is a term that originated in Peru
with the Catholic Priest Gustavo Gutierrez
. He used it to denote a line of theological thought that placed the poor
in the centre of Christian
thought, highlighting the importance of liberating them from the oppression that they faced in under the regimes common in Latin America
. What made it of especial significance to the methods of twentieth century theological thinking was it's origin. In the words of Guiterrez it was 'born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human.' 1
; it's inspiration was drawn from the experiences of the community
it sought to free.
Since Gutierrez's initial work, Liberation Theology has gained more widespread usage as a school, or collection of schools, of theology that seek to liberate the oppressed in various social and economic contexts throughout the world. As such the term 'Liberation Theology' actually covers a wide range of viewpoints many of which may seem to conflict as each seeks to obtain it's specific goals. Despite this the various theologies of liberation each share the original theme of looking to the base, to the context of the oppressed to seek inspiration.
What therefore are the principles of Liberation Theology? There does not seem to be total unity on the exact nature of these principles, the scope of the various concerns that fall under the banner of Liberation Theology seems to be too broad for total consensus. Despite this there are a number of core principles that seem to define the boundaries of this field.
The use of praxis: While the precise definition of praxis varies from theologian to theologian it retains it's core meaning of identifying a problem or cause of suffering and taking action informed by reflection. Praxis is therefore at the heart of Liberation Theology and indeed forms much of it's character by enforcing a questioning and proactive nature to the field.
The oppressed should be liberated: Liberation Theology was formed in response to the terrible injustice of the oppressed viewing humans who were exploiters misusing humans that were exploited. This is seen as wrong and contrary to the Christian message.
Theology should come from the base: Rather than a top-down approach to theology in which ivory tower theologians draw up theologies entirely based on the works of other ivory tower theologians , Liberation Theology should find it's inspiration and goals in the community at it's base. Such a 'base up' approach has led some to view Liberation Theology as merely Marxism with a Christian face, and it is true that many Liberation Theologians quite openly draw inspiration from the works of Marx and of Marxist writers in general. This perceived leftward leaning has caused many in the Capitalist world to reject it as a valid theology or to at least regard it with suspicion. To describe Liberation Theology in such terms would be however to make the crucial mistake of oversimplification. This relationship has been described as a conversation with Marx; asking him '"What can you tell us about the situation of poverty and ways of overcoming it?"' 2 if the answer is not useful it is rejected. While Marxism has often been drawn on, Liberation Theology also draws on many other fields, as and when they become relevant to the community that the theology serves. It is from this that the entire strength and purpose of the theology is formed, if it is not relevant to the community then it is not relevant to the theology.
The Bible is a continuing revelation: While the liberation theologians focus their attention on the community, they draw inspiration from the Bible in that context. The continuing revelation of the events described in the Bible allow parallels to be drawn, enabling those in struggles today to, through the process of reading and discussion, make some sense of their faith. This is not always an easy task for those in difficult situations but strength can be gained and lessons learnt from the process.
1: Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation (London: SCM Press, 1974), p.ix.
2: Boff, Clodovis and Boff, Leonardo, Introducing Liberation Theology (Wellwood: Burns and Oates, 1987), p28.