Book Review: Beyond Liberation Theology

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Ivan Petrella, author of The Future of Liberation Theology (London: SCM Press, 2006) and a proponent of liberation theology’s emphasis on historical projects, has written a new book in which he offers a reinterpretation of liberation theology for the next generation of liberation theologians.  It is the third volume in the Reclaiming Liberation Theology series from SCM Press, and while his work is tightly researched and well-written, he might not have pushed liberation theology as hard as he could have.  In an era of continuing human suffering, Petrella could have been more forceful in his indictment of wanton waste and conspicuous consumption.  However, even with that criticism, this book is likely to be a solid contribution to the continuing literature on liberation theology.

Petrella begins the first chapter with several examples from significant theologians and philosophers (Barth, Bataille, Heidegger, Weber, and Foucalt), depicting the origin of knowledge, the mechanization of food, and, generally, human suffering.  He concludes, “These thinkers come from a context of affluence; the suffering they speak to is real and painful, yet rarely life threatening” (p. 8).  Petrella then offers a contrapuntal image of suffering from Vita, “a zone of social abandonment” in Southern Brazil.  Vita “carries the objectivization of human beings to the extreme” (p. 9) and Petrella uses it to illustrate the role of idolatry in the process of objectification, and he writes, “The institutions that govern the global order are the incarnation of the idolatrous logic at Vita’s root” (p. 10).  He concludes the chapter that the suffering in the world functions as a social abandonment zone on a massive scale. 
In the chapter two, Petrella situates liberation theology in the United States, outlining the problems and possibilities of “Poverty in the Midst of Plenty.”  He begins with the two sides of Miami, one rich and one poor.  These two sides provide him with a point of departure for an analysis of poverty measurements in the United States.  He looks at geographical poverty (some states are poorer than others), racial poverty (e.g. African-Americans and Hispanic/Latino(as) make up a disproportionally high percentage of Americans living in poverty), and gender (women fare worse than men).  Petrella concludes the chapter with the “Primacy of Class,” suggesting a class-based affirmative action might be more liberative than gender- or race-based affirmative action.  However, he concludes with a practical and sobering note, “Class-based affirmative action falls outside the realm of what is possible within U. S. politics” (p. 77). 
The following chapter explores different failures within liberation theology.  Petrella explores the role of perception in understanding poverty, and he insightfully draws on the misinforming role that the Mercator projection world maps have played in shaping many people’s perception of the world because it suggests Greenland is similar in size to Africa (Africa is actually almost three times as large).  The role of perception, or misperception, is central to the four criticisms he levies against contemporary liberation theologians.  He argues that the first criticism, monochromatism, effects every brand of liberation theology because they too often limit “the pool of resources they can draw upon to actually engage their tasks” (p. 85).  His second criticism is amnesia, in which liberation theologians “forget the problems they seek to tackle and the goals they want to pursue” (p. 93).  Gigantism, Petrella’s fourth criticism, means many liberation theologians view the problems of oppression as insurmountable and they “see capitalism everywhere and as responsible for everything” (p. 104).  His final critique, on liberation theologians’ naïveté, is that even the most accomplished theologians can be susceptible to falling into the three previous critiques at the expense of a wider prospective.  When this happens, Petrella believes a theologian can move “from an incisive analysis of suffering to mere rhetoric” (p. 107).  His analysis is critical but not personal, and the chapter highlights potential problems that anyone engaging with liberation discourse must guard against. 
The final chapter tries to take the themes of the first three chapters and use the ideas in them to move beyond liberation theology.  The primary method Petrella uses for moving beyond tradition liberation theology is comparison.  He begins by comparing liberation theology and outrage, and in the section “On Liberation Theology and the Two Thirds World,” he compares liberation theology with contextual theologies, social sciences, and identity.  Each comparison draws out the central theme of the chapter: all liberation theologies point out that “theology has traditionally been done from a standpoint of privilege” (p. 134).  He writes, “Recovering the history of common struggles is the basis for envisioning a future where struggles for emancipation not only bring identities together, but forge new ones as well” (p. 146).  
Petrella concludes his book with a “Coda” and an Afterward.  Coda is a musical term, meaning an independent passage that is introduced after the completion of the essential parts of a movement, so as to form a more definite and satisfactory conclusion.  In the Coda, he looks ahead to the future of liberation theology and suggests the possible solution for liberation theologians might be to dissolve itself as an independent field and reform “undercover as an economist or legal theorist and work from within to transform the discipline’s presuppositions” (p. 148).  His Coda does provide a definite ending and, perhaps, his most innovative suggestion.  However, it does not provide a satisfactory explication of the new ideas.  It is less conclusive than it is a point of departure for future research.  In the Afterward, he looks briefly at the cover art, offering his interpretation of Karina and Marcelo Chechik’s The Promised Land and Petrella suggests the ideas in this book respond to Dwight N. Hopkins’ call for a new approach in his article “Theological Education in the New Global Reality” (p. 151). 
Beyond Liberation Theology is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in the contemporary state of liberation theology, and it could serve as a useful textbook in a college or seminary course on the subject.  Petrella avoids overly technical theological jargon and provides sources and more detailed explanations in his copious footnotes.  I would recommend this book as a useful contribution to modern theology. 

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