Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Liberation Theology: a Book Report

I grew up in an evangelical church in an affluent part of the United States, where I learned a certain version of Christianity which saw itself as “pure” or “correct” Christianity.  In this version of the faith, what mattered most was individual, personal salvation, acceptance of specific “correct” beliefs, and a certain attitude toward society and culture.  The evangelical Christianity of my childhood was, I later realized, closely allied to the ideology of the Republican party.  Liberals and non-Christians were suspect.  The most important political/social issues were homosexuality and abortion.  Larger issues of equality and social justice were secondary to the main issue of personal salvation.  Up until college, I was a firm believer in this particular version of Christianity.

Ironically, it was at a Christian college that the particular version of Christianity I’d accepted as ultimate truth began to unravel.  I wrote a lengthy memoir about these experiences which you can read HERE.  The main thing that caused me to question my beliefs was an introduction to textual criticism (a scholarly discipline that is over 200 years old, but which I’d never been seriously exposed to).  I learned about the very human, historical, and culture-bound contexts of the collections of writings which we now call the Bible.  This caused me to doubt their “infallibility” as “God’s word.”

It was a tough period in my life.  It wasn’t as though I woke up one morning and said, “I no longer believe in Christianity.”  It was a slow process that happened over the course of my 20s.  Gradually, I drifted toward a kind of agnosticism.  I’m not an atheist.  I just think that I can’t know whether particular religious doctrines are true.  As a flesh and blood human, bound to history, there are certain things I don’t get to know.

Though I remained skeptical of evangelical Christian doctrine, I retained certain values which were fundamentally Christian—values which may be summed up by Jesus’ “Golden Rule”—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Though I’m certainly imperfect, I still try to retain a basic empathy for other people, particularly those who’ve been exploited, mistreated, or oppressed.  As I grew into adulthood, I became increasingly critical of evangelical Christianity, with its seeming disregard of issues of social justice, poverty, and equality.  This is not to say that there aren’t evangelical churches doing things to help the poor—it’s just that helping the poor is always secondary to the main mission of saving people’s souls.  I began to see American evangelical Christianity as failing to live out the values of its savior, Jesus, who I’d actually come to really respect (even as an agnostic).

Recently, I read a book called Liberation Theology by Phillip Berryman, which describes a version of Christianity which, to a jaded former evangelical, feels like a breath of fresh air, and a much more “authentic” expression of Christianity.  Liberation theology is an approach to Christian faith which emerged in Latin America in the 1960s.  I would like to present a book report on this book, which will hopefully explain what I’m talking about, and give American Christians some serious food for thought about what their faith might look like in practice.


Berryman begins by describing his personal encounter with Oscar Romero, archbishop in El Salvador who, as a direct outgrowth of his faith and pastoral work, had become increasingly vocal in his condemnation of the violent suppression of peasant movements by government and paramilitary forces, some of which were actually supported by the United States, as part of its Latin American foreign policy.  In one sermon, Romero directly addressed the soldiers doing the killing:

“My brothers, they are part of our very own people.  You are killing your own fellow peasants.  God’s law, ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ takes precedence over a human beings’s order to kill.  No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is against God’s law.  No one has to obey an immoral law.”

Not long after this, Romero was assassinated while saying mass.  The life and death of Oscar Romero is a good starting point for a discussion of liberation theology, a movement among Latin American Catholic clergy that began in the 1960s and continues today.  Put simply, 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.”

How this movement began and developed is the focus of Berryman’s book.  This topic should be of particular interest to Americans, because suppressing liberation theology was, especially during the Reagan administration, a matter of U.S. foreign policy.  A 1980 memo from the Reagan administration states: “U.S. policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the liberation theology clergy.”

What was it about this Christian movement that made it so dangerous?

Archbishop Oscar Romero

The Emergence of Liberation Theology

To understand the emergence of Latin American liberation theology, it’s important to understand a bit about the history of Catholicism in Latin America.  This religion was imported to the “New World” by European empires like Spain and Portugal as  part of a policy of conquest and colonialism.  Church and state power were intertwined in their quest to plunder the riches of the New World and “save the souls” of the Indians.  What the European conquerors actually wrought was widespread death, disease, slavery, and oppression.  A good discussion of this historical tragedy is Eduardo Galeano’s eye-opening book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

In this misdt of this colonial enterprise, however, there were some clergy who began to think critically about what they were doing and actually spoke out against their governments’ exploitive policies, on behalf of the poor and oppressed native peoples of the Americas.  One notable example was Bartholome de las Casas, who began to speak out and work on behalf of the Indians, and against his own government.  Though such clergy were always the minority, it was to people like de las Casas that 20th century liberation theologians looked as models for their own re-examining of the role of clergy in oppressive regimes.

