God the Liberator: Theology, history, and politics

“The Bible… unlike the books of other ancient peoples, was… the literature of a minor, remote people – and not the literature of its rulers, but of its critics. The scribes and the prophets of Jerusalem refused to accept the world as it was. They invented the literature of political dissent and, with it, the literature of hope.” Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory. Amos Elon[1]

A theological enfant terrible

Liberation theology was the unforeseen enfant terrible in the academic and ecclesial realms of theological production during the last decades of the twentieth century. It brought to the conversation not only a new theme – liberation – but also a new perspective on doing theology and a novel way of referring to God’s being and action in history. Its project to reconfigure the interplay between religious studies, history, and politics became a meaningful topic of analysis and dialogue in the general theological discourse. Many scholars perceive in its emergence a drastic epistemological rupture, a radical change in paradigm, a significant shift in both the ecclesial and social role of theology.

Its origins are diverse, and not only native to theological and ecclesiastical horizons. One important source, neglected by some clerical accounts, was the complex constellation of liberation struggles during the sixties and early seventies. It was a time of social turmoil, when many things seemed out of joint: a strong anti war movement protest, mainly directed against American military intervention in Vietnam and the global nuclear threat, a spread of decolonization movements all over the Third World, the feminist struggle against masculine patriarchy, a robust challenge to racial bigotry, the Stonewall rebellion (June/69) against homophobia and gay discrimination, student protests in Paris, Prague, Mexico, and New York in opposition to repressive states of all stripes, guerilla insurgencies and social unrest in many Latin American nations. Many of these agents of social protest adopted the title of “liberation movement” as their public card of presentation. “Fronts of national liberation” flourished all over the Third World.[2]

Another significant factor was the development of a non-dogmatic Marxism that read Marx’s texts as an ethical critique on human oppression and as a projection of a utopian non-oppressive future, sort of a kingdom of freedom. This heterodox way of reading Marx, by authors like the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, made possible something up to then considered unthinkable, a constructive and affirmative dialogue between theology and Marxism, at the margins of church and party hierarchies rigid orthodoxies. Influential in this intellectual milieu was Bloch’s 1968 Atheismus im Christentum,[3] whose hermeneutical performance diagnoses inside the biblical texts a struggle between the voices of the oppressors and those of the oppressed and provocatively asserts that whoever wants to be a good Marxist should constantly read the Bible (and vice versa, whoever wants to be a good Christian should have Marx as bedside reading).

Other iconoclast authors like Herbert Marcuse and Franz Fanon were passionately read from Buenos Aires to Berlin, from Berkeley to Nairobi, with intentionalities not limited to academia.[4] Exiled from Brazil, Paulo Freire delivered scathing critiques of traditional educational systems and promoted a pedagogy for the liberation of the oppressed.[5] Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ernesto “Che” Guevara are probably the main emblematic icons and martyrs of those turbulent times. Paul Éluard’s poem Liberté, recited and sang in many languages, became its poetic hymn.

Within the churches important processes were taking place. Pope John XIII summoned, to the surprise of many, the Second Vatican Council. Progressive Roman Catholic theologians consider Vatican II an important turning point in the modern history of their church.[6] According to their interpretation, the council had three main objectives:

1)      To change the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards the modern post-Enlightenment intellectual world, from censure and condemnation to openness and dialogue. The Italian word aggiornamento became the watchword of the attempts to update the church.

2)      To heal the fragmentation of Christianity by inserting the Roman Catholic Church in the emerging ecumenical movement. Delegates from Protestant and Orthodox churches were invited to observe the proceedings of the council. A series of bilateral and multilateral dialogues began between Rome and other Christian denominations.

3)      To face with honesty and compassion the plight of a world suffering violence, oppression, and injustice. The council took place in a world sundered by national liberation struggles, civil wars and the painful gap between the haves and the have-nots of the globe. The quest for peace and justice was conceived as an essential dimension of the being in the world of the church.

John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris, published in the context of that conciliar process, seemed to be another sign of renewal, from an attitude of anathema to a spirit of dialogue and solidarity. This ecclesiastical openness was accompanied by several theological projects that seemed to shape an alternative way to look at social conflicts.[7] An attempt was made to configure a “political theology,” as a way to design a creative dialogue with Marxism and post-Enlightenment secular ideologies.[8]

Latin American liberation theology

Vatican II was followed by regional synods of bishops. The most famous of them was the general meeting of Latin American Roman Catholic bishops that took place August 26 to September 6, 1968, at Medellín, Colombia. To the amazement of many observers, the Roman Catholic Church, which the radical intelligentsia in the continent had considered the ideological bulwark of prevailing social inequities, was promulgating, as a decisive pastoral challenge, solidarity with the poor and destitute.

If Vatican II opened the theological dialogue with modern rationality, Medellín was perceived as a prophetic convocation against poverty, inequality, and oppression. If Vatican II was mainly concerned with the gap between the church and secular modernity, Medellín, according to this reading, was more concerned with the scandal of social injustice in a Christian continent. In a crucial section of their final resolutions, the Latin American bishops linked the Christian faith with historical and social liberation.

