Whatever Happened to Liberation Theology?

By Bedford, Nancy E. | The Christian Century, October 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Whatever Happened to Liberation Theology?


Bedford, Nancy E., The Christian Century


NOT LONG AGO, a retired pastor and theologian who had lived and taught in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s came back to visit. He had some pressing questions: What does liberation theology mean to you people today? What authors do you read in your seminary classes? What aspects of liberation theology still seem relevant to you?

The questions were pointed and timely. Several of us entered into a heated discussion with our visitor, out of which a relative consensus emerged: We do read the classic texts of Latin American theology (Gutierrez, Boff, Segundo, Sobrino, Miguez Bonino and others), some of them for their historical importance, others for their continuing relevance. Some of the insights provided by the first phase of liberation theology seem too important to let slip between the cracks--for instance, the centrality of the category "the poor" for biblical interpretation; the awareness of structural, not just individual, evil; the use of the social sciences as dialogue partner for theological discourse; and the need to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to theology itself.

It seemed to us that another virtue of Latin American liberation theology had been to alert North American and European theologians to the fact that they, too, were producing contextual theology, from a perspective no less particular than that of their Latin American colleagues. Our visitor nodded, took notes, and finally probed with clinical precision: But would you say liberation theology is dead? Oh no, certainly not dead, we replied, with varying tones of conviction. But one must think in terms of a dialectical process in which the core insights are taken up into the consideration of new problems, new situations and new questions.

Latin America is a very illuminating place to do theology; it is a fruitful locus theologicus. When I describe everyday life in Argentina to my North Atlantic friends, they often say it reminds them of the magical realism of Latin American literature and film. In Latin America one seems to move in a sort of hyperreality.

During the previous (Southern hemisphere) summer, the electrical company cut off power to a large portion of Buenos Aires. The company is one of the public services that were swiftly privatized in recent years, supposedly to help pay the foreign debt (though the debt is now larger than ever). Thousands of people living in high-rise apartment buildings were without light, water or elevators for many days, though they had paid their rather steep electricity bills.

In response to the apparent indifference or incapacity of the authorities, protest broke out. One method of protest was to put up roadblocks made up of unused electrical appliances such as fans, washing machines and refrigerators. Other protesters burned tires. One could walk along a street with no working street lamps and see masses of electrical appliances and greasy, exhausted faces in the flickering light of the bonfires. All those appliances, objects of desire, bought dearly with a multitude of payments and small sacrifices, were supposed to make life more pleasant. Yet they had become useless because of larger structural problems--in this case, the policies of a company interested not in the common good or in providing responsible service, but only in making a profit.

This hyperreal parable illustrates how Latin American reality so often shows the absurdity of Mammon's plan of salvation by exposing its cruelty. When profit is the only motor that fuels people's actions, society eventually falls apart. Latin American reality continually makes this point in many ways, both large and small. It is good for Christian theologians to be forced daily to remember that one cannot serve both God and Mammon--an insight that was one of the principal themes of the first generation of Latin American liberation theologians.

Jon Sobrino has written that as long as there is suffering, poverty, exclusion and premature death on an immense scale--which is ever more the case in Latin America--there will be need for a theology (whatever its name) that poses the kinds of questions posed by liberation theology. …

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Whatever Happened to Liberation Theology?
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