Even after most Latin American countries achieved independence in the 19th century, the legacy of exploitation of the poor continued, and continues today—with the wealth of nations being concentrated in relatively few hands, and the majority of the population remaining poor and oppressed.  Berryman writes, “The poor served in the armies that struggled for independence, but they reaped little benefit.”

A main impetus for the emergence of liberation theology in the 20th century was Vatican II—a three-year-long council of bishops called by Pope John XXIII, which lasted from 1962-1965.  This was a watershed moment in the history of the Catholic church which laid out significant progressive reforms such as the elimination of the Latin mass, and an increasing concern with more active social and political engagement, particularly on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

Inspired by Vatican II, Latin American catholic clergy like Gustavo Gutierrez (from Peru), Hugo Assmann (from Brazil), Enrique Dusel (from Argentina), and many others began to convene their own conferences and write articles and books outlining a new focus for the church in Latin America.  These clergy sought to understand and articulate “what relevance Christianity has in the struggle for a more just world.”

The Bible as Read by the Poor

As stated before, one of the key aspects of liberation theology is an interpretation of the Bible and Christian doctrine from the point of view of the poor.  So what would this look like?  Berryman outlines how liberation theologians tend to interpret the biblical concepts of creation, the Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus’ life and death. 


For poor farmers in Latin America, the creation accounts in Genesis have particular resonance—many people live off the land, and so ideas about man’s connection to nature are not abstract.  Describing liberation theology’s interpretation of these stories, Berryman notes, “What is stressed is the goodness of creation.  This runs counter to the traditional dualism of matter and spirit instilled by four centuries of Catholic catechism.  Human beings are seen as the very image and likeness of God.  The path to the knowledge of God goes through other human beings.  That means not human beings in general, but the particular human beings in one’s village or barrio.”

He continues, “A reflection on the Genesis account can easily move into a discussion of whether God intends that a few individuals own most of the land while others have little or none.  Indeed, the Spanish word ’tierra’ means ‘earth,’ ‘land,’ and ‘soil.’  Genesis thus provides a powerful set of symbols for human dignity and human responsibility in the world.”

The liberating impact of this interpretation is this: “The dominant culture in Latin America tells the poor they don’t count—that is its real message even if it demagogically may speak of their dignity and worth.  Liberation theology’s reading of Genesis accentuates those elements of the Bible that stress the goodness of creation, the dignity of the poor as God’s very image, and their dominion over the earth and their rights to its fruits.”


“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers so I know well what they are suffering.  Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exocus 3: 7-8)

In a similar way that God’s liberation of Israelite slaves in the book of Exodus was seen by African American slaves as a kind of reflection of their hopes and aspirations, Latin American peasants living under oppressive regimes see the Exodus account as a model of their own hopes and aspirations.  Berryman notes, “This is a God who can hear the cry of the oppressed, who comes down, and who leads them to liberation…Exodus is not simply an event but a pattern of deliverance that provides a key for interpreting the Scriptures and for interpreting present experience.”


A little over a year ago, I embarked on a quest to read through the entire Bible and write a book report on each book.  You can read that HERE.  Some of the most powerful and resonant books I encountered were the books of the Hebrew prophets.  Berryman describes the role of the prophets as follows: “In both the northern and southern kingdoms and in captivity, the classical prophets denounced idolatry, the exploitation of the the poor by the rich and powerful, and the infidelity of rulers who did not trust the Lord.  Their message was both political and religious—indeed, it is plain that the prophets made no such distinction.”

The books of the prophets are full of denunciations of corrupt rulers who caused human poverty and misery, like this passage from Isaiah:

“What do you mean by crushing my people,
and grinding down the poor when they look to you?” (Isaiah 3: 14-15)

Many of the biblical prophets were outsiders, and most of them are poor.  Amos, for example, was originally a shepherd, and Micah came from an obscure village.

Latin American theologians and clergy, like the aforementioned Oscar Romero, was seen by many as a modern prophet: “In his short but densely packed book Monsenor Romero, Verdadero Profeta (Archbishop Romero, True Prophet), Jon Sobrino argues that Romero was a prophet in the strict theological sense.  He gives many examples of the archbishop’s denunciation of idolatry (of money, of military and political power), of U.S. imperialism, of corruption and falsehood, and shows that these denunciations are rooted in the word of God.”


