Volume > Issue > The Evolution of Liberation Theology

The Evolution of Liberation Theology


By Arthur F. McGovern | June 1990
The Rev. Arthur F. McGovern, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at the University of Detroit. He is the author of Marxism: An American Christian Perspec­tive and Liberation Theology and Its Critics.

The savage killing of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador last November underscored once again the profound political implications of liberation theology. The most prominent of the priests, Ignacio Ellacuria, had written exten­sively on liberation themes before becoming rector of the Catholic university in San Salva­dor. The others in the group had worked on issues related to liberation theology’s option for the poor (human rights violations, education for the poor, etc.). Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino escaped assassination only because he was outside the country when the attack occurred.

Some critics of liberation theology see it as promoting Marxist revolution, and may have assumed the Jesuits in El Salvador were doing just that. But Ellacuria, who was perhaps the most politically involved of the group, had made his position quite clear. He called for a negotiated settlement to the violent conflict that has cost over 70,000 lives in his country. The FMLN guerrillas, Ellacuria wrote, could not claim to represent the will of the people of El Salvador, but they have expressed some of the aspirations of the majority: for land reform and an end to military oppression. The vast majority, Ellacuria believed, want peace togeth­er with a political and economic system that gives them some capacity to participate in shaping their lives. Ellacuria worked for these goals. The priests’ killers, enraged by renewed FMLN attacks, appear to have judged that anyone willing to dialogue and negotiate with such an enemy deserved death by reason of treason.

While news headlines only appear when such dramatic events occur, the political impli­cations of liberation theology have stirred con­troversy from its inception to the present. Lib­eration theology takes many forms and includes divergent views on some points. My discussion focuses on Latin America and the theologians most commonly associated with liberation theology, such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff. This liberation theology might be summarized under three main points:

(1) Liberation theology claims that the Bible clearly reveals a God concerned not sim­ply with the salvation of souls but with creat­ing a more just society where the poor are treated with dignity and share in the goods of the earth intended by God for all. In making this claim, liberation theologians draw upon various biblical sources: the Exodus story, prophetic denunciations of injustice, Jesus’ identification with the poor, his preaching of the Kingdom, and his conflicts with ruling au­thorities. Critics, in response, charge that lib­eration theology reduces faith to politics. They charge that it neglects personal sin, spiritual liberation, and grace, placing too much em­phasis on structural sin, sociopolitical libera­tion, and human effort.

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