RE-VISTING LIBERATION THEOLOGY
A Theology Of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez Orbis books 1973; revised edition 1988
PAST BAGGAGE & LIBERATION THEOLOGY
Liberation theology, in certain circles is viewed with some suspicion. Nearly 20 years ago, a few Roman Catholic church activists in Singapore under the influence of Liberation theology, together with some left leaning sympathisers from opposition political parties were detained under the internal security act. The detainees were released gradually. A couple of months ago, The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, tried to interview those who were involved in this controversy, for the purpose of running a story to refresh our collective memories. There were no takers. Some wounds require a long time to heal.
And so with interest, I responded positively to the invitation, by the Professor of Missions, KimYong Hazra, Trinity Theological College, to share with some students on the topic, Liberation Theology from a Singapore Perspective.
APPRECIATING LIBERATION THEOLOGY
I met a few liberation activists in Bolivia, especially at the Maryknoll Fathers Language Institute, where I studied Spanish with my wife. The ones I got to know impressed me with their compassion for the poor. Although I don't share most of their theological assumptions, my experience in Bolivia however has helped me appreciate and respect some of the impulses which drive liberation theology.
I re-read Gustavo Gutierrez's classic, A Theology of Liberation, in preparation for my work with the students. His insights represent many years of work with the poor. The use of the Exodus event, the liberation of Israel from its oppression in Egypt, as a paradigm for liberation speaks powerfully to the Latin American situation. The other biblical idea of great interest is the reflection of salvation history as being unified through the aspirations of the oppressed. A reading of Luke's gospel provides the basis for such an assertion. Gutierrez's passion and commitment to see reality in terms of conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed is understandable given the grinding poverty which characterizes his environment. The liberation movement also arose in a context where social activists were victimised by right wing dictatorial figures, especially in the 1970's.
Gutierrez's challenge to identify with the poor is not an ivy league rumination but a prophetic meditation from the heart of pastor. His passion is understandable. I could not help but refer constantly to my experiences in Bolivia with the poor as I read his book.
WEAKNESSES OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY
Liberation theology has its flaws. Although Gutierrez tries to convey a holistic view of liberation, which includes spiritual and transcendant categories, his intentional bias toward socialism and a heavy reliance of marxist analysis/terminology make it easy for revolutionary ideologues to hijack liberation activism. And this has happened in Latin America and elsewhere.
Liberation theology many a time reduces salvation to improvements in economic conditions. Salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification. None of these basic doctrines are worked through in the Liberation hermeneutic. An exclusive reading of history through the lens of an Oppressor vs Oppressed dynamic does not represent the fullness of the Biblical narrative. Injustice is one reason and in some places maybe the primary reason for poverty. There are other reasons, cultural values being one of them, which drive poverty. Also, agitation and triumphing over injustice does not alleviate the poor from oppression instantly. There is also the challenge of wealth creation and the establishment of right structures which provide long term solutions for the poor.
EMPOWERING LOCAL LEADERSHIP
Liberation begins from within renewed hearts and spills out into the family and the society at large. This has been the strategy of evangelical and charismatic groups. Liberation, in the long run, would depend on empowered hearts set aflame for Christ. Inner liberation and dealing with oppressive structures are not contradictory but parts of a whole. This is why I identify strongly with Gutierrez's passion to empower local people. He says:
In order to for liberation to be authentic and complete, it has to be undertaken by the oppressed people themselves and so must stem from the values proper to these people.
Recieving foreign aid or assistance for long stretches of time is a recipe for a disaster. It creates a mentality of dependance and robs local communities of their God given integrity and dignity. Liberation theology brings this valuable gift of self-reliance to the table.
And surely we can say amen to this!
(the cover of the book is a photo of a sculpture done by Edilberto Merida)