For years I have heard stories about the Roman Catholic clerics who defied the worst despotic regimes of South America in the 1060’s and 70’s. Bishop Romero gunned down in his Cathedral, Priests and Nuns who chose to live alongside the poor and oppressed, and to try to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Out of this melting pot was born a new way of understanding the words of Jesus, known as ‘Liberation Theology.’
Pope John-Paul spoke out against this movement. He grew up in so-called Communist Poland, and liberation theology sounded too much like communism to him. As a social sciences graduate who was also a Christian, the critique offered to Western Capitalism by socialist writers, and even by old Marx himself always resonated with me. I think it was CS Lewis who called Communism a ‘Christian Heresy’.
The 1980’s and 90’s saw an end to the old ideological divides in Europe- everyone became a free marketeer it seems. The Labour party in Britain stopped talking about ‘poverty’, lest it scare off the middle class (Bourgeois!) vote. Instead we talked about educational attainment, and ‘social exclusion’.
But, as Jesus said, the poor are still with us. A recent WHO report has pointed to the growing health inequalities in the UK, and commentators have raised again the issue of inequality of income as the main causal factor.
And if we look broader than the boundaries of my own country we see global economics are managed by the ‘free market’- but in this system, as in all others, there are winners and losers. The system, say many, is rigged against those who have not, in favour of those who have.
Liberation theology is a Christian movement of protest and support for the poor. They would point us to the words of Jesus – yes the poor may always be with us, but our best service to Jesus is to serve the least.
- The call is to see people. And to see them as the beloved of God.
- The cause might be varied – but as Mother Theresa put it, “We rob our brothers by all that we own”.
- The solution is to learn how to love – and to live this out wherever you are – in the slums or in the boardroom.
Here is a definition culled from the good old BBC (from here.)
“Love for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive.”Ecclesia in America, 1999
Liberation theology was a radical movement that grew up in South America as a response to the poverty and the ill-treatment of ordinary people. The movement was caricatured in the phrase If Jesus Christ were on Earth today, he would be a Marxist revolutionary, but it’s more accurately encapsulated in this paragraph from Leonardo and Clodovis Boff:
“Q: How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?
A: There can be only one answer: we can be followers of Jesus and true Christians only by making common cause with the poor and working out the gospel of liberation.”
Leonardo and Clodovis Boff
Liberation theology said the church should derive its legitimacy and theology by growing out of the poor. The Bible should be read and experienced from the perspective of the poor.
The church should be a movement for those who were denied their rights and plunged into such poverty that they were deprived of their full status as human beings. The poor should take the example of Jesus and use it to bring about a just society.
Most controversially, the Liberationists said the church should act to bring about social change, and should ally itself with the working class to do so. Some radical priests became involved in politics and trades unions, others even aligned themselves with violent revolutionary movements.
A common way in which priests and nuns showed their solidarity with the poor was to move from religious houses into poverty stricken areas to share the living conditions of their flock.
I believe that Jesus always had a bias towards the weak and the poor. Any reading of the Sermon on the Mount has to twist theological somersaults to deny this. And I can not subscribe to the idea that International Capitalism, propagated with such enthusiasm by the ruling Christian west, will have much currency in the Kingdom of God.
But neither do I have any faith in a coming Marxist utopian revolution. I would rather hope for Christians who plant hope and beauty in the broken places.
Where the poor people are.
The challenge is for the rest of us to find out what that means for us.