Liberation Theologies


Sermon #30 (8th July 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This is the second service in our monthly ministry theme of ‘Freedom and Liberation’. And I’m going to do my best, in the next ten minutes or so, to give you a whistle-stop tour through the origins and evolution of the movement known as Liberation Theology. I’ll also try to tell you a little about where it’s at in the present day and why we should care.

Liberation Theology emerged in the 1960s, in Latin America, and although that was its ‘moment’ – in the 60s and 70s, perhaps into the 1980s – to understand its origins and popularity at that time and in that place we need to bear in mind the context: best part of 500 years of suffering that preceded it. There was horrendous treatment of the native population by the colonial powers (Spanish and Portuguese) that had arrived from Europe: exploitation of the people, their land, and resources, and the suppression of their native culture and religion, as the various settled societies were converted (largely by force) to Christianity. By the mid-20th-century there were a number of military dictatorships in the region, and civil rights and human rights were curtailed or at least under threat in a lot of places. Poverty was widespread (though there were aristocracies who were doing very alright for themselves; the contrast between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ was increasingly stark). This is the backdrop, the context, to the emergence of Latin American Liberation Theology.

There are a few theologians who are collectively credited as its founders: Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay. Gutiérrez in particular though is often called ‘The Father of Liberation Theology’ so I’ll focus on some of the influential ideas that he was best known for. A concept that Gutiérrez popularised is known as ‘the preferential option for the poor’. This phrase – which you could almost say is the slogan of Liberation Theology – springs out of the idea that God was revealed throughout the Bible as favouring the poor and powerless of society – those people who are marginalized in various ways – people seen as insignificant, unimportant, needy, defenceless, sometimes despised. Even outside of Liberation Theology this is a major theme in the Christian church’s social teaching: that the moral test of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.

You can point to the words of the prophets to back this up; indeed the hymn we just sang, ‘What Does the Lord Require?’, is based on the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah: ‘True justice always means defending of the poor, the righting of the wrong, reforming ancient law. This is the path: true justice do, love mercy too, and walk with God.’ And Jesus himself taught that God will ultimately ask what each person did during the course of their life to help the poor and the needy, famously saying: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Think too of the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed be the poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.’ Within the Christian tradition, this emphasis on concern for the marginalised is well-grounded. And yet… this hasn’t always been reflected in the conduct of the church, the institution itself. Too often the church has cosied up to money and power and turned a blind eye to injustice. So: Liberation Theology might be thought of as a reaction against a church which had, in some sense, gone astray as an institution, and departed from this core principle. It focuses on this notion that care for the poor, powerless, and marginalised should be at the very heart of the Christian mission. And it focuses on praxis – putting theory into practice – putting tradition in dialogue with hands-on action instead of simply pontificating about theology in ivory towers while people go hungry. I should say – that’s not to dismiss the value of theology, of tradition, of scripture – one of the key activities of Liberation Theology was to organise what were called ‘Christian Base Communities’. These were grass-roots gatherings of ordinary people, not specialist scholars, often set up in neglected rural areas, where people were encouraged to study the gospel in the light of their own experience, and see how it spoke to their own – disadvantaged – condition. It was contextual; reading the stories and parables, they began to ask themselves: ‘How does the Christian message speak to the harsh realities of my life?’

The intention was that lay people should get to grips with the Bible, and read it through the lens of liberation, so that it would strengthen and inspire them to get actively involved in bringing about social change. This is the work that Oscar Romero’s friend Rutilio Grande was doing when he was assassinated (note: we heard the story of Oscar Romero, former Archbishop of San Salvador, earlier in the service). It helped ordinary people feel that they were justified in resisting the oppression they faced instead of just accepting their lot, fatalistically, because in some sense God was on their side – on the side of the oppressed. And these grass-roots communities helped them to practically structure and organise that resistance – this was liberation theology in practice. At last count, about a decade ago, it was reckoned that something like 80,000 of these ‘Christian Base Communities’ still exist in Brazil alone, and they’re credited (by some, at least) as having helped the transition from military to democratic rule, in part by contributing to public health and education projects.

What’s not to like? Well… the rise of Liberation Theology was not universally welcomed. Conservative theologians, in particular, questioned the extent to which it was theologically justified. People in power, unsurprisingly, didn’t like it much, and argued that the church should butt out of politics altogether and stick to purely spiritual concerns. The ‘upstairs neighbours’, in the United States, certainly didn’t want this Marxist-influenced movement taking hold on their doorstep, and the hierarchy of the Catholic church at that time were very wary of endorsing Liberation Theology too. Pope John Paul was seemingly worried about the whiff of communism and Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict, acted as the ‘enforcer’ in a drive to crack down on Liberation Theology’s influence in the Catholic church. Prominent figures such as Gutiérrez were barred from attending key church conferences, though they had their allies and defenders, who tried to keep the spirit of his message alive.

