Baptists & Liberation Theology

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I subscribe to Baptist New Global, a daily email with news from the Baptist universe. This morning, the top story was Liberation theologian prompts Baptist minister’s ‘Franciscan conversion’ to serve the poor. As a person who has been reading about liberation theology for the past decade, I had to click on the story. After reading it, the story seemed to ask for a comment, but there was no ‘comments’ section. Thus, I present this blog entry as my response.
The article states, “Inspired by St. Francis, Jeremy Everett wants to empower those who live in poverty — and defeat hunger in the process.” People can find inspiration in numerous places. When something inspires someone to do good work, the source of inspiration extends beyond its initial audience and intent. For example, the historical St. Francis and the mythical St. Francis inspire good, so he extends beyond his initial time, audience, and sense of calling. When Mr. Everett experiences God speaking a specific calling through St. Francis, he changes the world for the better.
Mr. Everett sounds like an intriguing individual. The article is primarily a brief biography with some news about the Texas Hunger Initiative. It outlines some powerful efforts in the Christian world, organizations that highlight being salt and light in the world. It is about people doing good in the world, making tangible changes in other people’ lives. It shows how living out the gospel is possible and is quite impressive.
My only criticism, which, if I am being honest, is unnecessary. The article misses the nuances of liberation theology and the depth and breadth of liberation theologians. Terry Lee Goodrich labels Gustavo Gutiérrez as “the founder of liberation theology.” Apologies for the pedantic tone of the follow: Ms. Goodrich is incorrect. As a movement, liberation theology evolved over a period of years, if not decades. Born in early post-colonial Latin America, given a voice and theological basis by Vatican II (1962-65), and articulated by many people, Latin American liberation theology is a branch of political theology. It has various forms in North America (e.g. LGBT liberation theology, feminist theology, and Islamic liberation theology), and it developed concurrently with black liberation theology (cf. James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts).
Gutiérrez is one of the most important voices in early liberation theology, but he stands alongside a rich tradition that includes Segundo, Sobrino, Ellacuría, both Boff brothers, and many, many others. One of the key phrases of Latin American liberation theology is the “preferential option for the poor.” Gutiérrez made an undeniably significant contribution to Latin American liberation theology with his book Teología de la liberacíon (1971). Yet, the phrase, “preferential option for the poor” predated Gutiérrez’s work by three years. Pedro Arupe, the superior general of the Jesuits, first used it in 1968.
Calling Gutiérrez the founder of liberation theology oversimplifies his role. It would be like calling George Washington the founder of the United States. Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others made significant contributions. Without the others writing the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Washington might not have had a country.
The article says that Mr. Everett saw a biopic about St. Francis and experienced a conversion experience. This is wonderful! Oh, that everyone could have a life changing experience like Mr. Everett. But… people can. He watched Brother Son, Sister Moon. Reading the English translation of Gutiérrez’s book A Theology of Liberation might yield similar results for some people. Or, Segundo’s The Liberation of Theology, Brown’s Liberation Theology, or any of the 200+ titles on liberation theology from Orbis Books.
Liberation theology is a powerful expression of living out the gospel in today’s world. In some ways, it is dated, and some of the earlier titles are firmly situated in an East/West divided Cold War world. The compassion and empathy for people who live in poverty is, however, timeless. More people need conversion experiences. There is much injustice in the world. God needs people to have Damascus road experiences, look around, and seek ways to live out their faith. Because of the freedom in Baptist polity, Christians in the Baptist tradition are well-suited to respond to God’s voice, as articulated by Latin American Catholic priests.

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