Transforming Human Consciousness: James Nickoloff Gets beyond Simplistic Portrayals of Liberation Theology

Article excerpt

The topic of liberation theology has been raised in the media quite a bit since the election of Pope Francis, mostly in response to the charge that Francis, like his two most recent predecessors, has a negative view of the movement.

In so many of the essays and blogs I've read about the topic, I have been struck by the simplistic characterizations of liberation theology. Many writers reduce it to a political movement or identify it closely with Marxism. I realized that few of these commentators were experts in liberation theology and even fewer had spent any time out in the field where this school of thought developed. I wanted to talk to an authority on the issue, and I found James B. Nickoloff.

Nickoloff is associate professor emeritus of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester; Mass., where he taught systematic theology for 20 years. He has also lived and worked for extended periods in Andong, South Korea; Kingston, Jamaica; and Lima. Peru. While in Lima, he lived and worked with Dominican Fr Gustavo Gutierrez, a founder of the liberation theology movement, in the parish where Gutierrez served as pastor He also studied at Lima's Instituto Bartolome de las Casas, which Gutierrez founded and directed.

Nickoloff is the editor of Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings and the co-editor (with Orlando Espin) of an Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies. He is teaching at Barry University in Miami, the University of Miami, and the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Manson: Since the 1980s, we have heard about the institutional church's reservations about liberation theology and, in some cases, bishops cracking down on liberation theologians. As a student of Gutierrez, would you help us understand more fully the concerns of the magisterium?

Nickoloff. It's important to start out by saying that I'm speaking from my own limited perspective. I have more knowledge and experience in the field than some others, but I don't have the whole picture by any means.

What I would point to as the concern in certain quarters of the institutional church (which includes bishops, priests and laypeople) is a sense that what liberation theology was really pushing for was raising the consciousness of people at the base of society.

Gutierrez talks about three levels or dimensions of the process of liberation. The first is social, political, economic, structural transformation. The political and theological projects come together in the second level, which is psychological transformation. The third level is transformation in Christ, which is the turn from self-centeredness and sin to God.

The connection between social, political, economic and structural liberation and spiritual liberation occurs, in his view, in the transformation of human consciousness. That's the link between the two. Gutierrez and many other liberation theologians are convinced that preaching the Gospel with integrity can actually encourage the Christian portion of the population to undergo this psychological transformation. That's what he saw happening in the 1960s and '70s in various kinds of movements of the poor and marginalized, including women's groups, farmers and workers.

Why would this be perceived as threatening?

I think anybody who is enjoying the privilege of power in the status quo is going to be at least wary of, if not opposed to, this raised consciousness among the poor and marginalized.

If we look at the last election in our own country, it could be argued that what happened was that a lot of marginalized people, many of whom may not even know the history of the civil rights movement or the women's movement, had had their own consciousness affected by what happened 30 and 40 years ago. The work of decades of activism bore fruit. And many people with money and privilege proved powerless against this change in consciousness. …