Liberation Theology. Liberated by Christ
By Christoph Dahling-Sander
[This article is translated from the German on Evangelische Zeiting-Online on the World Wide Web, http://wwww.evlka.de/extern/ez/archiv/profile_15.html.]
Theologies of the Third World are liberation theologies. However every theology arising in the so-called Third World is not liberation theology. Conversely liberation theology in its genesis is not bound to the "Third world" in the purely geographical sense.
This is clear in the "Ecumenical Association to Third World Theologians" (EATWOT). This association founded in 1976 by theologians from the "Third World" has carried out many ecumenical assemblies. The founders defended the young currents of liberation theology in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the US. They defined their function in 1976: "The goal of the ecumenical union should be the continuous development of Christian theologies of the Third World that serve the commission of the church in the world and proclaim the new humanity in Christ in the struggle for a just society."
Independent theologies preceded the association from the 60s. These theologies arose largely independent of one another scattered across the continents with very different accents. However their common interests soon emerged and encouraged exchange. From the beginning, the new designs were vehemently opposed by European and North American critics.
Since 1976 EATWOT has focused on self-examination and challenging European and North American theologies. Pursuing theology in a certain way is a common interest of these new theological designs. Theologians of the Third World render account of their faith, love and hope amidst their situations.
They want to contribute their part to overcome injustice and oppression through discipleship of Jesus Christ. Their situations are marked by extreme poverty and misery, lack of political participation, cultural development and education.
These situations led to conflicts since the 60s. Different movements formed in Latin America and Africa for liberation from cultural and racist oppression and from economic exploitation.
The civil rights- and black power movements were also strengthened. Theologians criticized that the proclamations of the churches underexposed these different conflicts and abandoned the social victims.
Christians engaged in these movements or in solidarity with them ask: How can we believers relate to the social conflicts? How can the Good News of Jesus Christ be proclaimed to the poor and oppressed? How can the message of the gospel handed down by white missionaries relate to our own culture?
Spurred by these questions, theologians of the Third World regard analyzing social contexts as an indispensable foundation. These theologians tell about the situation of believers and the backgrounds of their questions arising out of their faith and their faith praxis.
These theologians saw how much situations influence theology. Theologies that deny this reference to situations of believers while reifying universally valid truths are described as "western" or "European" theologies in the Third World and criticized as ideology.
Conversely Europe and North America try to show that theologies of the Third World are defined only by their situation and not by the interpretation of scripture. Thus Third World theologies are decried as functionalizations of the gospel. This reproach proved untenable although important clarifications were necessary.
The foundation of the theologies of the Third World is scripture and its interpretation. They define their approach on this background. The poor and oppressed must become the subjects of history to be liberated from injustice and oppression. For theology, this means pursuing "theology from the backside of history" (G. Gutierrez), from the perspective of those granted no room in the history of the victors.
The theologians of the Third World resist the deactivation of the Christian faith in its public and political dimension and the misuse of the Christian faith for legitimating unjust structures. Therefore they focus on God's actions in history with the poor and oppressed as attested in the Old and New Testament.
The "world of the poor" is seen as the place of God's presence, suffering with them and liberating them to struggle against injustice and oppression. God's liberation from sin that is particularly manifest in social injustice and oppression is the root for all other political or cultural dimensions of liberation. Three examples illustrate this.
Theology of liberation in Latin America
The 1968 Latin American bishops' conference in Medelin/Bogata was directly connected with the new theological awakening in Latin America. Human rights violations and economic injustices were first denounced as "situations of sin" in its final document.
The Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1938) was important in this new awakening. In 1971 he published the classic "Theology of Liberation" that still influences theologians of the Third World today. Clarification of the understanding of liberation on the basis of Gal 5,1 "For freedom, Christ has set us free", is the center of his theology.
Gutierrez developed the "preferential option for the poor" as a theocentric option. Out of his freedom, justice and mercy, God preferentially loves the poor without excluding others. God's presence with the poor is clear in engagement for the poor. Christ liberates believers to that end. From there, Gutierrez elaborated a spirituality of liberation with discipleship of Jesus Christ and the question about believing in God in the midst of injustice and suffering at the center.
The perspective of blacks in the US
At the end of the 60s, black theology arose in the US in close relation to the civil rights- and black power movements. In grappling with racism, black theology designed a theology of the victim in the framework of black churches. This emphasis is expressed most pointedly in the confession "Jesus Christ is black", testifying to God's presence and nearness among blacks.
The confession in Mt 25,45 "As you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me" is its biblical support. Black theology recognizes that the "Third World" towers into the "First World". This was stressed by black theology in Africa more than by Latin American theology. Representatives of black theology were initially distanced from the economic and social analyses of Latin American theology. Aspects of racism were underexposed at the beginning of Latin American theology.
Approaches or reconciliations first occurred on account of ecumenical dialogues. In their early analyses, both currents underestimated the oppression of women and their sacrificial existence.
Black theology in the US and in Africa are closely related through the history of slavery and oppression of blacks. Since the 60s, African theology has underlined the culture, ways of thinking and religious traditions of blacks in their importance for their faith. These traditions were condemned to insignificance through rigid European missionary methods.
With the breach of such missionary methods and the hegemony of "European" theology, Africa's black theologies recognized that proclamation of the gospel first succeeds when the different cultures are acknowledged. God is indigenous in different cultures. Proclamation can only succeed this way.
Justice for the untouchables
The Indian Dalit-theology in its present form arose in the 80s. The religious non-Christian environment is striking. Like no other in the world, the Indian social structure is marked by the caste system. This social structure is divided in a strict hierarchical way even in social relations. Although abolished by the constitution, case thinking is still very alive in the villages. Thus persons of different castes have very different possibilities for organizing their lives.
This caste system aggravated the development of theological approaches. The new theological awakening is all the more astonishing. This awakening was tied to the caste system since it started from the lowest caste. Persons of this caste call themselves "Dalits", the untouchables. Their situations are marked by poverty, shortage of medical supplies and educational possibilities, unemployment and so forth. Christians in this caste often suffer discrimination in the church as second-class Christians.
Dalit-theology attempts a theology "from the backside of history" to help this stigmatized population to a dignified life in justice. Their theological awakening aims at overcoming the caste system and is grounded in Jesus Christ's message of liberation.
Challenges for the church and theology in Europe
With the genesis of theologies in the Third World, we can see God's effectiveness and the proclamation of God's actions in history with the poor and oppressed in a new way. Europe is no longer the center of theologizing. Thus the theologies of the Third World offer profound challenges for the local church and theology.
No one is helped when only slogans are proffered. What is essential is that the proclamation of Jesus Christ's message of liberation be taken seriously by unemployed and homeless persons and by foreign migrants living here.