Thursday, October 25, 2012

Forty years of Jesus Christ the Liberator

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

At the Jesuit Instituto Humanitas at Unisinos in São Leopoldo (Brazil) the 40th anniversary of liberation theology is being celebrated October 7 to 11. Its main Latin American representatives are present, especially its first formulator, the Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez. Curiously, in the same year, 1971, without knowing about each other, Gutierrez in Peru, Hugo Assman in Bolivia, Juan Luis Segundo in Uruguay, and I myself in Brazil, who are considered the founders of this kind of theology, published our writings. Might it not have been the irruption of the Holy Spirit blowing in our continent, scarred by so much oppression?

To circumvent the organs of control and repression of the military, every month in 1971 I published an article in a magazine for religious women, Sponsa Christi ("Bride of Christ") with the title, Jesus the Liberator. In March 1972, I gathered the articles together and ventured to publish them in book form. I had to hide for two weeks because the political police were looking for me. The words "liberation" and "liberator" had been banned and could not be used publicly. It was very hard for the lawyer of Editora Vozes to convince the surveillance officers that it was a book of theology, with many footnotes from German literature and was not a threat to the national security state.

What is the uniqueness of the book (now in its 21st edition)? Based on a rigorous exegesis of the Gospels, it presented a figure of Jesus as liberator from different types of human oppression. He had to confront two of them directly: a religious one, in the form of phariseeism in the strict observance of religious laws; the other, political, the Roman occupation that involved acknowledging the Emperor as "god" and aiding the penetration of pagan Hellenistic culture into Israel.

Jesus counters religious oppression with a higher "law", one of unconditional love of God and neighbor. The latter is, for him, any person near me, especially the poor and the invisible, those who don't count in society.

Against politics, instead of submitting to the empire of the Caesars, he sets proclaiming the Kingdom of God, a crime of high treason. This Kingdom involved a complete revolution of the cosmos, of society, of every person and a redefinition of the meaning of life in the light of God, called Abba, i.e. a loving father full of mercy, who makes all feel like his sons and daughters and like brothers and sisters to each other.

Jesus acted with authority and the conviction of one sent by the Father to free creation wounded by injustices. He showed power that appeased tempests, cured the sick, raised the dead, and filled all the people with hope. Something really revolutionary would happen: the emergence of the Kingdom that is of God and is also of humans through their commitment.

On these two fronts, he created a conflict that led to the cross. He didn't die in bed surrounded by disciples, but executed on the cross because of his message and practice. Everything indicated that his utopia had been frustrated. But, behold, something unprecedented happened: the grass didn't grow on his grave. Some women announced to the apostles that he had risen. The resurrection should not be identified with the resuscitation of a corpse, like Lazarus, but as the emergence of a new being, no longer subject to space-time and the natural entropy of life. Therefore he passed through walls, appeared and disappeared. His utopia of the Kingdom as transfiguration of all things, on not being able to be achieved globally, became real in him through the resurrection. The Kingdom of God is materialized in Him.

The resurrection is the greatest fact of Christianity, without which it is unsustainable. Without that blessed event, Jesus would be like so many prophets slaughtered by systems of oppression. The resurrection means the great liberation and also an insurrection against this kind of world. The one who rises isn't a Caesar or a high priest, but a crucified one. The resurrection gives meaning to all those crucified throughout history for justice and love. It assures us that the executioner does not triumph over the victim. It means the realization of the potential hidden in each one of us -- the emergence of the new man.

How do we understand this person? The disciples attributed every title to him -- Son of Man, Prophet, Messiah, and others. At the end they concluded that a human such as Jesus could only be God himself. And they began to call him Son of God.

To proclaim a liberating Jesus Christ in the context of the oppression that existed and still exists in Brazil and Latin America was -- and is -- dangerous. Not only for the dominant society but for that kind of Church that discriminates against women and lay people. So his dream will always be taken up again by those who refuse to accept the world as it is. Perhaps this is the meaning of a book written 40 years ago.

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