Michael Lee on liberation theology

Michael Lee on liberation theology March 9, 2010


In the above video, U.S. Catholic Magazine asks Fordham professor Michael Lee five questions on liberation theology. The full interview with Lee on liberation theology today can be found here. Lee’s recent book, Bearing the Weight of Salvation, is a revision of his very good dissertation on the themes of soteriology and discipleship in the theology of Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, one of the Jesuits martyred in El Salvador in 1989.

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  • brettsalkeld

    As much as I would celebrate Romero’s canonization tomorrow, part of me hopes they wait until my son Oscar is old enough to understand that his namesake is being canonized.

  • alex martin

    “People claim to show Jesus as politically committed, as one who fought against Roman oppression and the authorities and also as one involved in the class struggle…This idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive man from Nazareth, does not tally with the church’s catechesis.” Pope John Paul II on liberation theology.

    Pope Benedict XVI on Cardinal Romero:

    Commenting on a new book about the slain archbishop, the Pope said that the death of Archbishop Romero should not be seen simply as a political figure.

    “He was killed during the consecration of the Eucharist,” the Pope observed. “Therefore, his death is testimony of the faith.”

    • Thanks Alex, for being the first to beat that dead horse. Who wants to be next? Don’t be shy.

      That Benedict quote on Romero, as its presented anyway, is stunningly problematic. I have no doubt, though, that’s it’s been chopped to bits. JPII is right that a christology that includes the political dimension often “does not tally with the church’s catechesis.” This is, in fact, quite an accurate judgment on the inadequacy of the church’s catechesis! A christology that does not include the political dimension of the life of the historical Jesus is, quite simply, heretical.

  • RedMaistre

    Where there is the Revolution, there is Christ. The struggle of the oppressed is the struggle of the Kingdom of God, which must become the Kingdom of the world. That the visible hierarchy of the church prefer to turn a blind eye to this truth is more a testament to their cowardice and lack of moral imagination than to superior insight into the nature of Christ.

  • RedMaistre

    To make my views clearer: My own views are that the ultimate task of the ecclesia (the entire assembly of believers, making no distinction between the clergy and laity) is to become the world, to dissolve all earthly kingdoms under the cry of “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven”. One Lord in Heaven, One Lord on earth. Such an ideal was pointed at by earlier attempts by the Church hierarchy to submit all the kings and princes of the earth to the Petrine throne of the most High Priest of Rome. And such was a truely noble dream. However, it was a top-down,authoritarian dream, and as such played into the hands of the powers of the world: pride, greed, and corruption. The Kingdom of God on earth that must be established for we are commanded to establish it, must be a horizontal collective brotherhood, in which all distinction of race, nation, class, and gender have been done away with in a universal communism that has annulled the powers of capital and state, Mammon and Caesar. And thus shall be fulfilled the words of the prophet Daniel: “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever”

  • alex martin

    Just because you hate hearing it doesn’t make it less true. The Church has spoken on the matter. It’s your job (as it is mine) to be obedient.

    • Alex – You are wrong on many counts, and, most basically, don’t seem to understand liberation theology or the church’s stance on it. Good luck in your continued research and reflection. Should you need further direction, I can suggest some resources.

  • Alex is confusing obeying Christ and obeying the Church.

  • Ryan – Well, he’s certainly doing that, but another issue is the way he imagines himself obeying something that the church simply has not taught. But you are right – obeying the church and obeying Christ are not always the same thing.

  • brettsalkeld

    I, for one, don’t really understand what all the fuss is about. Some liberation theologians have gone beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. Some have offered us very useful reflections on the gospel. Some have done both (if not in the same breath). Can we not live with just a little ambiguity and try to learn from one another? Yeesh.

  • Brett – Exactly. And the fact is, the distortions to which the Vatican rightly directed the church’s attention in its two documents on liberation theology are also present in various non-liberationist theologies, such as the perverse theology that animates much of american neo-conservatism (see the theology of George W. Bush, for example, or the statements of Donald McClarey which proclaim the ability of american soldiers to bring peace and justice into the world). So it is profoundly unhelpful to tag such heresies to “liberation theology” the way some Catholics — including some Catholics at the CDF — do.

  • Let me attempt to turn the conversation (if there ever was one) back to what was actually posted. Comments on Michael Lee’s interview are welcome. The usual rants about the need to obey some imaginary “condemnation” of “liberation theology” are not, as we’ve been through that issue countless times on this blog.

