Liberation Theology for Americans

Gary Gocek bio

A layperson explores his spiritual beliefs.

© 2011, gary@gocek.org, http://www.gocek.org/, all rights reserved. Hover for usage notes. Email a link to a friend. Other articles by Gary.

Contents

Introduction and acknowledgments.
Thoughts on Oppression.
What's so Abusive about Western Christianity?
America is not Marxist or Anarchical.
Don't Ignore the Dual Roles.
Resolving Oppression.
What's an American to Do?
Recognize the problem, the theology, and the work.
Appendices.
Bibliography.

Liberation theology emerged from Latin America in the 1950s in response to perceived Roman Catholic support of abuses by first world nations over third world nations. The term was coined in 1971 by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez in his book "Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation". This web article reviews the insights and deficiencies of liberation theology from an American perspective.

Introduction

Revised 2011-10-27.

Since 2009, I have been exploring eschatological themes. I started out with an interest in what can be described as the "mechanics of salvation", and I have also been taking a metaphorical look at the Bible and especially the Gospels. I have read apologetic stuff, liberal stuff, secular philosophy stuff, and have viewed videos and countless web sites.

Recently, it occurred to me that there is more to eschatology than the "end". Indeed, it seems that the Gospels are well taken as a whole, even if one occasionally focuses on one area. I see people focusing on one of two areas of Christianity: eternal salvation, or earthly peace and justice. But, is the promotion of salvation all it's cracked up to be, and are we Americans peaceful and just?

Acknowledgments

I received valuable assistance in the development of this article, but this article is my own work with the help of God and I am the only person who should be held accountable.

The Polish Heritage Society of Rochester granted me a scholarship in recognition of my in-kind contributions. I used funds from that scholarship to develop this article. This article may not represent the perspective of the PHSR.

A few members of the clergy have guided me since around 1990. This article presents my own beliefs, and these priests may not agree with some points, and they did not review all my points, so I will use first names only: Deven, Julie, Peter, Bill and David.

And of course, thanks to my lovely wife, Susan for her support, even when she doesn't know she's being supportive.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. See the Bibliography section for more information.

Technical and Grammar Notes

As a software developer, I have found the development of a long article for the web to be technically interesting. If you have any thoughts on the technical aspects of gocek.org, let me know. NRSV Bible verses do not capitalize "he" and "him" when referring to Jesus, but I otherwise conform to this tradition. Please report errors, misspellings, etc.

Thoughts on Oppression

My approach to liberation theology depends on my understanding of oppression in general, so I will present these general thoughts before I try to explain how Western Christianity can be oppressive and how we should react. Oppression can be viewed as multiple continuums: we all experience oppression as the oppressors and the oppressed in various aspects of our lives. We perceive oppression through various environmental, cultural and social lenses.

Some forms of oppression are more damaging or unjust than others. Children are oppressed when they are told not to play in the street, and it is their parents who oppress them. Women, as a group, are oppressed when we see that women are paid less than men when performing the same task with the same level of success, and even men who don't directly set pay rates are oppressors when they don't attempt to repair this injustice. That's not to say that women are toiling in agony, or that one man can fix it, or that women don't enjoy their jobs anyway, but it's still a form of oppression. In any case, oppression does not have to involve torture or imprisonment.

Workplace ownership is possibly the most profound form of legal oppression in America today. Even at the small business level, owners and upper managers receive substantially higher compensation than line employees. Owners determine work hours, compensation and benefits. There are legal limits, but work life in America causes great tension in all other aspects of life. Compared to Europeans, American workers are less empowered, work longer hours and unsuccessfully try to hold on to benefits. We Americans are stuck with the Horatio Alger legacy of believing that any lack of success is a result of a lack of hard work. Ambition is important, but some lack of success is the result of oppression. Labor economist Richard B. Freeman points out USA worker productivity is growing but earnings are stagnant for 99 percent of workers. The owners are taking the fruits of increased productivity, while worrying that any success of workers comes at their (the owners') expense. The wealthy fight tax increases and have nearly convinced politicians, in 2011, to reduce entitlements for the elderly.

Primal instincts such as male domination of women and racial discrimination manifest themselves negatively in a mixed social environment. Cavemen learned to be racist, partly because it reduced the spread of disease and genetic problems between disparate groups. Patriarchy and racism are not inherently bad from a genetic perspective. However, unbalanced power in today's mixed societies is generally harmful in that the best candidates for any function are sometimes artificially restricted from performing that function. We have resolved many of the physical problems of mixing, but the primal instincts are hard to overcome. As a result, dominant groups mistreat other groups, sometimes to the point of violence and gross injustice. Domestic abuse is common. Incarceration rates differ drastically between racial groups.

