Category Archives: Interactivist

Interactivist: Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology
by Lia

In Christianity’s construal of Jesus Christ as humankind’s deliverer from iniquity, Christ becomes humanity’s Liberator as well as its Redeemer. Liberation theology, which is a school of theology within the Roman Catholic Church, embraces this conceptualization of Jesus Christ by understanding him as Liberator of the sinful and of the oppressed. As such, Christ becomes the ultimate vehicle or champion for justice. He is an advocate for the world’s impoverished and subjugated. Accordingly, liberation theology constructs Christianity as integral to political activism and positions its tenets as the framework for and impetus behind social justice. In doing so, liberation theology exposes the utility of Christianity by relying on the religion a resource and inspiration in a variety of contemporary social movements, especially those in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Furthermore, as it grew out of the Second Vatican Council of 1963 to 1965, liberation theology demonstrates the potential for innovation and evolution within the Catholic faith. However, this school of theology did and does not go unchallenged; in fact, many Catholic perspectives disprove of liberation theology for its Marxist basis. Yet, regardless of one’s views on its belief system and approach, liberation theology offers pioneering and alterative ways to understand the Catholic religion and pragmatically and inspirationally integrate its teachings in the contemporary world.

In its emphasis on aspects of political activism such as social justice, poverty and human rights, liberation theology approaches religion and concepts of a divine creator from a perspective of the world’s disadvantaged, disenfranchised, indigent, and oppressed. It attempts to interpret biblical scripture based on a motivation toward the proactive rectification of social injustice (Rivers). In doing so, liberation theology is neither passive nor compliant; it challenges societal subordination with civil disobedience. In my research, I found that liberation theology attempts to value and justify social unrest as a counter to oppression by looking to New Testament verses for its Christian backing (Samarajiwa). For example, liberation theology will refer to Mathew 10:34, in which Jesus states: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Additionally, liberation theology will turn to Matthew 26:51-52 and Luke 22:35-38, in which Jesus refers to the “sword,” and interpret these passages as motivation for revolutionary mobilization (Samarajiwa). In relationship to social uprising and revolution, liberation theology is also largely tied to Marxist doctrines, particularly the concept of the incessant class struggle.

Because of its focus on political oppression and socio-economic stratification, liberation theology is most prevalent in global locations plagued by social injustice. It was founded in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Hillar). During this time of extreme Brazilian poverty and civil unrest, other Latin American countries were similarly struggling with devastating economic disparities between the wealthy and the poor (Boff). In addition to these struggles, the historical-cultural context out of which liberation theology grew included a dramatic development in Roman Catholicism. That is, this historical time also surrounded the inception of the Second Vatican Council, which became integral to the expansion of liberation theology because of its expansive and progressive nature (Boff). The Second Vatican Council created avenues for theological innovation and liberty and provided Latin American theologians, who were struggling with the pastoral injustices of their nations, with the agency to approach these problems in a constructive way (Boff). Thus, as liberation theology developed, its leaders established CELAM (Conselho Episcopal Latino Americano – Latin American Episcopal Conference) and endorsed a socialist approach to scripture and Catholic doctrine to the Second Vatican Council. Additionally, these theologians, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Segundo Galilea, Juan Luis Segundo, Lucio Gera, and others, participated in many meetings to discuss the correlations between faith and poverty, scripture and social justice (Boff). They also began writing and publishing influential works on these correlations, exposing the relationships between Christianity and oppression and identifying Christian teachings as an inspiration for change. For example, Paul Gauthier published The Poor, Jesus and the Church in 1963 and Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Populorum Progressio in 1967, which denounced the economic differences between nations (“Paul Gauthier,” Boff). Soon after, Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves of Princeton University completed Towards a Theology of Liberation in 1968, which further espoused the theology’s doctrines. Additionally, the fullest expression of this promotion of liberation theology occurred in 1971 when Gustavo Gutierrez completed his Theology of Liberation (Both). By this time, CELAM became affiliated with other Latin American nations, such as Columbia and Argentina, garnered support in the influential Medellin Conference of 1968, and grew from a small grass-roots coalition into a major and influential theological movement (Boff).

Yet, despite its initial spread, many Catholic attitudes in the decades following 1971 disproved of liberation theology. The official statements of the Roman Catholic Church largely criticized liberation theology’s reliance on Marxist ideas particularly dialectical materialism, the philosophical basis of Karl Marx’s theories (Hillar). Furthermore, they found fault with any identification of Jesus Christ as a political figure or revolutionary, despite their acknowledgement of and concern with the unjustly large discrepancy between wealth and poverty in certain societies (“Liberation Theology,” Rhodes). In this way, my understanding of the Catholic Church’s reactions to liberation theology is that the Church offered neither unqualified approval nor ultimate condemnation of the theology, as the Vatican recognized both its faults and its positive intentions.

