Further Developments of Ecumenism: Liberation Theology
Liberation theology has been a significant addition to the landscape of the ecumenical movement. Who needs to be liberated? According to liberation theology, the answer is the poor.
In attending to the fortunes of the dispossessed, this movement has been called “a new way of doing theology.” More than just “getting along,” liberation theology seeks a kind of theological metamorphosis. It aims at transforming the fortunes of the poor. It echoes Karl Marx's famous dictum that the task of philosophy is not merely to understand the world but to change it.
Liberation theology contends that African Americans suffer from several forms of bondage: social, political, economic, and religious. According to liberation theology, the goals of Christian theology are and must be connected with liberation of oppressed classes of people.
Christ preached a message that favored the poor. Thus, “A rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ,” James Hal Cone writes. Cone, a distinguished professor of Systematic Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, is grounded in systematic theology and holds no punches in explaining what the ideals of Christianity ought to be. In his book A Black Theology of Liberation he wrote,
Cone's views came to the forefront during the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Barack Obama's pastor, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, claimed that he had been personally inspired by Cone's theology. Because Reverend Wright was being called a black separatist, Obama was branded with the same label. Wright claimed that his church, which didn't preach black superiority or black inferiority but did espouse self-determination, was singled out because of its presidential candidate association.
The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God's experience, or God is a God of racism …. Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity.
Cone has persistently criticized the “white church” for ignoring or failing to address the problem of race. He has been publishing on the matter since 1969 and says, “Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’”
Leonardo Boff and Liberation Versus Traditional Theology
In 1968, a meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellin was a crucial event for the liberation theology movement. At that meeting, documents were delivered under the title Justice and Peace. Injustices visited on the people of Latin America by neocolonialism and imperialism were discussed, not to mention the liberation from various forms of servitude and the kingdom of God in this world. Leonardo Boff was the leader representing Brazil.
Boff named five points distinguishing liberation theology from traditional theology:
The primacy of the anthropological element over the ecclesiological, since their focus is primarily on the person to be helped and humanized rather than on the church
The utopian perspective is placed over the factual — the future over the past, since they see the social process as permanently open to transformation — a possibility opened up by Jesus
The critical over the dogmatic, to counteract the tendency of institutions to fossilize
The social over the personal, in view of the increasing misery of the masses
Orthopraxis over orthodoxy — Christ didn't come to give us a set of intellectual concepts to master but a way of acting and living in the world
The Vatican issued its critique of liberation theology in April 1986 in a document entitled “Instruction of Christian Freedom and Liberation.” The document warned against “collectivist solutions to poverty.” It also took the stance that sin was individual, not social. The concept of sin refers primarily to the individual who is free to violate the moral law. Only in a secondary sense can it be applied to social structures in the sense of “social sin.” It also reminded liberationists that poverty assumes many forms, and that the Church's love and compassion must extend toward all manner of poor — including the infant in danger of being aborted, the elderly, the abandoned, and the lonely. Finally, it made clear that the clergy must steer clear of direct involvement in the political process.
Boff did not see eye to eye with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who singled out Boff for attempting to apply liberation theology to the Church itself. Boff, who was the cardinal's student, saw the solution to the ills of the church as a decentralized church, but Ratzinger thought the church needed to be more centralized. He once likened the church to a construction site where the blueprint had been lost and each worker was doing his own thing.