Liberation Theology is a notion born out of the painful colonial legacy of Latin America. Despite gaining evidence from their colonial masters, the Spanish, the new leaders behaved like the former colonial masters. This is the legacy left behind the the colonizers.
The tactic of divide and conquer where they favored the local elites and marginalized the majority who are shunted to the lower strata of society, thereby creating a caste system of sorts that saw an unequal distribution of wealth made even worse by American intervention through “Dollar Diplomacy” and at the height of the Cold War, supported right-wing dictatorships which they saw as the “lesser evil” as opposed to local communist movements in the name of containment. Whether working with Marxist guerrilla movements or acting independently, Liberation Theology in name began around the 1950’s though it had been around much longer.
This concept combined Christian teachings with Marxist doctrine. As the name suggests, it is meant to “liberate” the poor, not only spiritually but materially from their plight (Petrella vii). Liberation Theologists put forward the idea of Jesus Christ as a “real” liberator who came to free the masses from their plight since is stated in the Bible that “Blessed are the lowly; they shall inherit the land. ” (New American Bible, Matt. 5:5). It can be inferred here that there is more to Jesus in his role as the Savior or Messiah.
Liberation Theologists encouraged many to read the Bible but at the same time “read between the lines” to see that Christ empowers or encourages believers to fight for social justice and give preference to the poor for they are the ones who have less in life. In a way, Christianity is empowering the masses since the elite-backed regimes will not. As a result, the Bible is therefore interpreted in a different way and clerics who subscribe to Liberation Theology end up siding with armed rebel groups in a rather awkward partnership that puts them in a very comprosing situation as far as their vocations are concerned.
The rationale is that the governments, supported by the elites represent the hypocrites Christ rebuked in the Bible and His notion that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” is seen in a Marxist context as the time to rise up and be truly free from poverty and oppression. However, Liberation Theology was not without its critics. The Catholic Church itself, led by the Pope (John Paul II), strongly ctiricized Liberation Theologists for hijacking Christian teachings to serve political purposes, especially Marxism.
They criticize its rather ironic collusion with Marxism which opposes any form of religion, calling it an “opiate” of society in giving false hopes or a vehicle of deceit to keep the masses poor. The Church has not forgotten the “sins” of Marxism in persecuting religion and therefore regards it as “evil” and those who subscribe to Liberation Theology could be considered being on the wrong side of history, if not faith. The Bible again is used to disprove the notion of Liberation Theologists when Christ rebuked Peter by saying, “Get out of my sight, Satan!
You are not judging by God’s standards but by man’s” (Matt. 16:23). Furthermore, Christ also said to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:21). It can be inferred here that the Church hierarchy does not approve of the supposed “well-meaningness” of clerics subscribing to this notion of Christ as a revolutionary for the Church as always upheld that Christ came to save mankind from the wages of sin which is death, not to lead a revolt and become a king in a temporal sense (Petrella 121-122).
It also did not help with the fact that socialist regimes began collapsing in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall which symbolized the separation between democratic and non-democratic regimes, culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “heart and soul” of Marxism. With the lose of their chief sponsor, Marxist regimes, even those in Latin America, fell and along with it the loss of credibility of Liberation Theology.
In addition, the Church itself has adapted liberationist notions that are pro-poor and even created councils and commissions that address the needs of the margnialized peoples of the world, further emasculating Liberation Theologists and taking away what ever power or influence they have in stirring up the masses (Petrella 2, 121-122). At this point, one would wonder where would Liberation Theology go from here. According to Ivan Petrella, Liberation Theology must reinvest itself to ensure its continued relevance and not become an anachronism.
He further stated that the present is the opportune time to begin, especially in this day and age of globalization. Much of the world is trying to be competitive to meet world-class standards but the flaw seen here is that this competitiveness would leave behind those who cannot keep up and will therefore be marginalized. However, he pointed out that the current approach they are taking to reinvent themselves are incorrect or improper and in his work, The Future of Liberation Theology, he showed the shortcomings of Liberation Theologists in their attempt to reinvent itself.
One attempt to reinvent itself is to reassert its core ideas but at the same time distancing itself from Marxism where it is often associated, especially the growing inequality caused by globalization makes it even more relevant than ever (Petrella 3). One of the mistakes in this approach is that Liberation Theologists seem to have difficulty spearating itself from its Marxist ties as it still continues to see things through the prism of Marxism in their pursuit of social justice.
It still maintains its antagonistic stance towards capitalism, thereby becoming more of a hindrance on the ideal essence of Liberation Theology which truly views it from a Christian perspective (Petrella 69). Furthermore, Liberation Theologists have not provided their own model society which is still tied to Marxist utopia – a classless society. In their attempt to reassert their ideas, Liberation Theologists fail to come up with an approptiate response to the cooption of their ideas by democratic institutions and even by the Church.
It further contributed to the cooption by eliminating the dichotomy created by the “old school” Liberation Theologists but unfortunately failed to capitalize on it as it was seized by its perceived “enemies” especially in the part where the distinction between reform and revolution becomes blurred and its “enemies” realize that the ideas of Liberation Theology are “useful” to their purposes without worrying about revolution which is anathema to them and emphasizing the reform component (Petrella 122-123).
What is proposed is that Liberation Theologists should reorient their way of thinking where they should stop regarding the concept of liberation as a theme but a guiding principle and must be politically neutral. This way, it can be employed by any political ideology that has social justice in its agenda and is not strictly limited to Marxism or socialism for that matter (Petrella 4). Petrella also encourages an open-minded appraoch for Liberation Theologists in order to remain relevant.
He argued that democracy and especially capitalism, is not one-dimensional as they usually regard it to be but rather multi-dimensional. Capitalism in the United States is different from that of Germany and Japan and should not be generalized or viewed in absolute terms. Another point Petrella raised that supports Liberation Theology’s continued relevance is that it can still transform society though not in a sweeping manner but in a methodical manner by changing the laws of society rather than calling for defiance or revolution, let alone activism (124).
It can be surmised that what Petrella is suggesting is that Liberation Theology do away with revolution and even “civil disobedience” as the approach but rather work within the system. Liberation Theologists should find allies in mainstream politics whose ideology and platform are attuned to theirs and create an alliance with them. By doing this, they not only scored a moral victory but a political victory as well, something that has eluded them for decades of trying with revolutionary movements.
Borrowing ideas from noted Liberation Theologist Leonardo Boff, Liberation Theology is all about mediation – to know and understand oppression and society’s ills, reorienting it in a Biblical context without trying to intertwine it with Marxism and through this purview come up with appropriate measures to address these problems short of fomenting unrest and revolution. In conclusion, by looking at Petrella’s proposed solution, Liberation Theology stands a chance of living up to its true billing.
But as he warned, it must really distance itself from Marxism, the first challenge and really look at problems from Christian context free of any ideology. Rather, it political ideologies must be assimilated by it rather than the other way around and by doing do, become part of mainstream politics in the pursuit of real social justice as Christian teachings define it. Works Cited Petrella, Ivan. The Future of Liberation Theology. Hampsihre: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004.