Spirituality Of Liberation

For much of its history the Church has seen liberation in entirely inward, personal or futuristic terms, and has denied, or devoted little attention to, its relevance to social, economic and political structures, to the freedom of minorities, to the attack on racial oppression, or to the future of the planet itself. There has been particular resistance to the idea that liberation involves dealing with the specific and concrete demands of groups of oppressed people. However, in recent years, a spirituality of liberation has arisen out of a concrete identification with oppressed people and a commitment to end oppression. It is a practical, corporate and revolutionary kind of spirituality, rooted in the experience of oppressed communities and groups. Though associated particularly with Latin America, it exists wherever there is oppression and a spiritually conscious opposition to it.

The spirituality of liberation arose from the liberation theology of Latin America (although one of the first books on liberation theology was by the North American theologian Rosemary Ruether (Ruether 1972)). This is a theology which starts from the experience of oppression, a theology which shares the life of very poor people, and exists in an atmosphere of great physical danger. It seeks to unite contemplation and political struggle and has been marked since its early years by its concern for the deepening of spiritual life. Indeed rarely can there have been a theological movement which is so clearly and so deeply rooted in spiritual experience.

In his first book Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of the movement, referred to a 'serious crisis' about prayer, and he suggested that this crisis could lead to a purification of the life of the spirit. The recovery of the contemplative life was central. He claimed that there was a 'a great need for a spirituality of liberation' (Gutiérrez 1972:208). Such a spirituality would be concerned with following Jesus. Later Gutiérrez spoke of 'the spiritual journey of a people' (Gutiérrez 1984) and the stress on the spiritual journey as a collective enterprise has been continued in his subsequent writing (Gutiérrez 1990). He insists that any authentic theology must be a spiritual theology, and his works are steeped in a mystical theology which unites prayer and action in a way which few contemporary Christian writers can match. In a study in 1984 he pointed out that there had been a marked growth in spirituality over the years among Christians within the liberation tradition: 'a growing maturity in their solidarity with the commitment to liberation has...brought with it a new emphasis on prayer as a fundamental dimension of Christian life' (Gutiérrez 1984:22).

Since Gutiérrez's call, many writers have devoted attention to this theme. The Chilean pastor Segundo Galilea has been one who has constantly focused on the need for a rich devotional life. Galilea is steeped in the Spanish mystics, and his work consists of small but profound devotional studies on the nature of contemporary discipleship and prayerfulness. Galilea in 1973 wrote of a 'crisis of spirituality' associated with the split between contemplation and politics. He believed that liberation was fundamentally a problem of spirituality, and that there was a need for a meeting of mystics and militants (Galilea 1973). Christian mysticism is a mysticism of commitment, and it is in commitment that contemplation and action come together.

In Britain, a more secularized society than Latin America, the articulation of oppression has taken less typically Christian forms. Yet the question of what a spirituality of liberation means for Britain remains vital. To answer it we need to look at the experience of oppressed groups here. Two communities which have experienced both oppression (a widespread culture of bias resulting in structural contempt) and discrimination (a specific series of acts having adverse social results) are those people suffering from HIV and AIDS, and those who are the victims of racism. There can be no spirituality of liberation unless these people's voices are heard. So the process of listening to neglected voices is central. At the time of writing, single mothers are the target of considerable hostility. Their voices must be heard also. Only from such careful listening can a genuine spirituality emerge.

The experience of HIV and AIDS is worthy of study for it has brought out the best and the worst in Christian people. At its worst, it has brought to the surface an appalling mass of hatred, prejudice, bigotry and loathing. Positively, the Christian community has found itself both wounded and healed by the AIDS crisis. AIDS has been a painful and healing process for Christians as they have been forced to face unresolved issues in sexuality as well as the terrible reality of disintegration and death. It has also brought tremendous renewal and liberation as Christians have found resources of life and love in the depths of this terrible scourge. These movements and upheavals have brought Christian spirituality into a place of turbulence and upheaval, a new kind of dark night of faith, in which much has been weighed in the balances, much as been tested and purified.

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