violence to eliminate such movements (e.g., the Anti-Communist Alliance of Argentina). Most congregations, pastors, religious thinkers, and activists, however, tended either to avoid the matter altogether—as if it didn't have any important bearing on their lives—or to develop some modest form of attention and succor to the poor, but with little to no patience for those understanding poverty as a result of systemic oppression, as an unjust social product urgently demanding social reform.

In some places in the Americas, nonetheless, a few Christian voices began to integrate—in action as well as in thought—a consistent commitment to those liberation movements, and a deep, reflective Christian faith accompanying that commitment. Ironically, part of the impetus behind this integration came from the churches' call of "going to the poor" (getting to know them firsthand by living with them, as them, and in service to them), to counter and preempt the growth of communism among the poor—and of Protestantism as well, in the case of the Latin American Roman Catholic Church. Heeding that call, however, frequently put missionaries, clergy, and lay church activists in a novel, shocking predicament: one that elicited among many not only a radical questioning of the prevalent explanations of and responses to the reality of poverty, but also, more decisively, a critique of the churches' actual place, role, and self-understanding in an unjust, oppressive world.

Crucial catalysts of such processes were Pope John XXIII's and the Second Vatican Council's summons for an humbler, serving church (1961–1965); the progressive ecumenical (Protestant) World Council of Churches–sponsored network ISAL (Iglesia y Sociedad en América Latina); the radical writings and tragic death of the Colombian Roman Catholic priest Father Camilo Torres (1966), spurring camilista groups of Christian socialists across Latin America; and the many groups of lay and clergy arising in similar directions all over the Americas.

U.S. Beginnings

The civil rights movement (under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), the United Farm Workers (with the Roman Catholic pacifist labor organizer César Chávez at its forefront), and the anti-war movement all contributed to create in the United States, in the 1960s, an environment propitious for the development of indigenous theological movements connected with these novel struggles for liberation. Moreover, U.S. missionaries to Latin America (such as Maryknollers and Quakers) often brought back to the United States—besides significant firsthand accounts of the troubling associations between, on the one hand, Latin American oppression, and, on the other, U.S. public and private agencies—news about the emerging theological quests and responses amid poverty and oppression south of the border.

Thus, from the 1960s on, a wide array of liberation theologies—such as African American, Hispanic, feminist, pacifist, Asian American, Native American, eco-feminist, and gay-lesbian—emerged in the United States. In all of them, at least originally and indirectly, there is a certain influence of both African American and Latin American liberation theology. Despite all the obstacles and reactions against liberation theologies, these continue to flourish, multiply, and grow across the United States.

The Defining Features

One of the key traits of all liberation theologies is a recognition that theology is, as Gustavo Gutiérrez likes to put it, a "second moment." Life, including faith, is first—at both the community and the individual level. Theology follows life, as a human effort to understand God's presence and God's demands amid real life.

Each and every liberation theology, while recognizing a somewhat universal yearning for liberation, underscores the particularity of its own attempt—an attempt stemming from the unique experiences of oppression and the specific struggles for liberation of a singular segment of humankind—to grasp God's reality and guidance in the concrete lives of the human community.

Simultaneously, liberation theologies are very critical of theologies claiming universal validity and speaking for humanity as a whole: more often than not, elite theologies stemming from—and either blurring or aggrandizing—the particular experience of an elite minority.

Liberation theologies all put a strong emphasis on praxis—conscious, transformative action of human communities. Theology is not an end in itself; it is a means for a community of believers to orient their real, day-to-day lives in relation to one another and with other people. Thus liberation theology is not what is important; what is key is the actual liberation from oppressive structures and practices. The value of liberation theology, if any, resides in its becoming a useful means for that actual human liberation.

Thus, more than a new set of scriptures, structures, dogmas, or theological concerns, liberation theologies are experiments in collective, dialogical rethinking of the traditional scriptures, church structures, dogmas, and theological themes from within or in service to the specific struggles for self-liberation of a particular oppressed community. Part of such work is deconstructive (examining which power dynamics underlie certain interpretations of scripture, of church structures, etc., and analyzing what consequences such interpretations have). A crucial part of it, however, is constructive: building an understanding of God, scripture, salvation, etc., that makes sense of the lives, pains, and anger of specific oppressed persons and peoples; that contributes to their healing; and that empowers them to struggle to free themselves from such oppression and its deleterious effects.

See alsoCivil Rights Movement; Mainline Protestantism; Roman Catholicism; Sociology of Religion; Suffering; Vatican II; World Council of Churches.


