Ask Ivor

Debra asks about liberation theology.

Liberation theology is a Christian school of thought that maintains that it is God's will that oppressed people be liberated, and that Christians should help effect those liberations.

For much of its history, the Christian church has emphasized submission to government, echoing the words of the apostle Paul: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."

What has been often overlooked is that this instruction by Paul is only a half-truth: the apostles themselves, when coming into conflict with the governing authorities, did not submit, but continued on with their proscribed behavior. The apostles defended their rebellious actions with the slogan: "We must obey God rather than men!"

The Bible recognizes that governments can be unjust, and it is not shy with its criticism. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, delivered this criticism from God: "See how each of the princes... uses his power to shed blood.... They have oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow.... You take usury and excessive interest and make unjust gain from your neighbors by extortion.... There is a conspiracy of... princes... like a roaring lion tearing its prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows.... Priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things.... Officials... are like wolves... they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain.... Prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations."

What responsibility do God's people have, in light of such government corruption? The psalmist Asaph gave voice to this command from God: "How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

Liberation theology, which draws upon the biblical theme of social justice, is primarily a Latin American development.

Latin America, like other parts of the "Third World," has widespread poverty. The average citizen is malnourished, lives in a home without interior plumbing, is uneducated, and has little access to medical care.

Latin American governments are mostly military dictatorships. Spies, secret police, and death squads are used to repress labor unions, political parties, student organizations, newspapers, and other potential sources of protest.

Latin America is over ninety percent Roman Catholic, and the Church, along with the military, and the wealthy elite (landowners and industry owners), is one of the three institutional powers in Latin America.

Historically, the Catholic Church was often a partner with the military and the wealthy elite, in oppressing Latin America: Columbus, the conquistadores, slavery, the plunder of land and food and precious metals, imperialism, colonialism, the patronato system, forced conversions, oligarchy... the Church was to some extent culpable in all of this.

In the last few decades, however, the Church in Latin America has undergone significant reform.

In 1962, in his opening address to the Vatican's Second Ecumenical Council, Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) spoke of "a new era" and "a new day dawning on the Church." He said that people "have a twofold obligation: as citizens of earth, and as citizens of heaven.... Temporal goods must be used in such a way as not to jeopardize eternal happiness." He spoke of "promoting concord, peace with justice, and universal brotherhood."

In an encyclical letter the previous year, Pope John had proclaimed: "Our heart is filled with deep sadness in contemplating the immeasurably sorrowful spectacle of vast numbers of workers in many lands and entire continents who are paid wages which condemn them and their families to subhuman conditions of life.... In some of these countries... there stands in harsh and offensive contrast to the wants of the great majority the abundance and unbridled luxury of the privileged few."

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), among other things, declared that the liturgy could be spoken in the common tongue rather than Latin, and encouraged the use of ethnic music and art; it asserted the common priesthood of the faithful and the missionary obligation of every member; it told the laity not to expect their pastors to have solutions for every problem, and exhorted them to form their own judgments with Christian wisdom; it insisted that every form of social discrimination should be overcome; it asserted the Church's solidarity with all of humanity, especially the poor and afflicted; it maintained that efforts to better one's circumstances in life accorded with God's will; and it recommended that management and labor share in the administration and profits of business, and defended labor unions and the rights of workers to strike.

Dom Helder Camara of Brazil was a leader of a group of Third World bishops at the Second Vatican Council that lobbied for a "Church of the Poor." They were instrumental in obtaining the necessary votes for the passage of the Council's progressive pastoral initiatives.

In 1967 Camara denounced the Brazilian government's imprisonment, torture, and murder of political dissidents, and he himself became a victim of government persecution.

To those who have accused him of being a communist, Camara says: "If I say my priority is to evangelize the poor, the rich in Latin America immediately say this is communism, because questioning structures that keep people poor is considered subversive"; "We have no objection to private property, provided that each person can own it"; "I am not an expert either in economics or sociology or politics. I am a pastor and I see my people suffering."

In 1968 the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops met in Medellin, Colombia. They felt that Latin America was "on the threshold of a new epoch... a time full of zeal for full emancipation, of liberation from every form of servitude...." The bishops said that God "sent his Son in the flesh so that he might come to liberate all men from the slavery to which sin has subjected them: hunger, misery, oppression, and ignorance...." The Conference discussed "power unjustly exercised," "neocolonialism," the "flight of economic and human capital," the "international imperialism of money," "institutionalized violence," the "vicious cycle of underdevelopment," and similar topics.

The Medellin Conference is viewed by historians as the final breaking of the centuries-old Latin American alliance of Church, military, and the rich elite.

Two practical solutions proposed at Medellin, and subsequently implemented, were "liberating education," and "communities of faith."

Funding for education is typically the lowest budget priority for Latin American governments (along with public health). Teachers are underpaid and poorly trained. Students are undernourished, and inattentive. Schools lack blackboards, books, chairs, and toilets. Seven out of ten Latin American children do not finish primary school.

Instruction is commonly by the rote method, in which students parrot the teacher but don't necessarily understand the meaning of the words.

The bishops at Medellin championed the recently developed system of Paulo Freire, Brazil's educational philosopher. Freire invented the technique of conscientizacion, wherein students are first taught the meaning and relevance of "generative" words, such as "hungry," "barefoot," "land," "rich," and "slum," and then taught concepts, such as democracy, nationalism, demagoguery, freedom....