“The Latin American bishops cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tremendous social injustices existent in Latin America, which keeps the majority of our peoples in dismal poverty that in many cases becomes inhuman wretchedness. A deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men and women asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere…

Christ, our savior, not only loved the poor… but also centered his mission in announcing liberation to the poor…”[9]

Certainly, the Medellín conference was a meeting of bishops, not of theologians. But several Roman Catholic theologians perceived the final documents and the general tone prevailing in the conference as allowing the possibility of rethinking the theological enterprise from the perspective of the liberation of the poor and downtrodden.[10] Prior to the Medellín meeting, on July 1968, Gustavo Gutiérrez had given a lecture at Chimbote, Perú, significantly titled “Toward a Theology of Liberation,”[11] which coupled closely spiritual salvation and human liberation. It proved to be a pioneer text for Latin American liberation theology. It also inaugurated Gutiérrez’s more than five decades of fertile theological production.

In 1971 was published the first edition of his most famous book, Theology of Liberation, a landmark in Latin American theological writing. His triadic understanding of human liberation – liberation from social and economic oppression, history as a process of self-determined humanization, and redemption from sinfulness – became classic.[12] That same year was also published Hugo Assmann’s book Opresión – Liberación: Desafío a los cristianos. Assmann placed the emerging liberation theology in the wider context of the Third World: “The contextual starting point of a ‘theology of liberation’ is the historical situation of domination experienced by the peoples of the Third World.”[13] Gutiérrez and Assmann were followed by a spate of other theologians (Leonardo Boff, José Porfirio Miranda, Juan Luis Segundo, Jon Sobrino, Pablo Richard, Jorge Pixley, among others) whose writings were conceived as expressions of a new intellectual understanding of the faith: liberation theology.[14]

Among the many texts that rocked the placid realm of theological production during those early years of Latin American liberation theology were José Porfirio Miranda’s Marx y la Biblia,[15] an important contribution to a liberationist hermeneutics, sort of a theological companion to Bloch’s Atheismus im Christentum, and Juan Luis Segundo’s Liberación de la teología,[16] with its frontal challenge to traditional scholastic ways of doing theology.

What could be considered to be the main tenets of this theological movement?

1)      The retrieval of the subversive memories inscribed in the sacred scriptures, hidden below layers of cultic regulations and doctrinal orthodoxies, but never totally effaced. A specific hermeneutical and exegetical concentration in the Exodus story as a paradigm of the liberating character of God’s actions,[17] in the prophetic denunciations of injustice and oppression,[18] and in the confrontations of the historical Jesus against the Judean religious authorities and Roman political powers and his solidarity with the nobodies of Judea and Galilee.[19]

2)      A historical understanding of Jesus’s proclamation of God’s kingdom. The kingdom is conceived as referring not to some otherworldly postmortem realm, but to the unceasing hope of a social configuration characterized by justice, solidarity, and freedom. Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino perceive Jesus as the Liberator, going back to the semantic roots of the term redemption (the deliverance of a captive or slave). [20]

3)      The divine preferential option for the poor, the excluded, and the destitute of this world. The church has to become the church of the poor, sharing their sorrows, hopes and struggles. Initially the accent was mainly socioeconomic, but it was gradually widen to include other categories of social exclusion (indigenous communities, racial and ethnic minorities, women).[21]

4)      Theology cannot be reduced to an intellectual understanding of the faith, but must also be a practical commitment for historical transformation. The category of praxis, partly borrowed from Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of liberation, partly an adaptation of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (“philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”), acquired normative status. History, therefore, as the realm of the perennial struggle against oppressions and exclusions, emerged as the locus for Christian praxis.[22]

5)      God is reconceived not as an immutable and impassible entelechy but, according to the biblical narratives, as a compassionate Eternal Spirit that hears and pays close attention to the cry of the oppressed and whose action in human history has the redemption of the downtrodden and excluded as its ultimate telos. Herein might be located liberation theology’s main theoretical epistemological rupture and reconfiguration:[23] a novel way of thinking about God’s being and action in history. Instead of contriving arcane scholastic definitions of divine essence, God is referred to as Liberator.

Latin American liberation theology strove to forge a new kind of being the church in the world: the base ecclesial communities as seeds for reconfiguring the church as “the people of God.” These congregations were considered expressions of the church’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed in their aspirations for liberation and human promotion. An impressive wealth of liturgical, musical, exegetical, homiletical, ethical, and literary resources was produced to promote social and human emancipation. Historical transformation was their key theme. Leonardo Boff even advocated a new genesis of the church.[24]

However, many in the hierarchical church, including some members of the Roman curia apex, viewed with marked distrust their potential disruptions of episcopal authority and moved to restrict their autonomy. Rome was also concerned about the consequences for dogmatic orthodoxy of this new theological perspective. A long protracted confrontation ensued that still goes on.

Political power matters. Since their colonial inception, an official linkage between the state and the Roman Catholic Church characterized Latin American nations. The royal patronage exercised by the Iberian crown entailed the acknowledgment by the church of the sovereignty and authority of the metropolitan state, but also the state’s recognition of the Roman Catholic Church’s primacy in religious affairs. It was sometimes the source of acute conflicts, whenever the ethical conscience of bishops, priests, missionaries, and theologians clashed with the severe exploitation of the native communities. Bartolomé de las Casas, to whose historical significance Gustavo Gutiérrez devoted a magnificent book,[25] is the most famous protagonist of such conflicts. Yet it was a convenient arrangement for both partners, for it conferred a sacred aura to the metropolitan sovereignty and conversely provided the church with state protection. The governments of the new states that emerged after the nineteenth century wars of independence promptly recognized the advantages of the royal patronage and tried to preserve it. This heritage forged a particular brand of Latin American Christendom closely linking the state and the Roman Catholic Church, a condition juridically inscribed in several national constitutions and Vatican concordats.

