Liberation Theology and Its Role in Latin America

Reference: College of William and Mary Student Blogs

By Elisabeth Erin Williams

             In the late 1970s, a poster that was circulated in a Central American country depicted a picture of Christ hanging on a cross with a guerrilla soldier superimposed over His body, arms outstretched.  This poster created an uproar throughout the Americas because of its religiously political message.  This message of Christ likened to a guerrilla warrior fighting for the liberation of his people was not well received.  The poster, however, reflected a new idea that was forming in Latin America–liberation theology.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) to try to adapt the Christian message to a modern world, as well as rethink the nature of the Church, the world and the relationship between the two.  During the conference, the church redefined its role; the church was now to be seen as the “People of God”–a community of people with different gifts but all sharing common equality, humanity, and destiny in God’s eyes.  Vatican II called for the church to become involved with the struggles of the poor; if the church adopted a humble role, the poor could be reached more effectively.  The Conference rejected the idea that the church should align itself with the powerful elite and affirmed the importance of a more just world.  Although Latin American bishops did not figure prominently in the Vatican II debates, it was a learning experience for them.  When the bishops went home to Latin America, many took a closer look at the oppressive social order in numerous Latin American countries and the role the church played in continuing that order.

In the late summer of 1968, the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) met in Medellín, Colombia, with the purpose of applying the concepts of Vatican II  to Latin America.  The outcome was a document that would ultimately be the basis for liberation theology and give the church authority to become involved in social change.  Gustavo Gutiérrez, a prominent liberation theologian, urged the church to begin speaking of liberation rather than development in addressing the problems faced by Latin America.  Development of Latin America was not the problem; oppression by the government and First World countries was.

When the conference began, it was a break from tradition because the bishops applied the church to society rather than society to the church.  In all documents and discussions, the situation was assessed and then a theological reflection was formed.  Finally, a pastoral commitment to solve the problem, such as the creation of Base Ecclesial Communities, was made.

During the conference, the bishops called for Catholics to denounce institutionalized violence, enact social change, and carry out “consciousness-raising” evangelism.  The bishops criticized international imperialism and inequality between the social classes and called for a commitment to the poor.  The bishops insisted that violence was wrong, but sometimes necessary when fighting against institutionalized violence, such as violence through the government.  The Catholic Church made the Medellín document an official document of the Church. Although liberation theology grew out of these officially recognized ideas, the Medellín document is not a liberation theology document.  It did, however, lay the groundwork, and since then liberation theology has developed rapidly in the Latin American Catholic church.

Defining Liberation Theology

            First and foremost, liberation theology is a theology, not the political movement with which many people equate it.  It is, most simply, a coherent set of religious ideas about and promoting liberation from injustice and oppression of any kind with its basis in the Bible.  Liberation theology was formed as a reflection of what was seen in Latin American society throughout history, and on the Christian faith’s implications for the poor. Liberation theologians attempt to read the Bible with the eyes of the poor to help them interpret the Christian faith in a new way.  Liberation Theology is rooted in a shift in the Catholic church wherein the liberation theologians have chosen to go to the poor and engage them in a reinterpretation of their own religious traditions in a way that is Biblically based.

Liberation theologians see God acting throughout Old Testament Biblical history to liberate the Jews from every form of oppression and creating a more just society.  When Christ appeared on earth, he brought God’s saving work to a new fulfillment by offering liberation from sin (salvation) and all its consequences, such as oppression and injustice.

In addition to its Biblical roots, liberation theology offers several analyses of the existing social order in Latin America.  It is a strong critique of the various economic and social structures, such as an oppressive government, dependence upon First World countries and the traditional hierarchical Church, that allow some to be extremely rich while others are unable to even have safe drinking water.  It is also an examination of the Catholic church’s activities from the angle of the poor.  Many liberation theologians feel the church should accept more humble surroundings and become poorer in its own lifestyle.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest and theologian, was the first to write literature specifically identifying the principles of liberation theology.  His book, A Theology of Liberation, provided the basis for liberation theology by establishing the relationship between human emancipation (in social, political, and economic contexts) and the kingdom of God.  In Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez identifies three areas in which humans need liberation: socio-politico-economic liberation from poverty, oppression, and dependence on others for survival, “liberation in history of all dimensions of human freedom, with mankind being responsible for their destinies,” and freedom from sin, which is the ultimate root of injustice.

            Gutiérrez believed the theology had to address itself to the social and political concerns of Latin America by learning from the poor’s attempts to liberate themselves from the various oppressive structures.  Theology of Liberation challenged the church to accept the demands of the New Testament and involve itself in the struggles of the poor.

Liberation Theology and Socialism

            Probably the greatest criticism of liberation theology is its association with socialism.  There is a uniform conviction among liberation theologians that some form of socialism offers the best hope for Latin America.[26]  However, liberation theologians acknowledge the failure of Marxist-socialist regimes as well as the failure of capitalism.  Capitalism favors the privileged, but socialism, in practice, has involved repression and state-control.  However, liberation theologians, such as Gutiérrez, see their theory of socialism as something uniquely Latin American and not simply an imitation of old models of any particular philosophy, including Marxism.[27]  And the connections between socialism and liberation theology have weakened considerably since its inception to allow liberation theology to appeal to the middle-class.  Today, to liberation theologians, socialism offers three advantages: people’s basic needs will be met, ordinary people will be active in building a new society, and what is created will be a new Latin America, not a copy of old socialist ideals.[28]  Base Ecclesial Communities are one of the only practices that combine both liberation theology and socialism, but even the Communities do not endorse Marxist socialism as much as a system of fairness and equality.  The connections between liberation theology and socialism are far more apparent in theory than in practice.

Base Ecclesial Communities

At Medellín, bishops had stated that the church needed to be involved in local communities, but the increasing shortage of priests presented a serious dilemma.  The ideas behind liberation theology created a solution for this problem.  Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs), although created as a response to the lack of priests before the concrete formation of liberation theology, grew quickly as a way to educate the poor.  CEBs are neighborhood churches that meet in homes and emphasize participation and equality among their members.  They are led by trained laity that are committed to improving the community spiritually and establishing a more just society.  CEB participants have learned to take control of their own futures and cooperate to overcome various local problems.  As “consciousness-raising evangelism”, CEBs are the primary embodiment of liberation theology.

The “community” is derived from the idea that groups of similar class meet and exchange ideas, as well as provide a chance to grow together in collective consciousness.  The “Ecclesial” refers to the relationship of the community to church and religion.  This link to the church provides the community an instrument of reflection–the Bible.  The people in the communities are able to use the Bible themselves and not rely on a priest to read the Scriptures during mass, as well as use the Bible as a reflection of their own lives.  Finally, “base” is used because not only are the members of CEBs usually of a lower class, but the community is founded on the basis of the Catholic church.

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