‘The monotheism of Israel has taught us that the existence of God is above all the coming of his reign in a history, which is a task of justice, of liberation of the poor and the oppressed’, writes Stanislas Breton. (Unicité et monothéisme, Paris, 1980, p. 87). Latin American liberation theology is nothing more than the fearless working out of this principle in regard to concrete contexts of poverty and oppression, analyzed with the lucidity Marx made possible.
Not only the existence of God, but the meaning of the Gospel and the function of the Church receive a new and concrete definition from this conformation. Academic theology and popular religiosity have maintained an abstract and fantasmal discourse about God, Gospel and Church. The recall to the concrete social context reveals unflatteringly the latent ideological character of this discourse so that awareness of the links between religiosity and reaction, academic abstraction and capitalist self-interest, is becoming intrinsic to contemporary Christian consciousness. This Christian reception of Marx, as it increasingly shapes the praxis of the Church, will cause the Gospel to shine with new brightness.
Liberation theology is the product of first world academic theology in much the same way as Marx was a product of Hegel. Third world theologians stand first world theology right way up by beginning from a real struggle against injustice and by constantly anchoring their thought in that praxis. Even the political theology of the West German theologians J.B. Metz and J. Moltmann, though meant to correct the too individualist and ecclesiastical tone of the dominant theologies of Barth, Bultmann and Rahner, in fact approach the issues of justice and liberation from a lofty height, generally preferring a cosmic perspective to local incarnations, with the result that their work is easily caricatured as a ‘Common Market theoiogy’ salving the bad conscience of the consumer society.
When the first world theologians point out flaws in the ‘liberation methodology’ and groan over its raw directness, their criticisms are a feeble defence against the challenge of a theology rooted in praxis. Unless their own theology as effectively relates the Gospel to the social context of first world countries, they are in no position to sustain a critical dialogue with their third world colleagues. It is easy to point out what seems wayward and jejune in the Latin Americans, but their creative retrieval of scripture in the midst of a historical struggle has already basically disqualified the too sheltered horizon within which first world theology works.
No amount of scholarship and methodological sophistication can make up for the lack of life afflicting a theology divorced from Gospel-inspired praxis. Only some firsthand equivalent of the experiences of oppression and liberation, death and resurrection, recounted in Scripture can enable a theologian to fully grasp the sense of Scripture in the present. There is the great advantage which third world theology enjoys. God, Church, Gospel, Salvation are no longer ‘problems’ but concrete social projects. Jesus Christ is no longer the elusive ‘Jesus of history’ coupled with the nebulous ‘Christ of faith’, since Christ crucified can be identified in present history as the exploited ones crying out for justice, and Christ risen takes concrete shape across the achievement of a community creating brotherhood and freedom.
Expounded at this level of generality the ideas of liberation theology quickly come to seem banal. Since it is essentially a theology in context its force can be apparent only in the interplay between Gospel meditation and a particular and local course of social action. That interplay no doubt lacks a systematic form: light passes from Gospel to practical struggle and back as unpredictably as the flashes of insight that occasionally light up a long conversation between two friends. There is no systematic application of the Gospel to life that would bypass imagination and creative invention, and there may be long periods, like the empty hours in psychoanalysis, during which there may seem to be no clear application of the Gospel at all.
[2006: Indeed, the rejection of liberation theology by the Church is the most tragic legacy of John Paul II, condemning us not to a creative waiting in silence, but to dormancy, indifference, the space filled by devotionalism or moral fanaticism.]
A stranger to the Latin American context can perhaps never fully understand the meaning of the Gospel for the grassroots communities (basic ecclesial communities) there, as they grasp it in the horizon of their local struggle for justice. Only by finding some equivalent horizon of liberative Christian praxis in one’s own culture can one learn the concrete meaning of liberation theology. It is an art, not a science, the art of ‘cashing’ the Gospel as concrete insight in political and social situations.
One context the European or American theologian knows is that of the academic world, and there the effect of liberation theology will be most nearly perceived in the shudder of unease it sends down the spines of the theological community. Theologians often have a bad conscience, and the emergence of liberation theology threatens to raise this guilt to a paroxysmic level. Our worst fears are now spelt out in black and white. There are people accusing us of not taking the Gospel seriously enough. The security of the conventional academic or clerical frameworks is called radically in question, and they are found to be shoring up oppression in church and society, unless made subservient to a community of liberative praxis!
Theologians are summoned to relate their scholarship to the construction of the strategies of liberation, to be answerable to the Christian community in their struggle for the kingdom of justice and peace, to hear the voice of the oppressed and to make their thought a constantly renewed option for their liberation.
The resultant displacement in the fundamental preoccupations of theology is entirely wholesome, however uncomfortable. The theologian may still be a detached and theoretical voice, subjecting the more extreme or enthused voices of liberation to a nuanced critique, but this theoretical detachment is no longer the unconscious servant of vested interests. As theologians more and more come to think of themselves as working for the kingdom in their task of clarification their discipline is transformed from a past-oriented theory of the problems of religious belief to a future-oriented theory of the possibilities of liberative faith.
