Liberation Theology, another pointless Christianity thread – BluJay – Dec 10

I mentioned liberation theology in a previous thread, and a couple people actually seemed interested, so I decided I would make a post educating people about what Liberation Theology is, its history, criticisms, and some scriptural basis. This will probably just descend into another bickering Christianity vs atheism argument, but some people were interested, so maybe someone will get something out of it.

What is Liberation Theology?

In the 1960’s pastors and priests in Latin America became increasingly aware that most of their parishioners lived in abject poverty, and the church was the only community organization available to those people. They became increasingly aware that to preach only of the salvation of their souls while doing nothing to alleviate the needs of food, shelter and human dignity was both hypocritical and even blasphemous. Out of this arose a new understanding of the work of the church, interpreting the teachings of Jesus Christ with a focus on liberating the people of the world from oppression. This movement was eventually called Liberation Theology. Gustavo Gutierrez, author of A Theory of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation, states liberation has three dimensions:

1. Political and social liberation, eliminating the causes of poverty and injustice
2. Emancipation of the poor and the oppressed
3. Liberation from sin and a re-establishment between God and his people

Gutierrez sums it up as the “the preferential option for the poor,” in that those from rich nations have a moral obligation to offer dignity and economic support to the poor.

Liberation theology states that God is found in humanity, and not revealed in the orthodoxy. God is found in the course of human history. God is not a solid, immovable entity outside of time, but the driving force of temporal now, and to understand God, one needs to focus on the world as it is today and find him in it. God is found on the crosses of the oppressed, and not in beauty, power, or wisdom.

Ultimately, liberation theology has become more of a spectrum, with various theologians going from extreme humanism to just acknowledging a need to reach out to the poor. What remains though, is that Christians need to have a social impact in the world, in light of the disparity between the developed and developing world.

A Brief History

Populist governments in the 1950s and 60s such as Perón in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, and Cárdenas in Mexico worked to industrialize their societies in ways that benefited the upper class while further marginalizing a large segment of the peasantry into rural backwaters or urban shanty towns. Their entire economies were subsidiary to wealthier developed nations excluding the vast majority of the population. This led to a number of strong popular movements seeking to change the economic structure of their country. The success of Cuba inspired many armed uprisings aimed at creating socialist inspired regimes, and a great pre-revolutionary atmosphere among the people.

In this same atmosphere of social and political upheaval, the Roman Catholic Church itself was re-examining the social element of the church. The Second Vatican Council stated that the church needed to better dialogue with the modern world, leading the church into a new era of freedom from the previously very closed, baroque face of the Church. European theologians such as Jacques Maritain, Mounier, and Henri de Lubac put focus on opening the church. These changes inspired numerous organizations such as the Young Christian Workers and the Movement for Basic Education, which focused on promoting understanding and improving the living conditions of people.

This new found freedom led to Latin American theologians being able to focus on the pastoral problems of their countries. From 1959 to 1964, meetings in Brazil led to writings on the need for a Christian ideal of history, urging personal engagement in the world backed up by current social science. It began with a number of books from authors such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Rubem Alves, and many more.

Shortly, many of these theologians realized that just writing about helping the poor was hypocritical and became pastors themselves. Many of them would become involved in matters of education, trade union politics, and community organization. The focus became less on the orthodoxy and doctrine of the church but on the practical action of what the Church should do (known as praxis). Organizations sprung up focusing on many social issues, from black unity, to defense of slum dwellers, to marginalized women, to Amerindians, and so on, all focused on the oppressed and poor.

Outside of Latin America, Liberation Theology was met with limited acceptance. Meetings between Latin American Liberation Theologians and those of other oppressed groups such as the United States black liberation, feminist movements, and so on helped bring the concepts to a more global focus. However there was criticism from Rome. While the Magisterium approved of the purpose of Liberation Theology, it sharply criticized the acceptance of Marxism as a dominant principle.