This official connection between church and state was venerable but also vulnerable. The prophetic and evangelical subversive memories inscribed in the Christian scriptures and traditions surfaced powerfully during the somber and violent times of Latin American military dictatorships (1964-1989) to shake the alliance between the political powers and church authorities. The most famous of the ensuing conflicts took place in the midst of the violent civil war in El Salvador, a place where nuns, priests, lay workers, and even the Primate of the Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, were assassinated by the military or their right-wing allies.

Archbishop Romero tried to steer his church to become a defender of the poor and the persecuted. He recognized that the forbearance of the ruling clans was as limited as their economic interests were great. Two weeks before his assassination, in an interview to a Mexican newspaper, he foreshadowed his death and gave a theological and pastoral interpretation of his personal destiny.

“I have frequently been threatened with death… If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty, and a sign of the hope that will soon become a reality… May my death, if it is accepted by God, be for the liberation of my people, and as a witness of hope in what is to come.”[26]

His assassination convinced many church authorities that liberation theology was risking seriously the social wellbeing of the Roman Catholic Church and that a convenient long-standing church-state covenant was endangered by the radical political interventions of some members of the clergy. And they moved decisively to suppress it.

Ecclesiastical and social political considerations were not the only issues of concern for Vatican authorities. Doctrinal orthodoxy matters for the Roman Catholic Church. Under the prefecture of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith strongly criticized what it considered liberation theology’s ominous doctrinal deviations. On August 6, 1984 it issued, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, the admonishing “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’,” followed by an admonition to Leonardo Boff, and another general critique, “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation” (March 22, 1986). Liberation theology was indicted of borrowing improperly from Marxist thought, emphasizing historical and social liberation to the detriment of spiritual salvation, promoting class struggle instead of reconciliation, disdaining the church’s social doctrine, and politicizing biblical hermeneutics, Christology and the church. The goal of the authoritative reprimands was:

“to draw attention… to the deviations and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought by certain forms of liberation theology… the ‘theologies of liberation’ tend to misunderstand or to eliminate… the transcendence and gratuity of liberation in Jesus Christ, true God and true man… One needs to be on guard against the politicization of existence, which, misunderstanding the entire meaning of the kingdom of God and the transcendence of the person, begins to sacralize politics and betray the religion of the people in favor of the projects of revolution.”[27]

Traditionally indictments like these were able to silence the accused theologians. Not this time. Prompt reactions by Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and Juan Luis Segundo were evident signs that Rome had lost the capability to repress the new theological movement.[28] A letter sent by John Paul II to the Brazilian bishops, dated April 9, 1986,[29] has been understood by several scholars as a truce of the growing dispute to avoid a sharp rupture in the Latin American church but also as a validation of the concept of social and political liberation as an important dimension of the church’s pastoral mission. Several Roman Catholic theologians have sustained an effort to convince Rome that liberation theology is a valid and legitimate rethinking of the apostolic tradition that does not constitute a threat to the church’s orthodoxy or integrity.[30] However, some influential sectors of the Roman curia still look askance at liberation theology as evidenced by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent scathing critique of Jon Sobrino’s Christology (“Notification on the works of Father Jon Sobrino, SJ,” 11/26/2006).[31]

Many Roman Catholic narratives disregard other sources that contributed to the birth of liberation theology. In the sixties, several Latin American Protestant churches were undergoing similar processes of rethinking the relationship between salvation, history as the sphere of divine-human encounter, and liberation.[32] In fact, the first extensive monograph that focused on historical and social liberation as the central hermeneutical key to conceptualize the Christian faith was the doctoral dissertation of Rubem Alves, a Brazilian Presbyterian. In May of 1968, Alves defended successfully his dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary. Its title was Towards a theology of human liberation.[33] Alves wrote it under the direction of Richard Shaull, who for a good number of years had been working in theological education in Latin America, first in Colombia and later in Brazil, and who was crucial for the development of a liberationist theology in Protestant Latin American circles.[34] Shaull had also been instrumental in the 1970 English publication of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a key text in the development of Latin American liberation theology.

Alves’s dissertation is a powerful text, written in a splendid literary style. It was published as a book in 1969, two years before Gutiérrez’s, but with a significant change in the title: A Theology of Human Hope. Apparently, the publishers believed that the concept of “hope,” with its obvious connotations to the writings of Jürgen Moltmann, would be more commercially attractive or relevant than “liberation.” Yet, despite the change of title, Alves’s conceptualizes the temporal dialectics proper to theological language in terms of a historical politics of liberation.

