Theology of Liberation Viewed Historically

By Eden, Philip | Monthly Review, February 1988 | Go to article overview

Theology of Liberation Viewed Historically


Eden, Philip, Monthly Review


THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION VIEWED HISTORICALLY

Your discussion of "Toward a Second Reformation?" in the July-August 1987 issue of MR started me thinking about viewing the theology of liberation movement as history. I have come up with a somewhat different historical view and I would like to outline it in this letter.

(1) Theology of liberation is a new development which is, at the same time, so old that it can best be understood as a part of the history of religion stretching back to primitive Christianity and beyond that to the role of religion in the ancient gens.

(2) We are not here concerned with the extraordinary variety of religious beliefs and their growth and development over time, but rather with the essence of religion as a system of traditional beliefs based on faith rather than scientific proof or reason. The basic function of the person who served as the religious leader in the prehistoric kin groups, be it holy man, medicine man, witch doctor, shaman, or dream interpreter, was basically to be the repository of the community's accumulated social wisdom and understanding of the real and spirit world, and to use this understanding to ensure the survival of the community. He, or in rare cases she, conducted the traditional rituals: of individual passage from birth through puberty, marriage, and death; of group rituals to assure success of the hunt, the gathering of food, the planting, the rainfall, the harvest, the sharing. He was the community leader, the judge who settled disputes, the final arbiter of the rules, especially the rules of taboo, of what was socially acceptable behavior. He was venerated and given unquestioned respect and authority because all in the community recognized the importance of this function, just as many respect their modern counterparts in our communities today. I think a reading of the anthropological literature will support this view, although there undoubtedly were examples of such persons who used their position to exploit others. The religion was an important part of the culture, the ideological superstructure of the gens, and it served to protect and perpetuate the gens, a society without class divisions.

(3) When the first chiefs and kings overthrew the ancient gens and established tyrannies, they had to destroy the old religion of the gens as well. Or they had to change it into something else, a religion that would sanctify and support the king. This might be accomplished by adapting the old religious structure and personnel and modifying them to serve this new purpose, or a new church and priesthood could be established. Either way religion took on a new function, as a partner in the ideological and cultural sphere, to support and perpetuate a king, or a dominant class in a system of oppression of the remainder of the population. As contrasted with the prehistory of religion, the written history is primarily one of churches as established institutions and priesthoods as part of a class structure of society and of the state. Here again, there were undoubtedly exceptions, priests who devoted themselves to the poor, but they were exceptions.

Most of our knowledge of Judaism and Christianity fits into this period of written history. The Hebrew prophets, and Jesus as one of the later ones, were a continuum of concern for the general community, in line with the best in that tradition in the gens. They struggled against the impositions of tyrannical kings and priesthoods.

(4) The description of the Catholic hierarchy and church as an intrinsic partner in European feudalism needs no elaboration. …

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