Charles Villavicencio

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Liberation and reconstruction: the unfinished agenda

Liberation theology - an umbrella term embracing a number of particular movements, including African, black, feminist, and womanist theologies -is self-consciously contextual. While having certain characteristics in common, specific liberation theologies need to be understood in terms of their particular contexts. In this chapter attention is first given to the broad and inclusive tenets of Latin American liberation theology. The second part explores some of the challenges facing liberation theologians in the wider context defined by the post-cold war period; in particular, the situation of the poor in the changing contexts of debate. Specific attention is given to the changing South African context within which the present writer is located.

There is, of course, no one prevailing context in any particular Latin American country or in South Africa. Divisions of class, race, gender and choice continue to ferment the liberation theology debate, and each of these is, in turn, profoundly affected by the changes that have taken place in different regional contexts since the 1960s. The Medellin and Puebla conferences of 1968 and 1979 gave formative expression to Latin American liberation theology, which formed part of the revolutionary milieu that swept South and Central America during this time. In Europe 1968 was the year of the Prague Spring. In North America the 1960s were the time of the Black Power movement. In South Africa, Black theology and liberation theology were born in the late 1960s,1 reaching their highwater mark with the publication of the Kairos Document in 1985, while Black theology regained a sense of prominence in the debate at more or less the same time,1 The divide between the forces of resistance and liberation, throughout this period, was crisp, clear and relatively uncomplicated.

Things have since changed. Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and elsewhere have fallen. The iron curtain dividing Eastern and Western Europe has come down. In South Africa a democratically elected government of national unity, under the presidency of Nelson

Mandela, is governing the country. Yet many of those out of whose oppression liberation theologies were first born, are still oppressed. They remain without houses. They are still denied adequate educational and health icsources. Massive unemployment rages on. Grinding poverty, exploitation and unnecessary deaths are daily realities. Yet despite the marked lack of clear winners in these negotiated revolutions, changes experienced in Latin America and South Africa are indeed momentous.

Because political liberation in Latin America and South Africa is not 'evenly distributed', it is likely that the fissures and ferment that have always been part of liberation theology will become more pronounced in the future.3 Some Christians who were hitherto part of the revolutionary struggle have joined government. Others have chosen to leave politics to the politicians. Still others have refused to concede the extent of the acknowledged changes, standing aloof from the politics of negotiation. They have resisted engagement in the frustrating complexities of political transition.

Ironically those who uncritically embrace the new age and those who sullenly resist it both fail to exploit the opportunities of renewal that exist at the political, economic and spiritual interface where the 'old1 is dying and the 'new' is agonising to be born. The former baptise the revolution into complacency. The latter fail the revolution in not forcing it to deliver on its own agenda. Neither group grasps the opportunity to contribute theologically and ethically to the nation-building and reconstruction process.

Can liberation theology liberate the liberated - from both complacency and cynicism? Is liberation theology indeed a vehicle for liberating the poor not only when liberation is on the distant horizon but also when it is within grasp? Can liberation theology be more than a theology of resistance? In what follows I argue that it can. It will, however, need to take its contextual nature seriously, continuing to respond creatively to the actual contexts within which it is located. In so doing it is likely to tear open ideological and contextual cleavages that liberation theologians have, to a significant extent, hitherto been able to hold together. That is part of the price to be paid for taking context (contexts within contexts) seriously.

Naming the dialectic cWhen God saw that the rich Christians, who possessed ninety percent of the thousand riches of humanity, had not done with those riches what they should have done ... God allowed socialists the enterprise of dignifying the poor of Latin America who are the immense majority.' These words, spoken by Guatemalan Juan David Garcia Vaca, capture the double identity of Latin American theology.4 They locate the economic agenda at the heart of the Latin American revolution. They also give expression to a popular belief that the God of history is at work in the Latin American social revolution.

This piety is often ignored by western critics of Latin American liberation theology, who reduce it to little more than a Christian facade behind which is found a Marxist agenda. Such attacks unabashedly ignore the insistence of Gustavo Gutiérrez's formative study A Theology of Liberation that liberation theology is 'critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the Word1.5 Gutierrez's critical analysis of the Latin America situation is, at least in its early stages, poignantly Marxian/ His theology has at the same time always been grounded in a biblical hermeneutic and a spirituality of liberation, while more recently Gutiérrez has given increasing emphasis to popular Christian belief,7 A similar double emphasis, and in several instances a shift towards piety and popular belief can, in turn, be found in other Latin American theological writings. Juan Luis Segundo speaks of ca new context for theologizing: the common people* with which theologians were obliged to come to grips in the Latin American struggle. He refers to it as a painful conversion which intellectuals need to undergo - a kind of self-negation within which they give expression to the theology of the poor,8 Enrique Dussel came to speak of the 'discipleship of the poor', and Leonardo Boff of a new 'ecclesiogenesis' which came to expression in the 'church of the poor'.9 It must however be noted that this affirmation of 'the common people' has been severely criticised by Latin American women as failing to take the concerns of women seriously,10 Indeed it has also been criticised by black theologians for failing to give sufficient attention to race as a category of exploitation.11 This concern is addressed elsewhere in this volume.