“The acts of remembering and hoping that determine the language of the community of faith, therefore, do not have any reality in themselves but in the engagement in the ongoing politics of liberation which is the situation and condition of theological intelligibility…”[35]

Black liberation theology

But as it is wrong to locate the birth of liberation theology exclusively in Roman Catholic circles, it is also mistaken to situate it solely in Latin America. During the times of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States, black churches were communities of solidarity and hope for the enslaved peoples of African ancestry. Then and there the exodus story, the prophetic denunciations, and the story of the crucified but resurrected Jesus became the sung, preached, and hoped for sustaining bases for the narratives of the suffering black communities. Their bodies might be in bondage to their white masters, but their hearts and minds were nourished and comforted by the biblical stories of retribution and redemption.[36]

In continuity with that history, the African American churches became important protagonists in the civil rights movement for the elimination of racial discrimination. All over the North American South, black preachers became leaders in spreading the challenging message and Gospel music acquired a more historically relevant twist. The speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. are saturated with the cadences, intonations, and biblical images typical of African American preaching.[37] The lyrics of “We Shall Overcome,” the emblematic hymn of the civil rights movement, is a variant of a prior hymn, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” written in 1901 by Charles Albert Tindley, one of the founding fathers of African American Gospel music, and its melody is based upon an even earlier defiant black song, the nineteenth century spiritual “No more auction block for me,” a subversive hymn revived in the twentieth century first by the powerful voice of Paul Robeson and later on by Bob Dylan.

“No more auction block for me

No more, no more

No more auction block for me

Many thousands gone

No more driver’s lash for me

No more, no more

No more driver’s lash for me

Many thousands gone

No more whip lash for me

No more, no more

No more pint of salt for me

Many thousands gone”

In this social and ecclesiastical environment, some African American theologians began to rethink their intellectual role in the epic struggle of their people. Black liberation theology, rooted in the historical experience of slavery and racism, became an important partner in the theological table of dialogue, bringing to the conversation the issues of racial and ethnic discrimination. The foremost of the African American liberation theologians, though certainly not the only one, has been James Cone. In his 1969 book, Black Theology & Black Power, he still tentatively wrote: “the work of Christ is essentially a liberating work, directed toward and by the oppressed.”[38] It was the foretaste of his 1970 groundbreaking text A Black Theology of Liberation. Cone was not one to mince words in his radical transformation of theology.

“It is my contention that Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation. The function of theology is that of analyzing the meaning of that liberation for the oppressed so that they can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian.”

“In view of the biblical emphasis on liberation, it seems not only appropriate but necessary to define the Christian community as the community of the oppressed which joins Jesus Christ in his fight for the liberation of humankind.”[39]

Black theology of liberation has become an important partner of theological discourse in the academic, ecclesiastical and public social realms in all places where the African peoples have been subjected to dominion or control.[40] It has been able to dwell very creatively with the cultural and artistic traditions of their communities.[41]

Feminist liberation theology

Simultaneously as Latin American and African American theologians, feminist theologians were questioning radically the patriarchal and misogynistic traditions for so long prevailing in the history of Christianity. Certainly not all theologians would berate women as bitterly as Tertullian did in his treatise On the Apparel of Women [“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die”],[42] but it is hard to deny the historical importance of the Christian scriptures and traditions as ideological strongholds of patriarchy and female subordination. Key biblical texts, like Genesis 3:16 (“To the woman [God] said: ’your husband shall rule over you’”) and I Timothy 2:11-14 (“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”) have been constantly read theologically as implying a male priority in the order of creation and a female priority in the disorder of sin and philosophically as conveying an ontological masculine primacy.

Debates in most churches on the possibility of ordaining women led a good number of female theologians to question this misogynic tradition. Texts like Letty Russell’s Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective: A Theology (1974),[43] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of Liberation (1975),[44] and Phillys Trible’s God and the rhetoric of sexuality (1978),[45] among many others, were bellwethers of a feminist liberation theology. Possibly the most discussed academic feminist liberation theology for its comprehensive challenge to a system of patriarchal dominion for which she has coined the term kyriarchy, is Schüssler Fiorenza’s 1983 tome In Memory of Her. She defines feminist theology as a “critical theology of liberation” that “seeks to develop… a historical-biblical hermeneutics of liberation.”[46] Her ambitious project is to design a feminist way of looking at biblical and Early Christianity texts with the purpose of retrieving the silenced and repressed memory of the struggle between the early Christian practice of equality in discipleship and the Roman-Hellenistic cultural ethos of benevolent patriarchal dominion.

The originality and complexity of feminist theology’s target of critique consists not only of the patriarchal ecclesiastical and theological traditions, but also the premises of masculine hegemony inscribed in the biblical texts themselves. The Bible is thus seen as a site of confrontation and contention between the egalitarian ethos of the early Jesus movement and the patriarchy of later New Testament texts. A feminist theology requires thus a hermeneutics of suspicion and imagination to unearth the polemics hidden in the sacred scriptures. The category of the “poor,” foregrounded by the early Latin American theology, is not adequate to describe the inclusive character of the Jesus movement. To it must be added that of “the marginal” or “outcast,” as a link between the “church of the poor” and the “church of women.” The fundamental hermeneutical norm is therefore not the isolated sacred text but the history of the women’s struggle for liberation.

However, women of color immediately raised the objection that sex and gender should not be analyzed apart from issues of racial, ethnic, and cultural differences and discriminations. In the kaleidoscopic fragmentation of the human self and subjectivity typical of our postmodernist epoch, feminist liberation theology has engendered a black feminist theology, usually named womanist theology (Karen Baker-Fletcher, Katie Cannon, Emilie Townes, Renita Weems, Traci West, Delores Williams, among others), a Latin American feminist theology (Elsa Tamez, Ivone Gebara, Maria Clara Bingemer, among others), a Latina/Hispanic feminist theology (Ada María Isasi-Díaz, María Pilar Aquino, Michelle González, Daisy Machado, among others), and an Asian-American feminist theology (Kwok Pui-Lan, Namsoon Kang, Wonhee Anne Joh, among others). Rooted in their own history of sorrows, struggles, and hopes these various feminist theologies have disrupted significantly the theological endeavor, traditionally a masculine and androcentric academic realm.

