Kairos Palestine recently held a 9th anniversary celebration and gathering in Bethlehem. Read the statement coming out of the gathering here. We celebrate it with this essay by EPF PIN member Kathy Christison:
The weekly London Economist recently ran an article more or less pronouncing the death of Liberation Theology in Latin America and, by implication, everywhere else as well. But, from the perspective of those millions around the world who live in injustice and oppression—including Palestinians and the theologians and spiritual leaders who minister to them—this misguided death knell for a theology that gives them spiritual succor and hope in their misery comes as an insensitive assertion that God has abandoned them. In fact, however, the Economist fails to understand the true nature of liberation theology and the provenance under which it exists and is called forth.
Taking off from the Vatican’s canonization in October of Archbishop Óscar Romero, the El Salvadoran Catholic prelate assassinated on the altar by rightwing militiamen in 1980, the article (signed only by “B.C.”) vaguely hints that Romero’s entry into sainthood marks the capstone of the vast liberation theology movement that arose throughout Latin America in the 1960s and ‘70s. But it is not clear whether the author believes liberation theology ultimately succeeded or failed. Observing rather too sweepingly that “the liberationists’ critique of inequality has now passed into the standard thinking of the Vatican,” B.C. suggests that liberation theology might now take its success and pass peacefully from the political scene, like other past transitory social movements. But at the same time, B.C. says, the Catholic Church is losing numbers precipitately in South America—from 90 percent of that population in 1970 to a predicted 50 percent by the end of the next decade—and so the Catholic Church is losing its grip on theology for the oppressed.
These assertions are mostly non sequiturs, telling us nothing about the spiritual essence of any of the several liberation theologies; nothing about the beauty of the path these theologies offer the oppressed and marginalized in their various contexts, whether their suffering is political, social, economic, or some combination of these; nothing about liberation theology’s connection with God, which comes in diverse ways according to each suffering community’s needs.
Most essentially, liberation theology is not what the Economist describes. It is not a proprietary office of the Catholic Church or of any particular “theology central,” and it has never been a theology only for Latin America. The Vatican and the Latin American bishops did in the 1960s enunciate a seminal doctrine asserting that God has a “preferential option for the poor” but, like everything else about liberation theology, this thinking originates in the gospel, not from the Church. It comes not from the Church preaching the gospel to the poor and marginalized, but from the oppressed themselves speaking out through the gospel about their own concerns, against the collective power of secular governments and coopted churches.
As it began in Latin America and wherever it is enunciated today, liberation theology is a grassroots, bottom-up rather than top-down theology, and a form of resistance by the oppressed to the Euro-centric, colonialist structures that have dominated church and state for so many centuries. It is the oppressed who preach the gospel of justice to church hierarchies, not the reverse. Kairos Palestine, issued by local Christian leaders in Jerusalem in 2009 to bring the plight of Palestinians to wider church attention, is a prime example of this grassroots testimony. The South Africa Kairos Document issued by anti-apartheid theologians in 1985 was the same.
Liberation theology is a set of diverse contextual theologies formulated more or less spontaneously in response to particular forms of oppression in particular geographical areas and speaking out in the particular vernacular of the oppressed. The late Black Protestant theologian James Cone, for instance, enunciated a liberation theology for Blacks almost simultaneously with Gustavo Gutiérrez’s classic 1970 explication of Latin American liberation theology, A Theology of Liberation, and without knowing anything about the Latin American version. Feminist and womanist theologies have also developed without particular reference to Catholicism or to Latin America.
Palestinian liberation theology—formulated most notably by Palestinian Episcopal priest Naim Ateek beginning in the 1980s and ‘90s in several books and through the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which he co-founded in 1990—is unique among liberation theologies because, by politically challenging Israeli domination and the secular and religious powers that support that system of domination, it is standing up to an oppressive system of nationalism—exclusive Jewish nationalism—that by its very nature denies any notion of non-Jewish equality. This Palestinian theology, uniquely, rests its call for justice, equality, and an end to oppression on precisely the same scriptural foundations that Israel and Zionism employ to justify Jewish supremacy.
Liberation theology in all its variations is ecumenical and, although based in Christianity, speaks not for, but on behalf of people of any faith, or of none, who suffer secular or religious injustice. It is shaped by each community’s view of how God relates to them as communities with distinct needs but universally deserving of justice and equality in their separate contexts. In calling for liberation from Israel’s oppression, Palestinian liberation theology speaks on behalf not only of Palestinian Christians, but also of their many Muslim compatriots.
God’s relationship with humanity and especially with oppressed humanity is the point at which liberation theology’s universality enters in: this point is God’s love for all humankind equally and concern that all of humankind live in justice. This point of universality is God’s effort, through God’s own preferential option for the disadvantaged, to raise all people to an equal level of justice and love. This theology is the cri de cœur of the oppressed seeking God’s help and solidarity as they struggle against the powers, secular and religious, that created oppression in the first place, and it is God’s promise, in response, to be with all those who suffer.