Berryman, Phillip. Liberation Theology. 1987.

Gottwald, Norman K., ed. The Bible and Liberation. 1983.

Novak, Michael. Will It Liberate? 1986.

Smith, Christian. The Emergence of Liberation Theology. 1991.

Torres, Sergio, and John Eagleson, eds. Theology in the Americas. 1976.

Otto Maduro

Liberation Theology

views updated May 29 2018

Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology represents a major change in the way Christianity approaches the social problems of Latin America. The changes began in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council and the growth of Christian Base Communities. The first major publication was the Spanish edition of Gustavo Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation (1971). Gutiérrez is still a key figure.

Liberation theology has eight basic themes: (1) praxis (our action in the world) is the starting point of theology; (2) history is the locus of theology (God acts in historical time); (3) the world should be viewed as a whole, favoring the Hebraic holistic view over Greek dualism; (4) sin is social and systemic, not just individual; (5) God is on the side of the oppressed; (6) the present world order must be transformed; (7) the purpose of theology is primarily to act and to change the world, not just to understand it; (8) the kingdom of God (the reign of God) has begun in this life, and the purpose of humanity is to increase the kingdom by human actions in the world.

In the colonial period and until about 1960, the church generally promoted the fatalistic view that the poor would receive their reward in the afterlife, implying that they should not strive for social change in this life. Liberation theology uses biblical themes like the Exodus to teach the poor that God is on the side of the oppressed and favors their liberation. Thus the post-Vatican II Church (Second Vatican Council) has a "preferential option for the poor." The focus is to work for justice and social change in solidarity with the poor.

Liberation theology is closely connected to Christian base communities (comunidades eclesiales de base), small communities that began about 1960 to empower the poor to work for social change. There are thousands of base communities all over Latin America. The movement is strongest in Brazil, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and weakest in Bolivia and Colombia.

There is much controversy over liberation theology and the base communities. They are a challenge to the current power structures in both civil society and the Catholic Church. Because they have empowered the poor in many countries, the Vatican fears a laity that sees power as coming from the grass roots and not just from the hierarchy. Liberation theology has redefined the church. Thus, Leonardo Boff's Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (1986) defines the church as the people, and deemphasizes the institutional church. Governments are threatened by the poor masses who are organizing as a result of this movement and who have rising expectations of more control over their lives. These organized groups work for social change, sometimes in a revolutionary mode, as happened in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Liberation theology is often linked with Marxism, but most liberation theologians do not accept all of Marxism, and certainly not its atheistic materialism. Rather they use Marxism as a source for their questions, not their answers. Liberation theologians use Marxist economic analysis to ask probing questions about the economic injustice endured by the poor in Latin America.

Liberation theology defines theology as reflection on praxis (experience); that is, theology is the work of the corporate community of Christians reflecting on the happenings in their lives in light of the Scriptures. Thus the poor who are members of base communities reflect on their economic and political oppression and see that God liberated his people in the Exodus and elsewhere. Their faith in the Scriptures gives them hope, and the organization of their Christian communities gives them the means. The power of religion is no longer a magic formula reserved for priests; it is also held by the people, according to liberation theology. Power is to be used for good, so politics is a proper field for Christian action.

Liberation theology has been criticized for being too naive about Marxist economics and Dependency Theory. In its early years biblical scholars criticized its weakness in exegesis (interpretation). Over the decades, the Catholic Church hierarchy, including the Vatican, largely has not supported the theology of liberation; it has appointed more conservative clergy in an attempt to restrain the movement. Its greatest competition from within Christianity comes from the Pentecostal and Evangelical groups, which concentrate on individual conversion and avoid community politics and social issues. These groups do not require literacy and commitment to social action, as the base communities usually do. In some areas of Brazil, for instance, the base communities are in direct competition with Pentecostals for the population in poor barrios or favelas (slums). Despite philosophical differences, however, these groups have on occasion collaborated.

Major Latin American liberation theologians include Gustavo Gutiérrez, a priest who lives in a poor section of Lima; Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan seminary professor from Brazil who resigned his priesthood in 1992, after many battles with the Vatican; Juan Luis Segundo, an Uruguayan Jesuit; Jon Sobrino, a Spanish Jesuit who has lived in El Salvador for many years; Hugo Assmann, a Brazilian priest who founded the Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones (DEI) in Costa Rica, a Christian institute that publishes books on liberation theology; José Míg uez Bonino, an Argentine Methodist pastor; Segundo Galilea, a Chilean priest who was director of the Latin American Pastoral Institute for many years and writes on Christian spirituality; and Pablo Richard, a Chilean priest who has worked at DEI in Costa Rica for many years. All but Gutiérrez and Galilea have spent most of their careers as university professors. A major publisher of liberation theology books is Orbis Books, in Mary-knoll, New York.

