Liberation theology

Discussion in '2003 Archive' started by Matt Black, May 2, 2003.

  1. Matt Black

    Matt Black
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    Firstly, my humble and sincere apologies to the mods for the length of this post; this is an edited (believe it or not!) extract from an article I wrote for my church a while back comparing, contrasting and critiscising Prosperity Theology (which I have referred to as 'Right-Wing' or'Right') with Liberation Theology and the Social Gospel (which I have referred to as 'Left-Wing' or 'Left'); I've just posted some of the bits relating to Liberation Theology; unfortunately I don't have a web site so I can't do you a handy link.

    Secondly, I wasn't sure whether to start it here or in the 'Other Religions' board, but maybe a helpful mod can move it if need be.

    Here's the extract:-

    "Perhaps it is best to begin at the extreme end of the spectrum here, too, with liberation theology. This teaching is best summed-up by the maxim that the Gospel is ‘Good News for the poor’, the contention being that “God has made a fundamental and preferential option for the poor, not because they are better than others, either morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor, often enduring inhuman conditions.” The mission of Jesus was and is to deliver the poor and oppressed and to liberate them from their oppressors and the associated injustice. The Gospel is Good News for the poor and is designed to set them free from poverty and enslavement and to empower them. Thus Luke 4:16ff is interpreted in a materialistic, economic and political fashion. The Church, as the Body of Christ, should therefore concentrate on rescuing the marginalised and dispossessed from their circumstances; only then can the Kingdom of God be made manifest. Thus liberation theologians typically focus on such Biblical texts as the Exodus narrative (Ex. 1-15, as illustrative of God’s deliverance of His people from oppression and slavery), the Law (in so far as it relates to ideas of social justice), the Old Testament prophets (with their calls for justice for the poor) and the Sermon on the Mount (with its accent on the poor). Putting it another way, “liberation theology is an interpretation of Christian faith out of the experience of the poor. It is an attempt to read the Bible and key Christian doctrines with the eyes of the poor. It is at the same time an attempt to help the poor interpret their faith in a new way…As an initial description, we may say that liberation theology is
    1. An interpretation of Christian faith out of the suffering, struggle and hope of the poor.
    2. A critique of society and the ideologies surrounding it.
    3. A critique of the activity of the church and of Christians from the angle of the poor.”

    A major distinction that needs to be made here between liberation theology and indeed the Left-wing generally on the one hand, and the views of many on the Right, is that whilst the Right would claim that prosperity and health are visited on the believer supernaturally, liberation theology seeks to accomplish its aims by natural means. It is also not the case that liberation theologians actually desire Christians to be poor; quite the contrary, as they believe that by redistribution of resources everyone will have a sufficiency. Nor do liberation theologians necessarily believe that suffering or sickness is a good thing. In taking these views, they differ in some respects to other voices on the Left and I highlight this to illustrate the danger of generalisation.

    One of the most well-known of liberation theologians is the Brazilian Catholic Leonardo Boff. For him, soteriology and poverty are inextricably intertwined: “The poor are the primary addressees of Jesus’ message and constitute the eschatological criterion by which the salvation or perdition of every human being is determined.” Liberation theology, for him, means nothing less than the manifestation of the kingdom of God here on earth: “(The kingdom) is the utopia that is realized in the world, the final good of the whole of creation in God, completely liberated from all imperfection and penetrated by the Divine. The world is the arena for the historical realization of the Kingdom. Presently the world is decadent and stained by sin; because of this, the Kingdom of God is raised up against the powers of the anti-Kingdom, engaged in the onerous process of liberation so that the world might accept the Kingdom itself and thus achieve its joyous goal. The Church is that part of the world that, in the strength of the Spirit, has accepted the Kingdom made explicit in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnated in oppression. It preserves the constant memory and consciousness of the Kingdom, celebrating its presence in the world, shaping the way it is proclaimed, and at the service of the world. The Church is not the Kingdom but rather its sign (explicit symbol) and its instrument (mediation) in the world.”

    The American theologian and commentator, whose writings in my view place him firmly within the Left wing, Charles L. Kammer III, whom I have used against the Right but whom I will also criticise below, sums up the thinking of many of those on the Left tending towards liberation theology: “God is presented as historically active and is being especially concerned for the poor and oppressed. God is also viewed as being fundamentally concerned with the transformation of social structures…” Although not perhaps as well-known as Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez is generally thought of as the prime originator of liberation theology.

