Theology and Liberating Praxis – Theology as “second act”

Context – Human agency and traumatic history
Ivan Petrella, in his chapter “The Poverty of the Majority” from Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic, devotes two full pages to statistics which reveal the devastating human cost of globalization. Petrella uncovers the realities of global “idolatry” that result from the sovereignty of international systems which abandon all concern for the wholeness and well-being of the majority of the world’s population. Shocking poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, pervasive denial of basic human rights, and no end in sight to such abuses, serves as the context for theological reflection. Gustavo Gutierrez, in his work A Theology of Liberation, highlights this context alongside social praxis as a first step for developing theological reflection. He writes of the growing awareness of humankind as “an active subject of history, ever more articulate in the face of social injustice” and human trauma (Gutierrez, 30). Human beings are, more than ever before, aware of their historical context and its traumatic injustice. A critical theological praxis and reflection is the responsibility and mandate of the church in such a context.

Theological reflection – A “second act”
Gutierrez departs from tradition in his conviction that theology reflection should only occur after or alongside an investment in action and interpretation in historical context. Gutierrez writes “The first stage or phase of theological work is the lived faith that finds expression in prayer and commitment,” rooted in the experience of Christian life in historical context (Gutierrez, xxxiv). Only with this first stage in progress can theological reflection begin. The role of theology, then, is “to read this complex praxis in the light of God’s word” (Gutierrez, xxxiv). For Gutierrez, praxis and theology are inextricably linked. On one hand, “A theology which has as its points of reference only ‘truths’ which have been established once and for all…can only be only static and…sterile” (Gutierrez, 10). On the other, praxis is only prophetic when it “interprets historical events with the intention of revealing and proclaiming their profound meaning” in light of the Christian narrative (Gutierrez, 10). This interdependence of theology and praxis reveals with greater clarity God’s self-revelation in human agency in historical contexts.

Praxis – Human agency and transformative future
The most essential role of theology in the current era, for Gutierrez, is its interdependence with historical praxis as the foundation for liberation and the restoration of human dignity. Gutierrez writes “Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology, a theology of the liberating transformation of the history of humankind and also therefore that part of humankind…which openly confesses Christ” (Gutierrez, 12). A focus on liberation transforms theology from a primarily internal endeavor to an undertaking that is profoundly committed to the transformation of the world as a reflection of God’s Kingdom. Through “commitment and interpretation,” the Christian community is called to encounter the “signs of the times” and act prophetically in the world it inhabits” (Gutierrez, 23). Salvation thus becomes vocation. Human action “beyond all distinctions, gives religious value in a completely new way to human action in history…the building of a just society…a salvific work” (Gutierrez, 46). The working out of the world’s salvation in fear and trembling is the work of liberation theology, Christian praxis, and the relevance of the Christian narrative for the transformation of the world.

Petrella, Ivan. Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. SCM Press, 2008.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation [TL]. 15th Anniversary Edition, with a new introduction by the author. Orbis Books, 1988.

Introducing Liberation Theology – Contexts, challenges, and the human experience

Context – A globalized world of inequality and Latin America
The decline, fall, and fragmentation of the Soviet Union by the end of the Cold War is highlighted by political scientists as one of the most significant turning points in the advent of a unipolar and globalized world. Without the Soviet Union, the once bipolar or multipolar international system disappeared in favor of a more unpredictable unilateral system – with the United States the sole superpower. In the two decades following the end of the Cold War, globalization and its increase in communication and new technology has made state borders all but irrelevant. With all of its advantages, globalization has also had shockingly negative consequences.

Challenges – The poverty of the Global South
The widening gap between the world’s rich and the world’s poor is astonishing in its severity. The world’s prevalent economic system thrives on free markets and exploitation, with the majority of the world’s manufacturing exported to pockets of cheap labor in the already impoverished Global South. Latin America sits squarely in this “Global South,” the collective of states formerly known as the Third World and trapped in the snare of underdevelopment in an era of globalization. And yet, from Latin America has emerged one of the strongest modern voices of Christian theology.

Human experience – The reclaiming of dignity
Liberation theology in Latin America emerges out of the very inequality that threatens the human dignity of communities in the region. It is a theology that seeks to respond to such inequality with a call for justice. Planted in the church is a seed of change which prompts the most vulnerable “to live their faith in an integral way, and hence to reclaim their rights” (Comblin, 72). In a world of severe inequality, the Christian message speaks truth to power with its preference for the poor and its recognition of dignity in the most vulnerable. In Christian communities in Latin America, theology is liberated from the hands of the privileged and wealthy few. In its liberation, theology is a language for and speaks of the deep trauma and suffering of a people in a particular historical context.