By Luise Anna Reinisch
[This article published in April 2010 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.quetzal-leipzig.de.]
The term "theology of liberation" can be traced back to the foundational 1971 work of the Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez in which he makes a biblical analysis of poverty. Church base communities and intellectual centers formed within the leftist popular movement sought to realize a theology and church coming from the people and opting for the poor. Since the end of the 1960s, liberation theology has played an important role in many Latin American countries in connection with the overthrow attempts against regimes installed by the US.
The option was proclaimed dogmatically at the Latin American bishops' conferences in Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979). In the 1970s and 1980s the liberating pastoral praxis and prophetic preaching were felt to be so threatening by the conservative-rightwing governments that catechists, intellectuals and even bishops were murdered in the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. They were demonized by local military governments and by the hierarchical church and classical European theology.
In the 1990s questions like the capitalist world economy, the climate crisis, homosexuality and HIV-infection were taken up in theology and themes like Christology systematized from a liberation theology perspective. For a part of the Latin American population, the liberating pastoral praxis is still important today but has its adversaries in the Opus-Dei-movement and in evangelical churches.
Theology of liberation is not neutral to the political situation of a country but opts to the final consequences for the poor and victims to liberate them from their exploitation and oppression. The poor are the subject of church action, not the object of theological reflections. Theology of liberation understands itself as an historical and contextual theology, an alternative to European theology which is an imperialist theology for Latin American peoples. Its priority is praxis on the basis of popular reading of the Bible. The methodical three-step seeing, judging and acting serves as a foundation of orthopraxy. Liberation theology makes God's reign the principle which people can live together, illumines economic, political and historical structures like capitalism and considers alternatives. Theology of liberation sees Christians making money and power their idols under the mantle of religion as its opposites and enemies, not atheists. Liberation theology emphasizes liberation from structurally anchored sins like oppression and impunity as primary in the Christian redemption message, not primarily the forgiveness of individual sins. Therefore its focus is not on the moral valuation of individual sins (like adultery, theft and prostitution). Instead it questions the political and economic structures behind them inducing persons to their acts. Liberating Latin American peoples from their structural sins and thorough social science analysis about this oppression are necessary. Its social critique is based on the dependence theory that stresses the poverty in Latin America is caused by political-economic dependence on Europe and the US, not internal factors. Theology of liberation understands itself as a complete alternative to classical theology, not as one sub-theology among many. This is clear in the diversity and complexity of its themes.
Important liberation theology movements are found in Peru around Gustavo Gutierrez, in Brazil around Leonardo Boff and Pedro Casaldaliga, in El Salvador around Jon Sobrino, Ignacio Ellacuria and Oscar Romero, in Costa Rica around Franz Hinkelammert, Elsa Tamez and Hugo Assmann, in Chiapas (Mexico) around Samuel Ruiz and in Nicaragua around Ernesto Cardenal.
In the meantime liberation theology was applied and contextualized in African and Asian countries. Liberation theologians cooperate closely on all three continents as shown by the works of the Ecumenical Association of Theologians of the Third World (EATWOT).
Liberation theology was also supported and applied in Germany. A living dialogue arose between German theologians (above all Dorothee Soelle, Johann Baptist Metz and Jurgen Moltmann) and Latin American liberation theologians.