When confronted with this (albeit truncated) focus on popular religion, the critics of liberation theology respond by suggesting that the earlier formative works of liberation theologians gave proportionally more attention to the critique of structural capitalism than to this popular religion. This, they argue, shifted the liberation theology debate away from the earlier theological concerns of the Medellin Conference (which included sin, conversion and reconciliation) to socio-economic concerns of a Marxian kind. The counter-argument is that the emphasis on social analysis and the promotion of socialism is a logical consequence of the application of the theological concerns of Medellin to the broader Latin American context. In the words of Enrique Dussel: 'It was Christian praxis and faith, and criteria fundamentally spiritual and pastoral (the fact that Christians were becoming involved in politics in order to fight injustice, together with the social teaching of the church) that made adequate analytical categories necessary.'11

'Proportion' aside, deep-rooted spirituality, liturgy and theological debate constitute an inherent part of the Latin American Church. To suggest that this ethos can be ignored or played down in an assessment of Latin American theology is absurd. The extent to which a Marxian understanding of class struggle influenced liberation theology in the 1970s and the early 1980s needs, in turn, to be understood in relation to the growing power of Latin American dictatorships during this period. Often bolstered by the ideology of the national security state (promoted by the United States as a means of saving the region from alleged communist aggression), Marxian rhetoric and socialist ideals existed as ail ideology of resistance to a state-imposed ideology of militarism and exploitative capitalism.13 Reflecting on the relationship between liberation theology and Marxism, Dussel is adamant in stating that liberation theologians had painstakingly adopted a 4 "certain" Marxism, one compatible with a Christian faith received from the prophets, from Jesus, and from church tradition immemorial , • ,*14

We turn now to a consideration, first, of the socialist ideal of liberation theology and to the spirituality inherent to this theology. We then evaluate the nature of the relationship between the two as a basis for judging possible future developments in liberation theology in Latin American and South Africa,li


The socialist agenda of Latin American liberation theology is expressed nowhere more clearly than in the meeting of the Group of Eighty Priests in April 1971 in Santiago, Chile, The priests declared themselves to be in unequivocal support of socialism and the 'peoples' revolution'. The bishops in Chile responded to the eighty priests both directly, warning them to keep out of politics, and indirectly, in a document entitled £The Gospel, Politics and Socialism',16 The bishops rejected both Marxist socialism and capitalism as materialist ideologies that favoured the few at the cost of the many. The next important step in a series of documents relevant to liberation theology came with the publication of Pope Paul VPs encyclical Octagcsima Adveniens, issued in celebration of Pope Leo XIIFs labour encyclical, Rerum Novarum, It affirmed the familiar third-option economic policy of the Vatican, When the Second General Synod of Bishops met in Rome later that same year, it supported the rights of the poor - carefully drawing on the language of the Medellin Conference, while avoiding the Marxian underpinnings included in the Latin American theology debate at the time.

In April 1971 the eighty priests went a step further, forming the Christians for Socialism Movement, The final document of its founding (and only^ meeting advocated the 'takeover of power by the exploited masses'-1"

By the time the bishops met to respond to this document, their condemnation was of little avail, Chilean President Allende had been removed from power in a military coup, and the Christians for Socialism Movement was prohibited and its leaders driven into exile.

When Pope Paul VI published Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975 he was ready to appropriate the essential ideas of liberation theology, while couching them strictly in terms of New Testament teaching, The encyclical recognised that liberation 'cannot be contained in the simple and restricted dimension of economics, politics, social or cultural life; it must envisage the whole man, in all aspects, right up to and including his [s/c] openness to the absolute, even the divine absolute*.lS In the words of Paul Sigmund, 'liberation had , . . become theologically respectable1. An attempt was being made to break its association with Marxism, 'Henceforth the argument would be over the theological content of the term [i.e. "liberation"]..

Generally speaking, liberation theologians rejected the Vatican initiative (Rubem Alves had earlier warned against what he called the 'cultural imperialism' of the First World church10) and continued to engage questions concerning salvation (liberation), the preferential option for the poor and social justicc (at the material level) through the promotion of socialism over against capitalism/1

Few theologians seriously engaged the writings of Marx directly.11 Marxian undertones were, however, present in the writings of most liberation theologians with some affirming a more uncritical espousal of Marxism than others.13 Gustavo Gutiérrez rejects what he calls 'naive reformism', insisting that the Church in Latin America needed to 'break its ties with the present order', making itself 'one with the poor', and dedicating itself to the 'revolutionary cause1.14 Indeed he later writes that 'only by overcoming a society divided into classes ... by eliminating the private appropriation of wealth created by human toil, can we build the foundation of a more just society*,15 When asked in 1985 whether liberation theologians could support a welfare-oriented capitalism as a basis for a preferential option for the poor, Gutierrez replied: 'I don't know any who do.116 And still later he wrote in the New York Times {27 July 1988): 'I don't believe the capitalist system as we know it today is good for the poor. But theoretically, if it is a way out of poverty, I have no problem. My question is not about capitalism. My question is about poverty.517