The main point of contention in feminist theology relates to the debunking of the conventional images and concepts of God, traditionally perceived as a patriarchal hypostasis. The feminist dispute about sexist and inclusive language finds its culmination in the attempt to dismantle the androcentric captivity of God and theological discourse. How to retool theological thinking so that God might not be construed as a cosmic paterfamilias is probably the biggest challenge. This might be also the main motif – the search for the female dimensions of God – behind the Latino/Hispanic female theologians marked interest in the narratives and worship of the Virgin of Guadalupe[47] and the biblical Sophia.[48]

A polyphony of liberation theologies

During the last decades, in tandem with the growing polycentric character of Christianity, a spate of liberation theologies have emerged from very diverse contexts: Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Asian, Dalit, African, Minjung, Jewish, Palestinian, gay, lesbian, and queer.[49] If social redistribution was the main emphasis of Latin American liberation theology, the demand for the recognition of disdained identities characterizes recent theological trends. Recognition and identity, not only poverty and redistribution,[50] have become crucial issues of theological dialogue and debate. Personal and communal identities, usually left in the dark by traditional ways of doing theology, are now foregrounded. Naim Ateek and Mitri Raheb, for example, initiate their texts by telling the readers who they are: Palestinian Christians.[51] They are both conscious of the tensions in that process of self-identification: Christian Palestinians or Palestinian Christians?

Palestinian theological hermeneutics is also able to foreground the usually silenced ominous dimension of the Exodus story, both in its biblical context – the atrocious rules of warfare that prescribed servitude or annihilation for the peoples encountered in Israel’s route to the “promised land” (Deuteronomy 20: 10-17) – as in the present historical circumstances wherein the Palestinian people is harshly mistreated by the state of Israel. From the painful memory of the al-nakba (the “great catastrophe”), it highlights the biblical themes of displacement, dispersion, and captivity, the crucial historical matrixes of the biblical scriptures, as meaningful loci of theological enunciation and reflection.[52] It also, maybe more emphatically than other liberation theologies, underscores the intertwining of justice and reconciliation, truth-telling and forgiveness, prophetic denunciation and peacemaking annunciation.[53]

Possibly the most exciting, intriguing, and controversial contribution to the spreading rainbow of different liberation theologies are the writings of the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, an Argentinean Protestant theologian teaching and writing in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the heartland of conservative Scottish Calvinism, she transgressed all possible frontiers that have traditionally marked theology as a “decent” and “proper” endeavor. In 2000 she published Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics[54] and in 2003 The Queer God.[55] Indecent Theology claims to free liberation theology from its prudish inhibitions, resituating it in the perspective of oppressed sexualities, of concrete bodies in love at the margins of “decency,” of sexual dissidence. Queer God attempts something even more daring: to rescue God from the monotonous, mono-loving closet where the deity has been relegated. God is subjugated by its forced enclosure in the restrictive role of patriarchal purveyor of a repressive code of thinking and acting. God, not only destitute human beings, needs to be freed and redeemed. Althaus-Reid conceives queer theology as going even further than gay liberation theologies, for it is grounded upon libertine subversions of both oppressive sexual and political heteronomy. Her queer hermeneutics is a methodology of permutations: a fascinating intertextual reading of the sacred scriptures with transgressive and marginal literature to free biblical exegesis from centuries of patriarchal and homophobic exegeses.

A Latino/Hispanic contribution

Even in the midst of the new American Empire, within the “entrails of the monster,” as José Martí phrased it,[56] recent Latino/Hispanic theological productions bring to the fore a vibrant concept of God as Liberator. Mayra Rivera’s The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God (2007)[57] is a readable and intelligent tome comprising a complex array of topics: a deconstructive analysis of how a number of contemporary theologies construe God’s transcendence, being and actions in history, a critical discussion of the possible relevance to theology of the texts of several cultural studies (Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray) writers and postcolonial (Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Walter Mignolo) authors, and an examination of the implications of some strands of liberation theology (Latin American, feminist) for the doctrine of God.

It concludes with a very suggestive and seductive proposal to rethink divine transcendence. “Divine transcendence,” according to Rivera, “has acquired the reputation of being a tool of patriarchal and imperial self-legitimation.”[58] There has been a multi-secular collusion between dualistic metaphysical views of transcendence with multiple entwined projects intending to control and dominate subaltern communities. The critique to those dualistic views and colonizing projects is followed by a complex and rigorous attempt to elaborate a model of divine “relational transcendence” that allows a conception of God as constantly embracing and touching human and cosmic reality, while providing for an endless process of human liberation and for an ethic of solidarity with those “others” whose singularities (national, ethnic, cultural, racial, gender, sexual orientation) are socially signified as emblems of disdain, marginalization, or exploitation. “We will seek a model of transcendence that is attentive to the concrete sociopolitical significance of otherness… Our aim to open ourselves to transcendence in the face of the Other leads us to give special attention to our relationships with those who are marginalized in our communities or simply excluded from them…”[59] The touch of divine transcendence is ethically fulfilled in the embracing touch of the pariahs and untouchables.[60]

This is a coherent and impressive theological venture to overcome the dominant dualistic schemes (transcendence/immanence, spirit/body, sacred/profane) that have served as ideological matrices of human subordination and subjugation. Simultaneously, a manner of God-talk is forged that might be faithful both to the biblical witness about the Creator and Sustainer and to the contemporary challenges for social emancipation.

