Liberation Theology is Alive and Well

Liberation theology is alive and well in Belem, Brazil. Where? Did you say Davos, Switzerland, where 2,500 economic movers and shakers recently concluded their annual meeting of World Economic Forum at a cost of a quarter million dollars apiece? (Pricey vacation in these troubled times.) No, I said Belem, Brazil, where the World Social Forum, the antidote to Davos, gathered over 100,000 social activists and academics for 1,500 workshops and presentations in late January.

Get out your map: Belem is in the north of Brazil, in the state of Para, part of the Amazon region which occupies a space four times the size of Germany, with Greece tossed in for good measure. More than two thousand indigenous people came for the Forum, some travelling a week on the Amazon.

Apparently, CNN does not do mosquito nets or endangered rainforests, preferring the picturesque ski runs of Davos for winter holidays. So, news on this remarkable gathering was scarce. You read it first here.

Bodies Don’t Lie

The religious action was at the World Forum on Theology and Liberation, an international group that provides “an ecumenical space, dialogical and plural, embracing differences.” It convenes every two years just prior to the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005; Nairobi, Kenya in 2007) so that progressive religious people can contribute to the global conversation. This year more than 600 theologians, religious activists, and colleagues from all over the world met to discuss “Water, Earth, Theology for Another Possible World.” While we did not solve the major problems of ecocide, we did bring the wisdom of our respective traditions and the will of our theo-political constituencies to bear. Most important, we learned a lot that graduate programs do not teach.

The theological meeting and the Social Forum were enlivened and enriched by the presence of indigenous people from dozens of countries. Each day began with a ritual and plenary input. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff offered a new theological paradigm, given the ecological crisis made vivid in the ailing Amazon region. Such grand plans are hard to imagine without leaving aside the particularities that shape real lives, but the effort is useful insofar as it demonstrates the enormity of the task and the paucity of current theological resources to do the job.

Womanist theologian Emilie Townes provided ethical and spiritual insights on the fate of the earth, citing Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as a prototype of eco-disasters and the inadequate human responses to them. South African theologian Steve DeGruchy made it all even more concrete in his theological discourse on human bodily wastes. He argued that how communities dispose of their excrement demonstrates the widening gaps between rich (with sewers) and poor (without), between those who are attended to and those who attend to others’ most basic needs. The audience got the point.

Eco-theological dimensions of embodiment were the third focal point. Korean American theologian Chung Hyun Kyung called ecofeminist liberation theology, beginning with indigenous voices, a way to cooperate with divine creativity. She urged a theological epistemology of speaking the unspeakable.

I was next. Arguing that “bodies don’t lie,” I urged liberationists to deal concretely with tough issues lest we fall into macro abstractions in our zeal for change. I urged us to look where we don’t want to look—at women making reproductive decisions, at queer people living under oppression, at people with disabilities whose needs ought to set the community standards. Until and unless we tackle these matters of daily life that the Vatican and others would have us postpone, we will not be in any position to take on ecological and economic matters with any trustworthiness or integrity among ourselves, much less abroad.

Theology Happens

This was not an academic conference with a tidy program and neat results. Like the World Social Forum, the real work of the meeting went on in workshops, over coffee, in strategy sessions and caucuses every rainy afternoon in a rather ad hoc way. The unmet need for translation was sometimes a barrier, but in general people found one another and theologizing happened. Most of us were housed in simple accommodations an hour’s ride from the meeting venue, so we had plenty of time on buses and at meals to get acquainted.

By sheer chance, I had the privilege of living with the folks from Amerindia, “a network of Catholics in the Americas with ecumenical spirit, open to interfaith dialogue and cooperation with other institutions.” These theologians, activists, pastoral and base community leaders from Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and more were typical of the people who attended the theological event. They stayed on for the Social Forum—better ambassadors from the world of religion than any Catholic Church officials I can imagine.

Such meetings always include exposure to the local reality—lest liberation theology be done in a vacuum. This was no exception. My group visited a family-run recycling project where printer cartridges are collected for reuse and old newspapers are turned into art supply paper by hand. We went to the local garbage dump and met with people who make their living gathering the plastic, glass, and other recyclables to resell. There we faced a conundrum of ecology and development: if we live with less and reuse more, how will these people now at the very margins live at all? It is like the sweatshop problem: if you work in a garbage dump you aspire to a job in a sweatshop the way privileged children hope to go to college. What happens when the sweatshops close? No wonder we need divine inspiration to think about these matters. Divine intervention might be more appropriate. At least we have liberation theology. It’s no substitute, but at least it is something more than the fundamentalist Bible-thumping that is so common.

We finished up in a small community where women grow medicinal plants—ironic since the big pharmaceutical companies have all but ravaged the Amazon in their quest for plants that make medicines like Ben-Gay. These women are learning and teaching their children how to cultivate plants that will soothe and heal. I noted that their chapel was dedicated to Saint Ann, the mother of Mary, with plenty of statues of the Blessed Virgin and nary a sign of Jesus. Maybe there is something to Chung Hyun Kyung’s ideas about female imagery, ideas that stress their life-giving, not death-dealing, ways.

Nothing happens in Brazil without music, so there was plenty of that every day at the Forum. Politicians are popular so we even had a few of those. Amazon Senator Maria Silva, a collaborator with the late Chico Mendes (murdered in 1988 by ranchers who opposed his efforts to organize rubber tappers), spoke convincingly of the need for sustainable development and the protection of a biodiverse Amazon. She was the first rubber tapper elected to the Brazilian senate, and served as Minister for the Environment from 2003-2008.

Hearing her touch on liberation theology provided a ray of hope that what we are about might just be useful. She was a reminder of Sister Dorothy Stang, SND, an American-born nun who spent thirty years in Brazil until she was murdered in 2005 for her stalwart defense of poor people and their land. Her image and spirit infused the gathering.

Theology Without a License

The final word came from the African feminist theologian Mercy Oduyoye, who summed up the event in a lyrical, literate, and liberating letter to her nine-year-old granddaughter that deserves wide dissemination. In the letter she tells the child that we had come together to explore diversity and sustainability, migration, and climate change, all from fully embodied perspectives. Those formerly on the margins must take center stage with women, indigenous people, and those with disabilities leading the way. We don’t need a license to do theology, she counsels the youngster, only courage.

The closing ceremony brought her words alive in chanting, drumming, and dancing led by indigenous people from around the world. As we blessed the directions and bowed to the powers of creation, I was struck by how far liberation theology has come. From its origins in Latin America in the 1970s to the global movement it is now, liberation theology has grown through a balkanized period when each region had its own agenda to the beginnings of a common agenda set by the needs of the world—not by the particularities of any faith tradition. The predominantly Roman Catholic roots have spread to other Christian denominations, and even to Judaism and Islam. Now we are coming to understand and appreciate the deep echoes in indigenous approaches that pre-date liberation theology by centuries.

It is a good thing we have such resources now, because the ecological crisis cannot be ignored. From the failing “lungs of the planet,” as the Amazon region is known, it is clear that Earth is on life support. Theology can offer one more way for people to connect, collaborate, and change. It is not the final answer, but liberation theology presents as helpful a set of questions as have come out of the world’s religions in some time.