Liberation Theology—Will It Help the Poor?
Millions ‘living in dirt-floored stick houses work incredibly hard for just the necessities of life: they carry water; they travel by foot, by horse, by oxcart; they eat rice, beans and bananas. Although the land around them is rich, they know that they will probably always be poor. And so out of poverty, out of struggle, out of the worst kind of oppression, a new form of “the ancient church” is being born.’—The Christian Century.
“THE future of the church seems to lie with the poor.” So reports Newsweek magazine. Some believe that this “new church” working for liberation may be “the single best hope” for the poor and for bringing a peaceful change to their countries. Is it?
First, let’s examine liberation theology from the supporter’s viewpoint. Why is armed struggle at times deemed necessary to liberate the poor? What conditions are said to justify liberation theology?
Poverty and Oppression
Two thirds of the world’s population—mostly in Latin America, Africa, and Asia—live in degrading poverty, and reports of political violence from these continents are common. For “this downtrodden people,” poverty, suffering, and captivity have always been a way of life. Here are some reports:
◻ Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff says that in his country “a peasant is murdered every 22 hours.”
◻ “Nicaragua is attempting to organize a nation in the interest of those who have been held down for generations—80 per cent of the people.” Yet, more than 40 percent of the country’s economy is reportedly used for military defense.
◻ According to Mexico City’s daily El Universal, 40 million people are said to live in poverty due to “social injustice.” Forty percent of the population is said to be capable of reaching “minimum levels of subsistence,” while only 18 percent has a “balanced diet.”
◻ One report states that in Guatemala 80 percent of the cultivable land belongs to just 2 percent of the population. Of children under five years of age, 81 percent suffer from malnutrition. During the past 30 years, there have been 100,000 acts of political violence and 38,000 kidnappings.
◻ In the Philippines, 2 percent of the population possesses 75 percent of the riches. “If we are not going to solve that,” says Filipino nun Mary John Mananzan, “we are not going to solve anything!”
People in many lands are said to live in constant fear of the authorities, unofficial armies, and vigilante groups. Thousands have taken refuge in nearby countries.
This is why some Catholic prelates are “taking the part of the poor.” “We have heard a lot about confessors, virgins and prophets,” says Boff, but “what about the peasants and laborers?” Yet, what do liberation theologians prescribe to remedy this situation? What does ‘taking sides with the poor’ mean?
The Third-World Struggle
“Poverty is an injustice” plead liberation theologians. So the “preferential option for the poor” is to “help them search for a dignified life that they have a right to.” In his book The Power of the Poor in History, Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, considered to be the father of liberation theology, says that “today more than ever before, it is important to belong to those who resist, who fight, who believe and hope.” But according to liberation theologians, this is possible only through “the realization of social justice through deep structural transformations of society.” How is this being done in some areas of the world?
◻ In Haiti, the Catholic Church is said to have helped topple the Duvalier “tyranny.”
◻ Manila’s Jaime Cardinal Sin is reported to have done “more than anyone else in the Philippines to bring down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.”
◻ Explains Bonganjalo Goba of South Africa: ‘Our experience is that of a people arriving with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, promising to build God a church if he gives us the land.’
But poverty is just one of the problems. Illiteracy, unemployment, hunger, and sickness are also the results of a poor socioeconomic system in many lands. Consequently, the poor and oppressed are fighting back.
Yet, how do liberation theologians, such as Gutiérrez and Boff, reason on the matter using the Bible?
Liberation Theologians and the Bible
“Liberation is an essential part of the Bible,” explains South Korean Catholic priest Augustine Ham Sei Ung. But in order to explain it, Gutiérrez says that “history . . . must be reread from the side of the poor.”
Thus, liberation theologians claim that certain Bible accounts, such as that of “the liberation of Israel,” are political actions. “God . . . reveals himself through . . . ‘the poor’ and ‘the least,’” says Gutiérrez. “If the church wishes to be faithful to . . . God . . . , it must become aware of itself from beneath, from among the poor of this world.” So “God’s love for his people,” they reason, “could be manifested politically” today as well.
How do liberation theologians feel about the relationship between the Bible and politics? Leonardo Boff explained to Awake! that “it is not the Bible’s function to be a book of inspirations of political methods and political alternatives; rather, the Bible is a source of inspiration in the search for more righteous human relationships.” Yet, what are the results of the clergy’s participation in social reform?
Violence often leads to death. Not to be overlooked is the fact that the clergy have had a free hand in world politics for centuries. They have aligned themselves with the kings of the earth and dictators or elite ruling classes who have crushed the poor people. As a result, many lives have been lost.
A “Preferential Option”?
Modern “liberation movements” are no exception. They too have led to many deaths. As Gustavo Gutiérrez admits: “Today, worsening hunger and exploitation, as well as exile and imprisonment . . . , torture and death . . . , make up the price to be paid for having rebelled against a secular oppression.”
So, really, no human theology can remove mankind’s anguish. As long as greed and hatred exist, there will be a need for something better. But is there a better option for the poor?
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“It is important to belong to those who resist, who fight, who believe and hope.”—Gustavo Gutiérrez