Have you ever wondered why there is so much poverty on earth or why the poor are often oppressed by the rich? Is there a solution to ending poverty, and does it involve reorganizing the entire government system? That’s where the ideas of liberation theology come in.
What Is Liberation Theology? Liberation theology comes from the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America and interprets the gospel only through the eyes and experience of the poor and oppressed. Liberation theologians also believe that society and politics must also change and be restructured so that the rights of the poor can be defended and poverty eradicated from the earth.
In this blog, we will look at what liberation theology is, how it started, different viewpoints, what the Bible says about taking care of the poor, and why it matters knowing about liberation theology from a Christian perspective.
Definition of Liberation Theology
Liberation theology claims that the gospel of Jesus Christ can only be interpreted through the poor. It is a theological reflection of how to set oppressed people free from their current state of suffering, either from unfortunate circumstances or government leaders.
Liberation theology was formed in response to the poverty and mistreatments of low-come people in Latin America.
It has since spread into many major parts of the world and accepts overtaking and changing political structures to improve the lives of the impoverished.
Similar to the idea from Robinhood, where he takes from the rich to give to the poor, liberation theology emphasizes the redistribution of wealth to the poor by reorganizing country leadership.
When liberation theology was first formed, it was created because the Latin Bishops wanted to improve the living of the poor.
Today many other forms of liberation theology address other groups of oppressed people besides those stuck in poverty.
Some of these other forms have been developed and influenced by other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, which focus on enlightenment, good works, and earning salvation.
Because of this, liberation theology has caused a lot of controversies in the recent history of the Church.
Origins of Liberation Theology
In the mid-1950s, many farmers and common workers were pushed into extreme poverty as Latin America went through social and economic development when the government was overtaken by military dictators. This oppressed the poor even further.
When the local Roman Catholic church saw the extreme measures of poverty around them, they began to come up with a theory that would help liberate the poor from their current state of poverty.
They became insistent that ministry should involve fighting against the wealthy and that the government needed to be reorganized so that the poor would no longer be oppressed.
This led many laymen in the Catholic church to start “base communities”. They believed it was their responsibility to take care of the poor and improve the lives of the destitute.
They met regularly to read the scriptures together, reflect on their faith, and provide for their community’s most basic needs.
Often these base communities would supply food, water, and even shelter if necessary for those who were suffering from oppression. However, the local Roman Catholic priests resented these communities because they bypassed the necessary steps to see the priest.
The liberation theology movement became more prominent in the early 1970s when a group of Latin Bishops met together at a conference in Colombia to issue a document that affirmed the rights of the poor.
Since then, liberation theology has moved from Latin America into South, Central, and North America, as well as Haiti and South Africa.
Though not altogether a new concept, liberation theology has become more widely accepted in several different circles concerning not only the poor, but other groups of people who are considered to be oppressed, often leading to activism, protesting, and developing strategies to bring about a political and societal change.
What Scriptures Liberation Theology is Based On
Liberation theologists base their theology upon several different passages from scripture.
However, these scriptures are often taken out of context and the full meaning of the verse is not fully reflected upon to create an accurate theology that reflects God’s heart.
One example is from those who believe that the Church should be involved in social unrest and activism. They support this by using what Jesus said in the scripture about bringing a sword instead of peace to the earth.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.Matthew 10:34 ESV
However, in the context of this passage, Jesus is teaching about the cost of discipleship and what it means to follow Him.
He promises that people will not believe He is the Son of God and because His kingdom is not of this world, people will hate Him and all those who believe in His name.
This is why He says that He brought a sword and not peace because family members will turn against each other.
Those who follow Him must be willing to face these hardships because He must be first and foremost in our lives above all else.
This passage does not prove that Jesus wants violence upon the earth. Nowhere in the Bible do we see Jesus or any of the disciples or apostles command the Church to fight against the government and rise against political leaders. In fact, we see the opposite.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.Romans 13:1-2 ESV
Instead, we are told to pray for our government leaders and submit to their authority as long as they do not tell us to do something that goes against God and what He has commanded us to do.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV
However, if in the case of the government telling you to approve or take action in participating in oppressing the poor or the voiceless, then you would not want to submit to their authority because that would be against what God commands us to do, which is to care for the poor and those who cannot help themselves.
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.Proverbs 31:8-9 ESV
Liberation theologists also use this Bible verse to point out that God will judge all of those who oppress the poor, widow, and orphans.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts.Malachi 3:5 ESV
God does indeed warn us about the coming judgment of those who put down people in society and warns us in taking part in oppressing the poor and destitute. As Christians, this is something we agree with.
