Friday, October 15, 2010

So What About Liberation Theology?

My previous blog posting was partly about Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566), the Spanish colonialist, Dominican priest, and human rights advocate, and I referred to Las Casas as a liberator, which he certainly was.
Perhaps the best book ever written about that ardent advocate of the rights of the native peoples of the West Indies is Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (1993), written by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez. (That book is nearly 700 pages long, including 160 pages of endnotes!)
Gutiérrez (b. 1928) is often referred to as the “father” of South American liberation theology. His book on that subject was published in Spanish in 1971, and two years later it was issued in English translation as A Theology of Liberation. (A fifteenth anniversary edition with a new introduction by the author was published in 1988.)
This past summer, Glenn Beck, the widely influential radio and television host, political commentator, and author, publicly denounced liberation theology—and criticized President Obama for being linked to liberation theology through his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Beck declared that “liberation theology has completely perverted Christianity and teaching something radically different.”
The liberation theology of Rev. Wright was based on the writings of Dr. James Cone rather than of Father Gutiérrez, and there are certainly differences between the two. (To see what I have written about the two American-American Christian leaders, click on James Cone and Jeremiah Wright in the Labels list on the right.)
Despite their differences, there are also distinct similarities between Cone and Gutiérrez. Although it is a phrase used mostly by South American liberation theologians, Cone, Wright, and others advocating black liberation would agree with the statement, “to know God is to do justice.” And the justice referred to is social justice, which stands in staunch opposition to the exploitation of the poor by the rich and the prejudicial treatment of Blacks by the White majority.
As you probably heard, Beck also came out with strong criticism of Christians being involved in social justice. Back in March, Beck said on one of his daily radio and television shows, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!” Later, he referred to social justice as “a perversion of the Gospel.”
But it seems quite clear to me that in 1492 and the years following it was Columbus who was perverting the Gospel, not Las Casas. And in recent years it is Glenn Beck, rather than Gutiérrez or other liberation theologians, who is distorting the Gospel. For after all, social justice is “love distributed.”


  1. Probably all sides need to listened to, but not necessarily in agreement. I tend not to agree with any extremes, but weigh them against historic Christian orthodoxy. Extremists (all sides) tend to highlight problematic issues which do need to be considered.
    Yesterday I encountered an extreme value of post-modern tolerance which superseded other values of safety or traditional beliefs. (Amazingly, cars were not expected to stop for flashing red lights at cross-walks, and neither were people expected to cross at cross-walks - just two examples.) Interestingly, in their promotion of diversity, they offer very little, acceptable food available for Jews, Muslims, or Maasai.
    Definitions seem limited to support pet causes with most extremists.

  2. To understand the rage against social justice, we need to think about how Fundamentalists tend to see justice. One only need think of the profound fury of a Fred Phelps against homosexuality, or of Operation Rescue against abortion, to realize that Fundamentalists believe in justice as much as anyone else. What is at question is the type of justice. An absolute, abstract, moral justice informs Fundamentalism. Right is right, wrong is wrong, and consequences are immaterial.

    Social justice, economic justice, situation ethics, etc. call on a hierarchy of values that creates an ambiguity that is anathema to a Fundamentalist. Think of the classic conflict between Jean Valjean and inspector Javert in Les Miserables. The Inspector lives by the unfailing light of the eternal stars, and is lost when they fail him. Jean Valjean, meanwhile, has famously stolen a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. The two men are mostly unintelligible to each other. Both men die before the end of the story, Inspector Javert destroyed by a seemingly impossible act of mercy by Jean Valjean, and Jean Valjean at last worn down by the burdens of life.

    So in the church, different people frequently find radically different meanings in the same verses of Scripture. I do not know how we can effectively communicate with each other. In the end, we all are called to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus.

    "You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love." Galatians 5:4-6 NRSV