Thursday, February 4, 2010

Liberation Theology and Me

A commenter asked, "What is Liberation Theology?" I wondered about how to talk about such a complex movement in response. Eventually, I wrote this:

Liberation Theology is a theology that emerged in Latin America during the 1950's and was a very strong theological movement throughout the 60's, 70's, and 80's. It has Catholic roots, in that many Latin American priests noticed how societal structures were set up to benefit the rich and to oppress the poor. These priests, as they read the Gospels, realized how often Jesus spoke to these kind of inequalities, and how Jesus was ALWAYS on the side of the poor and oppressed. Therefore, Liberation Theologians reason that Christians, too, should always side with the poor and the oppressed.

Liberation Theology has some similarities with Marxism and Marxist groups (both the ones that rebel against governments and the ones that run the government), but the Christian focus, the focus on building the Kingdom of God right here and now, separates them from Marxist ideology. A true Marxist would likely scoff at the Christian idea that God is at work in the world. A liberation theologian says, how can I help God, who is at work in the world?

It is likely true that some liberation theologians were co-opted into unsavory political movements, but that doesn't mean that no good came out of liberation theology. Like any far reaching movement (including Christianity, if we're fair), liberation theology has its unfortunate moments amidst many instances of positive change and good done in the world.

As I was writing this response this morning, I thought, how did I get involved with this movement? How did I, a good Lutheran girl, ever even hear of Liberation Theology?

I was in college in the 80's, and the situation in Central America haunted me. At the time, I remember that many of us talked about what we would do if Ronald Reagan escalated the situation in Central America, specifically Nicaragua. If Reagan activated the draft, would our male friends report for duty? I remember signing the Pledge of Resistance wherein I pledged that if Reagan escalated the situation, I would do some form of civil disobedience. I have no idea what I thought I would do exactly. Probably show up at a march to get arrested.

I was active in the Lutheran Student Movement, both locally, regionally, and nationally. I met many Central American refugees through my involvement, and many student activists who were far more radicalized than I was.

I went to a small, Lutheran, liberal arts college (Newberry College, in Newberry, South Carolina), and a group of us went over to Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia, when they were still a fairly new group. Here I met a group of people who had given up their comfortable, middle class lives to help Central American refugees (both legal and illegal), and I met those refugees. I first went there my first year of college and returned several times (for a great book on this movement, read With Our Own Eyes by Don Mosley).

I also spent the summers in Washington, D.C., where my parents lived in the suburbs, and I worked in the city for Lutheran Social Services. There, too, I met many activists and got quite an education in poverty, the kinds you find both at home and abroad.

As I became increasingly radicalized (in my safe, suburban way), I became uncomfortably aware of the Gospel message to care for the poor and dispossessed. I grew up in the Lutheran church, where that message had never been muted. We spent many a vacation helping the poor in many ways. But the church of my youth had never really focused on the societal structures that ensured that poverty would continue.

My 19 year old self planned to live her adult years in intentional Christian community, helping the poor and oppressed. In some ways, I'm doing that, but my community is my marriage and my church (not what my 19 year old had in mind), and the poor people whom I help are students--again, not what my 19 year old self would have envisioned.

I used to talk a bit about Marx when I taught the second half of the British Literature survey class. When I first started teaching that class, in 1991, students assumed that Marx was dead and that anything he had to say to us was firmly located in the past. But as we've watched how globalization ravages societies and impoverishes us all, Marx begins to seem evermore relevant.

Likewise, I've had people tell me that Liberation Theology has nothing to say to our current time period--or they used to say that, before the economy imploded. These days, sadly, Liberation Theology seems more relevant than ever.

Unlike the current Pope, I do see Jesus as a political radical, in addition to being a spiritual radical. He preached a message that would overturn the Empire, both the Roman one in which he found himself, and the Capitalist one, in which we find ourselves. For that message, he was crucified, a capital punishment that the Romans reserved for those who had tried to subvert the government. We too, are called to that crucifixion. Like other Liberation Theologians, we must wrestle with the question of how far we will go to liberate the poor and the oppressed. Will we simply feed the hungry? Or will we work to transform the empire, so that no one goes hungry?


Alejandro Rodríguez said...

Really like your post. As a catholic, I feel proud how it was Latin American priests who started this movement, and how here in Guatemala liberation theologians, specially Juan José Gerardi, helped end the Civil War. I feel relieved and encouraged to find people like you in the internet, who do get the real message of Christ beyond sexual purity and abortion.

Kristin said...

Thanks so much for reading--and for your encouraging words!