“This model of relational transcendence refuses the ‘hard boundary’ between the divine and the created. Instead it affirms that the beginning, sustenance, and transformation of the cosmos are intrinsically divine… Intracosmic and intercreaturely transcendence are thus inherently linked; both are theologically grounded in an assertion of the beginning of creation in God… We aspire to give and receive that which may open for us new paths for continuous liberation…”[61]

Rivera is well aware that in these times of ours, when new forms of imperial domination are devised, the cross dialogue between polychromic liberation theologies and postcolonial critical studies acquires theoretical relevance and political urgency.[62] Joerg Rieger has well expressed the challenge that this transdisciplinary exchange poises for the concept of God: “What happens when God-talk is turned loose from the powers that be, when it comes from those who bear the marks of colonialism and neocolonialism in their flesh?”[63] From my Latin American and Caribbean context, however, this requires the overcoming of the narrow historical vista of most postcolonial authors, who tend to focus their critical gaze to post Enlightenment imperial formations.[64] After all, modern Western imperial domination began with the sixteenth century Iberian conquest of the Caribbean archipelago and the Latin American territories.[65]

Provisional predictions

Although several observers have predicted the demise of liberation theology, a better way to describe its actual condition is its proliferation by means of the fragmentation of subversive identities. What is striking is its ability to morph from its antecedents into a plethora of new movements. The original intuition of “preferential option for the poor” has been widened to the “excluded,” “marginalized,” “victims,” “disdained,” “downtrodden.” There are even signs of a vigorous reawakening of liberation theology, for its main sources are still with us:

1)      The worldwide growing social and economic inequities entailed by the global hegemony of a neoliberal capitalist system of free market that validates profit as the hallmark of success. Poverty and injustice still prevail, tragically distorting the fate of millions of human beings all over our planet. Transnational corporations play lucrative chess games with their lives and labors, aborting illusions and shattering dreams.

2)      But also everywhere the “wretched of the earth,” as Franz Fanon called them, demand a different and alternative social order and forge innovative models of protest and resistance. Their particular struggles might be different but not incompatible or incommensurable. Some resist poverty and economic misery, others demand full recognition for their racial, ethnic, or cultural identity, others assert the integrity and dignity of their gender or sexual orientation. These diverse perspectives complicate but also widen significantly the horizons of today’s struggles for liberation.

3)      The constant retrieval, by many Christians, of the rebel and subversive memories hidden in the biblical texts and Christian traditions. It is impossible to silence or repress completely the rebellious tones of the Exodus narrative, the denunciatory voice of the prophets, Jesus’s disturbing proclamation of good news for the poor and the captives, the attempts by the early Christian movement to shape a participatory and sharing community, or the anti-imperial tone of Revelation. Those memories, which constitute the core of the sacred scriptures, precipitate in the mind and heart of many readers the commitment for liberation. They lead to multiple and diverse meaningful efforts to shape for theology a public emancipatory role.[66]

4)      God matters. Even in these postmodernist and cybernetic times people care about God. In the midst of present disturbances and conflicts, the “battle for God,” as Karen Armstrong so aptly has named it,[67] rages ferociously. In the fascinating and perplexing kaleidoscope of human social existence, God is reimagined as the ultimate source of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden. When the social miseries that afflict so many communities become unbearable, beyond and besides the tiresome quarrels of religious fundamentalism and dogmatic secularism, the memory of God the Liberator erupts again and again: “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us… we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…” (Deuteronomy 26: 6-8). As the influential 1985 South African Kairos document categorically states: “Throughout the Bible God appears as the liberator of the oppressed.”

These are the factors that counter and resist the ruling imperial project of controlling and policing the frontiers of human imagination. Deeply felt fears and hopes, as the astute David Hume noted more than two centuries ago,[68] are able to agitate hearts and spirits and to move minds to think the otherwise unthinkable. Suddenly, at the end of the epoch so aptly named the “Age of Extremes” by Eric Hobsbawm,[69] two tendencies clash: the first announces with glib satisfaction “the end of history,” the obliteration of transformative social utopias;[70] the second, from the entrails of the subordinated subjects,[71] proclaims a new insurrection of human hopes for “another possible world.”[72]

The essential imperative might be to remember and radicalize the prophetic words written by the imprisoned Dietrich Bonhöffer, in a note surreptitiously preserved by his friend Eberhard Bethge: “We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”[73]

January 4, 2013

Bishops Academy

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


[1] Amos Elon, Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory (New York: Kodansha International, 1995), 19.

[2] The most famous of them, and a model for many, were the Algerian Front of National Liberation, established in 1954, which led the revolt against French colonial domination (brilliantly depicted in Gillo Pontocorvo’s 1966 film Battle of Algiers), the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam, created in December of 1960, which successfully fought against the division of Viet Nam and the military invasion of the United States, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, founded in 1964 to organize the struggle for Palestinian statehood. Cf. Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (New York: Penguin Books, 1987); Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), chapter 4: “The National Liberation Front”; and Helena Cobban, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation: People, Power and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

[3] Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968.

[4] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969); Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York, Grove Press, 1965).