Changes that are achieved sometimes hinder further changes. Slavery has been outlawed for a long time in the United States, so some may feel that historical discussions are no longer worthwhile. However, even though the elimination of slavery was monumental, the effects of racism continue to haunt African Americans today, who are still caught in the cycle in which poor, uneducated people have children who grow up to be poor and uneducated. It's not enough to claim that they can achieve whatever they work for. For generations, blacks have been stuck in this cycle, it is all they know, and it is as hard for oppressed blacks to embrace change as it is for whites. We never know in advance if further change will make things better or worse. Change is scary for all sides.

Consider also our dual roles as oppressor and oppressed. Even within an oppressed community, the guy who gets two loaves of stale bread works to maintain the status quo if everyone else gets only one. Just because a black man is frustrated with employment discrimination and police profiling doesn't mean he can't take on the oppressor role by abusing his wife. This is true for all races, genders, creeds, etc.

Consider the modern American debate between conservatives and liberals. Isn't the Declaration of Independence correct, as conservatives point out, in stating that we are all created equal? If so, how can we question the Horatio Alger approach? If whites are the dominant group in America, isn't it simply because they worked harder to succeed? Aren't we hurting less successful groups with social programs such as Affirmative Action and food stamps, which just encourage them to avoid the "hard work" that actually achieves success?

The problem with these questions is that there aren't simple answers, and the implication that there are simple answers is virulently abusive toward the poor. It's true that we all have the same capability to motivate ourselves, and it's true that some people take advantage of social programs to achieve a work-free albeit underprivileged lifestyle. However, it is also true that some people are underpaid, or are rejected for employment, or are harassed and beaten by law enforcement officers, or are abused by a spouse or parent, because of age, gender, race, creed or sexual orientation. Urban school graduation rates are low because the students are undernourished and poorly clothed and the parents, if not incarcerated, are also functionally illiterate. To deny these types of discriminations in America in 2011 is to be ignorantly bigoted. To ignore these problems is almost as bad.

Furthermore, with respect to Horatio Alger, Christians should not put too much emphasis on the notion that hard work is the primary route to success. It's at least as Christian to say that everything we have is a gift from God, and that we achieve nothing without the help of God. Different people may posses different gifts, but that's not necessarily unfair. It is at least as Christian to promote the notion of helping each other to succeed.

Resolving Oppression

Oppression results from an imbalance of power. One participant in a relationship has relatively more power than another, and the imbalance is used to benefit the more powerful side. Note that different forms of oppression can exist simultaneously between, say, two people. For example, a husband who is the sole wage earner in a family may restrict his wife from certain activities, even from getting a job. At the same time, the wife may cause the husband to feel guilty for not fully appreciating her role in the household, resulting in the husband extending special favors. Who has the power? In fact, they are both oppressors and oppressed.

Theoretically, the solution to oppression is to improve the balance of power. If the wife finds a way to earn some money, she will not need to manipulate the husband for favors. However, power is a zero-sum game; to balance power, the more powerful side must give up as much power as the oppressed side gains. Relationships involving abuse, or between races, or between nations, etc., are very complicated, making it more difficult to balance the power.

Liberationists seek liberation from oppressive church hierarchies that were typically forced upon native people by colonizing powers and which continue to be led from afar. It is hard to imagine any reverse oppression third-world natives have foisted upon the Roman Catholic Church, but that doesn't mean that third world Christians are without sin. It is important that the oppressed, when attempting to change the balance of power, do so without a vengeful intent.

What's so Abusive about Western Christianity?

Christians were persecuted for 300 years following Christ's crucifixion. After the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 CE, Christianity quickly evolved from a banned, underground cult into the primary religion of Europe and a political force. Although Christianity split into two factions, eastern (now referred to as "Orthodox") and western (Roman), the Pope in Rome presided in the west with great power. As the European, imperial powers colonized other regions, western Christianity spread, sometimes forcibly.

It was not useful for the imperialists to spread a religion of love, compassion, peace and justice while raping the native women and plundering the natural resources. Instead, over the centuries, Christianity came to be taught as a religion of individual salvation rather than one of universal justice. Furthermore, the RC Church became the self-appointed, as opposed to Christ-appointed, mediator of salvation. The conquered colonial natives as well as European commoners were taught to pray for their souls with little expectation of a reward while still alive. Their predicament of poverty and oppression, if they dared to consider it, was their own fault, and the path to heaven depended on loyalty to the RC Church.

Consider also intrepid missionaries in the field, who taught this salvation-centered Christianity. There was no point in teaching peace and justice to natives who already lived in a communal environment. The missionaries needed to throw in all the supernatural stuff, too. The missionaries were expected by their governments to support the imperialist activities, and the religion was shaped for that purpose.