Despite inevitable criticism and the mitigation of Catholic grass-roots organizations during the 1970’s, liberation theology did not lose its momentum (Rhodes). In fact, I find that it had a valuable impact on many societies, particularly in Latin American nations. For example, under it, Catholic leaders established Christian base communities in many Latin countries. In 1965, Father Ernesto Cardenal established one of the first of these communities in Nicaragua at a time when “10% of elite Nicaraguans were in control of 90% of the wealth while the masses lived in abject poverty” (“Barber”). These communities dramatically spread and remain strong components of Catholicism in Latin America today (Hillar). Base communities consist of sovereign religious groups aiming to assist societies’ poorest members, particularly those in rural Latin America where priests are often unavailable (Hillar). In this way, base communities place a large emphasis on non-clerical participation, inviting community members to engage in services, interpret scripture, and design liturgical practice for themselves, all without the influence of orthodox Catholic hierarchy (Rhodes).

Liberation theology also influenced many modern popular struggles throughout the world. For example, the Fanmi Lavalas, a political party in Haiti, adheres to a leftist ideology based on ideas supported by liberation theology. That is, Fanmi Lavalas embraces socialist democratic principles and champions a national policy respecting it’s “people’s demand for a society where everyone’s right is respected; and where there is a democratic government under the control of the masses is just” (“Fanmi Lavalas New York”). According to its leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he was inspired by liberation theology. Aristide notes in an interview with Peter Hallward of that liberation theology helped him determine that “the [Haitian] people remain at the very core of [Haiti’s] struggle. It isn’t a matter of struggling for the people, on behalf of the people, at a distance from the people; it is the people themselves who are struggling, and it’s a matter of struggling with and in the midst of the people” (Hallward). Similarly, the Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is a movement of shack dwellers in South Africa, was also inspired by liberation theology. The movement’s official website offers a chapter of Jacob Bryant’s paper on Abahlali, which states that “[t]he movement’s narrative has … assumed spiritual and historical dimensions, as activists link the movement to Christianity’s “preferential option for the poor,” [on] the basis of liberation theology” (Bryant). In 2005, this movement began with a road blockade in Durban, South Africa, and though Abahlali baseMjondolo has since faced tremendous police-brutality and governmental aggression, it is arguably the largest movement of impoverished citizens in post-apartheid South Africa (Inkani).

These examples of political movements demonstrate that liberation theology has brought Christianity into contemporary pursuits of social welfare. Liberation theology has not only empowered people as agents and participants in the Christian faith; it has also demonstrated to many communities how Christianity relates to their existences and can inspire them to improve their lives and societies. Thus, liberation theology exposes how Christianity functions in the modern era as a faith that promotes self-empowerment in many domains, from faith-based study and worship to political action. In practice, liberation theology offers a progressive approach to Christianity because it circumvents the mechanism of the church, brings communities to Catholicism which would otherwise be unable to access it, and allows those communities to embrace Christianity on their own terms and with their own insights. Liberation theology employs Christianity to give its followers agency; it empowers people through Christian teaching and promotes a pragmatic understanding of New Testament scripture. Additionally, in its empowerment of Christian followers, liberation theology also empowers the Christian faith by giving it a new societal purpose. That is, through liberation theology, Christianity retains a valiant role in modern contexts as an advocate of and muse to the oppressed and impoverished.


Barber, Sherry. “By Losing You.”, 21 April 2006. <>. Accessed on 27 November 2007.
Boff, Leonard and Clodovis Boff. “A Concise History of Liberation Theology.” Liberation Theology and Land Reform. <>. Accessed on 27 November 2007.
Bryant, Jacob. “Abahlali’s Narrative.” Abahlali baseMjondolo, 21 September 2007. . Accessed on 27 November 2007.
“Famni Lavalas New York.” The Famni Lavalas Organization in New York. . Accessed on 27 November 2007.
Hallward, Pete. “One Step at a Time’: An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide – Part I.” Caribbean Net News 20 February 2007. < ith%20jean%20bertrand%20aristide.html>. Accessed on 27 November 2007.
Hillar, Marian. “Liberation Theology: Religious Response to Social Problems. A Survey.” Humanism and Social Issues. Anthology of Essays. Ed. Marian Hillar and H.R. Leuchtag. Houston: American Humanist Association, 1993: 35-52. Center for Socinian Studies. 2003 . Accessed on 27 November 2007.
Inkani. “Short History of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban Shack Dwellers’ Movement.” Mute Beta Magazine 18 September 2006. . Accessed on 27 November 2007.
“Liberation Theology.” Radio National Encounter. Australian Broadcasting Company. 18 July 1999. . Accessed on 27 November 2007.
“Paul Gauthier.” . Accessed on 27 November 2007.
Rhodes, Ron. “”Christian Revolution in Latin America: The Changing Face of Liberation Theology- Part One in a Three-Part Series on Liberation Theology.” Rancho Santa Margarita, CA: Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries. < t/~ronrhodes/Liberation.html>. Accessed on 27 November 2007.
Rivers, Dennis. “Liberation Theology Resources.” . Accessed on 27 November 2007.