[5] Paulo Freire, Educação como prática da liberdade (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1967); Paulo Freire, Pedagogía del oprimido (Montevideo: Tierra Nueva, 1968).

[6] Cf. Austin P. Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II. The Basic Sixteen Documents: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations (Northport, NY: Costello Pub. Co., 1996).

[7] Jürgen Moltmann, Theologie der Hoffnung (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1966), Johannes Baptist Metz, Zur Theologie der Welt (Mainz: Matthias-Grúnewald Verlag, 1968).

[8] Cf. Dorothee Sölle, Politische Theologie. Auseinandersetzung mit Rudolf Bultmann (Stuttgart: Kreuz-Verlag, 1971).

[9] Alfred T Hennelly, Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 114, 116, English translation somewhat amended.

[10] Cf. Gustavo Gutiérrez, “The Meaning and Scope of Medellín,” in his book The Density of the Present: Selected Writings (Maryknoll, N Y: Orbis Books, 199), 59-101.

[11] It is translated and reproduced in Hennelly, Liberation Theology, 62-76.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Teología de la liberación: perspectivas (Salamanca: Sígueme, 1973), 67-69.

[13] Hugo Assmann, Opresión – Liberación: Desafío a los cristianos (Montevideo: Tierra Nueva, 1971), 50.

[14] See the important book on the origins of the Latin American liberation theology by Samuel Silva Gotay, El pensamiento cristiano revolucionario en América Latina: Implicaciones de la teología de la liberación para la sociología de la religión (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1981), translated to Portuguese as O pensamento cristão revolucionãrio na América Latina e no Caribe (1960-1973) (São Paulo: Edições Paulinas, 1985), and to German as Christentum und Revolution in Lateinamerika und der Karibik: Die Bedeutung der Theologie der Befreiung für eine Soziologie der Religion (Frankfurt am Main: Würzburger Studien zur Fundamentaltheologie, Band 17, 1995).

[15] Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1972.

[16] Buenos Aires: Ediciones Carlos Lohlé, 1975.

[17] José Severino Croatto, Exodus, a Hermeneutics of Freedom (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981); Jorge V. Pixley, Exodo, una lectura evangélica y popular (México, DF: Casa Unida de Publicaciones, 1983).

[18] Walter J. Houston, Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament (London: T & T Clark, 2006).

[19] Jon Sobrino, La fe en Jesucristo: ensayo desde las víctimas (San Salvador: UCA, 1999).

[20] Leonardo Boff, Jesus Cristo libertador; ensaio de cristologia crítica para o nosso tempo (Petrópolis: Editôra Vozes, 1972); Jon Sobrino, Jesucristo liberador: lectura histórico teológica de Jesús de Nazaret (San Salvador: UCA, 1991).

[21] Leonardo Boff, Igreja, carisma e poder: ensaios de eclesiologia militante (Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1981).

[22] Jorge V. Pixley & Jean-Pierre Bastian (editors), Praxis cristiana y producción teológica (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 1979).

[23] Jonathan Pimentel Chacón, Modelos de Dios en las teologías latinoamericanas (Heredia, Costa Rica: Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, 2008).

[24] Cf. Leonardo Boff, Eclesiogênese: as comunidades eclesiais de base reinventam a Igreja (Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 1977).

[25] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993).

[26] Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and other Statements. Introductory essays by Ignacio Martín-Baró and Jon Sobrino (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 50-51.

[27] Reproduced in Hennelly, Liberation Theology, 394, 411-412.

[28] Cf. the strong response of Juan Luis Segundo, Teología de la liberación: Respuesta al Cardenal Ratzinger (Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1985).

[29] Reproduced in Hennelly, Liberation Theology, 498-506.

[30] Cf. Ignacio Ellacuría & Jon Sobrino (eds.), Mysterium liberationis: Conceptos fundamentales de la Teología de la Liberación (Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 1990). On November 16, 1989, Ellacuría, then rector of El Salvador’s Central American University, other five Jesuits priests, and two domestic servants were assassinated by a group of soldiers.

[31] See the defense of Sobrino by almost forty theologians in Bajar de la Cruz a los Pobres: Cristología de la Liberación, edited by José María Vigil, (México, DF: Ediciones Dabar, 2007).

[32] See Alan P. Neely, Protestant Antecedents of the Latin American Theology of Liberation (Ph. D. dissertation, American University, 1977).

[33] Rubem Alves, Towards a Theology of Liberation: An Exploration of the Encounter Between the Languages of Humanistic Messianism and Messianic Humanism (Ph. D. dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, May 1968).

[34] Richard Shaull, Hombre, ideología y revolución en América Latina (ISAL: Montevideo, 1965). Cf. Neely, Protestant Antecedents, 253: “it is doubtful if any theologian has more consistently and directly contributed to the shaping of the contemporary Protestant theologians of liberation than Richard Shaull.”

[35] Rubem Alves, A Theology of Human Hope (Washington, D. C.: Corpus Books, 1969), 163. On the theological trajectory of Alves, see Leopoldo Cervantes-Ortiz, Serie de sueños: la teología ludo-erótico-poética de Rubem Alves (Quito, Ecuador: Consejo Latinoamericano de Iglesias, 2003).

[36] Cf. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

[37] A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York: Warner Books, 2001).

[38] James Cone, Black Theology & Black Power (New York: Seabury Press, 1969), 42.

[39] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1970), v, 3.

