Liberation theology and the White House, again

Will President Barack Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his fiery sermons make an appearance in the 2012 elections, just as they had for a bit in 2008? Last week, the New York Times reported that a billionaire Republican businessman had approved a plan that would drag Wright back into the limelight in an attempt to color Obama as extreme and "un-American". The plan was leaked and then scrapped, but Mark Oppenheimer wonders if the reemergence of Wright's sermons, which espouse a particular brand of liberation theology, might give way to a more mature conversation. From the New York Times:

In 2008, conservatives gleefully attacked the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Obama’s home pastor in Chicago, for his provocative remarks in sermons, taken out of context, including his assertion that 9/11 was evidence that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” They persuaded many that Mr. Wright was wielding something called “liberation theology” —  and that Candidate Obama had to answer for it.


“How important a strain is liberation theology in the black church?” a reporter asked Mr. Obama at an April 2008 news conference. “And why did you choose to attend a church that preached that?”

To his credit, Mr. Obama began his reply to that reporter by saying, “I’m not a theologian.” But others had no such modesty. In March 2008, after tapes of Mr. Wright’s fiery sermons surfaced, Jonah Goldberg wrote in his blog for National Review, “I keep meaning to go to school on black liberation theology, but I just haven’t had the time. The similarities between certain strains of the German Christian Movement and Jeremiah Wright’s shtick certainly seem significant.” The German Christians were a movement of pro-Nazi Protestants in prewar Germany.

Also that month, Glenn Beck, then a Fox News host, called black liberation theology “the theological tradition based in hate, intolerance and racial black nationalism.”

Last week, four years since the last liberation-theology scare, it was reported that Joe Ricketts, a billionaire business executive, was considering a plan to finance an anti-Obama advertising campaign, focused on Mr. Wright and those same video clips. The campaign prospectus was incendiary and demeaning — it recommended that the backers “include an extremely literate, conservative African-American in our spokesman group” — and Mitt Romney quickly said he rejected any such campaign on his behalf.

While Mr. Wright has said his ministry is inspired by James H. Cone, the author of “Black Theology & Black Power,” the founding text of black liberation theology, Dr. Cone’s 1969 book is far subtler than any one sermon, no matter the preacher. Contrary to the simplifications of the past four years, liberation theology, which has become hugely influential, teaches not hate, nor anti-Americanism, but a renewed focus on the poor and the suffering, as embodied by Jesus.

“Liberation theology, at its most simple, is the Sunday school Jesus who healed the sick or took care of the poor people,” said Shannon Craigo-Snell, a theologian at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “It’s what your Sunday school teacher taught you if you grew up in a church. It isn’t something people should be afraid of, unless they’re invested in poor people not getting fed or sick people not getting healed.”

Liberation theology has a strong history in the Catholic Church. I remember being introduced to the concept as an undergrad at St. Anselm College, where many of my peers were captivated by the social justice themes that are the backbone of lib theo. Even those students who seemed to despise the church were compelled by the efforts of so many Catholics to stand with the poor, fight oppression, and take on systems that exploit the weak and marginalized. I must have watched the 1989 film Romero, which tells the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero opposing the tyrannical government in El Salvador, in at least four classes during my time in college. I also remember learning how the movement has been stifled in recent decades by the church, citing close ties to Marxism and certain unpalatable elements of the left-wing.

If liberation theology makes people uncomfortable, that's because it's supposed to. It is meant to challenge us, to knock us a bit off kilter and ask us to see the world through a Gospel lens. Will liberation theology make another appearance during this election cycle? If so, how will Americans react? Does liberation theology have a place in the American religious marketplace? 

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Tom Maher
6 years 9 months ago
"I also remember learning how the movement has been stifled in recent decades by the church, citing close ties to Marxism and certain unpalatable elements of the left-wing."  Oh you think?