This Eurocentric, post-Constantine, imperialist theology misses part of what Jesus taught, and the original liberationists claimed that it was an outright lie. The liberationists claimed that Jesus primarily taught that the kingdom of God would be achieved through love, compassion, peace and justice. After centuries of teaching that supernatural miracles show the way to individual salvation, the liberationists felt that a revolution would be needed to get back to the path of peace and justice, and freedom from Roman control.

Reformers beginning with Martin Luther addressed corruption within the RC Church, and that corruption was certainly a form of oppression. Luther was specifically concerned with the pope's granting of pardons, for money or otherwise. Luther claimed that the repentance of a sinner could not be proclaimed outwardly by the pope, but only inwardly by the sinner and God. Even if we assume that everyone, Catholic or Protestant, came to agree with this, Europeans did not recognize the natives as equals to be encouraged to inwardly repent. The colonies were treasures to be hoarded by the conquerors and the natives were exploited. Luther was a contemporary of Columbus; widespread colonization had not yet begun, and Luther's reforms could have been, but were not, used toward a more just and peaceful treatment of the New World natives. Just as Catholics learned from the mistakes of the Crusades and indulgences, the liberationists were attempting to explain the mistakes of colonization.

Some theologians, especially the Catholics who are most disparaged by liberationists, disagree with the focus on justice rather than salvation. They claim that the meaning of Scripture was fixed by the authors, and liberationists are culturally and historically biased in concocting a different interpretation. Liberationists claim in response that all interpretations are culturally and historically biased and the "traditional" Roman Catholic interpretation is not a first century interpretation, but an interpretation that evolved after many centuries.

In my personal creed, I contrast my approach to the apologetic writing of Hank Hannegraff and his colleague Norman Geisler, and here I again quote Geisler. Apologetics generally disagree with liberationists. Geisler claimed in 1983, with respect to literature including the Bible, "Meaning is determined by the author; it is discovered by readers." In other words, Geisler claims that liberationists are wrong because, well, they just are (and Geisler claims to be right). The difficulty in arguing with Geisler is that he uses oppressive power, acquired over centuries, to stomp on anyone who disagrees. Geisler is like the American military hawk who puts anti-war protestors on the defensive by labeling them as unpatriotic. Geisler may be right or wrong, but his proof is specious.

Initially, Jesus was seen by liberationists as a radical who lived communally with his followers, and liberationists saw a resemblance to Marxism. Oppressed countries violently turned to Marxism to free themselves from the colonial powers. While the focus on peace and justice was true to the first century "Jesus movement", liberationists used their theology to justify violence against their oppressors.

Why did it take so long for the natives to develop a coherent description of how Western Christianity supports social and physical oppression, and to look for change? Aside from the fact that the oppression evolved and grew over centuries, change is difficult for all sides, as described earlier. The oppressed natives were like the abused woman who does not leave her husband. After generations of being governed politically and religiously by other countries, it was difficult for the natives to understand and desire the alternatives.

Liberation theology exploded onto the scene, but the fall of the Soviet system in the 1980s resulted in a general recognition that Marxism does not succeed at a national level in the modern, industrialized world. Also, the use of violence within a Christian framework was inherently hypocritical and heretical, and made the liberationists as bad as the Crusaders of the 11th-13th centuries.

Acts 4: 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Recent historical research strengthens the notion of Christianity as a religion of peace and justice first, and of individual salvation later. Research also strengthens the notion of a Jesus who wandered the countryside with a diverse group of followers, sharing their resources. If Jesus was essentially a Marxist, but modern Marxism and anarchy have been shown to fail at the national level, how can Americans follow a liberationist path?

America is not Marxist or Anarchical

In the United States of America in 2011, it seems like the objective of government progressives is an oligarchy in which the government oversees the redistribution of all public and private resources, except to retain resources needed to run the government itself, especially elections and a military. Conversely, the objective of government conservatives is an oligarchy in which the only function of government is to reject any oversight over anything, except for elections and a military.

This may seem like Marxism versus anarchy, but consider that my use of "oligarchy", i.e., rule by the few, refers to members of Congress. This is also known as an "elite democracy". There is no indication that American politicians would consider any system that has no politicians. I'm sure even the progressive extreme would retain some sort of big-money support for election campaigns.

So, the good news is that I don't expect America to devolve into Marxism or anarchy, but it seems to me that neither progressives nor conservatives are remotely thinking in liberationist terms. America is not "about" peace and justice. America in 2011 is very much about the protection of the elites, either through total control or total abandonment of the masses. Voters choose between these two approaches, regardless of all the posturing over tax rates, immigration policy, etc. The protection of the elites in an elite democracy is not surprising. Analogous to my earlier section, the Congressional "owners" worry that any benefit for the citizen "workers" are provided at the owners' expense.

