Liberation Theology: Whither the US Christian?

In his analysis of the US Liberation Theologian, Ivan Petrella identifies the disconnect between the privileged church – the church of plenty – and the realities of poverty in that church’s very backyard. Petrella argues that “a United States liberation theologian works in a material context little different from a liberation theologian from the Third World” (Petrella, 51). Indeed, as the gap between the nation’s rich and poor continues to rise at a dramatic rate, the need for systemic change is all the more essential. The widespread participation in the “Occupy” movements are a visible manifestation of the widening gap. US sources indicate that 15.1 percent of the country’s population lives below its poverty line, higher than the number cited by Petrella (CIA, United States). Over 45 million people rely on food aid from the US government – a record high (Huffington Post, 3 November 2011). Petrella identifies US character as “a Zone of Social Abandonment,” with its stark inequality contrasting a significant state of apathy across the spectrum of the American population. (Petrella, 51).

A terrifying reality of the contemporary church is its often complicit role in the structures of Western empire in a globalized world. Rather than sit silently, however, the transformed church in the US context is called to speak a prophetic word to the powers and principalities of the day. The US church as a light to the nations would be to speak comfort to the world’s most vulnerable, to repent of past silences and to confirm that the cries of lament have been heard. Jesus lives out a liberating mission in his work. Richard Horsley writes that Jesus’ following was strengthened by his own “speaking truth to power at Passover time in Jerusalem” (Horsley, 177). The church today, in a similar liberating mission, is called to raise judgment against the forces of violence and injustice in the world, and to bear witness to a powerful God in our midst.

Petrella, Ivan. “The Material Context of the US Liberation Theologian: Poverty in the Midst of Plenty,” in Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. SCM Press, Pages 45-77

CIA World Factbook, United States:

Huffington Post. “Number Of Americans On Food Stamps Hits Another High Years After Recession’s End.” November 3, 2011.

Christian Community and the New Society – Liberating history and the relevance of the new church

Liberating history – a radical precedent
Gutierrez’s theology of salvation, discussed in a previous post, centers on the work of salvation as “a reality which occurs in history” and which “gives to the historical becoming of humankind its profound unity and its deepest meaning” (Gutierrez, 143). Gutierrez and others look to the figure of Christ as a radical precedent for the liberation and salvation of history. Gutierrez highlights the marginalized church of the first centuries as a church whose status meant its recognition of wider church struggles and close attention to “the action of Christ beyond its frontiers, that is, to the totality of his redemptive work” (Gutierrez, 144). This status changed dramatically over the centuries, and much of the church’s privileged presence around the world is the contemporary manifestation of this change. As Gutierrez notes, the contemporary church in the developed world is plagued by “intraecclesial problems” of varying types (Gutierrez, 148). Preoccupation with internal struggles is hardly the vocation the church was intended for.

Richard Horsley identifies a rich history of precedent for radical liberation in the “people’s movements” of the early Roman Empire. These movements were deeply rooted in the realities faced by communities of faith. The Roman Empire wielded shocking military power (Horsley, 23), economic prowess (Horsley, 26), and an ideological strength that contributed to its widespread governance (Horsley, 39). And yet, resistance to the Empire was as widespread as its reaches. Horsley identifies several types of movements, including “prophetic and messianic movements of resistance…the principal ways in which the people of Judea and Galilee made history” (Horsley, 85). This historical resistance provided the context for the growth of the first Christian church.

Relevant church – a radical fellowship of unity
If the challenges of the contemporary church could be summarized in a word, that word would be ‘relevance.’ Gutierrez writes “For many there has even been a kind of evaporation of any meaning of the Church” (Gutierrez, 142). Declining memberships, decreasing engagement with the world, and internal decay have been the norm of the church in the developed world for the past few decades. And yet, the world of suffering and oppression that surrounds the broader community of Christian faith is desperate for liberation. The question Gutierrez poses for the Latin American churches should be the same for the church everywhere: “The question is in what direction and for what purpose is it going to use its influence: for or or against the established order” (Gutierrez, 152). Gutierrez argues that unity against the oppressive realities of the world is “the fundamental vocation of the church” (Gutierrez, 160). Joined in Eucharistic community with the global church, the vocation of the church in the developed world is to live “according to the demands placed on us by the other,” through “casting our lot with the oppressed and the exploited in the struggle for a more just society” (Gutierrez, 149-151). By reclaiming our communion with the community of faith beyond our doors, the church is better able to live out Christ’s redemptive and salvific work in history. This fellowship and communion risks relevance in a world that challenges the Gospel message of the church.

Salvation and Christ in History & Politics – Defining Salvation, Christ, and the Kingdom

Salvation – From ancient to contemporary times, the theology and emotion surrounding the concern of salvation has been diverse and passionate. Gutierrez, along with other liberation theologians, examines the nature of salvation as both quantitative and qualitative mystery. The ‘two-dimensional’ mystery plays out in contemporary culture, with public attention given to debates about those who have been saved or risk being “left behind.” For Gutierrez, the theme of salvation has both a quantitative sense, as a cure for sin, and a qualitative sense, as communion with God and community (Gutierrez, 84-85). Departing from the preferences of the quantitatively inclined, Gutierrez locates salvation in the world as “something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ” (85). Key to Gutierrez’s thought is the theology of salvation as present in human history, salvation as “intrahistorical reality” (86). Rather than existing beyond the borders of history, salvation is recognizable as “historical-salvific fact” and requires human agency in its fulfillment (89).

Christ – If salvation is seen as a present feature of history, Christ then becomes the bearer of this salvation and liberation. Gutierrez identifies sin as “the fundamental alienation, the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation” – a deeply tangible historical reality (103). For Gutierrez, Christ enters into this reality of sin in historical context as liberator. Christ is the redemptive historical and salvific figure who addresses three categories of liberation from sin: “political liberation, human liberation throughout history, liberation from sin and admission to communion with God” (103). Christ is the figure who fulfills the mystery of salvation in historical context.

Kingdom – A salvation and a Christ which are linked in historical reality enriches an eschatological vision which is equally tied to history. The future and present of human history are made intelligible through God’s participation in human reality (95). God is not separated from history, but an actor in it. God’s kingdom is thus also a reality of history, incompletely encountered, but promised as a feature of eschatalogical reality. The promise of God’s kingdom for humanity “is a process which occurs historically in liberation, insofar as liberation means a greater human fulfillment” (104). The fulfilment of God’s promised kingdom rests not only on God’s presence in the world, but also on the human agency that presence allows. This agency also finds its center in history: “Without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the kingdom” (104). The promise of salvation in history and the coming of God’s kingdom require and give meaning to human actions for liberation.