Historically all "liberation" movements had their origin from Marxism ideology which for a century and a half and to this day is a dominant economic and politcal idea and influence even though in practice Marxism  failed very badly worldwide.  The people under Marxist government themselve rejected it politically and economically. And  Marxism was extreemly hostile to religion and God.  THe Marxist state promises salvation bud fails to deliiver.  Economically and politically Marxism was a failure and it has no spritual componenet at all.  But false "liberation" histories glorofying Marxist idea and concepts  still widely exist in academica expecially in the theology.   Beware.  History has not been kind to Marxist concept and "lliberaltion theology" fails just as badly as any Maxrist implementation.  It turns out Marxist central class warfare concepts are not a successful building block in organizing society in any useful way that helps people.  Liberation theology a utopian ideal that does nto work barrows very heavily from Marxism and produces the same bad results politcally, economically and sprirtually. As is said "By their fruits you will know them".  Liberation theology and it Marxist foundations fail to degrade rather than improve the human condition. 
David Pasinski
6 years 9 months ago
 I lived in Latin America in the era of JPII letter that took the wind out of liberation theology - the Pope who had refused for three weeks to meet with Bishop Romero and lectured him on his approach. May they reconcile in heaven.. but liberation theology was partially gutted through the discomfort of those who can't admit to their consciousness that the Bible has 2000 references to the poor... and how many to the Pope?
6 years 9 months ago
Now I am really confused. Way back AT 3:56 P.M.when "all liberation movements had their origin" from Marxist ideology, I was wondering which cell Washington and Jefferson belonged to. Then there was Moses and the Red Sea Liberation movement. Where did he get his Marx? So here I am back at 9:55, and am I supposed to celebrate that the right-wing military dictatorships killed the Marxist liberation theologians? (Ah, those peasants, what sharp exegetes they turned out to be.) Or am I to take it that the right wing military dictatorships and liberation theologians mutually wiped each other out, and it's safe for American compnanies to pick bananas again?

The level of historical insight in this threat leaves me breathless.
Rick Malloy
6 years 9 months ago

"Thus, a theology of liberation correctly understood constitutes an invitation to theologians to deepen certain essential biblical themes with a concern for the grave and urgent questions which the contemporary yearning for liberation, and those movements which more or less faithfully echo it, pose for the Church. We dare not forget for a single instant the situations of acute distress which issue such a dramatic call to theologians" (IV.1)
Given at Rome, at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on August 6, 1984, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

There are plenty of liberation theologians who build their theological analysis on the simple fact that the world is divided between the few rich and the vast majority of those in poverty.  They don't use Marx.  Read Jon Sobrino, S.J.
Tim Huegerich
6 years 9 months ago
Here's a critique of liberation theology by someone that America readers may find credible, James Alison. I found it very enlightening about my own experience. (He doesn't link to it on his website, so I guess there's a chance he doesn't stang behind it anymore, though.)

The title is: "On Recieving an Inheritance: Confessions of a Former Marginaholic," and here's an excerpt:

"The marginal can appear demanding, burdensome, reproachful. It can make us feel that relaxing into being loved is something selfish, something that detracts from our being the sacrificial givers we ought to be. We can become anxious: we can fear that having it good, being loved and contented, will make us insensitive to the marginal other, invulnerable to the victim’s demands. If I discover myself as loved, and start to relax into that regard, if I come to realise what Paul meant when he spoke of our being known by God, of our being at the periphery of God’s regard, will I not then in my complacency lose my anguished sensitivity to the other? Will my ears not become dull to the cry of the oppressed, and my eyes blind to the sufferings of the victim, and will I thus not miss out on salvation?

"So there is a sort of trap. I tell myself that I can only be attentive to those on the margin if I myself am discontented and marginalised. Even, however, as I act in this way, I dimly sense that I am only acting out my own drama; there may be no real ‘other’ in my ken. And when I fully experience receiving an inheritance, the trap vanishes; God’s loving regard enables me to like and to be liked. This enables us to be curious, unthreatening, experimental, creative in our relationships with others. It gives us a trust that we will receive all that we need; it holds us open to the irruptions of the other. It is a gift when the other irrupts in my life and causes me to become someone different. They tell a story embracing elements of being human that I couldn’t imagine. And only if I understand the other as gift can the marginal other really be other for me—really be part of my being upbuilt by God. Otherwise they are drawn into my defences of a controlled way of being, into my appropriation of goodness. They are being used simply as a sounding board for my own tale of tragic heroism."
Tom Maher
6 years 9 months ago
Too much exotic theology here theology here.  "Liberation Theology" is bad economics becasue it relies on Marxist definitions of economic problems, Marxist anaylsis and Marxist economic solutions.  Marxist socialism the most pure form of socialism possible giving the  governemnt absolute control over all aspects the economy, production, distribution, employment and resoursce allocation free of capital, free of markets, free of private enterprise failed massively over twenty years ago with the economic and politcal collapse of the Soviet Eempire.  All nations in the Soviet system rejected Marxist socialism and revereted to a free market and captialist economic system.    

But Marxist socialism is its own religion with devotees fixated in their beleif that governemnt and the collectives have devine power to transform the world independent of empiricle results such as the collapse of the Soviet empire.  Unfortuantely Catholics often are extremely uneducated to the strengts, power and benefit of a free market economy imagine devine transforming economic power in Marxist socialism which ihas been proven not capable of.  

