What Is Liberation Theology? What It Teaches and Why It Matters
Liberation theology is a way of seeing theology as primarily something you do in order to help oppressed people. Although it started with Marxist-influenced Latin American theologians, this way of framing theology has expanded into additional liberation movements, such as black theology and feminist theology.
Theology is a good thing. Liberation from oppression is a good thing. So, is it a good thing when we use liberation from oppression as the defining centerpiece of our theology? How should we think about the movement known as liberation theology?
If you are a Christian who cares about helping oppressed people, it’s worth it to learn about how liberation theology attempts to do this. As you read, you might keep in mind this crucial question: Is helping poor people meant to be a fruit of Christianity—or its focal point?
“What is liberation theology? Liberation theology is a way of seeing theology as primarily something you do in order to help oppressed people.”
A long history of liberation
Any open-minded person reading through the Bible will see quite a few references to how God cares about lifting up the poor and oppressed. When the Jews had suffered in slavery under the Egyptians, God’s compassion was aroused. In the Exodus, he rescued the Jews while plaguing and impoverishing the Egyptians in a grand reversal of fortunes.
Then, after Israel was established as a nation, God sent them prophets to remind them that God has a heart for the poor. For example, in the prophet Micah’s writings, we learn that, though God’s people were busily offering sacrifices to God in their temple, they were mistreating the poor through dishonest scales and violence. This provoked God to give the following message through Micah: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). They weren’t treating the poor fairly, and they needed to act justly toward them.
“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Then in the New Testament, Jesus described his mission as a mission of liberation, and his words (and compassionate actions) showed that he wasn’t just referring to a mystical type of spiritual liberation:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Yet, in order to make liberation from poverty the defining centerpiece of a person’s theology, it takes a lot more than tracing the theme through a few Scriptures. It takes a tectonic shift of emphasis. Enter liberation theology.
What is liberation theology?
When you’re living in luxury, it can be easy to ignore the themes and passages of poverty alleviation in the Bible. That was not a problem for the first liberation theologians, who were living in a Latin American context riddled with poverty. They watched the destitution not getting better in these Christianized lands and wondered, shouldn’t their faith be doing something for these poor people? If God has a heart for the poor (Deut. 24:17) and Jesus’ ministry largely centered on the poor (Matt. 11:5), why wasn’t the Christian faith doing more for the poor?
So, these primarily Catholic theologians got to work crafting a theology which would correct these social imbalances. It was not to be a theology primarily of saving souls for the afterlife—but of alleviating poverty now. In addition to being motivated by biblical passages, they were also charmed by what seemed like successful Marxist revolutions. The result was a theology motivated by Christian compassion but largely framed by Marxist social analysis. Some liberation theologians went so far as to advocate Marxist revolution in the name of their theology.
What is liberation theology? “The result was a theology motivated by Christian compassion but largely framed by Marxist social analysis.”
As Juan Segundo explained, the liberation theologian “is compelled at every step to combine the disciplines that open up the past with the disciplines that help to explain the present.” Since they felt that Marxism was the ideology that best helped to explain their present circumstances, they felt compelled at every step to combine biblical exegesis with Marxist analysis.
Using concern for the poor as the lens for reading the Bible, these theologians turned the spotlight from core Christian doctrines to fighting economic oppression. Spiritual liberation from personal sin took a backseat to material liberation from poverty.
In what context did liberation theology arise?
In understanding liberation theology, it’ll be helpful for me to describe the world into which liberation theology was birthed. It was Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Here were some hallmarks of the time and place:
- Poverty and hunger were common.
- The countries were heavily Catholic.
- Vatican II had pivoted Catholicism to a more open stance to the world around it.
- Communist revolutions around the globe were sparking hope for impoverished people.
Into this environment, Catholic theologians began forming a theology which brought together Marxist social analysis with biblical teachings about God’s care for the poor. The name most closely associated with the movement was a Peruvian friar named Gustavo Gutierrez, who published A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation in 1971. Gutierrez explained his liberation theology view of history’s goal not as the glorious return of Jesus to rescue us from evil but as a permanent cultural revolution:
“The goal it not only better living conditions, a radical change of structures, a social revolution; it is much more: the continuous creation, never ending, of a new way to be a man, a permanent cultural revolution.”
What is liberation theology? “The goal…a new way to be a man, a permanent cultural revolution.”
Other Catholic liberation theologians of the time included Juan Segundo (Uruguay), Jose Miranda (Mexico), Clovodis and Leonardo Boff (Brazil), Hugo Assmann (Brazil), Enrique Dusse (Argentina), Severino Croatto (Argentina), and Jon Sobrino (El Salvador), and eventually Protestants such as Jose Miguel Bonino joined the movement.
What is liberation theology’s lens for seeing truth?