    An important characteristic of liberation theology and perhaps of the Left wing school of thought generally, is the emphasis on community, of the Church as a corporate being, the Body of Christ. Indeed, a major feature of the praxis of liberation theology is the formation of ‘base communities’ (communidades de base), with ordinary Catholics coming together to live, frequently without the regular presence of ordained clergy, to practice communal living and live out the maxims of liberation theology. “In Latin America today the Bible is read in small village- or barrio-level groups by people sitting on benches, often in the dim light of a kerosene lamp. Previously accustomed to seeing the church as the priest, or the large church building down in the town, or an organization with its own authorities like those of the government, they now begin to see themselves as the church…Latin Americans can read the New Testament as recording the life of the first communidades de base.” Unsurprisingly, the place of the individual is downplayed: “Individualism causes selfishness, the root of all evil.” “Individualism, as we know it, is certainly a by-product of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition…[which has] always understood the individual as part of a broader community and as a person who was both nourished by, and responsible to, the other members of that community.” .

    It follows from this that soteriology, as far as individual salvation is concerned, is to be criticised and subordinated to the idea of building community: “Rather than concerning itself with the question “What kinds of communities should we create?”, Christianity has focussed on such issues as “How can the individual be saved?” “What is sound doctrine?”…For most Christians, social reform, the building of human communities, remains secondary to what they perceive to be the real task of Christian faith – providing a means for personal salvation.” This concept can be described as a “move to extend the Christian notion of salvation, or liberation, from personal sin into the entire spectrum of life” .

    Another characteristic of liberation theology is the concept of praxis – as it were, the ‘doing’ of theology. Liberation theologians would assert that their doctrine is worked out through practical everyday living and observation. Gutierrez, for example: “Liberation theology would say that God is first contemplated and practised, and only then thought about. What we mean by this is that worshipping God and doing his will are the necessary conditions for thinking about him only on the basis of mysticism and practice is it possible to work out an authentic and respectful way of speaking about God…Contemplation and involvement in history are two essential and interrelated dimensions of Christian life. The mystery is revealed in contemplation and solidarity with the poor: this is what we call the first act or step. Christian life; only after this can this life inspire a process of reasoning: this is the second act or step.” This stands in contradistinction to the methodology of Biblical scholarship that seeks to first interpret Scripture and then apply the interpretation. Gutierrez would indeed go further and state that this new hermeneutic should become the theology for today: “…just as people were once molded by Greek thought. Those who cling to the old ways of thinking, who resist the new approach and accuse its proponents of distorting the faith, remind us of those who once opposed the use of Aristotle’s philosophy in theology. And like the latter, they really have no future.”

    Advantages of the Left-wing

    The Left, apart from providing a degree of healthy counter-balance to the excesses of the Right, provides important argument concerning the nature of community within the Church, and what sort of community the Church should seek to be modelling to and extending into the World, how the Church should seek to be shaping society. Whereas the Right’s chief strength is soteriological, the Left’s main contribution can be argued to be in the realm of ecclesiology . This has important implications for church structure and general ethos. The base communities, for example, far from being merely Christian versions of revolutionary cells, in fact resemble very closely the kind of small groups or cells with which many in the UK charismatic movement are familiar (and also the Catholic church in this country to an extent): a number of lay Christians, often with no member of the clergy present, gather together to study the Bible, worship and develop each others’ ministries and talents or charisms. These have much with which to commend themselves to the church at large today.

    The Left also generates a far greater sense of compassion for the poor, something that is, as I have said above, often sadly lacking in the Right. This is in line with the rich vein of Scriptural tradition exemplified perhaps by the Old Testament prophets (more of whom later), with their emphasis on justice for the poor, the widows and the fatherless.

    In doing the above, the Left also calls for engagement of the Church in ‘the World’; this is a healthy counterbalance to those Christians who would seek to adopt an isolationist stance. After all, the Church is called upon to be ‘salt and light in the World’, and there is something greatly to be said for the concept of Christians, as it were, ‘infiltrating’ power structures and changing them from within.

