Thursday, November 17, 2011

Liberation Theology at 40

by Benjamín Forcano (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Forty years ago, a new way of doing theology began, which has significantly influenced society and the Church. At age 40, some think it's finished and others congratulate it for the work it has done and the challenges it's facing in the future.

But liberation theology did not begin in the 70s. In 1492, the so-called discovery of America occured and in 1511, a Dominican friar, Montesinos, on behalf of his community and to the authorities of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic) said in reference to the indigenous people and the treatment they were receiving: "Are they not men?" It was the first question in the history of liberation, as Professor Reyes Mate rightly stated in a lecture on this topic.

The history of liberation theology can be said to have begun on December 11, 1511, 500 years ago today.

No doubt, there were Christians who -- and always from the experience of their faith -- saw theology as subordinate to some oppressive colonizing dictates. But their experience never stopped expressing itself in new theological categories and making itself public in society. Starting in the 60s, great expectations for change have been generated in the world, but Christians seemed to lack creativity and didn't fall into this change with their own alternatives for transformation.

It was then that Gustavo Gutierrez launched a new theological approach from the Latin American context: How does one present God in a bipolar world of rich and poor, where their relationship is logically one of injustice and exclusion, and how, then, is faith able to cause radical changes? These changes suggest that the poor, the disenfranchised, the discriminated cease to be so, which is not possible without turning the system around.

If we Christians have the Gospel as a foundation and measure, we find in it a statement that sounds like a manifesto, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. It cuts through all the schemes of vain theologies and marks the style to follow. Jesus asks: "In your opinion, which of these three who saw the half-dead man who had been assaulted by bandits, was neighbor to him?"

"The one who had compassion on him."

"Perfect. Go and do likewise." (Lk 10:30-37)

Feeling compassion and acting accordingly is a prerequisite for those who want to do liberation theology. More than cold and abstract reflection, liberation theology is an experience, a praxis of love, within which a new way of doing theology springs up naturally.

Obviously liberation theology is not an end in itself; it doesn't stop at explaining what has happened, but goes on to change and liberation in practice. Explaining the contradictory reality that exists and leaving it as is, is not liberation theology. The reality, unjustly interpreted and configured, needs to be changed to be consistent with God's plan, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and which is built on the basis of equality, justice, fraternity and liberty. Living out liberation through change and liberating practice is imperative for the Christian if he wants to be faithful to the plan of the liberating God.

To change reality, Christians must have an analysis of that reality which is woven around the wealth/poverty, North/South pairings, and show that this situation is not due to chance or the will of the gods but to the selfishness and greed of men, the domination that the strongest have established over the weakest and neediest.

This analysis is necessary to discover the real causes of oppression and those who are responsible for them and to avoid idealism. Marxism, not as a philosophy or world view of reality but as a science, can help a lot to gain knowledge of these causes and their dire consequences. It is valid to the extent that its analysis proves true in pointing to the genesis and effects of capitalism. Liberation theologians never took Marxism as a philosophical view of reality or used it uncritically.

Precisely because liberation theology aims to change what is oppression and injustice, it has been falsely attacked. This theology is demanding for the whole Church the proper place to which its faith assigns it based on following Jesus: to be poor, to live with the poor, and to commit itself to their liberation.

This repositioning of the Church is dangerous for the oppressors and for a Power-Church that is used to living in alliance with the powerful. Nothing is given in this theology that does not faithfully translate the radical message of Jesus and His Gospel. But those "challenged" by liberation theology and their dominion and the "media giants" took responsibility for broadcasting that liberation theology was unorthodox because of its Marxistization, its separation from the Church's magisterium, its promotion of the guerrilla, its merely temporal concept of salvation, because of the reduction of the historical Jesus to an earthly leader...

Later, many came to associate the fate of liberation theology with that of real socialism. The fall of the latter led them to believe that liberation theology fell in a parallel manner. Double trick: because socialism was not the same as state socialism and liberation theology was not its subordinate, but had its own origin and basis in the Gospel. As Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga rightly said: "The godfather of liberation theology is not Marx but God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

The fall of real socialism didn't canonize the intrinsic evil of capitalism, but rather encouraged us to delve deeper into the causes of oppression, now globalized. As always, economic structures count in the progress of society, and without them one can't understand the workings of the neoliberal system. But they aren't decisive nor do they choke out the influence of other factors in society -- the role of citizens, first of all. The current awareness can reverse the dominant Eurocentric view that has ruled the Earth for over 400 years. Man is not the owner and predator of the land, and he cannot continue exploiting it limitlessly and without solidarity.

Today, liberation theology acts on the fronts most in need of liberation: women/men, conflicting religions, harassed indigenous people, people in submission for centuries...

The new paradigm of liberation theology goes beyond all forms of subordination in the modern world, embodied in the capitalist society and system. Today's society with the role of citizens -- as it appears in the M-15 movement of the "outraged ones" -- is marking a turning point in face of the relationship of domination, established for centuries.

It is a fact that liberation theology does not seem to be providing eminent thinkers, as in previous years. Probably because its transformative sap is circulating at the bottom, more horizontally, permeating and directly driving the thoughts and action of "the voiceless".

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