If you’re a Protestant, you’re part of a Christian tradition which has attempted to ground its convictions in Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). If you’re a Catholic, then your church has historically grounded its convictions in both Scripture and its own sacred tradition. In liberation theology, there is room for the insights of Scripture and the teachings of church tradition. However, truth is grounded more fundamentally in the experiences of the poor and oppressed. These experiences become the interpretive lens through which Scripture is understood.
What is liberation theology? “These experiences become the interpretive lens through which Scripture is understood.”
Isn’t this a little slanted? Wouldn’t it be better to read the Bible through a more objective, bird’s-eye standard? How about trying to read it through God’s perspective, as the one who inspired the Bible? Well, when it comes to God’s perspective, God’s “preferential option for the poor” is taken to be a cornerstone attribute which justifies reading the Bible through the lens of the poor.
What happens if we don’t read the Bible through the liberation theology perspective?
Reminiscent of postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida, liberation theologians are suspicious that there is even the possibility of reading the Bible from an objective perspective. In Liberation of Theology, Juan Segundo calls it naïve that we can apply the Bible “inside some antiseptic laboratory that is totally immune to the ideological tendencies and struggles of the present day.” Thus, since everybody comes to the Bible with assumptions and struggles, we might as well prioritize the assumptions and struggles of the poor (since that mirrors God’s heart).
Segundo and his fellow liberation theologians are suspicious that people who claim to be able to interpret the Bible objectively are usually just trying to justify their own agenda. They reason that, if anybody claims to be reading the Bible objectively and they don’t read it through the liberation lens, then they’re probably just trying to justify an oppressive status quo.
What is liberation theology? “They reason that, if anybody claims to be reading the Bible objectively and they don’t read it through the liberation lens, then they’re probably just trying to justify an oppressive status quo.”
Here’s a fascinating quote by Gustavo Gutierrez from A Theology of Liberation: “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.” They are using the Bible to denounce injustice to fight against people who use the Bible to legitimize the established order. Of course, what’s missing in this whole discussion is trying to figure out the author’s intended meaning, but, according to liberation theology, the point isn’t to understand objective truth as much as to overcome oppressive systems.
Is it true that it’s naïve to try to find the author’s intended meaning?
The truth is, it is possible (and worthwhile) to try to figure out what an author was saying—and all the more so when we’re talking about God’s Word.
I mean, you could try to read this article through a particular lens that takes priority over what I’m actually trying to communicate. Let’s say you feel that environmental care of the earth is such a pressing concern that it should direct every spiritual message that gets spoken. So, let’s say, in the context of liberation theology, I write something like,
“The liberation theology debate really started to heat up when the Catholic church realized the nightmare caused by Marxist regimes and they directly challenged liberation theology.”
(And that’s what ended up happening, by the way. Pope John Paul II was no fan of Marxism, being from Poland and getting a front-row seat to what Communism does to countries.)
So, if you’re preoccupied with environmental concerns, you could use that fixation as your lens and come away with something like, “As Daniel explained, when things heat up on the earth because of climate change, it’s a nightmare, and the church should stand against it.” But that’s not what I’m saying, and any honest reader knows that. You don’t have to be 100% certain of my meaning (or, as Segundo puts it, read it “inside some antiseptic laboratory”) in order to be able to figure out more or less what I am saying.
“You don’t have to be 100% certain of my meaning in order to be able to figure out more or less what I am saying.”
However, by emphasizing the assumptions we all bring to what we read, liberation theologians can make it seem as if one interpretation is technically as valid as the next, so, given God’s preferential option for the poor, we should always interpret the Bible in the way that helps fight oppression and alleviate poverty. And if anyone tries to read a passage any other way, they’re probably trying to justify some reading which benefits them and oppresses others.
According to God, is it important to help the poor?
The answer to whether or not God cares about people living in poverty should be uncontroversial. There are many Scriptures which underscore how important it is for God’s people to care for the poor, and the following is a sampling.
Here are two of several Old Testament passages where God rebukes those who mistreat the poor who are being taken advantage of:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Ps. 82:2-4)
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” (Zech. 7:9-10)
“Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.”
The New Testament book of James was likely written to a group of Christians who were largely poor (James 2:5-7). In it, James writes a fascinating denunciation of the rich. This is not necessarily because they were rich per se (we find rich Christians in the New Testament using their wealth to help propel the gospel; see Luke 8:3; Acts 4:36-37; Acts 16:13-15). It’s because they were rich people who were taking advantage of the poor:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” (James 5:1-6)
“The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.”
Jesus told a chilling story of a rich person whose willful neglect of a beggar he saw everyday cost him eternally:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” (Luke 16:19-25)
I believe it would be inaccurate to intentionally read passages through a liberationist lens which aren’t about material liberation. Yet, how much more egregious to read the above passages through a lens of luxury, through which I come away saying, “What concern of mine are the poor?” Theologian Harold O.J. Brown, no fan whatsoever of liberation theology, was still able to acknowledge that the liberation theologians’ reminder for us to care about the poor provided a helpful “corrective to the smug self-sufficiency of bourgeoise Christianity.”
Is helping the poor the centerpiece of the gospel?
I’m convinced that to go so far as to make “God’s preferential option for the poor” the overriding lens for how we read Scripture is reckless. Even when the Bible is talking about how people use their finances, giving to the poor is only one of many obligations mentioned. Here are some additional directions we are given when it comes to finances:
“Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” (Prov. 3:9-10)
“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim. 5:8)
“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Luke 20:25)
We also find indicators in the Bible that making poverty alleviation a single-minded focus is a short-sighted goal:
“Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Tim. 6:9-10)
“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
If we’re honestly looking for the gospel’s centerpiece, then we need to return to passages like this one, which actually uses the language of “gospel” and “of first importance”:
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15:1-4)
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection has an immediate implication for everybody, whether materially oppressed or not:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-28)
“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
Are there also implications of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection which can lead to material liberation from oppression? Absolutely, both today and on into the afterlife. Jesus calls his followers to live each day as citizens of a kingdom in which one of the expectations is that we “give to the needy” (Matt. 6:2). But if you’ve read the rest of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see that’s one implication of many.
Liberation theology is part of an unfortunate pattern where it’s tempting to take some fruit of Christianity and make it the central point. Health-and-wealth peddlers of the prosperity gospel often take the material benefits of following Jesus and make them into the main point of faith. People who are grateful that elements of Christianity have influenced their country positively can mistakenly see their country’s well-being as the main point of their faith. People find themselves captivated by a political ideology, so they bring in a caricature of Christianity to give their ideology some spiritual legitimization. In the same way, liberation theology takes Marxist-style liberation as the point of Christianity.
So, is liberation theology a thing of the past?
However utopian it sounds in theory, Marxism has never turned out well when implemented nationwide. For a sobering first-person look at how Marxism devastated one country (and how the same ideas are being encouraged in the Western world), I highly encourage you to check out this article by Christian Ray Flores. Just because we know from Christianity that we ought to care about impoverished people does not mean we need to get hasty about jumping on whatever trendy bandwagon claims to help them. A good many well-intentioned would-be poverty alleviators have totaled their bandwagon and injured all on board by slamming into the wall of reality.
At the time, liberation theologians were incredibly optimistic about their Marxist-Christian synthesis. For example, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The synthesis of the Christian ‘God’ on high and the Marxist ‘God’ of the future is in the only God we can henceforth adore in spirit and in truth.” After so many Marxist failures in practice, such a quote looks almost like it could be sarcastic.
What is liberation theology? “The synthesis of the Christian ‘God’ on high and the Marxist ‘God’ of the future is in the only God we can henceforth adore in spirit and in truth.”
So has liberation theology basically been disproven?
Actually, it’s likely more alive than ever. Liberation theologians showed Christendom step-by-step how you can take one way that Christianity helps an oppressed group and make it the lens through which the entire religion is interpreted and steered. They paved the way for additional types of liberation theology which are popular today: India’s Dalit liberation theology, James Cone’s black liberation theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether’s feminist theology, Marcella Althaus-Reid’s queer theology. Each of these takes its liberation of an oppressed group as the first principle and then builds its theology around it.
Learning from recent versions of liberation theology
Whereas earlier liberation theologians were cynical toward comfortable church leaders interpreting the Bible in ways that benefit them, later liberation theologians became more cynical toward the Bible itself. Feminist theology, for example, actively applies a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in reading the Bible, accusing its authors of writing through a chauvinist perspective as willing beneficiaries of living in a male-dominated society. Similarly, queer theology reads the Bible through a lens that affirms LGBTQ sexuality, often going so far as to interpret biblical figures, including Jesus himself, as homosexual. According to one queer theology website, “We are queer, trans Christians creating the theology of our liberation.”
It’s interesting how Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation was followed up by Juan Segundo’s Liberation of Theology. The further we trace the logic of liberation theology, theology itself becomes liberated to such an extent that it detaches itself and flies miles away from “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3).
“The further we trace the logic of liberation theology, theology itself becomes liberated to such an extent that it detaches itself and flies miles away from ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.'”
This “faith that was once for all entrusted” to us is precious beyond measure. It’s these Scriptures passed down to us generation by generation that make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). It would be a tragedy to mistake a flower (helping hurting people) for its root (faith in our risen King) and so pluck it and lose the life of both.
 Juan L. Segundo, Liberation of Theology, translated by John Drury (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1976), 8.
 Gustavo Gutierrez, “The Process of Liberation,” in Gustavo Gutierez: Essential Writings, edited by James B. Nickoloff (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 190. Emphasis in the original.
 Juan L. Segundo, Liberation of Theology, translated by John Drury (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1976), 7.
 Harold O. J. Brown, “What Is Liberation Theology?” in Liberation Theology, edited by Ronald H. Nash (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 15.
 Anthony C. Thiselton, “An Age of Anxiety,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, edited by Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 625.