Liberation Theology—A Solution for the Third World?
By Awake! correspondent in Mexico
TODAY, many Third World countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are impoverished and hindered in countless ways. People in many of these lands accuse their existing governments and local religious leaders of oppression. Others blame their current problems on foreign debt. However, there has arisen what some consider to be a solution for the Third World—liberation theology.
On December 8, 1986, more than 2,000 persons—mostly Catholics—met at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to discuss “Liberation Theology in the Third World.” The speakers—both Catholic and Protestant—were part of a group of religious scholars who were meeting in Oaxtepec, Mexico, for the Second Ecumenical Assembly of Third World Theologians. The first was held in Sri Lanka in 1981. What was the purpose of these meetings? To discuss the progress and future of liberation theology.
What impact is liberation theology having in the Third World? Is it accomplishing its goals? Does it have a future? The answers to these questions can better be understood by first examining what liberation theology is and what it intends to accomplish.
According to the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, Brazilian Catholic theologian Frei Betto says that liberation theology is a “critical reflection on the practice of liberating the poor, having as basis the Bible, Christian tradition, and the teachings of the ecclesiastical magisterium.” But what method is deemed necessary for this “practice” of liberation?
Liberation theologians agree that the use of force—physical violence—is the solution in some countries. So even revolutions against existing governments, such as those in Nicaragua and the Philippines, are not only approved by liberation-theology supporters but encouraged. This means active involvement in politics. Frei Betto claims: “It is impossible to live our faith in isolation from politics.” But what is the basis for their belief?
The Bible is said to be a source of “inspiration” in support of liberation theology. Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez—considered to be the “father of liberation theology”—says that “the liberation of Israel is a political action, the breaking away from a situation of . . . misery and the beginning of the construction of a just and fraternal society.”
Yet, much more important to liberation theologians is what they call “base communities.” These are groups where “pastoral care” of the poor is combined with education and calls for political action. In Brazil alone more than four million Catholics are members of some 70,000 base communities. Yes, action is being taken on the part of Third World theologians to achieve their goals.
Liberation Theology and the Vatican
The development of liberation theology, however, has not slipped by without controversy. On August 6, 1984, the Vatican issued its Instrucción Sobre Algunos Aspectos de la Teología de la Liberación (Instruction on Some Aspects of Liberation Theology), condemning it as “a perversion of the Christian message.” It states that “systematically or deliberately resorting to blind violence, from wherever it may come, should be condemned.”
Then in 1985 the Vatican took sharp action against “the most controversial liberation theologian,” Brazilian Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff, sentencing him to one year of “penitential silence.” But 11 months later a change occurred.
According to Newsweek magazine, ‘Rome had taken a new stand on liberation theology.’ Boff was granted “amnesty” by the pope, and on March 22, 1986, a toned-down Instrucción Sobre Libertad Cristiana y Liberación (Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation) was sent out from the church’s headquarters. It said that it is “fully legitimate that those who suffer oppression from the holders of wealth or of political power should act with morally licit means, in order to obtain the structures and institutions in which their rights may be truly respected.” “Armed struggle” was now deemed permissible. Pope John Paul II followed up this instruction with a letter to the Brazilian bishops stating that “Liberation Theology is not only opportune but also useful and necessary for Latin America.” But why the change in attitude?
According to the Catholic Church, the release of the second instruction was in order “to respond to the anxiety of contemporary man as he endures oppression and yearns for freedom.”
There are those who feel, however, that the church miscalculated the momentum of liberation theology and was taken by surprise. After Boff was penalized, two cardinals and four bishops traveled to Rome to defend him. Ten bishops signed a letter calling his punishment a blow to human rights. And Catholic priests all over the Third World seemed to be immersed in “liberation work.”
Who Is Right—The Church or Its Theologians?
It is apparent that the church, confronted with divisive elements within its ranks, is trying hard to uphold its authority. Boff and others are fighting hard to remold the church into what they think it should be.
But both have failed. In what respect? When asked what basis is used to measure the truthfulness of tradition and church dogma, Gustavo Gutiérrez explained to Awake! that truth “is a discernment of acceptance of a Christian community.” Yes, among other things, popular opinion and human wisdom are a basis for their argumentation, while the Bible is left in the shadows. This should never be. Why not?
Liberation Theology and the Bible
The Bible, and the Bible alone, is “inspired by God” and should “be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy.” (2 Timothy 3:16, The Jerusalem Bible) The Bible also warns that ‘the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.’ (1 Corinthians 3:19) So, what does God’s Word have to say about liberation theology?
Although the Bible does not use the term “liberation theology,” it does speak of liberation. In fact, one of the Bible’s strongest messages to mankind is that of liberation. (Romans 8:12-21) Yet, it must be remembered that the liberation of Israel from Egypt was through divine intervention. But when the Israelites acted independently of God, they were condemned by him and suffered.
Today, active religious participation in social movements often results in violence. But Jesus Christ was not interested in mixing religion and politics. When the apostle Peter resorted to “the sword” to defend God’s Son, Jesus rebuked him by saying: “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51, 52) This does not mean, however, that there is no hope that righteousness will be restored to earth.
According to the Bible’s promise, at God’s appointed time he will intervene in human affairs. “The wicked . . . will be cut off from the very earth; and as for the treacherous, they will be torn away from it.” (Proverbs 2:22) What will become of those who desire freedom from poverty and injustice? “The meek ones themselves will possess the earth, and they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace. The righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it.”—Psalm 37:11, 29.
Would you not enjoy living on earth under those marvelous conditions? Picture in your mind a world without poverty, international strife, racial discrimination, or oppression. But do not stop there. God’s Word guarantees that he will also remove sickness, pain, and sorrow. Even death will be a thing of the past! Will this not be the greatest possible expression of liberation?—Revelation 21:4.
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“Liberation Theology is . . . useful and necessary for Latin America.”—Pope John Paul II
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Jesus Christ was not interested in mixing religion and politics
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“It is impossible to live our faith in isolation from politics.”—Frei Betto
“The most controversial liberation theologian,” Leonardo Boff, was silenced by the pope for 11 months