An essay I wrote on liberation theology and its importance in Latin American culture. This is the basis of all my classes and hands-on learning excursions in Mexico. Sorry about any mistakes!
Latin American liberation theologies are integral, but sometimes overlooked, components of Christian theology that realize the important of salvation in life and demand action to overcome oppression of all peoples on Earth; liberation theology therefore provides global society with necessary lessons about inherent human rights and the value of all life. Latin American Theologies first began to take shape as a result of the violence and oppression, especially towards people of indigenous descent, that was plaguing Latin American in the twentieth century. Civil wars, dictatorships, and United States military intervention were all catalysts for the human rights atrocities committed over many years against Latin American people. As a result of the Spanish Conquest four hundred years prior, the Catholic Church had a powerful role in Latin American society as these various atrocities were being committed in modern times. Many priests and other members of the Catholic Church were doing very little and sometimes nothing to combat the violence and save the lives of those being slaughtered and oppressed. The message that many received was that the Catholic Church simply did not care about society’s most oppressed people occupying the lowest social classes. However, some priests, nuns, and laypeople began to have serious moral misgivings about the Church’s neutrality (and sometimes support) of the violence; at the same time, the Catholic Church was facing huge amounts of criticism that on a global scale, it catered to the wealthy and supported archaic social ideals. As a result of the criticism coming from both inside and outside the Church, the Second Vatican Council took place from 1962-1965 to uncover ways in which to make the Catholic Church applicable to modern people dealing with modern social problems. The Medellin Council followed in 1968, and set out a plan that demanded that all Christians work for to end oppression and fight for the rights of all people.
At their core, Latin American liberation theologies believe that God loves the poor and wants them freed from their oppressed and impoverished lives on Earth. Because God made the Earth for everyone, every person has an equal right and responsibility to use and protect the gifts that the Earth has to offer. This means that a poor person in the developing world deserves to use the land in the same way that a wealthy person in the developed world chooses to do. In “Resisting Imperial Peace,” Hopkins writes that, “…since the same God made everything and everything made is both part of God and part of each other, then stewardship suggests an equal participation in all of creation” (Hopkins 13). There are two important points in Hopkins words: the first that God made everything, including every human being; the second that God expects an equal participation with what He has created. Because of oppression, this equal and shared participation with the earth is not possible and is therefore not allowing the earth to fulfill its purpose. The situation seems dire, but another important part of liberation theologies is the belief that Scripture advocates taking action against this oppression. Therefore, this oppression and unequal allocation of the earth does not have to be accepted.
Liberation theologies advocate action against oppression, as long as this action occurs within Christian boundaries. Furthermore, the action must lead to eradicating oppression and poverty and realizing the equal value of all human life. Before liberation theologies, there were many religious laws that had to be followed if a person were to have any chance of achieving salvation after death, which means a life of happiness in the presence of God for eternity. However, many of those laws did not take into account the situations that people were facing and the decisions they had to make within them. This was a large part of the criticism that the Catholic Church received before the Second Vatican Council. Padre Angel said, “When religious thinking does not take into account human conditions it becomes a law that is unchristian.” (Padre Angel Sanchez 29/09). This is a fundamentally important idea to liberationist theologies, because there must be an understanding of the social environment to understand the people within them. For example, it is not Christian for the Catholic Church to condemn abortion as a mortal sin when a woman terminates her pregnancy because she is starving and does not want her own child to be a victim of starvation. The real sin in the situation is why that woman is being denied a fundamental human right: the right to nutrition and health. According to both Gutierrez and Padre Angel, Christian action is the most important part of being a Christian. So in the example of the starving woman, people have a responsibility not to condemn that woman, but to discover the root causes of that hunger and take action to eradicate that problem. It is not enough to have faith in God; you must also take action to support and act out that faith, which according to Gutierrez is a commitment to the lives of other human beings. By reading Scripture through a liberationist lens we now know that God wants people to fight back against oppression so that all people may live a fully human life.