    Drawbacks of the left-wing

    The chief weakness of the Left-wing in so far as liberation theology is concerned is the absence of an acceptable soteriology (contrasted with Sider and other individuals who strive to delicately balance soteriology with social reform ). There is an innate tendency within Left-wing circles to over-stress reform of social, political and economic structures whilst downgrading the need for the salvation of the individual. Consider Kammer for example: “Most significant, however, has been Christianity’s unhealthy focus on personal salvation. A movement founded upon the symbolization of one person’s giving his life for others soon became a religion whose primary concern was a self-centred quest for personal salvation.” In this, Kammer both crosses the line of acceptable doctrine for evangelicals and displays his true colours; he misses the point that Christ’s giving of his life was for our personal salvation and thus establishes a theological, even soteriological, dichotomy that is not really there. The true evangelist focuses on the salvation of others, not his own, since that is already assured; therefore his quest for personal salvation is other-centred. Turner, commenting on Gutierrez in particular, states that “Gutierrez clarifies the notion of salvation by saying that people are converted when they open themselves up to God and to others. This entails demonstrating communion with God by living in communion with one’s neighbor (sic). Gutierrez states that this can be accomplished even if the individual is not aware of this action. These ideas run counter to the traditional Protestant tradition of salvation, which maintains a strict interpretation from the New Testament. Basically, the New Testament says that people are saved when they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior (sic) and commit themselves to doing His will in their lives. Conversion is based on a conscious decision of faith in Christ, and in obeying His teachings. A person is saved, according to the New Testament, when the Holy Spirit lives in the believer, which signifies God’s seal of acceptance. Thus, from this perspective liberation theology is clearly heretical, and many Bible believing Protestants rebuke Gutierrez on this issue. And, even Protestants and Catholics agree on denouncing Gutierrez for extending salvation into all aspects of life.” Although I am not usually in agreement with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Catholic Church’s successor to the Inquisition, I find much with which to agree in his statement that “liberation is first and foremost liberation from the radical slavery of sin…As a logical consequence, it calls for freedom from many different kinds of slavery in the cultural, economic, social and political spheres, all of which derive ultimately from sin…[emphases on]…liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind…seem to put liberation from sin in second place.” There are additional soteriological concerns with some of what is taught on the Left. For example, in agreeing with perhaps some of Boff’s conclusions I must take issue with his methodology, particularly his soteriological roots; he presents Christ as being creation’s ultimate gift to God, which is manifestly absurd unless, by some feat of mental gymnastics he is latching onto the idea of Christ as the Second Adam; if anything, his view on this point should be Christ as God’s gift to creation.


    The Left-wing therefore tends to stray into an imbalanced corporatism. While conceding that “Jesus speaks directly to particular persons and offers salvation to specific individuals”, Kammer goes on to say that “his message is always placed within the context of the fundamental form of human communities…the Kingdom of God is coming; human communities will be remade…(Jesus’) concern over individual sin is a concern primarily about the social effects of their sin…there is no idea of the radical separation of individuals from their communities. The condition and destiny of both are inextricably linked. Persons will be saved only as human communities are remade in the coming kingdom of God”. Likewise, Juan Luis Segundo believes that “the longstanding (belief in) individual salvation in the next world represents a distortion of Jesus’ message. He was concerned with man’s full and integral liberation, a process which is already at work in history and which makes use of historical means.” If the sin of the Right is an unhealthy emphasis on the individual, the ‘vertical’, then the error of the Left is by stressing the corporate at the expense of teaching on the vital need for the individual to be reconciled with and justified by God. As much as the Right-wing, the Left can be guilty of preaching a ‘salvation by works’ – in this case for a community rather than for a person by a Person; it negatives and plays down the need for individual personal salvation. It is soteriologically insufficient for the likes of Leonardo Boff to assert, as quoted above, that poverty and soteriology are intertwined; it says nothing about the need for repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation with God on the part of the individual. Ironically, although some on the Left seek to extol the dignity of the individual, by an unhealthy emphasis on corporatism they can easily downgrade rather than uphold his/her intrinsic value; individuals are only important as part of a community.

    Similarly, if a fault of the Right is to identify too closely with capitalism, the Left can be justly accused of being over-familiar with Marxism. Kammer again: “The task of envisioning a new form of human community has been taken up in the modern era by the Marxist movement”; although he concedes that “many of its dreams have turned out to be nightmares”. He goes on to say “The Judeo-Christian tradition presents a vision of human communities much closer to the Marxist vision of society that that of the Western capitalist vision. In part this is no coincidence: Marx’s vision of society has deep roots in the Biblical tradition” ; to be fair, he qualifies this view in the next few lines, but one is always suspicious of those who try to read into the Bible some kind of modern economic or political doctrine that may or may not actually be there.