The bishops also championed faith communities, as a solution to Latin America's shortage of clergy (one priest for every 6000 Catholics—compare with the U.S. ratio of 1 to 800). To avoid the "supermarket atmosphere" of huge parishes, where the priest becomes reduced to "a vending machine of the sacraments," small groups of people with similar incomes, educations, problems and hopes have been formed, with the laity taking on responsibility for catechism classes and religious meetings and often expanding, on their own initiative, to start schools, cooperatives and health clinics.

These communidades de base function as extended families, praying, working and living together, and sharing their material and spiritual resources.

The more educated liberation theologians tend to speak in a dry intellectual fashion.

Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru: "Peace presupposes the establishment of justice, the defense of the rights of the poor, the punishment of oppressors, and a life free from the fear of enslavement. A benighted spiritualization has often caused us to forget the human power embedded in the Messianic prophecies and the transforming effect they might have on unjust social structures."

Enrique Dussel of Argentina: "To the degree that the Church prophetically critiques the world—be it the bourgeois or socialistic state, be it a social class or any institution—it will fulfill its role or function. To the degree that it accepts the status quo for human reasons of false prudence, which is nothing more than immobility, astuteness, or cowardice, it will sin."

Jose Miguez Bonino, also Argentine: "The qualitative change involved in this shift to a faith that mobilizes people implies a different concept of the role of the Church and pastoral and theological interpretations."

Leonardo Boff of Brazil: "The Church as broader institution and the Church as a network of communities need not stand in mutual opposition or contradiction. The current historical situation requires that the Church be institutionally strong and united if it is to confront the authoritarian state and the totalitarian tendencies at work in that state.... At the same time, the base church community... is the vehicle of the incarnation of the gospel among the people and in the popular culture."

Compare the speaking style of these "big-name" theologians with this faith community of Nicaraguan campesinos, in the early 1970's, discussing Jesus' warning, during the Sermon on the Mount, "Woe to you who are rich..." (Lk 6:24-26):

ALEJANDRO: "For Christ humanity is divided into two well-defined classes, and he's in favor of one and against the other."

LAUREANO: "This is very revolutionary. He says that all those who are well-off are going to be screwed. This turns the tables completely."v

OLIVIA: "I think what Jesus is condemning in them is lack of feeling. Because you have to have a hard heart to be happy while others are hungry—maybe the very people that work for them."

MARCELINO: "Not only lack of feeling. It wouldn't be so serious if they enjoyed wealth that came down to them from heaven, but their wealth is produced by the labor of others. A man has a cotton field of two thousand acres, but he doesn't farm two thousand acres—other people farm the two thousand acres for him. And if he gives a party, it's with the product of that work. Instead of giving, they take away...."

FELIPE: "It seems to me that here Jesus has put himself on the side of the poor. But the Gospels can also be the liberation of the rich. Because this change, whether they like it or not, will make them fulfill the Gospels, even though by force. But we Christians must not wait for God to do this. We have to work for it. And I believe we have an obligation to work for the liberation of the rich...."

ALEJANDRO: "It's not as though when the Revolution comes they're going to be hungry or miserable. Nobody'll be miserable then. But when they lose their property they're going to feel as though they're miserable, as has happened to many who have left Cuba. And they're going to feel hunger, but it's only the hunger of their ambition."

It is from these communities of laypersons that the spirit of Vatican II and Medellin is being maintained and expanded. Those bishops and priests who resist reform are having to answer to the laity, who are no longer silent. Progressive clergy are learning that it is not their task to lead the laity, but to work alongside them. The traditional hierarchical structure of the Church is evolving more and more into a model wherein the leadership is shared with the people at the grass-roots.

Of course, there has been a price to pay for standing up to oppression in Latin America. Dozens of bishops, priests, nuns and laity have been murdered, and hundreds more have been arrested, tortured, exiled or disappeared.

Dom Helder Camara says: "Why should the church be surprised that it is persecuted? Did the Lord's warnings refer only to the first centuries of the church?"; "We shall not walk on roses, people will not throng to hear us and applaud, and we shall not always be aware of divine protection. If we are to be pilgrims for justice and peace, we must expect the desert."

Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan from Guatemala who was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, is intimately familiar with persecution. Her younger brother was kidnapped by government soldiers, tortured, and then burned alive in front of his family. The following year, her father was killed, with 37 others, for taking part in an unarmed occupation of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, protesting the massacres of the Mayans. Three months after that, Rigoberta's mother was kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and then left to die of her injuries while a soldier stood guard, preventing any of the villagers from giving her aid.

Hunted by the army, Rigoberta escaped to Mexico and dedicated herself to the struggle for human rights. Rigoberta says: "I am one who walks on the earth, not one who believes that the kingdom of God comes only after death. Through all that I have experienced, through so much pain and suffering, I learned what the role of a committed Christian is; above all, to condemn and denounce injustices against the people."

Oscar Romero of El Salvador, probably the most well-known of the Latin American martyrs (he was assassinated in 1980), was a popular proponent of liberation theology:

"When we struggle for human rights, for freedom, for dignity, when we feel that it is a ministry of the church to concern itself for those who are hungry, for those who have no schools, for those who are deprived, we are not departing from God's promise. He comes to free us from sin, and the church knows that sin's consequences are all such injustices and abuses."

"The church... believes that in each person is the creator's image and that everyone who tramples it offends God.... The church takes as spittle in its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion, all that human beings suffer.... Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being, abuses God's image, and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom."

"If some day they take the radio station away from us, if they close down our newspaper, if they don't let us speak, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left, a people without priests, each one of you must be God's microphone, each one of you must be a messenger, a prophet. The church will always exist as long as there is one baptized person."

"God's best microphone is Christ, and Christ's best microphone is the church, and the church is all of you."