Similarly rejecting 'dogmatic Marxism', Migue2 Bonino emphasises the place of ca strict scientific-ideological analysis, avowedly Marxist' as a way of unmasking 'enslaving political options' which include such 'third options' as promoted by the Vatican/* Hugo Assmann, in turn, rejects the notion of capitalist development, urging its exposure as 'the lie that it is'.19 He insists that the biblical notion of truth involves working for the liberation of humanity, which action he defines as being served by 'a sociological analysis derived from Marxism, and a strategy that will lead to a form of socialist society'.30 Juan Luis Segundo acknowledges the limitations of socialist revolutions that have promoted 'the role of the party and of government repression', but insists that the socialist ideals incorporated in historical materialism are not undermined in the process.*1 In his meditation on the Lord's Prayer, Leonardo Boff, in turn, defines (the evil one' as the one 'embodied in an elitist, exclusivist social system that has no solidarity with the multitudes of the poor. He has a name; he is the Capitalism of private property and the Capitalism of the state/31

Liberation theologians clearly sought a radical alternative to structural capitalism as well as to 'third way' economics. At the same time, it would be claiming too much to say that any prominent Latin American liberation theologian showed an unequivocal dogmatic commitment to Marxian-based socialism. Indeed, Gutiérrez repeatedly insists that it is not any intellectual elite (Marxist or otherwise) that constitutes the vanguard of the struggle, but the poor. For him, the poor of the base Christian communities are inspired by a spirituality that is grounded in a sense of God's impending rule which will be to the social benefit of the poor, 'Conversion', says Gutiérrez, requires us to centre our lives on *the neighbour, the oppressed person, the exploited social class, the despised race, the dominated country. Our conversion to the Lord implies conversion to the neighbour.'33 The exaltation of the poor, which is part of Christian liberation, is grounded in this centre. It is a centre which Gutiérrez sees as both radicalising the revolution and preventing it from betraying its ultimate purpose.

Migucz Bonino warns against the radical 'monism' of liberation theology. This he sees occurring when 'the history of divine revelation is [viewed as] secondary, merely exemplary, or even dispensable'. His concern is that either wittingly or unwittingly 'history' and 'struggle' could themselves be deified in the process. Insisting that this is not the intention of liberation theology, he nevertheless exhorts his fellow theologians to a self-critical stance: 'We must ask ourselves whether the formulations we have worked out so far do enough to rule out that possibility/34 Likewise Leonardo Boff insists that all theology needs to be subjected to ideological critique,35 And yet, liberation theologians were not prepared to mask or deny unequivocal support for the poor, Miguez Bonino accuses First World theologians of claiming solidarity with the poor while *hover[ing] above the right and the left as if that choice did not have anything to do with the matter'.3* This too, Miguez Bonino insists, is an ideological stance. Jon Sobrino approvingly quotes a Peruvian bishop at the Puebla Conference: *Let him who is without ideology cast the first stone/'7 Indeed for liberation theologians A has been a matter of choice: Which ideology for which side? It has forced all theologians to face this question with radical honesty. The dialectic between ideology and popular praxis has been at the centre of the liberation theology debate,

John Coleman, among others, has accused liberation theologians of insufficiently critiquing socialist ideology in their concern to promote the interests of the poor. They have been insufficiently 'discriminating [in their] judgements about alternative economic and political choices with which we are faced'/8 Peter Moll has, in turn, criticised liberation theologians for failing to grapple in a critical and serious manner with the contemporary debate on Marxian economics. The difficulty, Moll insists, is that liberation theologians have accepted dependency theory as axiomatic of Marxism while failing to consider alternative ways of reading Marx. In so doing, he suggests that liberation theologians are guilty of the very critique they level against traditional theology, namely, living in bondage to specific cultures, philosophies or political systems.39 Moll has probably overstated his case. Ignacio Ellacuria suggests that while Latin American liberation theologians have inclined towards socialism rather than capitalism, they have been mindful of the limitations of both systems/0 Gregory Baum's spirited response to MolPs article {while downplaying the influence of Marxism on liberation theology) offers alternative (non-Marxian) critiques of exploitative capitalism which liberation theology would do well to explore/1

The shift from resistance to reconstruction in liberation theology needs to be rooted here - in theological critique of all economic theory and praxis. In this regard Segundo's observation is salutary. He insists that theologians '[should] not be able to take the easy way out,.. setting aside the great problems of today on the pretext that they belong to other fields or disciplines'/1 Karl Rahner argues that in addressing the concrete problems of the day the Church 'can be wide of the mark in its imperatives and directives* in much the same way as any other organisation. 'But this', he (like Scgundo) urges, 'is a risk that must be taken if the church is not to seem pedantic, to be living in a world of pure theory, remote from life, making pronouncements that do not touch the stubborn concreteness of real life/*3

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