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‘Liberation Theology’: Pundit vs. Jesuit

September 1, 2010

Glenn Beck has again sparked an interesting theological debate among Christians.

Many may remember that a few months ago, he attacked the buzzword “social justice,” stating that if a Christian preacher were to use that term, the church’s parishioners should get up and leave the church. That led many Christians to push back against Beck, defending “social justice” by stating their belief that Christians are called not only to minister to the poor and oppressed but to address the underlying societal and cultural conditions that create poverty and oppression in the first place.

Well, last week Beck took aim at another churchie term: “Liberation Theology.” In explaining why he believes he was wrong to call President Obama a “racist,” Beck stated that his actual problem with Obama is that the president is a believer of liberation theology–an interpretation of Jesus’ example and ministry that, for Beck, “is a direct opposite of what the Gospel is talking about,” and “Marxism disguised as religion.”

This makes me want to know how those who support liberation theology would describe it. Here’s Jesuit priest, James Martin:

Liberation theology began in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, and was later developed more systematically by Catholic theologians who reflected on experiences of the poor there. The term was coined by the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, in his landmark book A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971. Briefly put, liberation theology (there are many definitions, by the way) is a Gospel-based critique of the world through the eyes of the poor.. proponents call us to see how the poor are marginalized by society, to work among them, to advocate on their behalf, and to help them advocate for themselves… It also sees the figure of Jesus Christ as the “liberator,” who frees people from bondage and slavery of all kinds. So, as he does in the Gospels, Christ not only frees people from sin and illness, Christ also desires to free our fellow human beings from the social structures that keep them impoverished. This is the kind of “liberation” that is held out.

Liberation theologians meditate on Gospel stories that show Christ upending the social structures of the day, in order to bring more… social justice into the world. Christians are also asked to make, as the saying goes, a “preferential option for the poor.”

…Some liberation theologians even consider the poor to be privileged carriers of God’s grace. In his book The True Church and the Poor, Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian wrote, “The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the Good News and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else.” …not only do we have to help the poor, not only do we have to advocate on their behalf, we also have to see them as perhaps understanding God better than we do.

But that’s not a new idea: It goes back to Jesus. The poor, the sick and the outcast “got” him better than the wealthy did. Perhaps because there was less standing between the poor and God. Less stuff. Maybe that’s why Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, “If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me.”

…In its heyday, liberation theology was not without controversy: some thought its emphasis on political advocacy skirted too close to Marxism–including Pope John Paul II. On the other hand, John Paul didn’t shy away from personally involving himself in direct political activism in Poland. It was the Latin American version of social action that seemed to bother him more. But even John Paul affirmed the notion of “preferential option for the poor.”

…There are also plenty of websites that [like Beck] link it to Marxism. My response to that… is to read the Gospels and count how many times Jesus tells us that we should help the poor and even be poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells us that the ones who will enter the Kingdom of heaven are those who help “the least of my brothers and sisters,” i.e., the poor. After that, read the Acts of the Apostles, especially the part about the apostles “sharing everything in common.” Then let me know if helping the poor is communist or simply Christian.

The Rev. Martin goes on to discuss why he personally believes in liberation theology.

Between 1992 and 1994, I worked with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, and participated in Catholic parishes who tried to help poor parishioners (i.e., all of them) reflect on their daily struggles through lens of the Gospel. And the Gospel passages that spoke of liberation for the poor were a lifeline to me and to those with whom I worked…

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2010 7:14 pm

    It’s funny, Fr. Martin’s defense of Liberation Theology, one would think that defending the Trinity from a sect that does not believe in the Three persons would be a higher priority.

  2. C. Verdon permalink
    September 10, 2010 10:17 am

    What about “free choice” that God gives us? We can choose to help the poor, or we can sin by not helping the poor, but ultimately it is a personal decision.

    An example of where I see the inadequacy of the Church’s reasoning is at Christmastime, for instance. Each parish and Catholic school collects “handouts” (donating gifts to poor migrant worker families at Christmastime) so that everyone can feel they “did their share” for the year. When in reality, what should be happening is people giving of their time and talent (a real gift of love…) tutoring the migrant children and families, helping them to speak English so that they can excel in school and the workplace! THIS would be a worthwhile expression of “Social Justice”, allowing them to escape their poverty situation. But the Church, it’s people and the government are lazy and settle for feeling good about handing out presents.

    You cannot legislate charity. It has to come from the heart, not the government, or it means NOTHING. We have to step up individually and keep the government out of God’s work – that is between him and his people.

    Feed the hungry, visit the lonely, cloth the naked. You can make a difference….don’t leave it to the government and this “social justice” sham. Trust your gut people! Glenn is right!

    The Progressive theologians have infiltrated the Catholic church and other churches and they are being torn apart from the inside out. Christ is the Liberator, not the devisive Liberation Theologians (who by the way own $6,000,000 homes!!!) that serve to divide the faithful, and divide America!

  3. Matt permalink
    September 12, 2010 8:11 pm

    It interesting in the post and reponses that nobody seems to have a true sense what Biblical justice is or how the OT and NT envision justice.

  4. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    September 12, 2010 9:24 pm

    Matt: What do you think is the true sense of how our scriptures envision justice?


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