Why create bad theology from bad economics unless you have a superticious belief in a failed economics?  But Marxist socialism has numerous true beleivers despite its overwhelming failures.
Tom Maher
6 years 9 months ago
Rick Malloy, .S. J. # 18 

Thanks for the refernnces some of which I read just now. 

I especially benefited from your reference the other day to Cardinal Ratzinger,  Prefect,  August 6, 1984 Instuctions on the dangers of Marxist influence on "Lberation Theology".  Being a technical person I studied these instructions to get their meaning.  I was surprised and amazed  how closely they agreed my own original comments strongly linking "Liberation Theology" to Marxism. Ratzinger confirmed my reasoning thar class warfare is not found in the Gospel and moreover can not be derived from the Gospel because as a techniuca l matter  contradicts basic Christian messages.

Separately Marxism proved itself to be an evil during its violent reign of terror.  It is so odd that people in Marxist countries rejected Marxism across eastern Europe yet some Latin American thinkers still advocate  Marxism in Liberation Theology as politcal , economic and religious solution.  

Even your Wahington Post article of April 30, 2008  by Tony Compolo says "There will be those who will claim that Liberation Theology is nothing more than a baptized version of a Marxist revolutionary ideology. There is good reason for this because some prominent Latin American theologians have integrated Marxism with a theology of liberation and offered it up as justification for the violent overthrow of what they considered to be evil dictatorships." 

The Marxist influence that Cardinal Ratzinger warned about is  in Liberation Theology much more than its advocates want to admit.
Rick Fueyo
6 years 9 months ago
It is ironic to read about Liberation Theology while listening to this week's "This American Life" about a Guatemalan massacre and the investigation and aftermath
Rick Malloy
6 years 9 months ago
Michael O'Loughlin asks, "Does Liberation theology have a place in the in the American religious marketplace?"  I hope so.  Liberation theology is a theological method that asks, what or who is oppressing people and what are the people of God called to do in order to do justice, i.e., right relationships, in situations characterized by injustice?  God's freeing of the slaves in Egypt and Jesus call in Matt 25 to serve those in need along with Mary's Magnificat in Luke are just three of hundreds of biblical references undergirding liberation theology's approach.  The method also calls on all to view political, social and economic realities from the vantage point of the poor.  What one thinks about "Occupy Wall Street" depends to a large degree on how far one is situated from the comfortable perch of the top 1% who reap so much of the income and wealth of "our" society.

My book goes more deeply into these issues and utilizes Lonergan's insights to guide liberation theologies' ways of discerning ecclesiological practices.  I can't say liberation theology enjoys wide acceptance in the USA.  Maybe because liberation theologies question many of the social structures in our global village that so benefit those of us who live in the USA.  Prof. Kreig's review in America in 2006 stated:
"A Faith That Frees is a challenging book. It introduces readers to sociological data, concepts in cultural anthropology and theological notions concerning Christian praxis, conversion and the church’s mission. Anecdotes from Malloy’s pastoral ministries in the inner city and in Latin America illuminate this rich material. Further, the text moves between social-science analyses of specific situations in North America and theological statements about the ways in which Catholics should act in these situations in order to witness to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. This frequent back-and-forth movement requires readers’ concentration and also a readiness to pause and reflect on our actual ways of expressing the Christian faith. Given this emphasis on Catholic practices in the “first world,” A Faith That Frees contributes to the growing literature in liberation theology for North America.
Robert A. Krieg is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Ind." (America Dec 2006)
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 9 months ago
I, too, was captivated by the upside-down-ness of liberation theology, especially as it was discovered, defined and lived by Archbishop Romero. 

As usual, there are at least 2 sides to the story, with criticisms and counter-criticisms.  I'm siding with the martyrs.
David Cruz-Uribe
6 years 9 months ago
"Historically all "liberation" movements had their origin from Marxism ideology"