Liberation theologies are important because they go beyond the abstract idea of salvation after death. They do not lock people into the idea that they must suffer for their entire lives in order to someday live a happier life once their physical lives have ended. Before liberation theologies, many impoverished people believed that this is what God wanted for their lives. As a result, many of the people living within the most difficult physical situations on earth also had to emotionally deal with the idea that they had somehow earned the difficulty of their life. In other situations, women were convinced they deserved to be beaten or raped, because that was God’s plan. Xochitl Ramirez talked about how this ideology was a large part of her family and community, and was used to advocate her family not supporting her when she left her abusive husband. There existed a general acceptance in her community that God had made women to serve men, and part of that was accepting whatever treatment men gave to their women. However, this means that God intended that for some women, they should suffer throughout their lives. Liberation theologies showed people that God never intended the world to be a place where their lives were meant to consist of unending suffering. “For Christians, Jesus came so that all can have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10)” (De La Torre 11). An abundant life should consist of more than feeling oppressed by society at large. A truly abundant life should allow people to make decisions for themselves and their families, to receive an education, to be healthy, and to be recognized by all people that they are fully human.
Once action has been taken in order to fight for equal rights, the theology of the liberation must begin. Reflection on one’s beliefs and actions is required for liberationists, and is a key component according to Gutierrez: “Theology is a reflection – that is, a second act, a turning back, a reflecting, that comes after action. Theology is not first; the commitment is first. Theology is the understanding of the commitment, and the commitment is action” (Gutierrez 24). To me, this self-reflection is one of the most impressive and powerful components of liberation theologies because it acknowledges that society and its people are constantly being reshaped and changing as a result. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he questioned and challenged and pushed them in order to help them fully understand and grasp their own beliefs. Liberation theology does the same thing today – it forces us to observe and act and then figure out if that action was right. This is why liberation theologies are different; every situation requires a different response. “Whatever liberation looks like, it can only be determined by he people living under oppressive structures” (Gutierrez 47). It makes us analyze the world, and our actions that affect the world and the people in it. Therefore, liberation theologies continue the work that Jesus himself did. However, liberation theologies have a specific goal, and that is liberation: “Although the common starting point of theological reflection is the existential experience of the marginalized, the ultimate goal remains liberation from the reality of societal misery” (Gutierrez 47). This is also reminiscent of the work of Jesus, whose major goal was to show everyone the love of God and bring salvation to the earth. Again, a goal of liberationist theologians.
One of the biggest questions that often leads to the greatest criticism of liberation theologies is if God is for the poor and oppressed, does he hate the wealthy and privileged? I think that a superficial study and understanding of liberation theologies could easily lead people to that conclusion. However, after studying liberation theologies for the past few weeks I do not think that God loves the wealthy any less than he loves the poor. However, I do think that the Bible, specifically the Gospels, focus on the actions that Jesus believes human beings should take in regard to those less fortunate than ourselves. I believe that Jesus calls people, especially the wealthy, to recognize their privileged place in the world and treat all others with respect. Gutierrez writes, “If faith is a commitment to God, and human beings, it is not possible to live in today’s world without a commitment to the process of liberation. That is what constitutes a commitment today” (Gutierrez 25). I think that this is ultimately the message that Jesus wanted to send to people – you are only truly a Christian if your actions advocate for the equal treatment of everyone on earth. It is therefore what a person possesses, whether they are wealthy or poor, but the choices that they make in regard to the lives of others are important. In American schools, we are taught about times in history when one group of people decided that another was less human, or inferior. Personally, when I was taught about inequality in school I learned about the original American colonies, slavery/the Civil Rights Movement, and the Holocaust. While the treatment of people in all of these situations was atrocious, the attacks and genocides on people in Latin America were no less horrific. Therefore I hope that more Americans learn about the events leading up to the birth of liberation theologies, because only learning about atrocities against Western people propagates the idea that the Western world and its people, culture, and histories are most important. Liberation theology is therefore so important for all people to understand, because it values the lives of all people, regardless of differences.