Monday, June 20, 2005

Liberation Theology: It's Still Out There

How often do you see articles about theology in the Oread Daily?

Well, today I ran across this notice about a conference meeting this week in Venezuela to analyze Liberation Theology and it piqued my interest. According to Prensa Latina, the “1st Latin American and Caribbean Ecumenical Meeting on Spirituality and Faith's Political Dimension is to build a new theology based on ethical dignity and spirituality in the liberation processes of the region.” The meeting is sponsored by the Bolivarian Congress of the Peoples and hosts some of Liberation Theology’s guiding lights including New York Episcopalian parish priest Luis Barrios, Salvadorian Lutherans Maria Isabel Villegas and Ricardo Cornejo, Dominican catholic priest Rogelio Cruz and Cubans Sergio Arce, Presbyterian theologian and Gabriel Coderch, Catholic cleric. Among the goals of the meeting are to “unmask religious hierarchies associated to dominant powers, and counteract media manipulation of religion.”

To tell the truth, I mostly remember Liberation Theology from my days working within the Latin American and Central American solidarity movements of the 80s. I’ve thought about it from time to time since, but hadn’t heard much. Memories from that time evoke in the words of free lance writer José Orozco, “…that mix of romance and tragedy that is so Latin American -- passionate priests and oppressed peasants dreaming of, and working for, better social conditions only to die at the hands of right-wing death squads.”

Rather than ignore earthly misery, Liberation Theology seeks social as much as spiritual well-being. Basing itself solidly on the Bible, Liberation Theology endorses the "preferential option for the poor." It's not, Liberation Theologists say, that Jesus Christ doesn't care for the rich, but he has his priorities.

Many say the birth of Liberation Theology was at a Latin American Catholic Church council in Medellin in 1968. Father Pedro Trigo, Venezuela's most important liberation theologian told Religioscope, after the tenants of Liberation Theology garnered the support of Latin American Church leaders in Medellin priests felt, “If the highest authority of the Catholic Church in Latin America meets and concludes that, then I'm not off base. I'm not going astray from Christianity by doing this. On the contrary, I'm realizing Christianity. If you're holed up in the church, it's you that isn't fulfilling Christianity."

Father Carlos Bazarra, the author of What is Liberation Theology?, claims that "the Bible has a very strong socialist dimension." Besides being charitable, Jesus cut a subversive figure, inspiring many a socialist through the years. However you slice it, poor people just seem to need religion more.

Liberation Theology, then, met a need among the region's poor. "It awoke in Latin America and Venezuela a tremendous joy and enthusiasm," said Father Trigo. "People were very happy seeing priests coming to their level, having a voice in their church, organizing themselves-that was a wonderful thing for them that gave them great hope."

But, of course, not all Church leaders were so enamored with this new bent on Catholic teaching. At a conference in Puebla, Mexico in 1979, powerful Latin American Bishops lashed out at Liberation Theology. "Bishops saw it as aggressive," according to Father Bazarra. "Liberation theologians weren't allowed in the Assembly, so they had to talk to the bishops in the hallways to try to influence them a bit."

Trigo claims that while Puebla made no mention of Liberation Theology, and while it lost institutional ground it wasn’t eliminated by a long shot. "By this time, there had been a lot of martyrs," said Trigo. "So they said, 'Oh, that's a sign that it's good. The fact that a lot of powerful people have withdrawn their support we take as a sign of faithfulness to Jesus Christ.' That was Puebla."

The Vatican itself tried to distance itself from the whole issue. It is, of more than passing interest to note that then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today's Pope Benedict XVI, attacked Liberation Theology for mixing Marxist elements with Catholic doctrine.

The election of Pope Benedict XVI was harshly criticized by Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff and Argentine priest Luis Farinello, both proponents of Liberation Theology. Speaking on Argentina's Radio Mitre, Boff slammed, the German-born former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as "a hard man with no compassion". Farinello, a popular priest in poor areas around Buenos Aires and a former candidate for a congressional seat, said "fear has won out" among the cardinals charged with electing a pope.

Despite Vatican big wigs, Liberation Theology, though, is still out there, and not just in Latin America – and not just a practice Catholic priests and nuns.

The discussion of Liberation Theology is not uncommon within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Botswana for instance, where Bishop-elect Cosmos Moenga delights in telling stories about his experiences in El Salvador where he did research for doctrinal studies. He says he remembers being told there by a young priest, “Here we don’t preach liberation theology; we live it”.

“The ills of today’s society result from its materialistic nature that dictates that to be regarded as a person of some standing you have to drive a Mercedes, Audi or BMW,” Moenga says. “We must correct the ills first. We must provide meaningful employment so that young women can find decent jobs and stop prostituting themselves to men who later kill them in a fit of jealousy.”

And Moenga asks some very specific and timely questions about his own country. Some of these are why Botswana has the “largest airbase in Africa” and why Voice of America broadcasts from here to the rest of the continent. Almost immediately, he provides answers to his own questions.

“We are not only dealing with the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP),” he says, “but with the powers behind the BDP. Botswana is of strategic value. That’s why they can’t set this country free. They have much to lose. Then there are the diamonds, which they get almost for free.”

“They” - of course - are the imperial powers.

Moenga is also highly critical of his country’s constitution and ruling party. He says they promote and institutionalize institutionalizes ethnic inequality. He suggests a constitutional assembly - which would be representative of the country’s different interest groups and demography - to write a new constitution.

“No person is apolitical,” Moenga tells Mmegi. “It is the nature of human beings to be engaged in politics. I believe that the priest has to be in politics on the side of justice and truth,” he says. “In Botswana, there is so much injustice and it is wrong for a pastor to join an oppressive regime. No prophet was ever on the side of an oppressive regime.”

In Moenga’s book, to be neutral in an environment where injustice obtains is to support injustice.

And I can’t argue with that. Sources: Prensa Latina, Religioscope, Mmegi, AFP