However, some liberation theologians have tried to use this verse to take matters into their own hands for judging people. The Bible tells us that God alone can only judge men for their actions.
This verse thus does not instruct us to take matters into our own hands but rather to leave the judging to God.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.Romans 12:14-21 ESV
Liberation theologians also believe that Jesus is the liberator of the poor and is only on the side of the impoverished, despising the rich.
Their reasoning for this is that during His time on earth, He went to the poor and healed the sick, and got angry at the Pharisees who were rich. They also point out that He proclaimed:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.Luke 4:18-19 NKJV
Jesus did indeed come to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who were oppressed.
But He was not focused on the materially poor and oppressed. Rather, Jesus went to those who were oppressed spiritually by demons, sin, and darkness, and went to the spiritually poor who cannot save themselves—which is every human.
Similar to what liberation theologists might believe, the Jews all thought that Jesus had come to set them free from Rome, to lift them out of their current state of oppression. But
He came to establish His kingdom that is not of this world and proclaim the good news of the gospel.
The good news that Jesus came to share is for all people–both small and great, young and old, rich and poor. There is no distinction to Him for who shall receive this message, for all are sinners and are deserving of death.
Everyone needs to be saved from spiritual poverty and death.
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:20-23 ESV
The beauty of Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18-19 is that Jesus is proclaiming that He came so that all humans might live and experience freedom in Him.
He came to liberate everyone from their sin and bring them the hope of eternal life with Him. That is something to celebrate and be excited about!
Viewpoints of Liberation Theology
Some see liberation theology as heretical and non-biblical, while others believe that liberation theology reflects bible teachings.
Over the past 70 years, liberation theology has come to be interpreted in several different ways. Today, liberation theology not only focuses on the poor but looks at several groups and issues around the world that need deliverance and liberation.
In this section, we will look at some people who advocated for liberation theology and other views that oppose it.
Advocates of Liberation Theology
A man by the name of Paulo Freire, who can be considered as one of the founders of liberation theology, developed a theory around the 1970s that the poor and oppressed should go through a process of reflection to gain new perspectives of life that may lead to liberating action.
In other words, Paulo believed that if poor people were to reflect on their state of life, they may have a desire to change and thus take action to set themselves from their poverty.
He also believed that people were poor because they were in a poor situation. If those poor situations were changed, then they would no longer live in poverty.
He believed one of the main reasons for this was because poor people couldn’t read, and if they couldn’t read, then they couldn’t gain knowledge.
If they could not gain knowledge, then they would remain in their state of poverty.
Freire also observed that those who were poor and oppressed had very negative thoughts about themselves, which he believed were from those who were oppressing them—at the time, government dictators.
Because of this, those who lived in impoverished situations did not feel confident or capable of taking care of themselves or changing their situation.
Paulo Freire was heavily influenced by the principles of Marxism, which claims reflection is an important part of examining your existence on earth.
He developed a cycle of theology that practiced reflection, judging circumstances, and taking action based upon what he learned through this process.
This cycle of practicing liberation theology became deeply rooted in the Roman Catholic church and influenced them in how they viewed liberating the poor. They believed that after seeing the poverty around them, they were to judge what was being done about it and then take action.
This led to liberation theology being formed to stop the poor from being treated badly. As the Latin American Catholic church saw the oppression coming from their country’s dictatorship, they came up with a strategy to reorder the political structures of the government, as well as the social and economical aspects of society.
Another liberation theologian is Gustavo Gutierrez. Similar to Freire, he saw reflection as a critical part of liberation.
He also was influenced by Marxism, which believes that common people are ignorant of their surroundings and must come to a level of awareness so that they are not controlled by those who employ them.
Because of this worldview, Gutierrez believed the poor must be aware of themselves and their situation so that they can come out from under their oppression and help rebuild society the way it is supposed to be.
Both Freire and Gutierrez saw education as the way forward for those who were oppressed by society so that they could become aware of who they are and the way they are supposed to live. Through further knowledge, they believed they could be liberated from their present state of poverty.
Oppositions to Liberation Theology
Some people oppose liberation theology because it gets its roots in Marxism.
One of the ideas that Marxism supports is socialism, which claims that everyone should have a part of everything in society.
For example, if an entrepreneur wants to start a business and hire employees, a socialist government would tell them that they cannot make money for themselves.
Instead, that money would go towards whoever the government decides it should go to—and in the liberation theology case, the poor and oppressed.
However, the problem with this theory is that the government does not always consider the needs of the person who started the business.
They could have a large family that they need to provide for and take care of, debts to pay off, and house payments to make.
But instead of helping the poor get better, the government is going to be making a lot more people poorer as they have no control over their finances.