[40] Including the Caribbean, with its long and dense tradition of Black slavery. See Noel Leo Erskine, Decolonizing Theology: A Caribbean Perspective (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998).

[41] Cf. James Cone, The Spirituals and Blues (New York: Seabury, 1972).

[42] Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women, book I, chapter I, introduction. Reproduced from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0402.htm,

[43] Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974.

[44] In Theological Studies, Vol. 36, 1975, 605-626.

[45] Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

[46] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 29f.

[47] Jeanette Rodríguez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment Among Mexican-American Women (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994).

[48] Mayra Rivera, “God at the Crossroads: A postcolonial Reading of Sophia,” in Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner, and Mayra Rivera, Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004), 186-203.

[49] Inter alia, Fernando Segovia, “From 1968, through 2008: A Call to Action for Latino/a American Religious and Theological Studies,” Apuntes, Year 28, No. 1, Spring 2008, 4-28; George E. Tinker, Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004); Aloysius Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988); Sathianathan Clarke, Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998); Jonathan Gichaara, “Issues in African Liberation Theology,” Black Theology: An International Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2005, 75–85; Kim Yong Bock (ed.), Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History (Singapore: Commission on Theological Concerns, Christian Conference of Asia, 1981); Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004); Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989); Elizabeth Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003).

[50] Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange (London & New York: Verso, 2003).

[51] Ateek, Justice and Only Justice, 13-17; Mitri Raheb, I Am a Palestinian Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 3-14.

[52] See Luis N. Rivera-Pagán, “Toward an Emancipatory Palestinian Theology: Hermeneutical Paradigms and Horizons,” in The Biblical text in the Context of Occupation: Towards a New Hermeneutics of Liberation, edited by Mitri Raheb (Bethlehem, Palestine: Diyar Publisher, 2012), 89-117, 399-408.

[53] Ateek, Justice and Only Justice, chapter 7 (“A Dream of Peace”), 163-175; Mitri Raheb, I Am a Palestinian Christian, conclusion (“I Have a Dream”), 112-116. See also Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008).

[54] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (London: Routledge, 2000).

[55] Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God (London: Routledge, 2003).

[56] José Martí, “Carta a Manuel Mercado,” Obras escogidas (La Habana: Editora Política, 1982), Vol. 3, 576: “Viví en el monstruo, y le conozco las entrañas:—y mi honda es la de David” (“I lived inside the monster, I know its entrails – and I have David’s sling”). See José Martí, Inside the Monster: Writings on the United States and American Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975).

[57] Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

[58] Ibid., 1.

[59] Ibid., 82.

[60] Here Rivera quotes one of Althaus-Reid’s transgressive texts: “God is to be found in the presence of the untouchables… [Transcendence] is God touching its own limits in the untouchables.” Marcella Althaus-Reid, “El Tocado (Le Toucher): Sexual Irregularities in the Translation of God (the Word) in Jesus,” in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart (eds.), Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2004), 394.

[61] Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence, 133, 140.

[62] Keller, Nausner, and Rivera, Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire; Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005); Wonhee Anne Joh, Heart of the Cross: a Postcolonial Christology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence: A Postcolonial Theology of God; Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007); Kwok Pui-lan, Don H Compier, and Joerg Rieger (eds.), Empire: The Christian Tradition. New Readings of Classical Theologians (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

[63] Joerg Rieger, “Liberating God-Talk: Postcolonialism and the Challenge of the Margins,” in Keller, Nausner, and Rivera, Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire, 220.

[64] See Fernando Segovia’s sharp and critical exposition of the theoretical convergences between postcolonial studies and anti-imperial biblical hermeneutics: “Mapping the Postcolonial Optic in Biblical Criticism: Meaning and Scope,” in Stephen D. Moore and Fernando Segovia, Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2005), 23-78.

[65] Enrique Dussel, 1492: El encubrimiento del otro (Hacia el origen del “mito de la modernidad”) (Bogotá: Ediciones Antropos, 1992); Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, & Colonization (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1995); Luis N. Rivera-Pagán, “Doing Pastoral Theology in a Post-Colonial Context: Some Observations from the Caribbean,” Journal of Pastoral Theology, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall 2007, 1-28.

[66] See Benjamin Valentin, Mapping Public Theology: Beyond Culture, Identity, and Difference (Harrisburg/London: Trinity Press International, 2002).

[67] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (New York: Knopf, 2000).

[68] David Hume, The Natural History of Religion (London: A. & C. Black, 1956).

[69] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994).

[70] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[71] Franz Hinkelammert, El grito del sujeto: del teatro-mundo del evangelio de Juan al perro-mundo de la globalización (San José, Costa Rica: DEI, 1998).

[72] Jorge Pixley et al., Por un mundo otro: alternativas al mercado global (Quito, Ecuador: Consejo Latinoamericano de Iglesias, 2003).

[73] Dietrich Bonhöffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (London: Folio Society, 2000), 16.

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Luis Rivera-Pagán

Profesor emérito del Seminario Teológico de Princeton. Es autor de varios libros, entre ellos, Evangelización y violencia: La conquista de América (1992), Entre el oro y la fe: El dilema de América (1995), Mito exilio y demonios: literatura y teología en América Latina (1996), Diálogos y polifonías: perspectivas y reseñas (1999), Essays from the Diaspora (2002), Fe y cultura en Puerto Rico (2002) y Teología y cultura en América Latina (2009).

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