Lessons from Liberation Theology

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Liberation theology is a uniquely Latin American phenomenon. Speaking of Latin America and Catholicism, the Lady Guadalupe is perhaps a more familiar image for those who grew up Catholic, Latin American, or in between or beyond. This Guadalupian event was where Mary, the mother of Jesus, was believed to have appeared to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego in 1500s colonial Mexico. Despite gaining trans-cultural significance since, the Virgin of Guadalupe remains Mexican. The hymn La Guadalupana goes “Y eran mexicanos, Y eran mexicanos, Y eran mexicanos Su porte y Su faz (They were Mexican, they were Mexican, they were Mexican, Her stance and Her Face)” – the theology of liberation should be considered in the same vein. Whilst liberation theology has come to influence numerous other theologies such as black, feminist or even queer theology, one cannot understand this movement without understanding its quintessential Latin American roots.

It has been said that Latin American liberation theology must be understood against the history of greed and violence, suffering and oppression, and death and destruction that have characterised the region for five centuries since the arrival of Christianity. Most significantly, the arrival of the 1960s set the context for liberation theology’s emergence as an ecclesial and theological movement. It is impossible even to succinctly describe the political and economic backdrop of these times which resulted in devastating poverty and oppression in the region. But the theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez explained it simply as “an early and unjust death”; to be poor was (or unfortunately, is) to be familiar with death. After the Second Vatican Council, social justice for the poor was also to become an issue for the Church far more than previously. Liberation theology broke through academia and a relatively small circle of progressive clerics at the Latin American bishops’ Conference at Medellín in 1968. Its documents decisively affirmed four points: violent social structures produce injustice; the necessity for a Church for the poor; consciousness; and most importantly, a struggle for liberation.

Theology I had known came in conflict with the deep yearning for a faith that helped me make sense of this big, confusing world

Praxis and the preferential option for the poor are two particularly important themes in liberation theology. Gustavo Gutiérrez presented the primary task of theology as the struggle with issues firmly located in human history. If you grew up Christian or religious, you too might have felt that the theology taught to you was distant and inhuman; removed from everyday concerns and real-life conflicts. He presented theology as the second step, as both reflection on and response to the social situation. In the Bible, the knowledge of God is inseparable from action for justice, with being Christian being called to faith in action. The term praxis is used to emphasise a dialectic of action and practice guided by reflection and thought. Orthopraxis had now taken precedence over orthodoxy, the theology bogged down by statements and traditions as many of us may know it.

The preferential option for the poor and the oppressed is perhaps the singularly most important and elegant concept encompassed in liberation theology. I feel it is best understood this way: parents could love all their children equally but have a particular concern for the child who is ill or is being bullied. This simple allusion explains the twofold dimension of God’s love, the universal and the particular; excluding no one, but demonstrating a “special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life” (by way of human, social sin). The theologian Leonardo Boff wrote about God: “he always acts in favour of life, defending the weak”.

It filled a void in the heart of the young, peculiarly thinking schoolboy, and connected me on a spiritual level to a land I have never even set foot on

I feel somewhat predisposed to talk something about myself here. Growing up Catholic in Hong Kong, I felt the theology taught to me was foundational but increasingly incomplete. It came in conflict with the deep yearning for a faith that helped me make sense of this big, confusing world. But liberation theology, which I first read in Durham, felt like a fresh breath of air with its profound humanism and its unreserved talk of oppression and liberation. The thirty-fourth Psalm “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me / he freed me from all my fears / The oppressed look to him and are glad / they will never be disappointed” took on a whole new, transformative meaning.

On the most personal level, the theology of liberation – in a way nothing else could – filled a void in the heart of the young, peculiarly thinking schoolboy, who like any other child, struggled with identity and at times felt alienated and afraid. But it also connected me on a spiritual level to a land I have never even set foot on. And for that, I have no one but Latin America to thank.

Image: Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

One thought on “Lessons from Liberation Theology

  • liberation Theology is emphatically not a uniquely latin american phenomenon. Its roots are in the latin american bishops meeting during vatican 2 the Pact of the Catecombes 1965 followed by celam in 1968. However liberation theology was and is active in Palestine, Philippines, South Africa.( Think of Tutu.) There was also elements in Ireland during the struggle.

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