    The methodology of praxis that is such a major element of liberation theology has its weaknesses. It could for example tend towards the dangers of existential theology; the idea that truth is relativised by circumstances and experience and that liberation theology is appropriate to its Latin American setting and thus ‘right for them’ contradicts the view of the universality of Biblical truth."

    Copyright Matthew James 2000

    Comments?

    Yours in Christ

    Matt
     
  2. Tim

    Tim
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    I did an extensive study on liberation theology several years ago from the writings of its proponents. I found it very disturbing--a denial of many important spiritual truths in order to focus exclusively on a sociological interpretation..

    In Christ.

    Tim
     
  3. Matt Black

    Matt Black
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    I'd be interested in what you and others think about people I'd class as 'Left-of-Centre' rather than 'Left-wing': Social Gospellers such as Washington Gladden and, from our time people like Ron Sider and Tony Campolo, who balance social action with sound soteriology.

    Yours in Christ

    Matt
     
  4. Daniel Dunivan

    Daniel Dunivan
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    In my opinion, the historical impact of the liberation movement will and has lead to a recognition of the failures of the church to speak prophetically to society, specifically, the naive notion that capitalism is a gift from God.

    You outline exactly my problem with liberation theology: a very narrow and this-earthly view of soteriology and eschatology. However, the emphases of liberation theology must be incorporated in the church's understanding of itself. Community and social responsibility to the poor must become part of our tasks. To overemphasize individual other-worldly salvation at the expense of a balanced treatment of the world as God's creation and place of redemption is quite possibly the greatest sin of American evangelicalism.

    Good topic Matt!

    Grace and Peace, Danny [​IMG]

    BTW, what do you think of Boff's discussion of the Trinity in light of liberation thought?
     
  5. Jim1999

    Jim1999
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    The current failure of the church to deal with social issues in society does not vindicate such modernistic concepts as Liberation Theology, which is neither new nor revolutionary. It is just another disguise masking the gospel message.

    I for one will have no truck with it, and will dispense to the dustbin its entirety. Rather, teach the modern church its social responsibilities beyond John 3:16,,,,,,in other words, start teaching the whole of scripture.

    Cheers,

    Jim
     
  6. Tim

    Tim
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    Good comment, Jim.

    I've seen the detremental effects of the "Campolo camp" up close and personal when I was in the Mennonite church several years ago. It is very "politically correct", but often sloppy with the scriptures.

    In Christ,

    Tim
     
  7. Daniel Dunivan

    Daniel Dunivan
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    Jim,

    I tend to think the best of other's theological critiques and to listen closely to what they say for therein can often lie the speaking of the Holy Spirit. You are correct that the contemporary church needs to listen to the whole of scripture, even if that critiques the way that God is presented in salvation.

    The oppression that Latin American christians have felt at the economic hands of their "Christian" brothers should not be brushed off. To be just, we must take their anger seriously. It is not just to sit behind our $1000+ computers and rattle off about the theological failures of persons for whom we are responsible for their situation. We may find aspects of their theology wrong or even heretical, but powerful critiques like those in the works of the Boff brothers and Gutierrez may contain truth or provide us with a new sense of conviction even in their error.

    Grace and Peace, Danny [​IMG]
     
  8. Jim1999

    Jim1999
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    The chief problem with Liberation Theology is its focus on the definition of the kingdom of God on earth. In the words of Jose Comblin, "we find that the rights of the human person are the very nucleus, the centre of the Christian message." (The Church and the National Security State, p.106) Economic and social justice was the subject of Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. It continue to be a thought under successive popes, although little was done to implement it. The church continued to keep the people poor and ignorant and thus under control. This was even true in the Province of Quebec in Canada right into the 60's.

    Our argument with Liberation Theology is not the social goals, which are quite noble, but the change of the gospel message. The Kingdom of God is comprised of the redeemed and not a collect of the social gospel. When we remove the core of the gospel, we remove the essence of Christianity.

    If these people said that social concern and responsibility is in the hands of the church that would be quite acceptable. Evangelicalism, in defending against the liberalization of theology, neglected the social aspects in fear of being labelled a liberal. We have not adjusted much over the years. Let us not negate the gospel, but let us add social responsibility.

    Cheers,

    Jim
     

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