Monday, November 02, 2009

Liberation Theology and the Rebirth of Faith

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009.

Chapter 13: Blood on the Altar of
Divine Providence:
Liberation Theology and the Rebirth of Faith

We’re nearing the end of Harvey Cox’s book, a book that proclaims in an almost prophetic manner the birth of a new age – the Age of the Spirit. Over the course of many chapters, Cox explores – and us with him – all manner of ways in which the in breaking Age of the Spirit will manifest itself. We’ve looked at the biblical witnesses and the historical record. These alternatives have been there from the very beginning, though often on the margins. In this chapter, and the next, Harvey Cox points out sign posts of the Spirit in the present – movements that herald a new age for humanity.

The first of two expressions of God’s new work is Liberation Theology. Although he acknowledges a variety of forms, from feminist to Asian, from black to Latin American, the focus is on the latter. There is good reason to focus on this form, because in all likelihood, this was the original form.

Latin American Liberation Theology may be the original, but it also holds a special place in Cox’s own life and journey. You see, Cox has spent considerable time in Latin America, and he knows many if not most of the players – including Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian theologian who is seen by many as the father of Liberation Theology. But, in this discussion of Liberation Theology, he begins not with the theologians, but the practitioner – Bishop Oscar Romero. Romero started out as a rather conservative priest who quickly climbed the ladder of the hierarchy. It was only near the end of his life that the bishop became committed to the cause of people living on the margins of society in El Salvador. Indeed, it was only after his appointment as Archbishop. The trigger was the assassination of a friend and fellow priest by the death squads. After that he began to speak out. Although Romero would die at the hands of an assassin, he is, for Cox, a symbol of a new way of being Christian, a sign that the Constantinian hold on the church is cracking.

Liberation theologies, in their variety of forms, are, according to Cox, expressions of a grassroots theology. Cox lifts up the indigenous nature of this movement, but while I would agree that both the theorists and the practitioners have rooted themselves in the situation of their people, it’s also important to point out that many of these theologians studied in Europe or America. Most use Marx as the foundation for their their social analysis – and Karl Marx was European as well. That said, this is a movement concerned with the welfare of the people served by these Christian leaders and theologians.

Cox was first introduced to this movement in 1968, while spending time in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He would later meet Gustavo Gutierrez, who taught at the Catholic university in Lima and was the pastor of a parish in a poor section of the city. Cox notes that Gutierrez is an exemplar of one who lives his faith among his people. Cox relates a conversation in which Gutierrez explained why this movement emerged in Latin America – the answer was the convergence of “a potent mixture of faith and poverty” (p. 194). Their question was not the existence of God, but the justification of the existence of a God of love in the context of their suffering. Cox writes:
They found in Jesus not a rationalization of why things are as they are, but rather an unflinching confidence that things need not be this way and that they can and will change. They saw in Jesus a challenge to the fatalism that had often dogged them and an assurance that not even defeat and death can prevent the coming of God’s reign of justice. (p. 194)

Liberation theology offered them a way of taking control of their own lives. They taught that Christianity was a way to faithfully live one’s life in society, not just prepare for the next life.

There is no better example of how this happened, than the emergence of the Communidades eclesiases de base, or “Ecclesial base communities.” These small group bible studies, most lay led (in part due to the fact that there are so few priests), allowed the people to explore the Gospels and reflect on how the Gospels spoke to their own situations. In these communities the people were allowed to connect their stories with the biblical stories, and find empowerment to change their situations. These efforts occurred without being hampered – here’s the key – by either hierarchy or fundamentalism. That is, the hierarchy didn’t control the studies, but the studies were also not controlled by fundamentalist literalism or ideology.

Keeping in line with our theme – that things are changing and that a new age of the Spirit is dawning -- Cox believes that Liberation Theology, and the attendant base communities, are signs that:

Christianity understood as a system of beliefs guarded and transmitted through a privileged religious institution by a clerical class is dying. Instead, today Christianity as a way of life shared in avast variety of ways by a diverse global network of fellowship is arising (p. 196).

European Christianity may be dying, its pews and churches empty, but this isn’t the case in Latin America. But there the most fruitful work is happening on the margins.

The question that Cox doesn’t address is the degree to which Liberation Theology is still the driving force in Latin America today. Most of the leading figures in the movement, including Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and Juan Luis Segundo, to name but a few, are advancing in age. As to who might be succeeding them, Cox doesn’t say. The Catholic hierarchy has effectively marginalized the movement as well. Leonardo Boff is no longer even in the priesthood – having chosen to teach at a Brazilian university. The collapse of communism has not helped, nor has the mixed results of the Sandinista Revolution. Nevertheless, Liberation Theology, as a theological movement and a practical movement of change, does seem to offer an interesting window into a new way of being church in the world. And, of course, the blood of Archbishop Oscar Romero continues to speak out to the world on behalf of the marginalized of our societies.

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