In the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry in his hometown of Nazareth (a poor community of workers and subsistence farmers in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire) by entering a synagogue and reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah, a passage which Jesus sees his ministry as fulfilling:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me;
therefore, he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives,
recovery of sight to the blind
and release to prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the Lord.”  (Luke 4:18-19)

Even a casual reading of the gospels demonstrates Jesus concern for and solidarity with the poor.  As Berryman explains: “Jesus lives poor, associates with the poor, and preaches poverty.”  Jesus reserves some of his harshest criticisms for the rich and powerful.  When a rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to be saved, Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.  When the rich man walks away, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Matthew 19:24).  Commenting on this passage, Berryman states, “Centuries of emphasizing poverty ‘of spirit’ have taken the edge off those texts.  The Latin American reading seeks to emphasize that Jesus is talking about real material poverty and wealth.”

In Matthew, when Jesus envisions the Last Judgment, the main criteria for salvation are not correct beliefs, but how people have cared for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and prisoners.  Jesus says: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me.  I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me…I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25)

Berryman explains, “Here practical material aid for one’s neighbor is the criterion of a just life.  Furthermore, in the person of those who are poor and in need stands Jesus himself, although neither those who aid nor those who refuse to do so recognize him.  The criterion is not whether one considers oneself Christian or not—one might even be an atheist—but whether one has served the needs of others.”

So what is the meaning of Jesus death?  It is the direct result of his life and teachings: “His life is seen as one of struggle and uncertainty, one in which people, including Jesus himself, make real human decisions, with all their consequences.  Thus, Jesus’ execution by the authorities of both ‘church’ and ‘state’ of his time is a direct consequence of his message, which is correctly seen as ‘subversive’ of the existing order.”

The Early Church

Another thing that stood out to me when reading the Bible was its depiction of the early church as basically Marxist.  Speaking of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, the Acts of the Apostles states:

“The community of believers were of one heart and one mind.  None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather, everything was held in common.  With power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great respect was paid to them all; nor was there anyone needy among them; all who owned property or houses sold them and lay them at the feet of the apostles to be distributed to everyone according to his need.”  (Acts 4:32-35)

A huge component of liberation theology is the establishment of “base communities” in poor communities, modeled after the early church.  Critics of liberation theology often condemned them as “communist” or “Marxist” when in fact they were simply trying to replicate the organization and values of the very first followers of Jesus.

A main focus of liberation theology’s understanding of the Bible is putting ideas into practice.  This theology emerged not only from the Bible, but out of real experiences of clergy living and working with actual poor communities.

Base Communities

In seeking to put their faith into practice, liberation theologians and clergy recognized that there were problems with how the church was organized.  Berryman explains “…parishes in rural areas and in the shantytowns surrounding the cities often left one priest with twenty thousand or more baptized Catholics…in most countries 5 percent or fewer of the people would attend Sunday mass.”  For the vast majority of poor Latin Americans, attending Sunday mass was not even an option.

Thus arose a new model, based on a very old model—the first Christian communities, which were basically ‘house churches.’  This new model of pastoral work involved going into the rural villages, barrios, and shantytowns and establishing “base communities” which Berryman describes as “small lay-led communities, motivated by Christian faith, that see themselves as part of the church and that are committed to working together to improve their communities and to establish a more just society.”

In these small base communities “a group may meet to read the Bible, sing, reflect, and pray—and then go on to discuss the situation of a cooperative, or go out to fix a road so buses and trucks can get to the village…By sharing leadership widely and seeking to act by consensus, base communities have given many people a sense of a grass-roots kind of democratic process.  That experience in turn has made them more critical of existing political procedures.”

Base communities are the direct embodiment of liberation theology: “One could say that the church is present where it is most directly engaged in its evangelizing mission, most in touch with the suffering and struggle of the people, and bearing a word of hope.  From that perspective the church would be most ‘present’ in small communities on the front lines.”

Thus, what makes liberation theologians distinct from most other academic theologians is that they tend to put their research and ideas into practice, taking part in grass-roots and popular movements.  They aim to be what Antonio Gramsci calls  ‘organic intellectuals’—that is, intellectuals whose work is directly connected with popular struggle.”

Berryman explains how “even small, modest actions for liberation, such as the efforts of a village to organize, are part of a much larger movement—ultimately, humankind’s exodus toward God…One cannot simply circumscribe a self-contained ‘religious’ sphere to which the church should confine its efforts.  Rather the church and Christians should be involved in human history—the one human history—where people are shaping their destiny.”


As popular movements arose throughout Latin America, from the 1960s onward, there was organized and brutal opposition to these movements.  Military coups ushered in repressive regimes in Brazil (1964), Bolivia (1971), Uruguay (1973), Chile (1973), and Argentina (1976).