Over time, the profile of Liberation Theology has faded somewhat, and you might say that its decline in influence occurred in parallel with the decline of communism, after the fall of the Berlin wall, in the late 1980s… though it seems that the current Pope, Francis, who hails from Argentina, has taken a more conciliatory tone, having been quoted as saying: ‘The option for the poor comes from the first centuries of Christianity. It’s the Gospel itself. If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the Church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Trotskyist. The Church has always had the honour of this preferential option for the poor.’ Words from Pope Francis (a few years before he became Pope). And that’s one way of looking at Liberation Theology: as an attempt to return to the ways of the small, decentralised, agile, and adaptable, early church communities. Have a read of the book of Acts… a lot of those accounts of the early church sound a little bit communist to me too! Yet over the centuries, as Christendom has evolved away from this original form, and biblical interpretation has become entangled with matters of power and control, these early expressions of the faith have come to seem very distant from the church institutions of today.

Up to this point I’ve mainly spoken about Liberation Theology as something that arose in a certain place (Latin America), at a certain time (the 60s/70s), and largely within the context of the Catholic Church. So – you might wonder – what can Unitarians learn from this, here and now? Well, there’s a hint in the title that I’ve given to today’s service: it’s not ‘Liberation Theology’ (singular) but ‘Liberation Theologies’ (plural). In the years since Gutiérrez and his comrades came to prominence there has been a proliferation of different forms of Liberation Theology all around the world. Each one of these Liberation Theologies addresses a particular form of real-world oppression, an instance of power imbalance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, and lifts up the voice of this particular group which has been marginalised in our society. Each ‘flavour’ of Liberation Theology focuses on the shared lived experience of suffering and disadvantage that this particular group has been subjected to, and works out a viable theology in that context, as seen through the eyes of each era’s downtrodden and oppressed, rather than leaving society’s dominant groups to have a monopoly on interpreting the text and tradition in their own interests. The religious tradition that was handed down – the theory, if you like – has to be put into practice ‘where the rubber hits the road’, as the saying goes, if it’s to have any real meaning for people – particularly those who are poor, powerless, struggling – exactly those people that Christians are meant to care about the most.

For example: Black Theology was a form of liberation theology which arose in the States. Influential theologians such as James Cone (who sadly died earlier this year, in his 80s) applied the Christian message to the context of racist segregation, civil rights, and the political, social, and economic subjugation of African Americans. Writing in 1970, he said this: ‘Black theology cannot accept a view of God which does not represent God as being for oppressed blacks and thus against white oppressors. Living in a world of white oppressors, blacks have no time for a neutral God. The brutalities are too great and the pain too severe, and this means we must know where God is and what God is doing in the revolution.’ These are strong words. And they illustrate how Liberation Theology works in another setting. In the context of 1970s America – this book was published two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. – Cone was working out a theology that made sense for people whose entire lives were shaped by their experience of racism: both everyday personal prejudice, and structural biases built into the very fabric of society. Black Liberation Theology, written by black theologians, was intended to support other black people in overcoming oppression.

And the same goes for Feminist Theology, Asian Theology, Disabled Theology, Queer Theology. An equivalent story could be told for each of these distinct communities and concerns (and that’s without considering intersectionality – the way that people belong to more than one of these disadvantaged groups at a time – but that’s an issue for another day). Each of these theologies is working on finding new ways to put theology, scripture, and tradition in context with the real lived experience of groups that have got a rough deal in society, so that the church becomes a genuine, live, practical force for good in their lives. The original Liberation Theology, as it arose in Latin America, was focused largely on socio-economic oppression – the deprivation of money, land, and resources. But there are numerous other axes of oppression in our world and, it seems, with each year that passes we have our attention drawn to new instances of people being marginalised, exploited, and disadvantaged in ways too numerous to count.

The core religious messages which have been handed down to us – whether it’s the scripture and tradition we have inherited from our Christian forebears – the calls from Jesus and the prophets to attend to the poor, the powerless, the marginalised – or the principles and values of our more recent Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist history – the commitment to justice, equality, and ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’ – Well, Liberation Theologies show us how these familiar religious messages can truly come alive.

In any situation we can ask: ‘Who is being unfairly treated here? Who is the underdog? Who is getting a rough deal in our society these days through no fault of their own?’ And perhaps our answers will reveal another strand of Liberation Theology just waiting to happen.


Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: