Theology of Liberation is alive and well
PEOPLE HAVE very different memories of the Theology of Liberation. Some remember it as a communist plot to pervert Catholic social teaching. Others recall it more fondly, in the context of marching in the streets of Manila during martial law for land reform and the Kingdom of God. The Theology of Liberation held the two goals together: In achieving one, we achieved the other. Some remember that the theology was severely criticized in Rome. Others honor it as the spirituality of the lately beatified Archbishop Oscar Romero. Most people seem to think the theology is dead and buried.
It is not dead. It lives and inspires poor people and friends of the poor “to act as Christians in a World of Destitution” (“Introducing Liberation Theology,” Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, 1987). Such a theology helps the poor see their struggle against injustice as God’s own work. They feel Jesus demonstrating alongside them. They know God wants them to resist injustice.
Our small nongovernment organization, Urban Poor Associates (UPA), has realized for years that poor people’s faith is the only sure gateway they have to understanding the overall meaning of their lives; they don’t have philosophy, science, or a humanitarian tradition to look to. If we want to motivate our poor people in their deepest hearts, our message must be a religious one. If we wish to motivate people to struggle for their human and God-given rights and work in solidarity with one another in a democratic, nonviolent manner, we must approach them speaking the language of faith.
At UPA we looked for a spirituality that would help us achieve these goals, and we met once again the Theology of Liberation. It wasn’t the first meeting. In the 1970s and 1980s, along with all the other Christian social activists, we had fallen in love with the Theology of Liberation and the “preferential option for the poor” of Medellin (1978) and Puebla (1980). We learned that in the Kingdom of God there must be land reform, in-city relocation and wages that support a family in a decent way. The Kingdom of God is not for heavenly beings. It is for the poor, the merciful and compassionate, and those who hunger for justice. It is for the poor and their friends caught in worlds of oppression. It is for those poor people who have no other solution than to organize and resist, knowing “so foul a sky clears not without a storm” (Shakespeare’s “King John”).
The struggle of the poor for justice has become a secular one in the Philippines, though one of the parties, the poor, cannot breathe deeply in the secular air, and needs a Christian ambience, including Christian motivation, and faith’s purification of tactics and goals. Outside this religious world our poor are like fish out of water. Their deepest potentials are not involved. Since the return of democracy in 1986, a religious dimension seems to have faded from all social action work, or at least from most of it. The Theology of Liberation seeks to restore the soul of faith to our work for the poor and oppressed.
How would the Theology of Liberation work out in practice? Let us imagine a meeting between community organizers and men and women leaders from the relocation camps around Manila. Conditions are terrible in these camps despite constant efforts over the last 15-20 years by NGOs and the people themselves to improve the situation. Lately, we have noticed that some leaders may be losing their drive and hope. New problems, such as narcotics and gang violence, appear. When the leaders and organizers get together, they might call for a reflection on the situation and they might take the Gospel story of Jesus in the Garden of Olives as their starting point. The hope is that the leaders will recommit themselves forthrightly to the struggle, as Jesus recommitted himself in the Garden to the Father’s plan of salvation.
The reflection leader would remind the people that Jesus feared the pain of the cross, and he must have wondered if all his effort was worthwhile—his closest friends would soon desert him, for example. He had grown to love life and, like all of us, he was sad to see it end.
The poor leaders would discuss Jesus’ pain. They would appreciate the power of will that drove him on in spite of problems. They would appreciate his love for them and his selflessness in fighting his way back to full acceptance of God’s will. They would admire Jesus and hopefully resolve to imitate him and resume their struggle in the relocation centers.
This is how it then might end. The organizers and leaders might decide on a march to the National Housing Authority offices in Quezon City Circle and demand to see the general manager. The NHA is in charge of the relocation centers. If he wasn’t available, as they expected would happen, they would sit down in the lobby and nearby offices and tell the NHA staff they would wait. The children would begin playing, the toddlers would look for places to pee. It would get noisy and maybe smelly, but it would be hard for the guards to do much about the children. After an hour or two the NHA staff would have had enough and they’d call the GM and tell him he had to come and solve the people’s problems or they were going home.
The people would believe that Jesus walked with them to the NHA and sat with them and enjoyed the children as they all did. They would believe he sat with them when they eventually met with the GM.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).
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