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 Liberation Theology Minimizar
Ubicación: BlogsBlogs de Juan Stam    
Publicado por: juanstam 23/06/2008

Historical Context and Sources: The theology of liberation was a response to a very specific moment in history, both worldwide and in Latin America. Theologically, Vatican Council II, and its Latin American follow-up at Medellín, Colombia (1968), energized Roman Catholic theology with new vigor. From the protestant side, the Theology of Hope was important, both for its eschatology and its emphasis on the exodus from bondage. A second very important factor was the emergence of the ecclesial base communities. Facing a booming population explosion and a severe scarcity of vocations to the priesthood, the church opted to mobilize lay leaders and celebrate the word and the eucharist in the poor neighborhoods ("barrios") of almost every Latin American country.

A third factor was specially important. In the early sixties, the United Nations announced a new "Decade of Development" and U.S. president John Kennedy inaugurated the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps and related institutions, inspired by the developmentalism of W. W. Rostow and others. The model was Brazil, which soon began to experience an "economic miracle". The horizon was lined with industrial smokestacks but most of the profits went to foreign companies and a small managerial elite; what actually developed was not prosperity but poverty, the gap between rich and poor, and the slums. The theologians who had identified pastorally with the poor in their base communities abandoned the developmental model and adopted as their new paradigm integral liberation from oppression. Liberation theology was a pastoral response to this historical moment in Latin Americaa.

Core Concepts of Liberation Theology: Because liberation theology usually rejects any claim to a univocal, universal theological system, many prefer the plural term, "theologies of liberation". Nevertheless, a certain nucleus of core concepts, without which no one could be considered a liberation theologian, unite the movement. To analyze accurately this theology, its core concepts should be distinguished from other subjects of partial consensus but internal debate, as well as from the non-representative personal opinions of certain individual liberation theologians.

The basic common denominators of liberation theology center around their hermeneutics and methodology, rooted in contextual interpretation. Rather than theology's traditional goal of formulating an all-embracing system of doctrinal truths, unrelated to any specific historical situation, Latin American theologians began to undestand the theological task as that of relating faith to life and practice in the context of the specific realities of their own society in a continent with the highest percentage of professing christians in the world but also the most scandalous inequality of wealth anywhere on earth. This contextuality should not be misunderstood as provincialism, however, both because their theologizing is done in constant dialogue and debate with other theologies, and because their own contextual theology can then enter into inter-contextual (but not uncontextual or supercontextual) dialogue with the contextualized theologies of other geographical areas (especially Africa and Asia) and other specific contexts (blacks, women, native peoples) around the world. At the same time, this method of analysis has also demonstrated that north american and european theologies are in fact no less contextual to their own situation, although often less critically so.

Traditional theology, under the influence of Graeco-European philosophy, viewed ultimate truth as idea ("idealism"), accessible through intellectual analysis of one sort or another ("rationalism"), and therefore a process separate from action. Liberation theology sought to restore the biblical epistemology where theory and practice are two inseparable sides of truth (Hebr. 'Emet). Praxeological method in theology means that biblical and theology reflection cannot be separated from the goal of transforming lives and history (in biblical terms, integral mission). In Latin America, a continent of broadly generalized injustice and impoverishment which nevertheless claims to be christian, praxis inevitably centers on the biblical categories of justice, poverty and wealth, prophetic denunciation and promise.

This focus promotes a close correlation between biblical exegesis, theological reflection, historical context and christian praxis. This is understood as the hermeneutical circle, first formulated in Europe (Gadamar, Bultmann) as the circulation between the text and the Self. In liberation theology this is reinterpreted as the movement from biblical text to contemporary context and vice versa. This means reading each historical moment in the light of Scripture, and reading Scripture in the light of the specific context for their christian obedience to the Word. This also implies a hermeneutic of faithful rereading of ancient texts. Liberation theology contends that this is the essential hermeneutical method within the Bible itself (see e.g. Van Rad's Old Testament theology) and also of the best biblical and theological interpretation through the ages. This rereading must be faithful both to the original message (what God said in the past) and to its contemporary meaning (what God is saying to us now through the Scripture in today's reality). Applying these methods, liberation theologians have made valuable contributions to biblical scholarship (ejj. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Severino Croatto, Pablo Richard, José Porfirio Miranda, Carlos Mesters).

