Latin America, Liberation, and Embracing the Revolution

Throughout the month of June, we’ll be exploring Liberation theology and the project of the church. This is part three of the series. [intro] [part 1] [part 2]

 The World Cup started last week in Brazil amid protests and arrests. For years now, the people of Brazil have been protesting the expense that hosting the tournament has entailed for the country – signs about building stadiums instead of hospitals and making people homeless dot the protests around the country. Many news outlets have run with the idea that these protests have “marred” the opening ceremonies, while simultaneously reporting on deaths, bribery, and oppression happening in Qatar while they, too, ready for an eventual World Cup hosting.

For white-led US media, it never seems to have crossed their mind that the protestors may have a point. Brazil is a richer country than some, but in many ways it is still a developing economy, thanks to years of plunder and colonization from European nations. Hosting international sporting events often creates an economic loss for the countries, as the costs of building the stadiums and running the tournament are rarely counter-balanced by the amount of tourism created. In many ways, this year’s World Cup and the accompanying controversies are a microcosm of the battles South America – particularly South American theologians – have been fighting for decades.

My introduction to liberation theology came through a religion and literature course in graduate school. I don’t even remember what the theme of the course was (it was four years ago) but I remember studying writings by Latin American writers responding to the Catholic Church’s actions in colluding with the regime of Pinochet, a ruthless dictator in Chile. This was where I was introduced to Gustavo Gutierrez, a prominent Latin American theologian.

Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation is a dense, complex read – not one to take on lightly. His conception of liberation, unlike Cone, is less grounded in racial politics and more grounded in economic and governmental challenges. Gutierrez turned a Catholic teaching – that God has a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable – into a central theological tenet of liberation theology. Essentially, care for the poor and vulnerable is a central portion of the Gospel message – one that cannot be easily ignored without ignoring Christ himself.

I cannot possibly sum up or cover all that Gutierrez has to offer in his broad works, especially as a white person from the United States. So I’m going to talk about context. It is vitally important, in the project of liberation theology, that we understand and take into account the context within which they are speaking. In an American tradition that tends to believe theological truths are objectively obvious no matter your position, this is a hard thing to do. We must fight this desire for objectivity and instead work to recognize that all of us are approaching theology and church from a context.

Gutierrez’s context is that of upheaval. In the mid-20th century, South America was wracked by civil wars and dictatorships. Gutierrez’s commentary, then, is born – like Cone’s – out of economic and physical violence, perpetrated by the state. In my understanding, the Catholic church in Chile was colluding in many ways with the regime of Pinochet. In the mid-80s, Joseph Ratzinger, the man who eventually became Pope Benedict XVI, was instrumental in an effort by the Catholic church to condemn liberation theology as Marxist heresy.

We’ll discuss the Marxist critique later in the month, but I want to discuss the principles of liberation theology first. For liberation theologians, liberation comes not only in spiritual care – liberation from sin and freedom to be human individuals – but also in the form of liberation from earthly oppressions. Gutierrez emphasized in his theology economic freedoms and the necessity of economic upheaval. He recognizes that, in Latin America, the influence of competing international economies and their influence in the region has prevented Latin America from becoming a “developed” economy. Instead, they remain dependent on the fights of foreign nations.

Gutierrez rejected this international influence on the identity of Latin American governance, and with that came the Catholic Church in Rome’s influence in the area, especially after they failed to condemn dictatorial actions. This is the groundwork for Guiterrez’s understanding of economic, governmental, and spiritual liberation.

Liberation theology, as a whole, is deeply grounded in the economic and sociopolitical realities of the oppressed. It is determined not simply to liberate people on a spiritual level but to work for justice in their lived experience, adapting and working to make the Gospel relevant to the social position of a person’s life. Liberation theology recognizes that the Gospel has been used as a tool of the conquerors and works to make Christ’s sacrifice a tool of the rebellion. Liberation theology challenges us to confront oppressors, to fight for the downtrodden.

We must reject the false Gospel of the nation-state and instead embrace the revolution.