Don't Ignore the Dual Roles

Most writing about specific oppressed communities, in my opinion, does not deeply explore the dual roles of oppressor and oppressed. For example, the original liberationists were so busy writing about oppression by the pope that they did not write extensively about violence against women inside their own communities. I don't mean that violence against women was a particular problem; my point is that the liberationist thinkers were so consumed with their own suffering that they didn't explore their own faults.

Especially with respect to Christian theological discussions, the danger in not addressing the dual roles is that the sins of the oppressor are viewed as worse than the sins of the oppressed. The sinfulness of the oppressed may not be recognized at all. Theologically, though, Christians view all humans as sinners who can do no good except by the grace of God. While discussing how badly one group behaves, a biased author may ignore the behavior of other groups. Sinfulness becomes relative, but compared to the infinite glory of God, we are all mired in a swamp of sin and would have no hope except through the knowledge of God's love, including Jesus' sacrifice.

Of course, I am writing this article because I believe that the Western imperialists treated the natives in the colonies badly, but the Christian response must be to forcefully insist on peace and justice without committing violent and unjust acts and while recognizing our own faults.

What's an American to Do?

To summarize the discussion so far, we Americans are oppressed and oppressors. Our government provides some help in limiting the most violent and unjust forms of oppression, but politicians are too busy running for reelection to seriously consider every struggling community. Marxism and anarchy have been shown to make things worse, at least in large, industrialized societies, and yet, Jesus was not a capitalist. Just because capitalistic, imperialistic countries control a big chunk of Christianity doesn't mean that capitalism and Christianity mix well.

Author Paul Sigmund uses the phrase "base communities" to describe small groups of activists. Base communities, since the late 20th century, are replacing violent revolutionaries, and there may be as many as 80,000 in Brazil (2007, http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,481434,00.html), in addition to a million liberationist Bible circles. The base community model can be used by Americans, especially Christians interested in promoting a more just and peaceful world.

The base community model provides for methodical, gradual resolutions. Small groups address issues according to their size and resources. The implication of the acceptance of the base community mode in Brazil is that the revolutionary and impatient founders of liberation theology spurred commoners to action, but the commoners are more patient. This is amenable to Americans who may be willing to spend a few hours per week in church and working on projects but do not see themselves as revolutionaries.

The missional approach to Christianity is compatible with the base community approach without overtly addressing the oppression of the mainstream churches, although missional thinkers recognize that post-modern non-Christians resist heavy-handed proselytizing. Author Tim Keller refers to joyful humility as a way for Christians to exist within the larger society while providing an example of living the Gospels. Christians may, if they choose, travel to live within other cultures, as long as they remain humble. Essentially, no "society" is inherenty evil. Societies are what they are, and Christians have no choice but to exist within society. To be missional is to show others, near your home or far away, that everyone deserves justice and peace and comfort, as they have need.

Philippians 2: 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Recognize the problem, the theology, and the work

Lots of people work on projects to help the less fortunate. Are they all liberationists? To answer that, consider that there are three elements of liberation theology as it relates to Americans. Liberationists (1) believe that oppression is rampant around the world, often caused by forces not traditionally considered to be oppressive, (2) subscribe to a Christian view that places universal, earthly peace and justice above individual salvation, and (3) work on large and small projects to help others.

In Balasuriya's words, liberation theology is not only a movement that comforts the disturbed, but also a movement that disturbs the comfortable. The point of liberation theology is not to work at a soup kitchen while praying for the salvation of the hungry who would be so much better off if they would just get off their butts and get jobs. Liberationists are not waiting for an omnipotent God-the-father to unilaterally judge us and send us to heaven or hell. Maybe there is an afterlife in which our perfect, resurrection bodies will exist in eternal bliss, but liberationists don't claim that or wait for that. Liberation theology is a collaborative theology, i.e., a collaboration of humans and God to spread the news of a kingdom of God on earth. Liberationists do not pray for God's gifts; they pray for help in utilizing the gifts they already have in order to invite each other to the kingdom of God on earth.

I believe that both Christians and non-Christians can be liberationists. They can call it liberation philosophy if they wish, but they need to focus on peace and justice rather than any sort of reward or recognition. And, the work is never done.

Liberation theology disturbs the comfortable. It's good to go to church, but liberationists will not tell you that church improves your chances of getting to heaven, because heaven is not "out there". The kingdom of God will be on earth when we help each other to find it together. Jesus is here to help.

Appendices

Biographical Notes

Here are some biographical notes on authors whose works were researched for this article.

Bibliography

Click to view the bibliography.