Salvation as Liberation: The history of Christian soteriology has always been structured in binomial pairs. The biblical message of salvation was born in the Abrahamic covenant with its sharp contrast of curse (Gen. 3-11) and blessing (12:1-3 and parallels; Gen 50:20). In the synoptic gospel the binomial pair is that of the present age and the age to come; in the Fourth Gospel, life and death, darkness and light; in Saint Paul, sin and justification; in Eastern Orthodoxy, mortality and immortality; in Luther, guilt and forgiveness, etc. Facing the injustice suffered by the popular masses in supposedly Christian Latin America, and inspired by the theology of hope, liberation theology adopted another soteriological binomial pair, that of oppression and liberation (Ex 2:23-24, 3:7-10, 16-22; 6:5-9). The Exodus paradigm is central to Old Testament Theology and the basis of most of Israel's feasts and its Sabbath and Jubilee Years, is affirmed by Christians in every celebration of Holy Communión and climaxes in the visions of John of Patmos (re-readings of the Exodus plagues; Rev 15:3-4). Its legitimacy cannot be questioned. On the other hand, to limit salvation to political and economic liberation alone (Israel was liberated in order to worship Yahveh) is a reductionism which most liberation theologians have avoided.

Consistent Rejection of Dichotomies: Another way to focus the definitive nucleus of liberation theology is through their attitude to numerous dualisms, derived in large part from Greek philosophy, which have permeated much of traditional theology. These new attitudes are themselves part of liberation theology. First, as indicated above, is a radical rejection of any dichotomy between theory and practice. Over against what could be called the "rationalistic idealism" (theological truth is idea/doctrine, arrived at exclusively by pure, objective intellectual effort), liberation theology proposes a praxeological epistemology in which thought and action, action and thought, theology and mission, are inseparably conjoined from start to finish. In this it appeals to Marx's classic eleventh thesis against Feuerbach, which transposed into theological terms could read: "Until now the theologians have contemplated the faith in order to explain it (systematic theology); the real task is to understand faith in order to transform history (mission)." This is not mere pragmatism, nor does it depreciate in any way serious intellectual endeavor, but it establishes an inviolable relation between thought and action, theology and ethics. faith and integral mission. It also implies a far greater respect for lay and peasant christians, who have not been exposed to the methods of systematic theology but have lived their faith and learned from the school of daily discipleship.

Also emphatically rejected is the traditional dualism of the individual and the community. Liberation theology rejects the radical individualism of modern, capitalist society. Biblically, person and society are bound inseparably together in corporate solidarity. Individualism and collectivism are two sides of the same false dichotomy. The individual can be a real person only within the nexus of interpersonal, social relationships. A society is a true community only when it nourishes the personal values of both the individual and the society. "Personal problems" (e.g. alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce) always have important social dimensions, and social problems are also personal. This implies a serious task of structural critique of society as basic to integral liberation.

Liberation theology also reinterprets more dialectically the relation between eternity and time and between heaven and earth. Like the Bible, it concentrates much less on atemporal celestial doctrines and much more on the action of God in history and in the world. It seeks to maintain a balance between the transcendence and the immanence of God, and understands transcendence less as "above" in a metaphysical and unhistorical sense and more as "ahead" in a trans-historical and eschatalogical sense (the new creation). Consequently, they reject any dichotomy between salvation history and secular history. There is only one history, not two. But not all history is saving history. The historical saving action of God is realized within the heart of secular history, as the inner of two concentric circles (cf. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time). With Abraham, God created a new history from within secular history and sent Abraham back into secular history as blessing to the nations.

All of the above imply a firm rejection of any dichotomy between faith and politics. While traditional theology tended to pride itself on being politically neutral and "objective", for liberation theologians this neutrality is itself a political option, and usually one of the worst. The biblical message is replete with political implications and demands about poverty, compassion and justice. Christians, and the Church, should be firmly committed to those biblical goals. But this should not imply a political reductionism. In the words of liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, "Everythings is political, but politics is not everything".

In summary, liberation theology proposes new methods and new agendas for doing theology. It has introduced "the poor", "structural evil" and "socio-economic transformation" as new loci for christian reflection. This new concentration implies a much broader use of historical and socio-analytical tools. Philosophy, the major ally of theology ever since the Apologists and the school of Alexandria, takes second place to history, sociology and political science as the major aids to the theological task.

Areas of General Consensus but Internal Debate: Liberation Theology is far from homogeneous, and has never sought to establish a unified "System" or a well-defined theological "School". Aside from the core concepts, summarized above, which unite the very diverse participants in this movement, few generalizations can be made, and false generalization is an ever-present temptation. This is particularly true on two highly debatable subjects: armed struggle and marxist ideology.

Liberation theologians, like Héldor Cámara of Brazil, often distinguish between oppresive violence by the powerful (structural violence), revolutionary violence aimed at liberation from the former, and repressive violence against those struggles for liberation. Others point out that the Hebrew words for violence consistently apply to oppressive and repressive violence but not to liberating armed struggle; hence, the book of Judges, so full of bloodshed, never calls this "violence" but "salvation". All liberation theologians denounce oppressive and repressive violence, and would sympathize one way or another with those who sacrifice their lives for freedom and justice. But the attitude toward "liberating armed struggle" is not uniform. Some, like Héldor Cámara of Brazil and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina, are consistent pacifists and reject all recourse to armed struggle. Most endorse armed struggle as a kind of variation of just war theory, but under strictly defined conditions which differ from one liberation theologian to another.