Tragically, “In Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay church involvement in human rights activities led to serious conflict with governments… In Latin America as a whole, between 1964 and 1978, 41 priests were killed (6 as guerrilla combatants) and 11 ‘disappeared.’  In addition, some 485 were arrested, 46 were tortured, and 253 were expelled from countries.”

Tragically, many of these repressive regimes were supported by the U.S. government: “The United States was involved in the coups in both Brazil and Chile, and in a more general sense, U.S. training no doubt contributed toward awakening the vocation to politics among generals and colonels throughout Latin America.”

Like their counterparts among the first Christian communities, many Latin American Christians seeking to put their faith into practice paid with their lives.

The U.S. supported the brutal Pinochet coup in Chile.

Faith and Politics

Recently, I got into a conversation with my parents about liberation theology, and one issue we tended to disagree on was the role of faith in politics.  In what sense should people of faith involve themselves in politics?  In the United States, where many Christians are not living in crushing poverty under a repressive regime, this question remains theoretical.  However, in Latin America, the issue is often a matter of life and death: “faith cannot be neutral when the life and death of the people are in question.  Political and ideological choices and options cannot be sidestepped.”

Liberation theologians insist that “having an ideology is part of the human condition.  One cannot avoid ideology any more than one can avoid breathing air or speaking in sentences.  The important distinction is between uncritical and even unconscious acceptance of existing ideologies.”

And so, for example, when “the pope objects to the involvement of clergy in politics the real concern is a particular kind of involvement, even though the objection is expressed in terms of general principles.  Thus, priests who work with the Sandinista government are suspended, while Cardinal Obando, who denounces the Sandinistas at every opportunity but never denounces the activities of the U.S.-supported contras and even celebrates mass for their backers in Miami, is cast in the mantle of a prophet.”

Since ideology and some sort of political engagement are inescapable, the question then becomes, “Who do I side with?”  For the liberation theologian, the answer must always be the poor, no matter the consequences.

Christian Marxists?

Berryman rightfully points out that “it is not easy to have a rational discussion of Marxism in the United States…many Americans are vehemently, viscerally anti-Communist, even though they have never met a living, breathing Communist.”  The Cold War created a climate of paranoia and gigantic resentment toward anything that even smacks of “socialism” or “communism.”  A main American criticism of liberation theology was that it was, to quote the Wall Street Journal, “warmed-over Marxism.”  To accuse someone or something of being “communist” or “Marxist” in the United States can have the effect of ending the conversation.

Characterizing liberation theology as Christian Marxism is an oversimplification, and demonstrates a rather uncritical understanding of what Marxism is.  Berryman explains: “Marxism can be regarded primarily as a set of questions—a method—for understanding society.  At its best it can sharpen one’s analysis…Marxism need not be a dogmatic answers-before-the-questions ideology."

Though they borrow freely from political and social theory to understand the situation of the poor, the truth is that “liberation theologians devote surprisingly little attention to head-on confrontation with Marxism.”  Where they do, it is less of a dogmatic program than a way of understanding and unmasking the existing structures that make oppression function.  For example “they criticize conventional notions of freedom…some forms of ‘freedom’ are really a farce: they simply cover up the freedom of a few to hold onto their wealth, derived from exploitation…the poor majority enjoy no real freedom.”

A detailed study of Marx and his impact on liberation theology would take another post, but I’ll cite one interesting work on the topic.  In his book Marx and the Bible, Mexican theologian Jose Miranda examines how “the core of the biblical message is that God’s action (in Israel and in Jesus Christ), aims to bring about justice between human beings, and thus Marx and the Bible coincide.”

Asian, Black, and Feminist Liberation Theologies

Berryman writes: “Latin American liberation theology is not an isolated phenomenon.  Parallel theologies—Asian, African, black, and feminist—have arisen out of struggles.  All represent reactions against a European and North American theological establishment that unconsciously assumed that its theology was simply ‘Christian’ theology.  Each of these new theologies has become critical of the inherited way of interpreting Christian symbols.  Feminist theologians have extended their critique to the symbols themselves and question the ‘maleness’ of the deity, for example.  Each has reinterpreted the past to find its own history, which has been largely suppressed from memory by the dominant interpretations.”

So here are a few examples of other liberation theologies…

Sri Lankan Catholic theologian Tissa Balasuriya’s book Planetary Theology offers an Asian liberation theology.

James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1969): “It is the affirmation of black humanity that emancipates black people from white racism.”

Latin American feminist theologians include Beatriz Couch (Argentina), Julia Esquivel (Guatemala), Elsa Tamez (Costa Rica).

Other feminist theologians include: Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Luise Schottroff, and Rosemary Ruether.

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