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.
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.