Attitudes to communism, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, also varied greatly. When Marx is brought into the discussion at all, most liberation theologians show a basic appreciation for the historical contribution of his thought. Engels and Lenin are more debatable; among later marxists, Gramsci is praised by many. But few of them were uncriticial admirerers of the Soviet Union; some were in fact frankly anti-Soviet.

In the light of these facts, it is inaccurate and unfair to describe liberation theology as "theology of violence" or "marxist theology". Such careless accusations only reveal a lack of understanding of what liberation theology is.

Some extreme, non-representative opinions: Most liberation theologians emerged from pastoral contexts, usually the neighborhood base communities, rural and indigenous or student pastorates. Others, fewer in number, arose primarily from the academic world of sociology, political and economic science and marxist theory. Not surprisingly, the former tend to be marked by much more biblical and theological emphasis and greater involvement in the religious community. The latter, while their contribution to liberation theology has not been insignificant, have sometimes been the source of aberrant statements which have misrepresented the best of liberation theology. One liberation theologian, for example, privately described God as "the revolutionary spirit of the proletariat".

We have already mentioned the temptations to reductionism of the gospel to socio-political and economic liberation alone. This has also led some extremists in the liberation theology camp to overestimate, and at times even absolutize, the revolutionary movements which they have endorsed. After the trimumph of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and later the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, some declared that the Kingdom of God had now arrived on earth, or equated these historical moments as the equivalent of the promised coming of the Christ.

Such opinions are clearly deviations from the core convictions of liberation theology, and are always promptly corrected by other liberation theologians. But enemies of liberation theology, who usually feel deeply threatened because their own conservative ideology is questioned, have found great delight in ferreting out every such aberration and joining them into a shocking "Anthology of heresies" in order to condemn the movement. To do so is even more irresponsible than to accuse all liberation theologians of being communists or promoters of violence. Every theological movement (for example, Calvinists, Arminians, pentecostalism) has had its extremists and deviants, but no theology should be judged by its worst aberrations.

The Future of Liberation Theology. From a political standpoint, history has not dealt kindly with liberation theology. It was born during the hope-filled days of Salvador Allende in Chile, who was promptly overthrown by the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Military dictatorships took over one Latin American country after another, and sophisticated electronic tortures were the common experience of those who struggled for freedom. Then hopes surged as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dynasty, but the Sandinistas began their administration under the dark shadow of the bitterly hostile regime of Ronald Reagan and were soon caught up in a bloody war with the U.S.-sponsored contra. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the "Special Period" in Cuba. In 1990 the U.S.-financed UNO party of Violeta Chamorro, complete with the political advisers of the U.S. Republican party, won a surprise victory over Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. Merely to have survived such a series of adversities could be seen as a vindication of the durability of the liberation cause.

In general, liberation theology has responded well to this series of crises. These bitter experiences have dampened considerably the bouyant optimism of their early years, as they have responded to new challenges and once again shown themselves to be truly contextual. Biblical dimensions have been deepened, political and economic viewpoints have become more moderate, with more tendency to recognize the importance of the market economy, when properly supervised by the state. Theories are less grandiose now and ideas of taking over the government, as in the past, are now almost totally abandoned; the idea now is to work from the ground up through ecclesial base communities, cooperatives, community development projects etc. An important task now is to nourish hope, to keep alive the dream of a new and better social order. The almost exclusive emphasis on the economic liberation of the poor has been broadened and enriched by emphasis on justice and equality for blacks, indigenous peoples, women, hispanics, the handicapped etc. Typical is the vision of the Mexican Zapatista movement for a "society where no one is excluded".

Conclusion: It can be said that liberation theology, while obviously not perfect, has made a valuable contribution to world-wide theology, from which all of us can and should learn. Despite its reverses, it has made lasting contributions to theology and, by all indications, will continue to do so.


José Miguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975)
Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminister 1984)
Robert McAfee Brown, Theology in a New Key (Philadelphia: Westminster 1978)
Orlando Costas, Liberating News (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans (1989)
Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino, Mysterium Liberationis, 2 volumes (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1993)
Marc H Ellis and Otto Maduro ed. The Future of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll NY:Orbis 1989)
Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll NY: Orbis 1973)
Richard Shaull, Heralds of a New Reformation (Maryknoll NY: Orbis 1984)

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Cometarios (2)  
Re: Liberation Theology    Por Jaime el 02/07/2008
Hermano Juan, por la relevancia extrema del tema es necesario traducir su artículo al español. Un abrazo fraterno y felicitaciones.

Re: Liberation Theology    Por Juan Stam el 02/07/2008
Gracias por tu correo, hermano Jaime, Hace años publiqué un breve artículo sobre el tema, y lo voy a colocar en este blog. Gracias por la justicia. Para seguir conversando, escríbeme en juanstam@gmail.com

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