Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, twenty years ago, many critics have been quick to sign liberation theology's death certificate. Most of them did so because they understood it to be an apology for bygone Soviet-style socialism. It seems, though, that this death certificate has been issued prematurely.
It is true that liberation theologians – some more than others – used Marxist categories for socio-economic analysis and for a moral critique of capitalism's evils. However, the core of liberation theology has never been Marxism.
It is rather the compassionate identification with the poor and their struggle for justice, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus himself, which is at its heart. Instead of concentrating on social analysis, which was seen as a methodological tool, from the outset liberation theology placed greater emphasis on the crucial role of God's people committed praxis – or, in other words, the Christian communities' action inspired by faith and informed by theological reflection.
Liberation theology is spiritually grounded in – and gets its motivation from – the life changing encounter with Christ as liberator and with our neighbours in need. Their suffering is not a result of fate but of systemic injustices and oppression, which can be overcome by transformative action.
If we look at our reality today, we are reminded that poverty has by no means been overcome in the world. On the contrary, the recent international financial crisis, produced by unrestrained capitalist forces governed by greed and private and corporate interests, has increased the number of the poor – or rather, the impoverished – in the world by hundreds of millions.
Liberation theology emerged in the late 1960s in Latin America. The ground had been prepared in the 1950s by Christian base community movements aiming for social, political and economic reforms in society, and for the active participation of laypeople in pastoral activities within the church.
Latin America being predominantly a Catholic continent, the new theological approach was widely linked with pastoral and theological developments within the Roman Catholic Church, although it was from the very beginning an ecumenical endeavour. The very term "liberation theology" was proposed almost simultaneously by the Roman Catholic priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, from Peru, and the Presbyterian theologian Rubem Alves, from Brazil.
It is not surprising that in the seventies and eighties liberation theology had a strong influence on the ecumenical movement, including the World Council of Churches (WCC). The relevancy of its actions in supporting struggles for human rights under military dictatorships in Latin America, in developing effective methods of overcoming illiteracy (as did the exiled Brazilian pedagogue and WCC education adviser Paulo Freire), and in combating racism, mainly in Southern Africa, has been widely recognised.
As a contextual approach, aimed at critically reflecting on the praxis of God's people, liberation theology was never intended to become a static, dogmatic theoretical construction. Its intention was not to highlight a neglected theological theme, but rather to propose a new way of doing theology. It naturally underwent changes over the decades. At the outset it focused on the living conditions of the poor. Later, it incorporated other issues, like indigenous peoples, racism, gender inequalities and ecology.
Nowadays, liberation theology deals with the interpretation of cultures and with anthropological questions, for example the temptation of power. The goal of striving towards a more just society where there is "room for all" persists, yet the way of achieving it has shifted towards civil society action.
The influence of liberation theology goes way beyond the realm of the churches. Its contribution towards overcoming military dictatorships in Latin America and apartheid in Southern Africa has already been hinted at. Today it helps shape Latin American political efforts towards a model of democracy which overcomes poverty and social injustices. Several Latin American presidents – Lula da Silva in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Ortega in Nicaragua and Lugo in Paraguay - have all in different ways had close contact with Christian base communities and liberation theologians.
But, above all, liberation theology continues to be very much alive and well within civil society movements and Christian base communities.
(c) Walter Altmann is president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil and moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee.