A Primer on Liberation Theology

posted on March 7, 2015

A Primer on Liberation Theology

Today’s topic involves several of our closely-held Unitarian Universalist principles – specifically the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large –

It came to me that I should speak to you about Liberation Theology when I was agonizing over the complex and multifaceted problem of racial injustice after the deeply disturbing decisions that were made in the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other incidences in which it appears that black boys and men were killed by policemen largely because they were black.

I don’t pretend to know enough about the details of these cases to come to a conclusion as to the shooters’ guilt or innocence in the charges that were brought against them.

And I don’t believe in trial by newspaper, Facebook, Twitter, or television.

But I do believe we have a serious problem in this country – the old and very ugly problem of racism. It rears its nasty little reptilian head in many different places and circumstances. Shockingly, it rears its little head in me sometimes. None of us is innocent of racism – not white people, not people of color.

Racism is so old it predates written history. Picture groups of hunter-gatherers encountering strangers and feeling threatened by the way the strangers looked so different. Human beings become imprinted early on. It takes a great deal of education, training and intellectual capacity to overcome the natural inclination to fear the stranger. It’s a sign of advanced civilization when people are able to extend the benefits of kinship to the stranger – to break bread together, to offer shelter and clothing – and we’ve come a long way as a species in doing just that. But we have not yet overcome our inherent wariness when confronted with the stranger, especially the stranger of a different color.

Of course when we get to know the people who seem so different initially, we find out that we are much more alike than different. We begin to care about them as we care about our families and friends – we begin to see them as friends and even family.

This is what happened to certain churchmen in Latin America who be came dismayed and disgusted by the way the established Roman Catholic Church cooperated with and benefitted from growing business and industry to the detriment of the local people through out Central and South America. These churchmen developed what is now known as liberation theology. “Simply put, liberation theology is a movement that attempts to interpret Scripture through the plight of the poor. True followers of Jesus, according to liberation theology, must work toward a just society, bring about social and political change, and align themselves with the working class. Jesus, who was poor Himself, focused on the poor and downtrodden, and any legitimate church will give preference to those who have historically been marginalized or deprived of their rights. All church doctrine should grow out of the perspective of the poor. Defending the rights of the poor is seen as the central aspect of the gospel.”[i]


In the 1987 book Introducing Liberation Theology by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, we read that the roots of liberation theology run deep into the soil of “the prophetic tradition of evangelists and missionaries from the earliest colonial days in Latin America – churchmen who questioned” the place the Church took for itself in communities and “the way indigenous people, black people, mestizos, and the poor rural and urban masses were treated.


“Starting in the 1960s, a great wind of renewal blew through the churches. They began to take their social mission seriously: laypersons committed themselves to work among the poor, charismatic bishops and priests encouraged the calls for progress and national modernization. Various church organizations promoted understanding of and improvements in the living conditions of the people…” [ii]


Liberation theology has grown into an international and inter-denominational movement. A Peruvian priest named Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote one of the movement’s most famous books, A Theology of Liberation, coined the term “liberation theology” in 1971.


The late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero has long been recognized as the unofficial saint of liberation theology. Romero took up the cause of the poor in El Salvador.


“God needs the people themselves,” he said, “to save the world . . . The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of hand-outs from governments or from the churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation.”[iii]


The influence of Latin American liberation theology diminished after the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) accused proponents of using “Marxist concepts” leading to admonishment in 1984 and 1986. The Vatican criticized certain strains of Latin American liberation theology for focusing on institutionalized or systemic sin, apparently to the exclusion of individual offenders and offences; and for identifying Catholic Church hierarchy in South America as members of the same privileged class that had long been oppressing indigenous populations since the arrival of Pizarro onward.[iv]


The movement illuminated the divide between the conservative and the liberal wings of the Catholic Church. Conservatives were unhappy with the focus on the poor, and liberals were unhappy with the protection of the rich.


The theology is most accurately encapsulated in this paragraph from Leonardo and Clodovis Boff:


“Question: How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?


“Answer: There can be only one answer: we can be followers of Jesus and true Christians only by making common cause with the poor and working out the gospel of liberation.


“Liberation theology said the church should derive its legitimacy and theology by growing out of the poor. The Bible should be read and experienced from the perspective of the poor.


“The church should be a movement for those who were denied their rights and plunged into such poverty that they were deprived of their full status as human beings. The poor should take the example of Jesus and use it to bring about a just society.


“Most controversially, the Liberationists said the church should act to bring about social change, and should ally itself with the working class to do so. Some radical priests became involved in politics and trade unions; others even aligned themselves with violent revolutionary movements.


“A common way in which priests and nuns showed their solidarity with the poor was to move from religious houses into poverty stricken areas to share the living conditions of their flock.”[v]


As with many movements Liberation Theology waxes and wanes depending on circumstances. But recently – concurrent with the Black Lives Matter movement – two events brought my thoughts back to Liberation Theology.


First, last August Pope Francis told reporters he wants the beatification of Oscar Romero to be done quickly. “Romero is a man of God,” Francis said, and the process “must move now.”


Pope Francis’s signal that the late Salvadoran Archbishop now has a legitimate path to sainthood is the latest in a series of statements to trigger media speculation that he seeks to build a better, more harmonious relationship with the liberation movement. It seems the pope is moving the Church toward a greater awareness of the plight of the world’s poor and marginalized, perhaps as part of a broader sweep of reform.


Pope Francis has stirred the pot with some of his decisions and pronouncements, and while I realize a good many people who now identify as Unitarian Universalist have come to us out of a place of heartache or woundedness from their time in the Roman Catholic Church, I think it’s a good thing to pay attention to what any current pope is saying. It affects a lot of people, many of whom are our friends. It can also affect public policy, about which many Unitarian Universalists are concerned.


It might be very important in our lifetime if the Catholic Church becomes more closely aligned with the Liberation Theology movement. There is increasing interest in reforming economic and judicial systems to more fairly treat marginalized populations in this country.


The second event that brought the thought of liberation theology to mind happened last fall, when the Unitarian Universalist Association joined with the United Church of Christ in recommitting to the Sanctuary Movement.


The Sanctuary Movement was “a religious and political campaign in the United States that began in the early 1980s to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. It responded to the very restrictive United States federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.


“At its peak, Sanctuary involved over 500 congregations across the country that, by declaring themselves official “sanctuaries,” committed to providing shelter, material goods and often legal advice to Central American refugees…


“Movement members acted in open defiance of federal law, and many prominent Sanctuary figures were arrested and put on trial in the mid and late 1980s.”[vi]


The Sanctuary Movement had its roots in liberation theology – even those humanists who no didn’t identify with Christianity agreed with the basic tenets – that a moral life involves advocating for the poor, marginalized, disenfranchised people in a society. The recommitment to that movement is focused on protecting immigrant families here in the United States from unjust deportation.


The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the UUA, said, “Keeping immigrant families together is a moral issue. In response to our country’s broken immigration system, I encourage all Unitarian Universalist congregations to support the Sanctuary Movement and to consider providing sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation.”

In 2013 the delegates to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly adopted a Statement of Conscience. It reads:

“A belief in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is core to Unitarian Universalism: every person, no exceptions. As religious people, our Principles call us to acknowledge the immigrant experience and to affirm and promote the flourishing of the human family.

Our Sources “challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Hebrew scripture teaches love for the foreigner because “you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Christian scripture reports that Jesus and his disciples were itinerants. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner who treated a badly beaten man as the foreigner would have wished to be treated (Luke 10:25-37). The Qur’an teaches doing “good to…those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet” (4:36). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (article 13.2). Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources call us to recognize the opportunities and challenges of human migration—caring for ourselves and our families, interacting with strangers, valuing diversity, and dealing with immigration systems.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, writes: that liberation theology is “about how to be liberated from the structures” which oppress millions.’[vii]

This concept is one that deserves attention from all those who profess to Unitarian Universalism. Whether one’s political position is on the right, the left, or in the center, as UUs we have a moral obligation to lift the yoke of oppression from the shoulders of downtrodden and marginalized people.

There’s a song by Bernice Johnson Reagon that goes, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest; we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes, until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons/is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons/we who believe in freedom cannot rest…”

We may not be ready to open our doors here to those who face unjust deportation, but it would be good if we could. We may not be ready to go into the places where the people live in poverty and despair, but it would be good if we could. It would be so good if we had that kind of courage and commitment – and some of us do – to align ourselves with the poor, the historically marginalized, the folks who – let’s be honest – scare us. It would be good if we could reframe our thinking to move outward from ourselves into the world of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the young black men and their families, prisoners, …

It would be good if we could reimagine what our lives could be like, by and by, when all of us are liberated from the structures in our culture that oppress millions of people. “Injustice anywhere,” said Dr. King, “is a threat to justice everywhere.”

At the very least as individuals we can advocate for justice from the comfort of our own homes by writing letters to support justice movements. We can align ourselves with organizations that work to dismantle systems and structures of oppression, such as UUMassAction and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

As a congregation we could restore our physical presence at the Friday Night Supper program each fourth Friday of the month, and pay attention to the needs of the people who are served there. We can educate ourselves and each other about what is needed systemically to create and uphold justice for every person.

Helen Keller said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

If you believe in the liberation of all people you can do something. Each of us can do something. Find the something you can do. And do it.



[ii] Boff, Leonardo and Clodovis. “A Concise History of Liberation Theology.” From the book Introducing Liberation Theology. Orbis Books.