Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Whatever happened to Liberation Theology?

Up to 1994 many Christian groups in South Africa were in the forefront of the struggle against apartheid. Some took an interest in Liberation Theology and used some of the ideas of Liberation Theology as a spur to action in the struggle against apartheid.

But since 1994 these very same Christian bodies seem to have lost their way. There seems to be a lack of cohesive vision, and I’ve sometimes wondered whether we actually need a common enemy to give it to us. Is it easier to unite around a common enemy than a common Lord?

I was reminded of this when I read a blog post in which Mike’s Bursell muses about: Liberation theology — challenging

I’ve just been reading Gorringe, who cites Segundo talking about the bottom line commitment for liberation theology is the option for the poor. I think the thing I’m trying to come to terms with is that although I absolutely accept the enormous inequalities – unchristian inequalities – that riddle our society, and the impact that has on the poorest in society, I’m not sure that I’m ready to take on board what seems to be the central tenet of liberation theology: that our first and foremost task must always be the reconstituting of society in such a way as to alleviate – and remove – economic poverty.

And that in turn reminded me of what a friend of mine, Shirley Davies, used to say back in the 1960s — that when South Africa solved the problem of the black and the white, it would come face to face with the real problem: the problem of the haves and the have-nots.

And that has in fact happened, as can be seen, for example, in the Abahlali baseMjondolo movement, and the harassing of the homeless by the police and government officials. Of 1500 homeless people and refugees arrested recently at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg only 15 were eventually charged with being illegal immigrants. As in the bad old days of pass raids, most of those arrested were not allowed to fetch their documents to show that they were in the country legally.

I’ve written about liberation theology before, in Christianity – North and South, and Orthodoxy and liberation theology, so I will try not to repeat too much of what I have said before here.

In 1994 we had our first democratic and nonracial elections, and it was a vast improvement on what went before. We have free and democratic political institutions and a start was made on the dismantling of apartheid.

But though there was a lot of political rhetoric about the poor, and jobs, and things like that, very little was actually done. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which was supposed to deal with some of these problems was abandoned within a year. Instead there was “Black Economic Empowerment” (BEE), which might more accurately be described as Black Elite Enrichment. It was a preferential option for the rich. My wife worked for a BEE company for a while, and met many people, both in the company and those it did business with, whose sole motivation appeared to be greed. They didn’t just want to be rich, they wanted to be inordinately and excessively rich. And in part that is because we live in a society that espouses and accepts those values. This is not unique to South Africa. But it is something to think about when we talk of “moral regeneration”.

Before 1994 a lot of money flowed in to South Africa to NGOs, both faith-based and secular, that were involved in trying to improve the lot of the poor. After 1994 such funding went to the government. That might have been a good thing, if the government had followed through on the RDP, but it didn’t. It abandoned the RDP.

Back in the 1970s some Christian groups in Zululand were anxious to do something about community development. They brought in a community development expert, Milton Rosner, who told them that they were dreaming — nothing smaller than a government could do community development. But since the government was more interested in destroying communities than developing them, then if the churches wanted to do something they needed to pool their resources. “We must work ecumenically and not denominationally” became the mantra (overlooking a better slogan, that might have sounded a warning, “Small is beautiful”).

So the Anglican Church’s Zululand Diocesan Health and Welfare Association (known as HelWel or Zisizeni for short) became the Zululand Churches Health and Welfare Association. But because everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility it became administratively top-heavy, and consumed more and more resources to achieve less and less development.

Better to remember that “small is beautiful”, and we should work denominationally rather than ecumenically. Could an ecumenical bureaucracy provide shelter for 1500 homeless people as the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg has done? I very much doubt it.

All this has little to do with the often convoluted expressions of liberation theology, which are often even more abstract and difficult to understand than other forms of theology. But one of the things that most exponents of liberation theology did manage to convey was that practice (or praxis, as they called it) was more important than the obscure theories.

So when the Christian groups in South Africa lost their way and became rudderless and directionless at the end of apartheid, perhaps one of the things they could have done (and could still do) would be to pick up the RDP, which the government dropped, and run with it. Have a look at the ANC’s document on Reconstruction and development — there’s a lot of good stuff in it — and see what can be applied.

But it would be important to learn from the mistakes of the past. We should work denominationally, not ecumenically. Ecumenical bodies, like councils of churches, should play a coordinating role, rather than being involved in micromanagement of projects. That should be done by their member churches. Bureaucratic centralisation should be avoided at all costs.

But perhaps even more important is what one of the earliest advocates of liberation theology, Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, advocated. We must conscientizar the masses. Later that was translated into English as “conscientise”, along with a lot of other obscure jargon.

