Has Liberation Theology Died?

By de Oliveira Ribeiro, Claudio | The Ecumenical Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Has Liberation Theology Died?


de Oliveira Ribeiro, Claudio, The Ecumenical Review


Reflections on the Relationship between Community Life and the Globalization of the Economic System

Over their history, the Christian churches in Brazil have developed a rather limited understanding and practice of the mission of the church. On the Protestant side, 19th-century puritan, pietist and fundamentalist missionaries from North America brought an understanding of the mission of the church as the conversion of people, especially Roman Catholics, to the Protestant faith. This meant adhering to the North American way of life and rejecting the Brazilian culture. The social, political and economic situation of the country was seen as unimportant in this process, since the aim of believers is only the salvation of "souls". These missionaries advocated submission to the secular powers while awaiting the time of redemption.

Since the second half of the 19th century, ordained ministers in Brazilian Protestant churches have learned to be the leaders of this mission process. For many years most of them have been trained to carry out this limited vision. Theological education reinforced this perspective, creating a whole generation of ministers trained to reproduce the traditional pastoral profile.

The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil has also shown a limited understanding of mission. When Portuguese ships arrived in the 16th century to colonize the land and exploit its natural resources, they killed indigenous people and brought black slaves from Africa. Millions of indigenous people were slain and their cultures completely destroyed by the process of colonization. A similar fate has befallen black communities over more than five centuries. The Roman Catholic Church helped to legitimize this process, taking part in colonization under the rubric of evangelization.

While there were always some rare exceptions to this overall portrait, it was in the 1950s that some Protestant laity and ministers in Brazil began to go beyond the traditional model of mission. They learned new ways of being church and accepted new mission challenges, especially through their participation in the ecumenical movement. The profound changes in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly due to the openness of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), gave many lay people and priests the opportunity to rethink mission in a Brazilian way.

The rise of liberation theology some decades later can be seen as an outcome of their efforts.(1) The formation of Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs)(2) in the Roman Catholic context, the renewal of many Protestant local churches and the organization of ecumenical groups and service centres made possible a new mission understanding.

But if liberation theology provided a theoretical framework to base communities in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s have brought many new challenges for mission and new approaches have been necessary. One of the major challenges that must be faced is neo-liberalism -- or "late capitalism", in which financial power has become greater and stronger than the productive forces of human labour. The globalization of the economy has considered national borders as relative, and the free market has become the dominating reference point and aim for society. The power of neo-liberalism is destroying community life worldwide. The situation in Brazil and Latin America as a whole has become more difficult because poverty is rising to inhuman levels and people are unable to achieve social liberation.

At the same time, it is possible that liberation theology has worked with a too-idealistic view of community life. Coming closer to reality is thus one of the most important tasks for liberation theology. If this is not done, there is a danger that it will become empty slogans unconnected with everyday life.

Theological reflection in Latin America has made a particular contribution to theology as a whole with its popular methodology of see-judge-act. …

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