Liberation Theologies constitute a movement which integrates theology with sociopolitical concerns emerging from historical contexts of injustice, oppression, and massive human suffering. Among the Afro-American, feminist, Hispanic, native North American, Asian, and African liberation theologies, Latin American liberation theology has offered the most systematically articulated and developed theological reflection. Theological themes highlighted in the Latin American context have influenced theologies of liberation elsewhere. The Latin American contribution is particularly significant from the standpoint of the Anabaptist-Believers Church tradition for historical and theological reasons.
Some parallels between liberation theology and the 16th century Reformation movement are noteworthy, including the liberationist base ecclesial communities' emphasis on creative protest (the so-called "Protestant principle"), the priesthood of all believers motif, and the central place of the Bible in the life and mission of the church. Indeed, some striking analogies between socioeconomic conditions at the close of the Middle Ages and conditions in 20th century Latin America (e.g., feudalism and unequal land distribution; rudimentary forms of national and international capitalism; urbanization; the ravages of war; a growing popular self-assurance; and newer means of communication) have been suggested as supporting the idea of a certain new Reformation or even a Radical Reformation -- in the making. in this light, the contributions of the liberationist movement can then be seen as consistent with the legacy of the Radical Reformation of the 16th century at some key points. Further parallels may be seen in the emergence of grassroots Christian ecclesial communities as "free churches" that assert the importance of voluntary association rather than culturally transmitted faith and that reject the marriage of "altar and throne." In addition liberation theologies' prophetic critique of the social order, ecclesial as well as political and cultural, their openness to ecumenical cooperation and their defense of religious freedom; and their view of biblical faith as the existential and historical following of Jesus Christ (i.e., discipleship understood as, "orthopraxis" or obedient, faithful living) have much in common with Anabaptist beliefs.
Liberation theology defines the method of theology as "critical reflection on Christian praxis (practice) in the light of the Word." It criticizes traditional theologies as too intellectual and academic. Liberation theology advocates active solidarity with the oppressed, and costly discipleship in terms of the practical social and political implications of following Jesus. Five major tenets merit special attention.
Conscientization. The method of liberation theology is inspired in the program and philosophy of popular education originally implemented in Brazil in the early 1960s. An integrated process of learning and personal and societal transformation combined literacy with political awareness, including concrete involvement and participation in communal change. "Conscientization" names the process of emerging critical consciousness whereby people become aware of the historical forces that shape their lives as well as of their God-given potential for freedom and creativity; the term also connotes the actual movement towards liberation and human emergence in persons, communities and societies. Analogous views of conscientization can be found in all forms and versions of liberation theology.
Utopian and Prophetic Vision. Liberation theologies underscore the political and eschatological dimensions of the gospel by focusing on the teaching, ministry, and redeeming work of Jesus Christ in the light of the biblical symbol of the reign of God. Liberationists move beyond the progressive contributions of European political theology in that their methodological approach to theologizing is more grounded on concrete experience and praxis, more specific in analyzing socio-economic realities, and more committed to action and transformation. Liberation theologies are interested not only in critically interpreting the world but also in transforming that world.
Praxis Epistemology. Liberationists contend that orthopraxis, rather than orthodoxy, becomes the truth criterion for theology-obeying the gospel rather than defining, prescribing, or even defending it. By asserting that the faithful following of Jesus is the precondition for knowing Jesus, they in fact restate a kind of epistemology of obedience. Further, according to this view, Christian faith can be seen as committed participation in God's liberating and recreating work for the sake of the world. Liberationists thus combine a biblical understanding of knowing and faith with Marxist-inspired notion of praxis as the dialectic of action and critical reflection.
Hermeneutical Circulation. "Critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the Word" calls for a hermeneutical process involving the "pretext" of the current historical situation, the biblical text, and the context of the Christian ecclesial community. At the heart of the theological method, then, is hermeneutical circulation seen as the interplay between the Scriptures in their historical context and the interpreting community which reads the text in its own socio-historical context. The final aim of this process is not to interpret the Bible better, but to see reality more clearly and to transform it more faithfully.
Base Ecclesial Communities. In the Latin American setting, the purported "new way of doing theology" on the part of liberation theologians has correlated with the proliferation of base (or basic) ecclesial communities as a "new way" of being and viewing the church. The term base primarily refers to the poor and oppressed Christians and to those who live in solidarity with them in worship and Bible study, mutual aid and service, and education and social action. This phenomenon of the base communities was facilitated in part by the ecclesial and theological renewal promoted by Vatican II as well as by the reality of poverty and oppression of millions of people in need of material, spiritual, and political support.
It is obvious that, on the one hand, a number of critical concerns must be raised regarding liberation theologies, such as the risks of reducing the gospel to a revolutionary ideology; the pitfalls of a simplistic interpretation of historical developments; the risk of being dominated by the present social situation interpreted through particular explanations of social struggle and change (e.g., the limitations of Marxism); and the danger of situational pragmatism in the emphasis on praxis and truth. On the other hand, the witness of liberation theologies converges at crucial points with that of the Anabaptist-Believers Church tradition and it also challenges present-day heirs of this tradition to restate their views of faith as discipleship, the church as God's alternative community and beachhead of the coming kingdom, and Jesus' ethics of love, justice, and peace.
Mennonite Quarterly Review, supplement to vol. 58 (August 1984), sp. issue on Latin America and Anabaptism.
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Schipani, Daniel S. Religious Education Encounters Liberation Theology. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1988.
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 520-521. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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