Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians -- A Review
LIBERATION THEOLOGY FOR ARMCHAIR THEOLOGIANS. By Miguel A. De La Torre. Illustrations by Ron Hill. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. X + 168 pages.
Back when Barack Obama was first running for President, videos of sermons by his pastor were made public, eventually leading Obama to leave the church where he and Michelle were married and their children were baptized. When Jeremiah Wright, the pastor in question, was interviewed about his seemingly radical sermons, he set them in context of the Black Liberation Theology that he had imbibed as a student of James Cone. Glen Beck in seeking to undermine Obama’s credibility suggested that he was a follower of liberation theology, a theology that was contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Beck went on to tell his viewers to flee churches that spoke of social justice, for again this was not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Few stopped to ask the question – what is liberation theology. But then any theology that speaks of liberation, of freeing the poor and the downtrodden is going to find much resistance among the middle and upper classes. Many prefer a gospel of comfort and comfortability over anything too prophetic and challenging.
As for myself, I’ve long had an interest in the political ramifications of the Christian faith, and began exploring Liberation Theology, especially its Latin American versions, as early as my seminary days in the early to mid 1980s. The world has changed much in the past thirty years, and the Latin American version of liberation theology seems to have lost its luster, leading some to suggest that it was merely a fad that has run its course. One reason why that voice that so intrigued me thirty years ago has faded into the background may stem from the fact that John Paul II together with Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI did everything in their power to silence the leading voices of a movement that was predominantly Roman Catholic. Still, those voices may be less visible today, but the liberative themes and tenets that are present within the Christian faith and other faith traditions have not disappeared. Indeed, Pope Francis, while not a supporter of Liberation Theology as a movement, has shown a deep concern for the very issues that gave birth to the Latin American version. But this isn’t the only expression of liberation motifs. There is Black theology, feminist, womanist, queer, along with Native American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and many other forms.
What is needed is a brief, accessible, thoughtful, carefully developed introduction to Liberation Theology. Such a resource is now available from the pen of Miguel De La Torre, Professor of Social Ethics at Iliff School of Theology. With this contribution to WJK Press’s Armchair Theologians series, we have in our hands that brief and accessible introduction to Liberation Theology in its many forms. There is, of course irony in this title, for Liberation Theology is by its very nature focused on doing -- on acting out one’s faith. Liberation theology is concerned for "orthopraxis" (right doing) rather than "orthodoxy" (right belief). That means getting out of our arm chairs and joining in the work of pursuing justice for those who find themselves in poverty or marginalized by those who maintain power in society. As De La Torre puts it – “”one cannot do from the comfort and security of one’s armchair” (p. 150).
Although our society prizes freedom and the pursuit of “liberty and justice for all,” once the American Revolution was in the books, we have pursued a rather cautious and conservative version of liberty and justice. We haven’t embraced movements of liberation that appear to us as being too radical or revolutionary. And what makes them look radical? Some would suggest that it’s the linkage to Marxism that early Latin American theologians seemed to embrace. But the fact is, these movements are radical because the “focus on the poor, the marginalized, the disposed, and the disenfranchised” (p. ix).
How radical is it? Well, we need to let De La Torre provide us with some information to make that determination. So, in the course of seven chapters he provides us a brief guide. He begins with a chapter entitled “Resistance.” The author speaks of the ways in which oppression leads to resistance, and notes the development of oppression and resistance in the Spanish New World. While the Conquistadors sought to subjugate the indigenous population – either enslaving or eradicating them – there were voices of resistance. Some came from the indigenous people themselves, but also from church leaders such as Bartolomé de Las Casas. He speaks in this chapter about the development of the Spanish Empire and then the growing involvement of American commercial forces, such as the United Fruit Company, which took control of large swaths of territory to produce cheap bananas for the American breakfast table. As a result the American government from the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth made sure that these economic interests were well protected, even at the cost of freedom for the people of those countries.
The second chapter introduces us to forces that began to emerge within Latin America, and especially the church, to respond. This was the foundation of what became liberation theology. As people began to look at the inequalities plaguing these countries, efforts began, in part due to an opening of conversations at the Vatican II, to address these social issues. It was during this period that Christian Base Communities emerged, utilizing the principles of consciousness raising as a way of look at the text.
From these early beginnings we see the emergence of efforts to theologize the social and economic realities facing the people of Latin America. Concepts such as sin and salvation had to be rethought. And, of course, the question began to come up – what role might Marxism play in all of this. The subsequent chapter (chapter 4), introduces us to some of the early thought leaders, including Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and José Miguez Bonino (a Protestant). And in chapter 5, De La Torre takes us north of the border where we encounter a variety of other liberationist movements, including Black Theology, Feminist Theology, and more. While the Latin American movements focused on economics, those north of the border tended to focus on cultural and social marginalization.
Much of the discussion of liberation theology focuses on Christian versions, but liberative ideas are present in many faith traditions, and the author gives attention to them as well. This is an important contribution because it serves to remind those of us in the Christian community that we don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to the pursuit of justice. Thus, “rather than religion being the opiate of the people, it’s more liberative interpretations might prove to be complicit in their salvation. The liberative impulse of the faith of the people, rooted in praxis, provides an alternative to the globalized religion of mammon known as neoliberalism” (p. 140).
At least in terms of its Latin American versions it is clear that much of that work is dated. Indeed, even many of its proponents such as Gutiérrez have moved on to new understandings. They remain committed to the pursuit of justice, but find that they need new understandings. Besides that, the contexts are different. More recently movements such as post-colonial theology have emerged, which cover similar ground. The Christian Base Communities, which provided a forum for encouraging resistance to oppression, have largely faded from view. Indeed, the very people who were once drawn to these communities have in many cases moved over into Pentecostalism. In addition, what worked in more rural areas hasn’t translated as well to the new urban realities. Beyond this there are new biblical interpretations to wrestle with and new contexts (praxis), including sexuality and gender. De La Torre suggests that for many people in our world the space in which they inhabit could be described as Holy Saturday. It is a space where hopelessness is present. The people know and understand the brutality and violence of Good Friday, but the promise of Sunday remains uncertain. This doesn’t mean giving up, but recognizing that one’s pursuit of justice is to be undertaken “regardless of the outcome.” Thus, comes the message – we must get out of our arm chairs and join in the struggle, a struggle in which for Christians at least, Jesus is a fellow sojourner. The reality of Liberation Theology – in all its varied forms – is a realization that “oppression is a theological problem that requires the faithful not just to contemplate, but through praxis, bring about justice” (p. 150).
If we take to heart the message of this brief book then we must get of our arm chairs, and spurred on by our faith, join in the work of liberation. For those of us living in the comfort of the middle class, this will not be an easy task. Perhaps, however, Miguel De La Torre’s introduction to Liberation Theology will provide the necessary “conscientzção” (consciousness-raising), which for most of us will raise the uncomfortable realization of our own complicity in oppression.
This may be a difficult read for many. It’s not that it’s non-accessible. Indeed, it is very accessible and well written. It just might be challenging to our tendency to embrace comfortable realities. If you dare, take and read!