A little more than six years into his papacy, Pope Francis seems to be speaking loudest about economic injustice, alternatively denouncing “trickle-down” economics and calling over and over again for a “poor church for the poor.” Pope Francis’ supporters and opponents alike often blame this particular attitude on one source: liberation theology.
Broadly speaking, liberation theology is a social and political movement within the Church that attempts to interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ through the lived experiences of oppressed people. While that doesn’t necessarily seem like it should be a cause of contention in the church, it has, in the 60 or so years that it has been practiced and thought, caused a tremendous amount of controversy.
Liberation theology has its origins in Latin America. This began to creep into the Church through the late part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. It made its headway in the area of overt poverty surrounded by seas of wealth. Anywhere that people could see the widespread plight of poverty against the richness of wealth-this philosophy took hold. By the mid-1950s as socio-economic development pushed the peasant workers and farming populations into desperate poverty. With the economic unrest came political unrest, and military dictators took over many governments in the name of national security.
The problem here is that they tried to use the military to put down a philosophical revolt. The military was simply outnumbered. There were many more poor people than rich, and you could not flood the prisons with people whose only crime would be that of lack of wealth. While these social and political transformations were taking place, the church as a whole was also moving toward a more socially oriented mission. Laypeople, religious, and charismatic members of the hierarchy committed themselves to work with the poor. The final piece of the puzzle, and the one that caused most of the controversy, was that some strains of liberation theology used Marxist economic theory, applying it to the gospel. In this interpretation, Jesus becomes the “liberator” and always is firmly on the side of the poorest of the poor.
In 1968, with the arrest of Chicago Seven for demonstrating in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, many priests and protestant ministers would draw the parallel to what these people did and what Jesus did with the money changers in the Temple. The Chicago Seven was not Jesus and Jesus did not want to usher in his Kingdom of God here on earth. Jesus’ Kingdom of God is for the hereafter, not the here and now. If the Kingdom was of this world it would have been only for the life of Jesus. Because Jesus lives forever and is eternal- so does his Kingdom exist eternally. A Social Liberation Gospel that pictures Jesus as a Social Justice Warrior actually misses the point why Jesus came in the first place.
Because of this preference for the poor, liberation theology often calls for a reorganization of social, governmental, and economic structures so that the poor are not merely cared for, but brought into the fullness of human flourishing. The seminal work on liberation theology was written by Dominican Father Gustavo Gutiérrez in 1971. A Theology of Liberation gave the movement its name and emphasized the church’s mission to those on the periphery of society.
Look at these quotes of Jesus’ actual teachings on this subject.
Matthew 5: 3: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:10: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:19-20: Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 6: 33: But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
We will all do much better if we followed Matthew 6:33 rather than what Marx said, “Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. Religion is the opium of the people.”
The real and true Social Liberation Gospel was taught by Jesus Christ through the Church. We should serve, love, and obey Him now and forever. Do not be misled by this world and trade it for the next. Remember, Matthew 6: 33: But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.