In the history of ideas, liberation theology may be the first intellectual movement from Latin America that has been adopted as part of a global culture. European and U.S. cultures have sought, translated, and integrated a Latin American idea system into their own.

Liberation theology remains relevant in the twenty-first century despite a changed global context—the breakup of the Soviet Union and democratization throughout Latin America. Priests and laypeople demanding a "preferential option for the poor" generally face less violence than did their predecessors. Those who espouse liberation theology are paying attention to new issues, such as the environment, race, gender, and feminism. Protestantism continues to pose challenges to Catholicism, though some progressive Protestants have adapted liberation theology tenets and joined with Catholics in their struggles.

See alsoGutiérrez, Gustavo; Religion in Mexico, Catholic Church and Beyond.


Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, translated and edited by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (1973).

José Míguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (1975).

Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor, translated by Matthew J. O'Connell (1984).

Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology: The Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America and Beyond (1987).

Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, translated by Paul Burns (1987).

Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (1988).

Arthur F. Mc Govern, Liberation Theology and Its Critics (1989).

Alfred Hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (1990).

Warren Edward Hewitt, Base Christian Communities and Social Change in Brazil (1991).

Ronald G. Musto, Liberation Theologies: A Research Guide (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Barber, Michael D. Ethical Hermeneutics: Rationality in Enrique Dussel's Philosophy of Liberation. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

Boff, Leonardo. Ecology and Liberation: A New Paradigm. Translated by John Cumming. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995.

Dussel, Enrique D., and Eduardo Mendieta, eds. Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism, and Liberation Theology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.

Hopkins, Dwight N. Introducing Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, ed. The Power of Naming: A Concilium Reader in Feminist Liberation Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; and London: SCM Press, 1996.

Tombs, David. Latin American Liberation Theology. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002.

                                    Thomas Niehaus

Liberation Theology

views updated Jun 11 2018

Liberation Theology (perhaps more accurately in the plural, Liberation theologies), an understanding of the role of theology in moving from abstraction to praxis, in which the actual condition of the poor is the starting-point. It was defined by H. Assmann as ‘teologia desde la praxis de la liberación’ (‘theology starting from the praxis of liberation’), and by G. Gutiérrez (b. 1928) as ‘a critical reflection both from within, and upon, historical praxis, in confrontation with the word of the Lord as lived and experienced in faith’. Liberation theology arose in S. America out of ‘an ethical indignation at the poverty and marginalisation of the great masses of our continent’ ( L. Boff), and it is theology both lived and written ‘from the underside of history’ (Gutiérrez). It is Christian community in action, arising from what Frantz Fanon called The Wretched of the Earth (his final work, publ. months before he died in 1961). From the start, liberation theology saw itself as different from the social gospel programme of the turn of the century, epitomized in W. Rauschenbusch (1861–1919). Liberation theology saw itself facing a different agenda from that of Anglo-Saxon theology: for the latter, the agenda, set by unbelievers, is of how to speak of God in an unbelieving world. For liberation theology, the agenda is set by the question of the non-person: ‘Our question is how to tell the non-person, the nonhuman, that God is love, and that this love makes us all brothers and sisters’ (Gutiérrez).

Major themes of liberation theology can be discerned in the titles of some of the leading books. Jesus Christ Liberator ( L. Boff, 1972) points out that in Christ, not words, but the Word was revealed in act, to make ‘the utopia of absolute liberation’ a topia, a place here and now. Church: Charism and Power ( L. Boff, 1981) contests the ‘institutional fossilisation’ of the centuries which has produced a hierarchical Church, oppressive and clerical, which cannot be amended by minor reform; in its place, Boff (and others) propose Iglesia popular, the church arising from the people by the power of the Holy Spirit (desde el pueblo por el Espiritu)—in which connection, the importance of base (ecclesial) communities is paramount. We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People ( G. Gutiérrez, 1984) took the phrase and argument of St Bernard that in matters of the spirit, one must draw first on one's own experience: whereas this has usually, in the past, been a matter of individual process, aimed at an improved interior life, in S. America the experience is communal, and often of solidarity for survival. The Power of the Poor in History ( G. Gutiérrez, 1983) reflects ‘the preferential option for the poor’: by this is meant that ‘the poor deserve preference, not because they are morally or religiously better than others, but because God is God, in whose eyes “the last are first”’—a mother with a sick child does not love her other children less just because she commits herself immediately to the child in need; it also allows the possibility that violence may be a necessary means of bringing about justice: ‘We cannot say that violence is alright when the oppressor uses it to maintain or preserve order, but wrong when the oppressed use it to overthrow this same order.’