Another issue some people have is Paulo Freire’s theory of reflection. This makes it seem like there is something that poor people have not learned that the rest of society has learned and that people need to reach enlightenment in their minds about how to not live in poverty.
However, poverty is not always a state that people can avoid living in. There are world disasters and life happens. We cannot assume that people are poor because they are ignorant of how to do life. Many other factors play into this.
Other ideas that come from Marxism are changing political and social structures.
Liberation theologists believe that the government, economic, and social structures of society need to be reorganized so that the poor are both cared for and lifted in society.
However, no matter if we can bring transformation to the government there are also going to be problems of poverty in the world. Because we live in a sinful world, we can never fully get rid of poverty.
This should make us look forward to the day when Jesus returns and sets up His eternal kingdom forever where both the government and money issues will be done with forever for He will reign as our King for all eternity.
What Does the Bible Say About Caring for the Poor?
We as Christians are not to oppress the poor as all human beings are created in the image of God.
Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.Genesis 1:26-27 ESV
Because all human beings are made in the image of God, they are to be treated and cared for with dignity and respect. This includes both the poor and the rich.
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors Him.Proverbs 14:31 ESV
God has given many of us gifts and resources and money to share with the people around us. As followers of Jesus, we are to be generous givers knowing that all things come from the Father and nothing is ours to hold onto.
We see this in the Old Testament where God commands the Israelites to leave food for the poor among them so that they would be taken care of.
This shows that God does want the poor to be taken care of and that we are to be obedient in actively caring for others.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.Leviticus 19:9-10 ESV
God also lets us know through His Word that there will be times of trouble and poverty in this world. And those things will remain in that state until Jesus comes back to make all things right.
In the meantime, God also shows us that when it is in our power to do so, we are to help those in need and share what we have with those who have little to none.
For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’Deuteronomy 15:11 ESV
How We as Christians Are to View Liberation Theology: Why It Matters
You may be wondering, why does it matter to learn about liberation theology? What do I do with all of this as a follower of Jesus Christ?
We must be careful when allowing different theology to shape the way we think and live. Unlike liberation theologists, we should always go back to scripture and read it in the context for which it was written.
We as Christians are supposed to care for people, but the Bible does not necessarily give us steps in how we are supposed to care for one another.
Liberation theology focuses on using political and social structures as the answer, however, neither Jesus nor the Bible say that politics were the answer.
While it would be wonderful to have strong Christian believers in our government and around the world, we need to be more focused on how can we share the love of Christ with those around us than we are with changing political systems.
We need to take care of the poor, but we cannot overcome the political nature of the world we live in. Trying to change political and social institutions will never get to the root of the problem that liberation theology is trying to fix.
As Christians, we are to desire justice and mercy, just as God desires both to be present in our world today.
We are to stand up for the poor, the voiceless, and the oppressed, but we are not called to overthrow governments or overtake institutions. Instead, we can pray that our government will turn to God and be established upon His truth.
Prayer is such a powerful tool for bringing about spiritual change. If you want to see something happen, go to God in prayer, who is the only one who can bring radical transformation.
We should be praying for our government and the political systems of the world. Let the Holy Spirit guide you in making an eternal impact by sharing your faith with those who are spiritually in need before you.
We are also to have compassion for the poor and destitute and ask God what He wants us to do about it.
Just as Jesus came in compassion to set free all those who are spiritually oppressed, we must ask God to give us that same compassion so that others can be set free.
Helping the poor and oppressed should be an act of love because we are motivated by the love of Jesus Christ to love and care for the people around us. This is living out the greatest commandment.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”Mark 12:28-31 ESV
As Christians, we love God by loving people so that they can experience the love of Jesus. Has God put it on your heart to minister to widows or orphans?
Or has He called you to help lift the poor from their oppression by starting a business that creates jobs, empowers people to provide for themselves, and brings spiritual, social, and economic change?
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.James 1:27 ESV
We are to treat everyone with an equal amount of respect and dignity, for all are created in the image of God and we as Christians are meant to reflect Christ to the world.
We do this by being compelled by the love of Christ to take care of people who are currently suffering, but we also bring them the hope of the gospel by which only Jesus Christ can save them out of their spiritual poorness.
It is important to recognize that only Jesus can save people from spiritual poverty. Liberation theologists focus more on helping people out of poverty, but they do not always give them the gospel.
We cannot expect physical change unless we first address the spiritual change that needs to happen.
Even though we may help people to get back on their feet by giving generously, providing for their basic needs, or inviting them over for a meal, ultimately they need Jesus.
Who are you going to share Jesus with today?