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BOOK REVIEW: "Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians" by Miguel A. De La Torre

Westminster John Knox Press
"Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians" by Miguel A. De La Torre
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BOOK REVIEW: Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians by Miguel A. De La Torre (Westminster John Knox Press) 2013

With the Roman Catholic Church’s Pope Francis being labeled a “Marxist” by right-wing critics for his astute observations on capitalism and international finance, and for calling for a “poor church for the poor,” there has been a notable interest in the Catholic idea of “liberation theology,” which encouraged Catholics to act in the here and now and fight against the exploitation of the poor, injustice, poverty and wealth inequality.

Sounds a lot like what we are hearing from people ranging from Capital in the Twenty-First Century author Thomas Piketty to Norman, Okla. native, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. People are still very concerned abotu these issues. But only recently has liberation theology re-entered the national and international conversation.

And from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, liberation theology was embraced by more progressive Catholics, particularly in Latin America, where Catholic-majority nations were often run by dictators who had the blessing of the Vatican.

And while Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI both battled liberation theology, Pope Francis, from Argentina, has embraced it, recently lifting the suspension, after 29 years, of a liberation theology icon named the Rev. Miguel D’Escoto Brockman. This Nicaraguan priest, who became a Sandinista and went on to hold a government job, was suspended of his priestly duties under Pope John Paul II because he had violated those duties.

Now 81, D’Escoto will be free to serve as a priest once again, something he sought to do before he died.

It seems as though Pope Francis truly understands liberation theology in a way that did not go over well with his predecessors.

So, with this renewed interest in liberation theology, I decided to check out Miguel De La Torre’s Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians, the latest in the Armchair Theologians series.

Reading on my Kindle, De La Torre starts off by explaining how shocked he is that so many people have a distorted view of what liberation theology really is, equating it with Marxism, and thereby linking it to rigid communism.

But that’s not the case. Liberation theology, in its modern form, was actually founded by a Dominican priest from Peru named the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, who, in a 1971 book, called for a “preferential option for the poor.”

In fact, he writes that “liberation theology is a faith that raises consciousness” and “strives to raise critical awareness concerning the unholy causes of oppression.”

Explains De La Torre: “Liberation theology is so dangerous because it disrupts a religious and political worldview that supports social structures that privilege the few at the expense of the many. Ignorance of the causes of oppression is crucial to maintaining this worldview.”

The status quo (think Somoza or Pinochet) worries that the oppressed, through a religious perspective, will see that their situation on earth is being controlled by the privileged few. They know it too and must suppress any actions seeking to better their station in life.

And so over the years, misinformation about what liberation theology really is spread around the world. And De La Torre explains that his motive for writing this book was to “combat the misunderstanding around liberation theology.”

Liberation theology, he notes, differs from, liberative theology, in that liberation theology is rooted in the Christian faith, while the latter can be of other faiths or simply humanist.

And while Gutierrez and D’Escoto embraced liberation theology, as early as the 16th century, a Dominican friar named Bartolome de Las Casas, was a forerunner of liberation theology and thought. After seeing the way the Spanish conquistadores treated the natives in the New World (referring to them as “soulless, human-looking, talking animals”), he suddenly realized that conversion to Christianity was not so much about “some theological proposition,” but was more about “actions taken.”

De Las Casas understood social justice and that Jesus Christ was one who embraced the “least of these” on Earth, those who suffered “hunger, thirst, nakedness, alienation, infirmity and incarceration” as written in the Book of Matthew.

Continuing through history, De La Torre takes us to the early 20th century, and the rise of Latin America’s influence in the world, alongside the rise of American power and “gunboat diplomacy” under President Theodore Roosevelt.

So, while the campesinos slaved in the hot sun, U.S. corporations like United Fruit Company benefited from the “full force of the U.S. military’ against any insurgency or rebellion caused by those at banana plantations throughout South America, Central America and the Caribbean. AS a result, military dictatorships and “banana republics” became increasingly common in that part of the world, where many lived under slave-like conditions, all with the tacit approval of the U.S. government and the American business community.

And it was the combination of the U.S. government and American business interests who only were interested in the bottom line. Or, as American Chamber of Commerce spokesman Fred Sherwood said in 1981 of his involvement in the mid-1950’s, CIA-orchestrated, covert overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, that the people of that country were “dumb, damn savages” and that the use of death squads against the “commies” was perfectly acceptable.

This attitude may have lessened in the intervening years, but it still exists, particularly when it comes to our meddling in the affairs of poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as well as in places in Latin America, where leftist movements are gaining strength against the neoliberal backdrop of savage capitalism.

The author takes the reader into other areas of Christianity where liberation theology is found - black, Hispanic, Asian-American, etc. - and also in different religious traditions as well (Muslim, Hindu, etc.), to show how truly "international" liberation theology really is.

This book is a needed update on the subject of liberation theology, particularly in a time when right-wingers like Glenn Beck are besmirching the movement, which seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance, particularly as the popular Pope Francis injects new life into it. 

Is this a perfect book (I read the Kindle edition)? Not entirely. But it is a fairly broad overview for any armchair theologians (or the merely curious) out there.

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