The Dangers of Liberation Theology

by Ray Hundley

Just a few months ago a leader of the Methodist Church of Bolivia was kidnapped by rightist forces who consider his support of Liberation Theology to be a Communist plot. What is Liberation Theology? Why do so many Latin American governments regard it as subversive? Why is it so popular in Latin America and black Africa? How does it influence the evangelical churches of Latin America? How should we respond to it?

One reason for the popularity of Liberation Theology is that for the first time Latin America has produced a theology nurtured in its own soil. Before, most theology in Latin America was simply North American or European systems translated into Spanish. Here is something Latin American theologians are working out; therefore many Latins consider it their own.

Another reason Liberation Theology caught on is that it combines the most important and emotion-packed elements of modern Latin American culture: Marxism, nationalism, opposition to the U.S., revolution, and an interest in the five central Latin American social problems–hunger, poverty, lack of education, disease, and political injustice. Here people suffer and die daily because of the miserable conditions in which they live. Malnutrition and sickness claim hundreds of thousands of children. Adults live in a pit of ignorance, vice, corruption, and exploitation. Liberation Theology speaks to this suffering, offering clear and forceful solutions.

Where Did Liberation Theology Come From?

Among Protestants, Liberation Theology was born within a group of theologians associated with the "Church and Society in Latin America" movement (ISAL in Spanish). Begun in 1962, ISAL determined to implement the social implications of the gospel for Latin America. Soon they began to believe that political revolution was the only answer to the ills; only a short step remained to the persuasion that revolution is the best way to express Christian love toward suffering neighbors. Later, believing that Marxism provided the only effective strategy for mass revolution, they concluded that God is using radical Marxist revolutionary movements to establish His kingdom of peace, justice, equality, and prosperity for Latin America. That belief is the essence of Liberation Theology in Latin America.

At the same time, a similar process of ferment and discussion took place among the area’s Roman Catholic theologians at the Episcopal Conference of Latin America in 1968. They produced a document that analyzed many glaring problems in terms of Marxist philosophy and then proclaimed some of the basic beliefs of Liberation Theology. Although the Catholic church has exerted considerable pressure since that time to suppress the liberationist movement, it is still strong and growing. The Pope’s attempts (*) at Puebla, Mexico, and later in Brazil to squelch the movement among priests and theologians have so far proved ineffective. Though Protestant theologians probably came up with the first primitive attempts at creating a theology of liberation, the Roman Catholics have now "taken the ball and run with it." It is now propagated in most major Protestant and Roman Catholic seminaries of Latin America.

What Does the Theology of Liberation Teach?

It is difficult to give a general picture that is really fair to the system’s proponents. It is a new movement, and its advocates are still formulating their positions. One must look at each liberationist individually to understand his role. Three of the most important are Gustovo Gutierrez, Emilio Castro, and Jose Miguez Bonino.

Gutierrez is probably the most famous. His book, A Theology of Liberation, published in Spanish in 1971, remains the classic expression available in English. A Catholic priest and theology professor in the Catholic University of Lima, Peru, Gutierrez was influenced by Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest who left the Church to join Communist guerrillas warring against the Colombian government. The Colombian army killed Torres in a mountain shoot-out, but his belief lives on in the writings of men like Gutierrez. He taught that the only path for concrete expression of Christian love for Latin America's oppressed lies in joining the Marxist revolution.

In his books Gutierrez argues for Marxism’s superiority over all other philosophies and systems, universal salvation (the belief that everyone will be saved), God’s presence in the modern revolutionary movement, and the need for the church to work toward securing justice and social well-being for the oppressed.

Uruguayan Emilio Castro directs the Commission of World Mission and Evangelization of the World Council of Churches. More strategist than theologian, Dr. Castro stresses the need for participation in what he regards as the inevitable revolution in Latin America. As a universalist, he sees recruitment of people for involvement in bettering social conditions to be the primary task of the church, not evangelism as traditional evangelists teach. God works through Marxist revolution to bring all men together in Jesus Christ, he claims.

Jose Miguez Bonino is one of the most widely published liberation theologians in the world today, especially in English. He has written more than twelve books and sixty articles on the subject. From Argentina, he began his ministry as a Methodist pastor and was elected to the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in 1975. Miguez believes that Marxism is the only scientific method to understand poverty and oppression. He also believes that Marxism offers the best way to express Christian love in modern society. He advocates violence for toppling repressive Latin American governments.

What Positive Results Has Liberation Theology Achieved?

From our evangelical perspective, the results of Liberation Theology have been almost totally destructive. But some indirect benefits to the church in Latin America have appeared.

First, Liberation Theology has caused many of us to recognize the faults in Latin American Christianity that triggered the movement. We must be sure our gospel presentation speaks to Latin American needs. Too many times missions groups took the gospel to Latin America clothed in the problems and concerns of Europe and North America.

The liberationist movement also helps us see the Americanisms introduced with the gospel into Latin Christianity. The system stresses the need to live out gospel truths rather than hold them mentally and debate with one another their intricate meanings.

Finally, Liberation Theology challenges us to face up to our Christian responsibility to minister to people's physical sufferings as well as their spiritual needs.

Why Is Liberation Theology Dangerous?

Liberation Teleology's greatest threat to Christianity is its tendency to allow the gospel of Christ to be swallowed up by Marxism. God is seen as the "hidden force" behind Marxism, and the New Testament is merely a collection of useful illustrations of Marxist truths.

Second, the liberationist movement revives the doctrine of universalism. Adherents ignore man’s spiritual needs and concentrate on bettering mankind’s physical condition. Universalism is heretical and undermines the biblical doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ alone.

Third, advocating violence to obtain social justice could result in a bloodbath. Millions of innocent people could be killed by uncontrolled violence sweeping through the continent.

Fourth, the acceptance of Liberation Theology will almost certainly spell destruction for the church. History shows that Marxism, happy for ecclesiastical support before a revolution, turns against the church afterward.

Fifth, if liberationism continues to spread among the Protestant denominations of Latin America, it will push them toward revolutionary social action and reduce them to mere social agencies and strategy centers for guerrilla warfare to the exclusion of evangelism for spiritual conversion to Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we must commit our lives to the propagation of the true gospel of liberation, that offers freedom from sin to every person who will put his trust in Christ. This is the only real hope for Latin America today.

* The editor of the Plains Baptist Challenger doubts that the Pope really tried to squelch the Liberation Theology movement when he was in Puebla, Mexico. First hand reports from reliable missionaries in Mexico seem to indicate otherwise. While some of his public statements may have seemed to indicate this, the end result of his visit had an opposite effect. The Roman Catholic Church and its pope has two faces and we had better not forget it.

We also doubt that the Liberation Theology movement has achieved any positive results whatsoever, even though the author of the above article mentions a few. We publish this excellent article in order that fundamental Bible believers might know what is going on in Latin America and other parts of the world. ~ ELB

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