Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute has written a concise analysis of the future of liberation theology in Latin America. The post, “Not So Liberating: The Twilight of Liberation Theology,” does a good job of delineating the shortcomings of the theology and the damage it has inflicted upon the Catholic Church in the region, and points to its waning influence there. While thoughtful and mostly accurate, the piece fails to acknowledge a couple of modern trends of the movement, taking place a hemisphere away from where it originally took root. As a result, the death knell sounded by Gregg is somewhat premature.
Liberation theology, in brief, asserts that the salvation offered through Jesus Christ should be seen through a socio-economic lens. That is, the salvation offered by Christ is not merely (or to some theologians, not even primarily) salvation from sin, but the liberation of peoples from unjust political, social, and economic systems. The theology found fertile soil in post-World War II Central and South America.
Despite its initial popularity in the region, two significant obsatcles prevented liberation theology from taking deep root in Latin America. First, the theology has long been opposed by Vatican officials, thus depriving it of a sense of legitimacy. At a recent gathering of Brazilian bishops, Pope Benedict was particularly harsh, saying that the consequences of liberation theology have been “rebellion, division, dissent, offence, and anarchy . . . creating in your diocesan communities great suffering and a serious loss of vitality.”
The second impediment to the lasting influence of liberation theology is the impact the movement has had on Roman Catholic evangelism. Gregg quotes a common Latin American saying: “The [Roman Catholic] Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.” The adherence of some entrenched theologians pushing what is perceived as a failed political agenda in place of a personal, relational faith has sped the atrophy of liberation theology in these countries, even as Pentecostal Christianity has exploded in the same region.
Gregg’s analysis of the situation is accurate, and—were it the only example of liberation theology remaining in the world—one could agree that the ideology is in its last throes, destined to become an historic anomaly discussed only in the corridors of academia. Alas, there remains a region of the world where liberation theology remains all the rage, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future: Palestine. Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem is a major voice of Christianity in the Holy Land, and its positions have been used as a basis for church policies and statements about Israel by several denominations within the United States, including the move for churches and church members to divest from Israel.
It is noteworthy that much of the support for Sabeel in the U.S. comes from mainline Protestant denominations. This differs from Latin America, where most liberation theology proponents were and are Roman Catholic. Lacking a central authority like the Roman Catholic Church has in the Vatican, Protestant churches are less inclined and/or equipped to oppose liberation theology.
So while Gregg is correct to note the waning influence of liberation theology in the Americas, he ignores the continued incubation of the theology in the Middle East, and fails to acknowledge the shift from a Roman Catholic support base to a mainline Protestant one. He does so at his peril. He may be correct in saying that “liberation theology is well on its way to being consigned to the long list of Christian heterodoxies,” but as long as organizations like Sabeel continue to hold influence among church leaders in the West, the rumors of its decline might prove to be premature.