Marxism? In my Christianity?

Yes, you heard that right. Social sciences and socialist upheavals in Latin America during this time period influenced the theologians at the time. The Marxist principle that man’s wholeness can be realized only through overcoming the alienating political and economic structures of society is at the core of Liberation Theology. For one, Marx stated “Hitherto philosophers have explained the world; our task is to change it.” Liberation theologians came to the same conclusion, noting that it is hypocritical to preach good news to the poor and do nothing to improve their situation, so many of these theologians became active.

Liberation theology employs a Marxist style analysis of society, dividing societies into classes of the oppressed and the oppressor. This political and social oppression, man’s inhumanity towards man, is interpreted as sin. This conflictual sociological analysis is meant to identify the injustices and exploitation within the historical situation.

Both Marxism and liberation theology condemn the current state of the Church for maintaining the status quo and legitimizing the power of the oppressor. Where the two schools differ is that Marx did not see the Church as a sociological tool that could be used in liberation of the oppressed, while liberation theologians, as acting members of the church, see the church as necessary in bringing about the liberation of the poor. They do not seek to remove Christian tradition, but use it along with the tools of Marxist thought to analyze the social situation and work towards political and economic action. Theologians go a step further than Marx as well in that they believe that liberation goes beyond economic infrastructure.

Scriptural Support

Any talk of theology should have some scriptural support of some kind. First something from the old testament:

Isaiah 58 posted:

1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.

… lets skip ahead a bit …

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Here God is condemning the nation of Israel for going through the motions of worshiping God, but ignoring those around them who are in need. There’s more in the old testament as well, but I don’t want to throw too much scripture up here, so let’s jump to Jesus teaching.

Luke 4 posted:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Here Jesus states his mission on Earth was one of liberation. Let’s look at one of his parables, the Sheep and the Goats.

Matthew 25 posted:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Jesus states that we must be good to the needy. Saying that when one does something for some one in need, they are doing it for God. Lastly, lets look at the early Church, and see how they organized themselves socially and economically (before Christianity became the state religion).

Acts 4 posted:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Descriptions of the early church show that it was built of small communities built up of people who communally shared all their possessions so that no one among them was poor. Hopefully this gives some background to what the liberationists goals and motivations are from a biblical perspective. That’s enough scripture for now, there’s more that’s relevant but this post is already long enough.


As theological ideas go, liberation theory is fairly young, only being formalized in the 1970s. Since that time, it has undergone a large amount of criticism, mostly from the more conservative schools of thought. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) condemned liberation theology in 1984 as heresy, as it reinterprets the historical teachings of the church of uses Marxist thought as a tool. He also criticized liberation theology as not being a grass roots movement of the poor, but rather a cultural imposition on them created by Western intellectuals.

A number of liberation theologians actively participated in revolutions in their nations, many Christians condemn this support of violent revolution and that this is not the proper way to reach out to the oppressed. Ultimately, most of the criticism is anti-Marxist.

A third criticism from Christian circles states that liberationism is something that can be done by people, and could remove God from the picture. This argument is not entirely accurate, as most liberationists still believe in the salvation of the human soul, but you cannot ignore the physical needs.

Further Reading
If you’re still interested in this there are a number of books you can read, though many of them are in Spanish or Portuguese, here are some you can find in English.

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theory of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation
This is the book that really codified liberation theology, and is probably the jumping off point

Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology

Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth

If you want to see a practical application of liberation theology in the nation of Haiti, I’d recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder, a nice easy read about Paul Farmer who lives out liberation theology in a seemingly hopeless day to day struggle to heal the sick in free clinics and in prisons around the world.

Well I don’t think I’m much of a writer, but hopefully somebody learned a little something. I didn’t even touch on the martyrs, such as Oscar Romero, so there’s a ton more information out there. I’ll try to answer any questions you may have, when I’m around. Enjoy the inevitable atheism/dawkins arguments.