European theology has set in motion many processes of critical reinterpretation of the Christian tradition, inspired by the impact of critical modern thought – Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida – or by the Church’s desire for ecumenism and dialogue, reform and renewal. Latin American theologians, who have studied in Europe, carry the critique of tradition forward to a new level of radicality, making the work of their teachers look like mere tinkering.
An example is the ‘interpretative violence’ of the Mexican J.P. Miranda’s Marx and the Bible (SCM 1974) and Being and the Messiah (Orbis 1977). He wrests from the dusty old themes of law, covenant and prophecy a strong doctrine of justice and of the works of justice and reads even St. John’s Gospel as a primarily social document. The exercise reveals that the exegesis of Scripture is not an innocent business. The disappearance of the passion for justice in conventional exegesis is the result of an interpretative choice just as marked as Miranda’s.
Exegesis, the playground of the pedant, is transformed through such interventions as Miranda’s into an ideological battlefield. The plodding sociological explorations of N. Gottwald’s The Tribes of Yahweh (Orbis 1981) show how conventional scholars are being forced to take seriously the dimensions opened by the liberationist reading of Scripture. To depoliticize Scripture is to impose on it anti-scriptural politics, reducing its great themes to a harmless and merely internal set of attitudes.
Miranda here and there suggests the possibility of developing a thorough critique of the politics of Scripture itself, a sifting of its genuinely liberative initiatives from reactionary formations and an overcoming of its letter in the light of the spirit. [2006: Scripture is the Church’s book, to be used with spiritual discernment, and this includes moral and political alertness. Scripture is full of dangerous and oppressive attitudes to notably in regard to violence and patriarchal models of human relationships and of human sexuality. Those who speak so loudly of fidelity to the Bible in the churches today are very often defending these archaic patriarchal structures that serve to shore up structures of oppression today. We need to restore in the Church something that we might learn from the Jewish people: the freedom to quarrel with Scripture.]
Perhaps it is only by joining battle with a tradition in this way that one can allow that tradition to be truly fertile. To treat Scripture as a beginning rather than an end, a project rather than a blueprint, comes instinctively to those for whom the Gospel is being reborn every day. At other times, however, Miranda tends to a fundamentalist literalism, in opposition to the spiritualizing interpretations of the past.
Ernesto Cardenal’s dialogue with Nicaraguan laity, The Gospel in Solentiname (Orbis) illustrates how the Bible is read at grassroots level. Here again the perspective of the readers brings to light everywhere in the texts God’s concern for the poor, his condemnation of the rich, the urgency of the work of justice, often in terms shocking to our ears. We forget that our sweetened reading of Scripture is the result of twenty centuries of a subtler interpretative violence. We find it easier to accommodate the idea that ‘God is dead’ than the possibility that he might be as unsettlingly alive as he appears to be in Solentiname.
Could it be that the grand metaphysical event of the withdrawal of God sung by Hölderlin and Heidegger is but the reflection of our own alienation from the claims of justice and charity, and that God is in reality as near to us as our neighbour?
The Urugayan theologian, Juan Luis Segundo does for the Church what Miranda does for Scripture. His five volume Theology for the Artisans of a New Humanity (Orbis) is perhaps better known in Ireland than any other work of liberation theology, apart from the standard introduction of the Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Orbis 1973). Segundo’s critique of the Church in Latin America identifies many distortions which have also affected Irish Catholicism and the ideal of a community church which he proposes corresponds to a widespread longing in this country.
His critique of ‘mass Christianity’ (which is concerned with numbers and expansion rather than the quality of prophetic witness) and of the reification of the sacraments (which become oppressive magical routines rather than events of truth and love with a firm anchorage in social praxis) is balanced by a positive vision, inspired by Rahner, Teilhard and Vatican II, of the Church as a community with a unique prophetic role to fill for the world.
Segundo’s theology leaves the classical doctrines unchanged; the Brazilian Leonard Boff, however, allows the insights of liberation theology to spark off a speculative revision of the doctrines of Christ and of grace (Jesus Christ Liberator, Orbis 1978, and Liberating Grace, Orbis 1979). This is still only a tiny step towards the formation of the critical theological discourse the Gospel of liberation demands.
[2006: The critical revisionism within theology that draws on modern thinkers such as Freud and Heidegger seems to have been recuperated by reactionary movement such as Radical Orthodoxy. The immense overhaul of Christian thinking that is needed and that would have galvanized institutions of Catholic theology has petered out into the sand. The Ratzinger papacy promises to be an epoch of theological deep freeze, where discussion of liturgical minutiae – versus populum vs. ad orientem –, exacerbated controversy about atomistic moral problems, even commentary on papal styles of dress provide the pabulum of a debased, depleted, demoralized theological culture. The sweeping diagnosis that the modern world is in the grip of a ‘culture of death’ excuses the Vatican from presenting the Gospel anew in dialogue with the signs of the times, as urged by Vatican II. The normal procedures of democratic discussion are stigmatized as relativism, so that lay participation in the life of the Church is disabled at the most basic level of the right to think and the right to speak.]