But the conscientising and moral regeneration must begin at home. Before we can achieve anything we must convince our church members that greed is not a Christian value.

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5 thoughts on “Whatever happened to Liberation Theology?

  1. The Scylding on said:

    Which makes me think – back in the day, to some at least, being anti-apartheid, or to run with liberation theology, was a sexy cause. Now it is no longer sexy, and so they’ve lost interest. Others, confused since time has shown that even the ANC has its quota of charlatans and thugs, prefer to not think of the whole issue. It boils down to what has been called old fashioned “liberal” racism – you see, the other chap is not an object of oppression or hatred, but he is treated like a family pet. When one of the family pets growl – it becomes to difficult to handle, and is rather abandoned. I sometimes think that many of these people, deep down in their establishment consciences, do not equate the downtrodden (in this case, black SA’cans) as fellow human beings, with as many saints and sinners as any other group. So with time, when some are shown to be sinners, self-enriching and all that, it is easier to look away than confront the caricatures so well entrenched in their own minds.

    For a non-SA illustration, it used to be said of the US, that in the south, the white fellow did not mind the black one being next to him, as long as he is not equal to him. In the north, they did not mind the black fellow being equal to them, as long as he is not next to them.

    True compassion, true love for your neighbour, true self-sacrifice is a rare thing, and happens most often where it cannot be observed by the outside world. I know of people in SA that have walked many extra miles helping their neighbour of another culture/race/status, quitely and serenely. Rarely are those same people to be found in the halls of academia, governmentor in the limelight.

  2. Malcolm on said:

    A most enlightening read – as a former Marxist (these days quite simply Marxian) I was enthralled with Liberation Theology when it came to prominence in the 1970’s, shortly after my return to the Christian fold.

    When I returned to the Christian fold, after many wilderness years, having split (earlier) from an evangelical church which was to say the least asocial, I felt that the biggest dilemma I faced, with a foot in both Marxian and Christian camps, was as follows:

    For Marx, with the changing of society man would finally be able to become fully human whereas, from a Christian perspectve the imperative is to change Man.

    Cliched as it may sound, I now firmly believe that we must first change the man if we are ever to attain a better world. Conscientising is for me a key word, as Christian communities we should be looking for a non-conforming consciousness, e.g. rather than looking at how I can progress up the financial ladder, it may be necessary to take upon ourselves a sacrificial role. What am I prepared to give up in order that others may attain a better standard of living etc. What risks am I prepared to take? The church has never been called upon to be popular, with Christ (who was there where there was a real need) as our exemplar we must be prepared to challenge unjust structures, and all greed-laden self centred values, otherwise we call out His name in vain.

  3. Sally on said:

    a”But the conscientising and moral regeneration must begin at home. Before we can achieve anything we must convince our church members that greed is not a Christian value”


  4. Steve Hayes on said:


    Romans 12:1-2 has long been one of my favourite passages from the Bible: be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

    And that transformation is part of the conscientisation. Interesting that it doesn’t say “renew your mind” — the renewed mind is a given, it is the new mind in Christ, which is ours if we belong to Christ. But it is sometimes difficult to “put off the old man” and to allow that new mind to transform us.

    I was once discussing education with a group of church leaders, and the Roman Catholics stressed the difference between information and formation. They said their theological training was not just aimed at imparting information, but at formation. Yet we need to go beyond that to transformation.

  5. Steve Hayes on said:


    Others, confused since time has shown that even the ANC has its quota of charlatans and thugs, prefer to not think of the whole issue

    Back in the day (on 28 June 1966, to be precise, I copied a passage from Conrad’s Under western eyes into my diary, because I found it significant.

    “In real revolution, not a simple dynastic change or reform of institutions — in a real revolution the best character do not come to the front. A violent
    revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all
    the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the
    chiefs and the leaders. You will notice that I have left out the
    mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane and devoted natures; the unselfish and intelligent may begin a movement, but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of the revolution. They are its victims. The victims of disgust, of disenchantment, often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured, that is the definition of revolutionary success. There have been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes.”

    And I wrote, after copying it:

    And I think that will be the same in the South African revolution. The great men: Albert Luthuli, Bram Fischer, J.H. Hofmeyer, Alan Paton, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Peter Brown and many others,
    the champions of freedom and justice, they, like Moses, will not
    live to enter the promised land. And when the promised land is
    entered at last, the promises will be betrayed, hopes destroyed, ideals caricatured,. This is almost inevitable, but we carry on just the same. The Lord will provide.

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