From Liberation Theology, Part 1

Lately, I have backtracked to books that have been suggested to me in the past. One of the books at the top of that list was Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. As the title tells us, this book traces the history of Liberation Theology through some of the authors and documents that have built it. Here, I do not intend to do a typical review, however; instead, I plan on pulling pieces that speak loudly and clearly and discussing them.  In addition, I am also going to pull from other famous Liberation Theology books.  This additional material should help to demonstrate the continuing power, impact, and relevance of Liberation Theology.

Ernesto Cardenal smirks at the Pope's admonishment. Liberation Theology marches on.
Ernesto Cardenal smirks at the Pope’s admonishment. Liberation Theology marches on.

(All quotes without author and title are from Liberation Theology:  A Documentary History.  In some areas, other books and authors will be quoted, as additional material; these quotes will list the author and title afterwards, as well as the page number.)

On ‘Fake Generosities’ and the Work for Peace

The first comes from a very influential educator who helped to lay the foundation for Liberation Theology, Paulo Freire, who is most famous for his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This quote comes from his essay “Conscientizing as a Way of Liberating.” It reads:

A North American theologian has called those rationalizations ‘fake generosities,’ because to escape my guilt feelings I go in for philanthropy, I seek compensation by almsgiving, I send a check to build a church, I make contributions: land for a chapel or a monastery for nuns, hoping in that way to buy my peace. But peace cannot be purchased, it is not for sale; peace has to be lived. And I can’t live my peace without commitment to humans, and my commitment to them can’t exist without their liberation, and their liberation can’t exist without the final transformation of the structures that are dehumanizing them. There is only one way for me to find peace: to work for it, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow human beings” (p. 12).

As an inner-city mission developer, I often attend meetings where I hear people talking about how some social service organizations simply throw money at an issue that human beings face. This quote by Freire reminds me of those instances where we have talked about “throwing money” as a “solution.” Instead, Freire advocates for “commitment” and “work[ing] for [peace], shoulder to shoulder with…fellow human beings.”  Many people have learned, and are eager to pass on, that throwing money at issues does not work alone.  Here, with Friere calling such a practice “fake generosities,” the point is made emphatically.  Instead of tossing resources like so many crumbs, we actually have to stand and walk beside people, like real brothers and sisters, which is incredibly easy to say but very difficult to do in actual practice.  It should be added here, however, that in the instances where I have seen accompaniment happen, it is amazingly powerful, a real religious experience.

Let’s keep going.

On the Effectiveness of the Bible

In a report on Basic Christian Communities, Carlos Mesters writes:

We find three elements in the common people’s interpretation of the Bible:  the Bible itself, the community, and reality (i.e., the real-life situation of the people and the surrounding world)…The people asked me to tell them the stories of Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, and Jesus.  That is what I did.  But in their group discussions and full meetings, the Bible disappeared.  They hardly ever talked about the Bible.  Instead they talked about real life and their concrete struggles.  So at the nightly review the local priest asked them what they had learned that day.  They quickly got to talking about real life.  No one said anything about the Bible.  Ye gods, I thought to myself, where did I go wrong?  This is supposed to be a course on the Bible and all they talk about is real life.  Should I feel upset and frustrated, or should I be satisfied?  Well, I decided to take it easy and feel satisfied because the Bible had achieved its purpose” (pp. 16-17).

Instead of being a forensic document, something that is meant only for historical analysis, the Bible, as Mesters sees it, is meant to be something that engages communities of people and their real-life situations.  When this happens, if talk begins to center around real life, as often happens in the inner-city churches that I have visited, that is okay.  The Bible is doing its work.  It is not a sign of failure for the conversation to turn to the world, rather this is the sign of success.  The Bible leads to relevancy.  It is not a history book or a science book, though we may find history and some science in the Bible.  Mainly, the Bible is about life, so we should not be surprised to see it bring people back to life, to new life, to fuller, deeper, more-real life.  This is what the Bible does with the help of the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

On an Older Model of Church

Much of the world was missionalized from within a definite model of the Church, namely, that of colonialism.  According to this model, the Church is present in the world by virtue of a pact or treaty with the state that provides for all of the Church’s needs and guarantees its existence.  There is, therefore, a relationship between two hierarchies, one civil and one religious.  Church, in this sense, is synonymous with hierarchy.  With the eventual end of colonial rule and the birth of various republics around the globe, the Church adjusted this model.  Taking on a slightly different cast, the Church allies itself with the dominant classes that control the state, organizing its projects around these classes, giving rise to colleges, universities, Christian political parties, and the like.  The Church now gives the following interpretation to its pact with the state: it wants to serve the people, the majority of whom are poor; they are in need and have no livelihood, education, or political strength.  In order to help these people, the Church approaches those who have the means to help them, that is, the upper classes.  The Church then educates the children of these upper classes so that, imbued with the Christian spirit, they may liberate the poor.  Following this, a vast network of assistance programs are established, leading the Church to become a Church for the poor rather than a Church with or of the poor” (Boff, Church:  Charism and Power, p. 4).

Today, I often hear people talk about ministry with or of the poor, and when they talk about it, it often seems as though it is believed to be a new or recent discussion.  It turns out that the discussion about with and of has decades of being in existence.  We are still learning about with and of as the prepositions that accompany ministry and define it. There is a great deal of work (or for some of us, non-work, as in letting others work) to be done in this realm.  What is really striking with this quote, however, is how well Boff describes church as we have known it.  He masterfully crafts, with his words, a picture of the church as it has often functioned.  This paragraph remains painful for me as it demonstrates, so often, the challenges that we have not met and still need to meet in the church.  It is a humbling quote, one that offers us a mountain to climb and valley to cross.  Will we, as a Church, cross it?

This ends the first part of our review of Liberation Theology.  It is my hope to add a number of other posts to this one, especially seeing as how Liberation Theology has remained so strikingly relevant and powerful, even almost fifty years later.

For Part 2, please click here.


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