  • dan

    What does salvation mean for us and our country?

    Good and challenging questions.

  • RedMaistre

    I like his statement that liberation theology is finding interest among the young, not because I know or don’t know if the youth care much about liberation theology specifically, but their is certainly a rising interest in fundemntal changes to the social political order after a decade of imperialist war and economic mismangment.

  • brettsalkeld

    I also think that the idea of a homegrown liberation theology in America is a fascinating one. Though it would probably need a different name to get off the ground.

  • RedMaistre, yes, it is an interesting comment, especially in light of the mantra we hear about young people being primarily interested in “traditionalist” Catholicism vs. “Vatican II Catholicism.” (Not saying those are necessarily helpful categories, but this is the way it is usually framed.) While there is some truth to that, it is also true that young people are discovering liberationist/progressive/radical Catholicism as well, and that indeed for some it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other. And the people repeating that mantra are usually not people who spend much time with young people, such as college professors or campus ministers.

  • What does salvation mean for us and our country?

    Yes, and especially what does salvation require of us in north america?

    I also think that the idea of a homegrown liberation theology in America is a fascinating one. Though it would probably need a different name to get off the ground.

    I was puzzled by the interviewer’s question there as well as Lee’s response. There have been american versions of liberation theology since at least as long as, say, Latin American liberation theology has been around. I believe James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, the inaugural text of american Black Theology came out the same year or just before Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation. That’s just one example.

  • dan

    “especially what does salvation require of us in north america?”

    We need to recognize that all citizens require access to opportunities in our technology driven world and economy. That requires access to education beginning a very young age, and that requires society (us) to support parent(s)/family structures with the ability to nourish and support that quest.

    With a drop out rate of over 30% in the US, said access is clearly being denied to far too many. And too many children reside in family situations that are undesireable.

    How to break this depressing cycle which can impact generation after generation? One teacher, who taught in a poor neighborhood, told me that she wished her public school had a dormitory for students to go to at night because for many in her class home life was not conducive to learning.

    Yes that is radical and (sigh) unrealistic, but I see education as a key to opening doors (and not just economic ones). Living in the East Bay of the San Francisco area, it is disheartening to see the same schools fail and fail again, decade upon decade, in the midst of so much wealth and feel-good political intentions.

    Something radical needs to be done to break the cycle.

    Ok, that is just one idea for our salvation.

  • Ronald King

    RedMaistre, I totally agree with your two opening statements. I know nothing about liberation theology so my comments come from ignorance of this theology and are based on the psychology of human development.
    One point I would like to address is the connection I see between what I think is liberation theology and solidarity.
    Wojtyla wrote about solidarity being the highest form of human relationship that unites each of us to serve unselfishly for the common good of the other.
    How is this not liberation theology? The psyche of the hierarchy seems to be based on a fear of the passions that resulted in an emphasis on self-mastery without a proper understanding of the passions. These passions are first related to human relationships and the God-given need to be loved and to love. If this is not fulfilled at critical developmental stages then the relationship to self and others becomes a fear-based oriented perspective that seeks to control the self and the other as a means of creating a sense of safety that may prevent potential harm first to oneself. One of the outcomes of this interpersonal style is the development of a hierarchy whose purpose is to maintain order and safety. However, the danger in this hierarchy is the misunderstanding of the passions and their repression. The hierarchical structure is the same whether it is in the church or in the state. It is political no matter what we may name it.
    The effect of Christ is both personal and political. There are no limits to His influence. It seems that liberation theology is liberation from the history of unconscious transgenerational fear that exists within the hierarchy of the church that limited the expression of Christ’s Love for all of His Creation. This liberation would seem to unite us to all of Creation for the common good.

  • Thales

    A christology that does not include the political dimension of the life of the historical Jesus is, quite simply, heretical.

    But if Michael doesn’t believe in the Church’s teaching on angels, why can’t someone not believe in the Church’s teaching on the political dimension of the life of the historical Jesus? 🙂
    (Just a little fun from the demon/angel thread.)

    But seriously, my uneducated opinion on liberation theology is exactly what Brett said in his first comment, about some theologians having gone beyond the bounds of orthodoxy and some having given very useful reflections on the gospel – again, Brett said it better than I could.

    • But if Michael doesn’t believe in the Church’s teaching on angels, why can’t someone not believe in the Church’s teaching on the political dimension of the life of the historical Jesus? 🙂
      (Just a little fun from the demon/angel thread.)

