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Is the “Theology of Liberation” Only for Latin-Americans?


This year occurs the 40th anniversary of Gustavo Gutierrez’s English edition ofTeologia de la liberacion. Perspectivas (“A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, 1973).Although the “Theology of Liberation” has grown into an international and inter-denominational movement, it began as such within the Catholic Church in Latin-America in the 1960s–1970s. The term, coined in 1971 by Gutierrez himself and in dialogue with L. Boff, J. Sobrino, O. Romero, J.L. Segundo and 1968 CELAM (Latin-American Episcopal Conference) meeting at Medellin, arose principally as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in that region of the world. The alternative between a theology starting from the eternal principles of the “Holy Bible” or from the impellent and legitimate needs of the individualistic “contemporary believer” appeared too narrow for these Latin-American Theologians who considered a third element as much determinant as these two previous ones: the socio-economic-cultural context. The “Theology of Liberation” introduced so a new hermeneutical paradigm that of thinking God, Faith, Hope or Christian Love not as universal or trans-temporal linear categories but rather as “Contextual Exercises”, as bound to specific and particular historical circumstances of  a widespread poverty as it was the case in that geographical region. But poverty and its many faces, unfortunately up to these days, is not visible only in the streets of Lima, Mexico city or Rio de Janeiro. It’s real and challenging also in the other side, in the dark and hidden part of Los Angeles, New York, Paris, London or Rome. This is, in our days, the real context where we need to start reading the gospel from. Today’s African Christians (e.g. Lamin Sanneh or Kwame Bediako) are writing things about Jesus that do not sound very much like what Frenchman John Calvin wrote in Switzerland in the mid-1500s. And Calvin does not sound very much like the Great Cappadocians of the 4th century who lived in what we might think of as modern-day Turkey. It’s not that Scripture has changed, or God himself. The difference is the place and cultures; the setting of the faith that “seeks to understand.” Because the settings change, the questions change, and because the questions change, our theology changes. And this is why I believe that all theologies are “contextual theologies”, that is, they speak from a particular context. For some conservatives Evangelicals or Adventists, this might sound troubling but is also troubling to many open-mined western liberals who believe that their particular theology is the last and definitive accurate incarnation of a supposed historical universal form of truth. A balanced theological motto to address this issue could be this: “to be critical of every pretended  a-contextual and universal theology and to its various opposite and parallel too pessimistic contextual determinisms but rather open to the contextual relevance and meaning of society and culture for the correct  understanding and application of the Gospel today”. To understand this simple fact doesn’t take away but rather add meaning and humility to every Christian project and experience.

But beyond this short historical outline, what are the main contributions of this Latin-American, contextual “Theology of Liberation? Let’s number three of them. First,liberation theology reminds us that freedom is a never-ending experience. The process of liberation remains always open and always challenging because alienation keeps recycling itself  into new and sophisticated forms and profiles. Even great victories on oppression quickly fade. For this reason they continuously need to trigger and make possible new victories that guarantee their survival and their beneficial effects in the long term. Second, Christian faith and experience, thought as antidote to alienation, often end as accomplice of alienation itself generating even more alienation and oppression because apparently they possess the perfect and unquestionable alibi of being theoretically against alienation. So they don’t wake up doubt and suspicion. For this reason, faith, especially the official faith of a religious community, incarnated in doctrines, credos, institutions, strategies or programs, can never be above a healthy critical assessment. Truth and virtue as much as heresy and vice need to becontinuously monitored, followed and assessed. Third, religious faith to be such must not rely only on its internal coherence but needs to be constantly relational and allow to be assessed from the outside in order to see whether its profile, strategies and proposals correspond and answer to the surrounding reality and context. Something can be very coherent and at the same time very damaging and completely detached from the reality.

But the“Theology of Liberation” is only a first step, one intent among others in trying to understand what liberation is and means. It has not neither the last word nor the monopoly on this topic. Liberation is not even the exclusivity of Christianity itself but an experience and an aspiration that belong to all humanity. For this reason I move here three critical considerations to this noble Latin-American “Theology of Liberation”. First, the “Theology of Liberation” illusionary works predominantly only with what it considers to be the prototype of all alienation; the economic poverty. In this perhaps overly dependent on a Marxist analysis of society and naively believing that when the poor will be freed automatically all other alienations will easily disappear and be dismantled. Unfortunately, reality shows that this is not the case. Frequently, the liberated poor,paradoxically, had no embarrassment at all in becoming oppressor of his wife and despotic master of his own children. Second, the “Theology of Liberation” still describes liberation as a too linear and homogeneous process. Homi Bhabha has well noticed and reminded us as well, that “ambivalence” permeates and corrodes every process of liberation from within. Not only the liberated person, without any problem and synchronically to its liberation, can become oppressor himself but even more, its own liberation at one level can generate alienation for himself at other levels and play as alienating element for others. Third, the “Theology of Liberation” at its roots and in its essence is and remains an extension of the typically modern and Western obsessionfor freedom. Not without reason Juergen Moltmann, the notorious German initiator of  the “Theology of Hope”, in an open and critical letter to the Latin-American theologian  Jose Miguez Bonino, asked; at the end and after all, what of typically Latin-American is to be found in the “Theology of Liberation”? The critical point in the western struggle for freedom, liberation theology included, has been and still is, the difficult passage from  a deconstructive type of freedom (“liberation from”) to a constructive and really inclusive one (“liberation for”). All western proposed great projects of freedom suspiciously appear to be very partial, sectorial and biased.

At this point and presupposing, in what we said,  Isaiah Berlin’s classical dual understanding of liberation, “liberation from” and “liberation for”, I would like to add a third one, “liberation with”, in which Adventism is called to give its specific contribution in this shared human experience of liberation. First, in order to avoid every form of western paternalistic messianism, “liberation for” the poor must necessarily become “liberation with” the poor. The poor more than assistance needs what Juergen Habermas and Charles Taylor call “Recognition” (“A Politics of Recognition”). “Liberation with” means be ready learn to work together with the persons we want to help and learn also to be helped by them. They need to be considered partners and reliable voices in the reciprocal and mutual process of liberations. Second, the struggle for liberation is not an exclusivity of Adventism. For this reason the important question is not what we can do alone, as protagonists, but rather what are we able to do with others since we share the same human problems and challenges. “Liberation with”  means here learn to work with people who don’t share our same understanding and perspective of  human history and even on liberation itself. Third, Liberation can’t be an “church-centred” experience. It rather is thoroughly a “God’s Kingdom-centred” one. While any church has the possibility of becoming a partial incarnation of this Kingdom, no church can pretend at all to be the total incarnation of that Kingdom. “Liberation with” means here to work beyond our personal or confessional interest within the larger perspective of  the universal and inclusive God’s coming Kingdom.

All these aspects of liberation we have traced and underlined in this reflection, are best expressed with the word “liberational”. Every true form of  religion needs to be and remain  “liberational”, i.e., produce freedom and inclusion. In this sense Latin-American as much as African or Asian Adventism, are for sure not out-dated but rather represent the future of the Adventist church. The future of Adventism is in Lima, San Paolo, Kinshasa, Manila or Kigali. And this is not because the numbers but rather because their still particular and qualitatively rich cultural attitude of  inclusiveness and integration. Liberation at the end is that, not separation and efficiency but integration and mutual happiness. 


Hanz Gutierrez,  Lima, Peru

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