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Liberation Theology

Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist Theologies, Bibliography

The broad definition of liberation theology stresses the interrelatedness of differing structures of oppression and domination. Liberation from oppressive structures necessarily involves political, economic, social, racial, ethnic, and sexual aspects. As a paradigm, liberation theology today places explicit emphasis on assessing different forms of human oppression and suffering, and liberation from them, as layers in a complicated process.

Liberation theology is one of the most significant currents in modern theology. Because of its multidisciplinarity and its emphasis on social, political, and ecclesial praxis, it has come to have importance far beyond academic theology or institutional churches. Liberation theology can be defined either narrowly or broadly. In the former sense, it is limited to Latin American liberation theology (teología de la liberación, teologia da libertação), born of a specifically Latin American context in the late 1960s. In the broader sense, liberation theology also includes other theological currents, most importantly black theology (mostly in the United States and South Africa), feminist theology, and variations of Asian and African liberation theologies. In the latter sense, it would be even more accurate to speak of theologies of liberation in the plural. Among different liberation theologians, this understanding of liberation theology as plural, heterogeneous, and global (with multifaceted local expressions) is common. There are also non-Christian theologies of liberation, even if the term sometimes is not fully accurate in all contexts. However, there has also been dialogue between Christian and Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu theologians of liberation. This article will concentrate on Christian liberation theologies in the broader, global meaning.

It is often wrongly assumed that liberation theology first appeared in Latin America and then spread to other continents and contexts. Some classical works on black theology (for example, James Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation, 1970) and feminist liberation theology (Rosemary Ruether's Liberation Theology, 1972) were published at about the same time as the first major works of Latin American liberation theology, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez's Teología de la liberación (1972). It is more accurate to say that the term liberation theology arose simultaneously in different contexts. The different theologies within the liberation theology movement have had some dialogue with each other, most importantly in the context of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), founded in 1976. Counted among "Third World theologies" are liberation theologies inside the First World, especially the United States. Liberation theologians have learned from each other through critical dialogue: for example, the critique of the meagerness of the analysis of racism and sexism and the emphasis on economic and class issues at the cost of cultural elements in Latin American liberation theology; or for a feminist theology from industrialized countries that has been slow to admit that white, educated, and affluent women are a small minority.

Each liberation theology, whether black, feminist, or Latin American, is characterized by its distinctive viewpoint, but what they all share is a commitment to social justice. To some extent, all liberation theologies are situated in contemporary political struggles and movements (such as different human rights movements against Latin American dictatorships, the U.S. civil rights movement, and feminist movements in different countries and regions). Liberation theologians usually refer to this as praxis, not only as their aim or objective, but also as their point of departure.

Liberation theology stems from the conviction that giving priority to the poor and the oppressed in theology and in the church, and the concrete defense of their rights in different societies, is a central, if not the most central, element of the Christian faith. Christian liberation theologies aim their critical analysis not only at society but at the church and theology as well in order to judge to what extent they are accomplices in maintaining structures of domination.

Liberation theologies understand theology as critical reflection on the presence of the divine within different liberation struggles. This reflection is accomplished with the help of both sacred scriptures and tenets of the faith tradition, as well as other disciplines, in order to understand the root causes (and ways of eradication) of phenomena such as poverty and racism.

The concept contextual theology has been used interchangeably with liberation theology. It has been claimed that because all human activity, including the study of theology, is born in a particular context, all human activity is contextual. However, contextual theology has been used mainly to designate the changing character of Christianity as it took root outside the Western world. In this sense, contextual theology would be a wider term than liberation theology, Latin American liberation theology, for example, being just one form of contextualized theology from a particular colonialized and Christianized part of the world. In the sense that the term contextual theology refers to a local political, social, and religious context—for example, Ghana or the Philippines—it is a narrower term than liberation theology, which stresses a global struggle against different systems of domination.

No single article can do justice to the contemporary richness of different liberation theologies, such as Dalit theology (India), gay and lesbian liberation theologies, minjung theology (Korea), indigenous peoples' theologies and spiritualities of liberation all over the globe, and the Palestinian theology of liberation, among others. In the remainder of this essay, to the discussion will be limited to Latin American liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology.

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