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notes on liberation theology (1)

July 19th, 2007 by isaac · No Comments

Maybe it’s my last name (it’s hispanic), but for whatever reason someone at the big liberal Baptist church in town asked if I would give a talk on liberation theology. Sure, I’ve done a fair bit of reading in that vein of theology (I’m quite a fan of Gutierrez), but I am in no way an expert, nor can I say that liberation theology is a passion of mine. I can’t even figure out a good way to start such a talk, especially to a bunch of Baptist liberals who probably don’t care one bit for Catholic theology and ecclesiastical politics.

So, I thought maybe I’d start to post some notes and thoughts as a way to work out what I’m going to say. If anyone out there knows a thing or two about liberation theology, please offer your guidance in the comments below.

I still find the beginning of the Boff brothers’ classic book (Introducing Liberation Theology) devastatingly striking. I read the book in college and am still haunted by the reality portrayed in those first lines:

One day, in the arid region of northeaster Brazil, one of the most famine-stricken parts of the world, I (Clodovis) met a bishop going into his house; he was shaking. ‘Bishop, what’s the matter?’ I asked. He replied that he had just seen a terrible sight: in front of the cathedral was a woman with three small children and a baby clinging to her neck. He saw that they were fainting from hunger. The baby seemed to be dead. He said: ‘Give the baby some milk, woman!’ ‘I can’t, my lord,’ she answered. The bishop went on insisting that she should, and she that she could not. Finally, because of his insistence, she opened her blouse. Her breast was bleeding; the baby sucked violently at it. And sucked blood. The mother who had given it life was feeding it, like a pelican, with her own blood, her own life. The bishop knelt down in front of the woman, placed his hand on the baby’s head, and there and then vowed that as long as such hunger existed, he would feed at least one hungry child each day. (1-2)

What is liberation theology all about? It’s about that woman, her starving children, and priests who make vows of solidarity with those people. It’s this solidarity that John Paul II encouraged during his visit to Brazil in 1984: “The bishops of Brazil are aware that they must liberate the people from injustices, which, I know, are grave. Let them take up their role as liberators of the people along the right way and using the right methods” (Boff, 18).

Solidarity with the poor is foundational from the beginning. In 1968 the priests of Latin American held a conversation in Medellin, Colombia concerning the situation of the people in their parishes. At that meeting they said that the task of the church is “listening to the cry of the poor and becoming the interpreter of their anguish.” Liberation theology is the overflow of the “cry of the poor” throughout the land. Rebecca Chopp and Ethna Regan make this point of theological solidarity by explicating the word ‘theology’ in the context of the Latin American priests and pastors (“Latin American Liberation Theology” in The Modern Theologians, 3rd ed., ed. by David Ford, pp. 469-484):

The reader who is not poor must approach this logos the theos with an attitude of respectful care, so that it will not be received as an interpretaitno, a second-level reflection on common human experience, but reather as an interruption, an irruption of how God is active life is lived, and Christianity is practiced among the poor. (469)

We are outsiders to these poor and the theologians of the poor, so we approach their writings as a window into the faith and practice of the poor. Maybe, at their best, the theologians of liberations offer us testimony—they bear witness—to what God is doing and how we may join in the movements of God among the poor. It’s an invitation to solidarity, not necessarily another reason for rich Westerners to put on their messianic cowboy hats and go save people.

Tags: theology