The theology of liberation came into prominence with the World Conference on Salvation Today held by the World Council of Churches in Bangkok early in 1973. Its message is very simple: salvation is liberation. Liberation from what? From injustice, from every form of oppression and exploitation, from everything that prevents man from being “truly human.” Although the theologians of liberation acknowledge personal sin, they ascribe its existence to oppressive political and social structures; these alone produce and perpetuate it, they say. Guilt is fundamentally social; consequently no liberation from individual sin is possible except through the overthrow of these oppressive structures that make it inevitable.

Liberation theology began with the end of World War II. What Bangkok did, however, was to put the weight of the World Council of Churches behind it and thus confer upon it a measure of respectability. Its main impetus comes from the new churches in the Third World—in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—but it is spreading to the developed countries. It draws on the secular theologies of Americans like Harvey Cox, on Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison, on the death-of-God movement. It is the ultimate expression of social activism, reaching a point that few American social activists are as yet ready to embrace but that its proponents claim to be the future of the Church.

The theology of liberation is most articulate in Latin America. Unlike Asia and Africa, Latin America is a Christian continent, at least nominally. No Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Shintoists, or primitive animists muddy the religions waters there. On the other hand, conditions in Latin America make it a natural breeding ground for the theology of liberation. ...

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