All forms of liberation theology — Latin American, African American/Black, Feminist/Womanist — have some affinities, all emerge out of serious thinking and social rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s, and all of these movements have impacted the church today in ways many either ignore or don’t understand.
Liberation theology is the most dominant voice in academic theology (other than work done in a simply historical mode), and it has gained much ground among many evangelicals. Progressive evangelicalism is often a version of liberation theology, sometimes — unlike the major voices — without the courage of its convictions or conviction in its courage.
Lilian Calles Barger aims to clarify the various movements within liberation theology. Her book’s title, taken from Bonhoeffer, is The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology.
She begins with Pope Francis: Is he? Is he a liberation theologian? If so, can he undo official RC opposition to Liberation Theology? What’s the central issue here?
There was as much evidence for the claim that Pope Francis had embraced liberation theology as there was for the claim that he was leading a revitalization of traditional Catholic social teaching, one in which the poor are the center of God’s attention—a position that thrilled many progressive Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The difference between Catholic orthodoxy and liberation theology lay in the contested phrase “preferential option for the poor.” For liberationists, the option for the poor went beyond an ethical charitable stance; it required a conversion by joining the poor, applying the perspective of the poor as a hermeneutic lens in the reading of scripture, and praxis—a process of action and reflection that did not avoid politics. Pope Francis affirmed the perspective of the poor as a hermeneutic tool, and his criticisms of the global economic system sounded like an endorsement of liberation theology.
Liberation theology has generated — probably — far more heat than genuine social change, but the latter is not undermined by the former:
Seen solely as the product of Latin America, cultural observers easily characterized it as a renegade Catholic theology and reduced it to a simplistic Marxist-inspired concern for the poor.
The media flurry surrounding [Obama’s pastor] Wright’s controversial statements seemed to confirm what pundits had long suspected: liberation theology was an anti-American fanaticism founded on inverse racism and aimed at inciting violence.
How to come to terms with the heat and the reality and the genuine themes of liberation theology? Barger’s aim is to get to the bottom of the major voices and major issues at work that generated liberation theology:
Appreciating the passionate reactions that liberation theology continues to foment requires tracing the historical origins of multiple streams of liberationist thought that emerged across the American hemisphere in the 1960s and 1970s. Above all, the first generation of liberation theologians offered a theology unwilling to engage in the modern division of religion and politics. Mass demands for justice and freedom brought into question the understanding of the relationship between God and the world. Those participating in Latin American revolutionary movements, Black Power, and women’s liberation came to view religion as a justification for exclusion rather than freedom. The American states, led by the imperial power of the United States and with the blessing of religion, could no longer defend a society based on racist, classist, and sexist myths. Modern theologians struggling to rationalize the division between divine justice and social justice could not ignore the reality of human suffering. The oppressed, those constrained in their freedom due to unjust ideologies represented in social and political institutions, recognizing the degree of their “unfreedom” because of poverty, racism, and sexism became restless under the religious status quo. In response, liberationists took up the cause of the oppressed and sought an effective answer to political and religious alienation.
I make three interlocking arguments. First, by turning toward culture and the history of oppressed people and by deploying social theory, liberationists argued that values rooted in the idea of divine transcendence (the classic purview of theology) could be brought to bear in the political sphere. Second, by looking across national boundaries and over a long period, I highlight how the deep contradiction between freedom and oppression within the history of the Americas led to the emergence of liberation theology. Third, I argue that liberation theology marked the end of the modern attempt to maintain the perilous and unproductive myth of a separation between the secular and the religious. By challenging the sacred/secular divide of modernity, liberationists reshaped the terms of engagement and opened the floodgates for a full-throttled entry of religious claims into the political sphere. Understanding the role liberationists played in redefining the relationship between religion and politics sheds light on subsequent history.
Liberation theology is not simply a theological battle but a socio-political-economic battle at the level of nations, politics and structures — the Powers themselves:
The United States had developed a clear ideological understanding, underwritten by religion, of its role in the world. The historian Michael H. Hunt outlined three core ideas in the United States’ outlook toward the world: national greatness in the promotion of liberty abroad, namely the American mission; the placement of foreign people in a racial hierarchy with the AngloSaxon race at the top; and a conservative attitude toward revolutions other than its own. Anglo-American values were Christian values, universal values, and came with the responsibility to spread them throughout the Americas and the world. Within the context of these ideas, Latin America and its largely Catholic people were viewed as backward, corrupt, underdeveloped, and in need of a strong moral guide to modernization.
What happened in the 60s unleashed theological rationale for criticism and reconstruction:
By the 1960s, many religious and secular thinkers no longer believed the rhetoric that divided the world between the free and the unfree, the modern and the underdeveloped, religion and politics…. In the Americas it was possible to proclaim spiritual freedom and equality while underwriting political bondage and social exclusion. The unrealized promise of democratic inclusion, set against the newly heightened expectations of marginalized people, highlighted a contradiction. It was a contradiction residing at the core of American theology.
Social upheaval cast doubt on the I assumptions of post-Enlightenment theology: a sacred/secular split, a universal humanity, a private religious self, and ideological autonomy.