The response of the Vatican to liberation theology was initially hostile, but became more circumspect. The second Latin American Episcopal Conference at Medellín (CELAM II) in 1968 condemned institutionalized violence and the alliance of the Church with it; CELAM III at Puebla in 1979 endorsed the preferential option for the poor, commended base communities, and made ‘a serene affirmation of Medellín’. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ignoring the more reflective findings of the International Theological Commission's Dossier of 1976, issued its Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation in 1984, and it summoned L. Boff to Rome for investigation, forbidding him, as a result, to lecture or publish—a ban that lasted for a year. The poverty of the analysis, thought by many to amount to a caricature, led to a second Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (1986). This was to be read in conjunction with the first Instruction, and was not to be taken as contradicting it, but it is a far more positive document; nevertheless, Gutiérrez was banned from lecturing in Rome in 1994.

Liberation theology has had extensive influence outside S. America. From the Detroit ‘Theology in the Americas’ Conference in 1975 (Proceedings, ed. S. Torres and J. Eagleson, 1976), the connections with black theology and with feminist theology were so clear that the phrase ‘liberation theologies’ became preferred. In 1976, the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) held its first meeting in Dar-es-Salaam, with a clear commitment to the struggle for a just society. Equally important has been the determination to require theology to arise from the context of experience (e.g. K. Koyama, Waterbuffalo Theology, 1974; C. S. Song, Third-Eye Theology, 1979; minjung theology in Korea, which takes the concept of people who are ruled and dominated, but who use the process of history to become free subjects).

Liberation Theology

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LIBERATION THEOLOGY. Liberation theology emerged from a long process of transformation in post-Enlightenment Christian theological reflection. As science and historical criticism challenged the findings of traditional metaphysical foundations of theology, theologians were widely expected to reconcile their findings with modern principles of analysis and criticism. Where theological reflection was previously focused on the metaphysical and supernatural, it became increasingly concerned with pragmatic and concrete problems.

Liberation theology originated in the 1960s in North and South America, although it was rooted in works by post–World War II European theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Jürgen Moltmann, and Johann-Baptiste Metz. Among its foundational texts was The Secular City (1965), by the U.S. Protestant theologian Harvey Cox. It argued that, for religion to retain vitality in a secularized environment, theological reflection must conform to the concrete social and political challenges of the modern secular world; for example, he argued that contemporary problems like racism and poverty must be treated as theological problems as well as social problems. Selling a million copies in numerous languages, Cox was especially influential in Latin America, and with the 1971 Spanish-language publication of A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation by the Peruvian Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez (the book was published in English in 1973), liberation theology was given its name and became a new branch of theological reflection. By the mid-1970s, many exponents of liberation theology emerged in North and South America, including Catholics (Leonardo Boff, Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Juan Luis Segundo, Jon Sobrino) and Protestants (Robert McAfee Brown, James H. Cone). Thereafter, the influence of liberation theology expanded, becoming mainstream within the international community of theologians, especially influencing theological reflection in Africa and Asia.

Liberation theology had a mutually supportive relationship with important developments in the post–World War II era. First, it emerged amidst the European decolonization of Africa and Asia, supporting and drawing strength from the discourse around third-world poverty and global politics spurred by decolonization. Second, liberation theology both helped to affirm and was, in turn, affirmed by innumerable liberation movements, including the black power and sexual liberation movements in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, popular guerrilla movements in Latin American nations like Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s, and the popular anticommunist movement in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1980s. Third, given its use of theological reflection as a means to "human liberation," liberation theology promoted the idea that theology should be political and activist in its goals; in the process, it was often distinguished from post–World War II fundamentalist theologies that generally placed a higher premium on metaphysical and supernatural concerns. In recent years, liberation theology has helped to promote a multiculturalist and human rights–based critique of contemporary politics, society, and culture.


Casanova, José. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Treats the global influence of theological thought from liberationist to fundamentalist theologies in the late twentieth century.

Cox, Harvey. The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspectives. 1965. New York: Collier, 1990. Twenty-fifth anniversary edition with a new introduction by the author.

Tracy, David. The Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. 1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Includes a learned, concise treatment of modern theology's relation to developments in the sociology of knowledge.

James P.McCartin

See alsoCatholicism ; Fundamentalism ; Protestantism .

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