IRISH LIBERATION THEOLOGY
The 1980 Pastoral Congress in Liverpool and the recent Papal Visit to Britain provide an excellent example of a Church coming to grips with its problems and possibilities of defining its role in a liberative key, just as the entire Roman Catholic communion did in the great Council which has so shaped our minds and lives these last twenty years.
The Irish Catholic Church does not seem to have lived through any such process of coming to a lucid self-awareness. Clear-sighted analysis of our situation is in short supply, and even the wisdom that circulates in the corridors of the National Council of Priests, the Irish Theological Association, the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference or in the pages of Doctrine and Life (notably the articles of Peadar Kirby) and The Furrow (e.g. Brendan Hoban, ‘Lost Opportunities’, September 1980) does not seem to reach many people at the grassroots level.
The reason is the petrified power-structures which have refused the laity any effective voice in the affairs of the church. These structures allow communication in one direction only. The tragic result is a confused and frustrated laity, unable to celebrate the Eucharist in a communal way or to communicate their faith to their children.
Yet the charisms of the Irish laity are still there, waiting to explode when their opportunity comes. The phenomena of the Charismatic movement and the 1979 Papal Visit indicated the dimensions of the sleeping giant. [2006: One might also mention more recent devotional extravaganzas such as the ado about the ‘moving statues’ of Ballinspittle and numerous other places or about the relics of St Therese de Lisieux; but the attitude to Catholic tradition has undergone a seachange in the generation of ‘the Pope’s Children’ and the ‘Hiberno-Cosmpolitans’ as analyzed in David McWilliams’ racy book. Mark Patrick Hederman is the author who has best captured the texture of contemporary Ireland’s spiritual stirrings.]
The channelling of these energies into euphoric piety would be a sad waste, which the liberation ethos can prevent. It can pit a questioning, challenging faith against vulgar materialist corruption of our public life. It demands that faith produce a different response to the evils of Northern Ireland than that provided by the cynical supporters of the IRA. It punctures the illusions of a fixated religious imagination and calls for works of justice, secular signs of God; this puts authentic faith into harmony with a wholesome secular reason.
We need urgently to discover the concrete shape of the Christian project in Ireland today. Latin America gives many hints of how we may create the structures of communication that will allow that shape to emerge. Above all Latin America reminds us that if our churches are still the graves of God, the fault lies not in the Gospel but in our inability to decipher its sense in our concrete situation.
The Gospel is not a blueprint but an event of liberation which can happen wherever two or three are gathered in its name. We must shed the husks of half-remembered dogma which encumber our faith and take up the Gospel afresh in all simplicity. Liberation theology shows us that to take up the Gospel always means to reinvent it as a concrete course of action, which breaks with the habits of yesterday, giving a new meaning to the old Christian words, faith, obedience, grace, love. If the churches in Ireland would embark on such a course of action...
The relation between salvation and the secular striving for advancement or liberation is the thorniest problem of contemporary theology. The Fathers of Vatican II could not solve it in their Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, and the liberation theologians, while radicalizing the issues, have not produced a convincing account of it either.
The sceptic will ask: ‘What if faith itself is only a distraction from pure politics and secular achievements, or at best a homely device for conveying the elements of Marxism to the campesinos, a pedagogy of the oppressed? Or might liberation theology not be simply an attempt of the Church to put its long finger into the pie of socialism and claim as its own, as it has already done in the case of democracy, the ideals of which it denounced for so long?’
If the God of Abraham is a delusion, then indeed liberation theology can be explained as a piece of ecclesiastical opportunism. Believers know that their faith must be brought into harmony with their secular convictions of justice and liberation, more, they knows that it is intrinsically aligned with these, since Abraham’s God is the God of the oppressed.
But what can faith add to the political struggle? Is it only a useless supplement, providing atmosphere at most? Even then, a liberation cutting away such ‘useless’ dimensions as love, beauty, morality and faith would be an oppressive liberation, as our century has so often shown.
The apologist will easily defend the combination of faith in a divine salvation and struggle for human liberation. But in practice the problems of the combination are numberless. How does the vision of faith affect the analysis of society? How does hope orient praxis? What does a eucharistic community add to a just society?
Perhaps here too it is a mistake to look for systematic correlations, just as it would be a mistake to seek for a systematically political function of art. A great plurality of intersections between the religious and secular registers can be found in Scripture itself, and a great freedom in playing creatively on the two registers is available to contemporary communities of faith. The conjunction of Gospel and social praxis is a creative, mutually enriching interplay, not reducible to a formal dialectic. The word of God becomes flesh in each situation differently; if the Gospel is interpreted creatively there is always a margin of unpredictability in the result. It is when the application is always the same that we must suspect we are no longer dealing with that prophetic word but with a frozen ideology. The word is a talent to be invested, a seed to be planted. Liberation theology shows what it may produce in Latin America. Who knows what it may produce in Ireland?
Joseph S. O’Leary
The Crane Bag 6:1, 1982