Really?  Try telling that to Bakunin, or the anti-Communist left in many countries.  Really, I am no apologist for the left, but such broad stroke distortions really need to be challenged.  The left for over 150 years has been a very messy place indeed, with a variety of competing ideologies, from Marxism (in several incompatible flavors), anarchism, social democracy, the eco-left, etc.    
Tom Maher
6 years 9 months ago
 David Crus-Uribe. SFO # 7
Oh come on. Your being argumentative.  Broad stroke distortion?  Marxism in the 20th century was everywhere.and will influence world culture long into the future in the same way the Roman Empire influences the western thinking even today. centuries after Rome's  collapse.  Marxism is in the air we breath and the water we drink and has even co-opted our theology with "liberation theology" and all over out education.  Let's not kid ourselves.    When we use class warfare as we now do tht is not basic Chrisitatnity but  Marxism co-opting Christianity to deliver a politcal message.  Christians should know better after the fall of the Soviet Empire more than twenty years ago.  Marxism debases Christianity.  History is not all about classes and class warfare.
Rick Fueyo
6 years 9 months ago
Liberation theology was no doubt rejected in strong part due to its association with communism. I've always presumed, not unreasonably, that John Paul II’s experience of the brutality of communism made him understandably predisposed to denigrate any movement that was associated with an ideology that expressed itself so brutally.
Then there are the theological objections, namely whether the poor and disenfranchised must seek their reward in the next life or this one.
All that aside, I find it rather absurd to address the brutality of communism in the context of Central America. The only two communist states in the region I am ever aware of, Cuba, which has a somewhat brutal history, although nothing approaching that of Stalinism are some of the more conventional brutal communist dictatorships, and the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, his legacy in this regard was fairly minimal.  The Maoist Sendero Luminoso movement in Peru might come closest to matching the political brutality we customarily associate with European and Asian communism.
But none comes remotely close to the widescale exterminations regularly and routinely pursued by the right-wing governments in Guatemala, El Salvador, and the Somoza government in Nicaragua (not to mention the  
No doubt that Marxism Communism has a sad history of failing the human condition, and also of political brutality. But to suggest that the poor of those regions, and those who sought to serve them in the name of Jesus, should focus on the distributional failings of communism as an economic system, when they were being murdered regularly and systematically by the existing free-market oligopolistic system, seems bizarre
Carlos Orozco
6 years 9 months ago
Liberation theology is still alive? I sure hope not. In Latin America, right-wing military dictatorships and Marxist liberation theologians taught us how Catholics could kill each other for a "better world".
Rick Malloy
6 years 9 months ago
Still think we don't need liberation theology in the first world?  Read today's NY Times.
"Where would this stop? Do we let people pay to get premium police and fire protection? Do we pursue an idea raised by Judge Richard Posner to auction off the right to adopt children?
We already have tremendous inequality in our country: The richest 1 percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But we do still have a measure of equality before the law — equality in our basic dignity — and that should be priceless.
“Market fundamentalism,” to use the term popularized by George Soros, is gaining ground. It’s related to the glorification of wealth over the last couple of decades, to the celebration of opulence, and to the emergence of a new aristocracy. Market fundamentalists assume a measure of social Darwinism and accept that laissez-faire is always optimal.
That’s the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s."  (Kristof, "Markets and Morals," NYTimes Op Ed May 31 2012 )
Tom Maher
6 years 9 months ago
Rick Molloy, S.J.  # 12

The August 6, 1984 instuction authored by Cardinal Ratzinger who is now our currrent Pope purpose as defined in the fourth paragraph of the inntroduction is the following:
The present Instruction has a much more limited and precise purpose: to draw the attention of pastors, theologians, and all the faithful to the deviations, and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought.

This instruction is all about the rejection of Marxism and assert the Gospel as the source of Christian truth.  Marxism in no way and no how iis Christian truth.  Cardinal Ratzinger elaboratley rejects Marxism thithroughout this text. 
Rick Fueyo
6 years 9 months ago
““Market fundamentalism,” to use the term popularized by George Soros, is gaining ground.”
I like this phrase, and have a rather different way of capturing what I believe Mr. Soros is trying to address. Mine is an admittedly cheeky riff off of Christ’s admonition that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
I see some of the same thought processes entering into discussion on the role the market. As John Paul II so eloquently put it in Centissimus Annus, the free market is a wonderful development and has the best economic system today, measured by the only important criteria, improving the condition of all humanity.
But when market fundamentalists describe the role of the market, they tend to view it as a Mammon God and of itself, not as a mechanism for improving the human condition. Even when it is demonstrated functional market hurts humanity, they still believe that the market must be obeyed or even worshiped. That leads to my cheeky formulation of the market was made for man, not man for the market. But all too often, their arguments made that we must serve the market.
I tend to question the sincerity of those arguments, as they tend to be advanced by those who believe that the market has functioned in an almost divinely ordained way, which just so happens to benefit them personally. It's another version of the prosperity gospel. But I still feel that the market was made for man, not man for the market
Rick Malloy
6 years 9 months ago
To Tom Maher #14 and #17.

The vast majority of Liberation Theologians are inspired much more by the Bible than by Marx.

And those who decry Liberation theology for not ending poverty, etc. never answer why capitalism is not judged as deficient for failing to end poverty.  Unbridled corporate Capitalism, called that "woeful system" by Paul VI, actually is the cause of much injustice and poverty.  John Paul II taught we needed to move beyond both marxism and capitalism.

Check out Chomsky and Korten


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