      I know you meant that to be a joke, but just in case there is any question about it, for you or any other reader, rejection of the political dimension of Jesus’ life is a rejection of his humanity, or at least constitutes such an abstract understanding of humanity such that it amounts to a rejection of it. Of course, the rejection of Jesus’ humanity is heresy.

  • RedMaistre

    AT the risk of being the awkward, boring Marxist in the room, I don’t think any genuinely Christen society will be created in North America until the issue of class hierarchy, a profit driven system of production, socially constructed alienation, and the possibles of the expansion of democracy in all areas of life are seriously addressed.
    It’s telling about the hold of capitalist ideology in the American psyche that most liberation theology produced in America is focused on issues of gender and race as opposed to the more fundamental issue of class.

  • It’s telling about the hold of capitalist ideology in the American psyche that most liberation theology produced in America is focused on issues of gender and race as opposed to the more fundamental issue of class.

    RedMaistre, you might be interested in the work of theologians like Joerg Rieger and Ivan Petrella who discuss this very point. Petrella agrees that class is more fundamental. Rieger, I would say, argues that class is just as fundamental but I don’t think he would say more fundamental.

  • Brett said it better than I could.

    Having known Brett for several years now, he usually says things better than any of us could!

  • RedMaistre

    Ronald King, that an excellent point, that the hierarchy is partially motivated by fear of what some might call “titanism”, a radically non-theistic and non-loving understanding of human autonomy. However as you note, this can in turn lead to creating a lack of self knowledge of the passions within the Church, their repression, and ultimately, a limited understanding of the implications of the Incarnation.

  • RedMaistre

    Thanks for the reading suggestions, by the way, I will look into them.

  • digbydolben

    RedMaistre, you’ve just joined Ron King, bretsalkeld and MM on my list of favourite commentators here. I hope to read much more of your input; it’s valuable.

  • RedMaistre

    digbydolben, thanks for the compliment. I have always enjoyed following this blog; I hope in the future to be an active (and hopefully worthwhile) speaker in its discussion. (Sorry if that sounded pompous)

  • I’ve fallen off the list 😉

  • Ronald King

    RedMaistre, You cannot be pompous if you are concerned about being pompous. I second digby.
    Henry, YOU ARE ON MY LIST OF FAVORITES. Now I do not know if that is a good thing:)

    • Ronald

      BTW, thanks. Of course I wasn’t upset, since I find “favorite” lists are “of the moment” kind of thing.

  • David Raber


    The problem with the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, before Christ returns, is that some people are not going to like it–even the Kingdom of God! People are sinful. So what is it for these people? Re-education camps? The stake?

    Because of the fallen state of humanity and the world, there will always be limits to what the Church can accomplish in this world. Still, we can do a thousand times better than we are doing now, and perhaps some of the insights of liberation theology will help us along that way. These insights do not include God-is-on-our-side self-righteousness (aka the sin of pride) or a kind of idealism that is totally unrealistic.

  • RedMaistre

    Christianity is a “kind of idealism that is totally unrealistic” by the world’s standards or it is nothing at all, except another ideological drug for whoever has power over the weak, the lost, the blinded, and the enslaved.
    As to the matter of what to do people that oppose the kingdom, the primary means at our disposal is to convert them over by example of our love and righteousness before God and man. However, this love, this righteousness may also compel one to armed resistance, to just war, against the regime of the oppressors, exploiters, and imperialists. For he “hath cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted them up of low degree”.

    “God is one our side self righteousness”: How is it presumptuous, how is it self righteousness, to demand what God has already promised to us, and has given us the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish ? Through the Holy Spirit, we are collectively the Body of Christ; where we are joined in brotherly love, there is God. We certainly are more than capable, if we but trust in faith the decrees of God, of doing are part to fulfill the coming of the Kingdom here and now. God is certainly on our side, we just are unwilling accept the heavy duty this fact imposes on all who lay claim to name of Christian.

  • Ronald King

    David R., As I think about idealism the thought came to me that since we are created in the image and likeness of God we then would have the image of and the desire for the ideal. Idealism, therefore, needs to be addressed from the perspective of being in the image of God. I believe that idealism now is being addressed from a fallen nature’s perspective and thus cannot be appreciated nor understood as it needs to be.
    I believe that we must always pursue the ideal.