At risk of sounding like the parent who waxes nostalgic about walking eight blocks to school, back when I went to theological college in the 1990s, liberation theology was all the rage. It had been for 20 years. Seminaries glistened with its shiny, subversive ideas: what happens in this world is more important than what happens in the next; sin isn’t just individual, it’s systemic; the kingdom of God can be built here and now; the Bible’s main impulse reveals God’s “preferential option for the poor,” a decisive siding with the well-being of the powerless.
While liberation theology isn’t quite so top-of-mind anymore, it is thoroughly baked into some of the most exciting, emerging theologies of our time.
Liberation theology is a movement that sprung up within the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and ’60s. It emerged as a response to the crushing poverty and violence at the hand of nationalist military dictatorships in that part of the world. While Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez first coined the term in a speech in 1968, it was his book A Theology of Liberation that launched the movement in 1971.
From the outset, liberation theology and its strong critique of political and economic regimes — including the Catholic hierarchy — was controversial. It was criticized by a parade of Roman Catholic powers, most notably the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). In the wars and civil conflicts of the 1980s, liberation-minded priests were killed in Central American countries, perhaps most famously Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador. Christian base communities, established by liberation theology proponents, encouraged poor, disenfranchised lay people to study and act on scripture from the reality of their own experience. Base communities in Brazil, for example, are estimated in the tens of thousands — some as large as 100,000.
Despite its strength in numbers, some say liberation theology is petering out, largely because it didn’t spark the social overhaul its agenda called for. However, its ideological influence spans the globe. It hasn’t so much lost steam as converted it. Liberation theology courses through the veins of a number of theologies, including Minjung theology (theology of the people) in Korea, Dalit theology (theology of the untouchable) in India, and black, indigenous and feminist theologies. And it remains foundational in Latin American theology. As long as class and economic issues divide us, liberation theology remains a necessary voice.
For the average pew sitter, liberation theology continues to ask provocative, important questions: What are the crosses of suffering? What does it mean to bear the burden of suffering with each other, to struggle for justice even at great personal risk? What are we willing to sacrifice for resurrection?
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.