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RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 10 2009 (IPS) - Since its beginnings in the 1960s, Liberation Theology has adopted a global perspective, focusing on the conditions of the poor and oppressed throughout the world, victims of a system that thrives off the exploitation of labour and the plundering of nature. The system exploits the working class and the weakest nations. It also represses those who oppress and thus violate their own humanitarian impulses. In a word, everyone must be freed from this system that has continued for almost three centuries and has been imposed across the planet.

Liberation Theology is the first modern theology to adopt this global objective and consider human destiny from the viewpoint of the victims. As a consequence, its first premise is a commitment to the poor and to life and liberty for all. It sprung up at the margins of the central churches, not in the metropolitan centres of traditional thought. Because of its origin, it has always been considered with suspicion by academic theologians and especially by ecclesiastical bureaucracies and by the most important church of all, the Roman Catholic Church.

From its cradle in Latin America, Liberation Theology spread to Africa, then to Asia, as well as to areas of the First World identified with human rights and solidarity with the dispossessed. Poverty understood as oppression has many faces: the indigenous peoples whose ancestral wisdom provide a rich theology of indigenous liberation; black liberation theology, a response to the painful scars left on countries that practised slavery; the liberation theology of women, who have been subjected to patriarchal domination since the neolithic age, and that of workers, used as the fuel of the machines of production. Each form of oppression has its corresponding form of liberation.

There is an underlying theological question that we have not yet satisfactorily answered: how can we plausibly proclaim the existence of God in a world permeated by misery. Doing so makes sense only if it means transforming this world in such a way that the lament of the miserable ceases. For such a change to take place, they themselves must become aware, organise themselves, and implement a practical policy of transformation and social liberation. Given that the vast majority of the poor in our countries are Christian, it was logical to make faith a factor in liberation: the churches that feel they are the heirs to Jesus, a poor man crucified for his commitment to God and justice, would be natural allies of this movement of poor Christians.

Support has been forthcoming from churches with prophetic bishops and cardinals, like Helder Camara and Paulo Evaristo Arns in Brazil, Arnulfo Romero in El Salvador, and others, as well as many priests, nuns, monks, and politically-committed lay persons.

Because its cause was universal, Liberation Theology was already an international movement in the 1970s and convened truly global theological forums. A publishing council was formed with more than 100 Latin American theologians to formulate a 53-volume theological system from the perspective of liberation. Thirteen had been published when the Vatican intervened to abort the project. Then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger acted forcefully, cutting off at the root a project that was promising and beneficial for all peripheral churches and especially for the poor. History will remember him as a cardinal, and then pope, who was the enemy of the of the expression of the intelligence and thinking of the poor.

Liberation theology created a political culture. It helped form social organisations like the Movement of the Landless, the Indigenous Pastoral, and the Black Movement, and it was fundamental in the creation of Brazil’s Workers Party whose leader, President Lula, felt a strong connection with Liberation Theology

Today this theology has transcended the borders of religion and become a socio-political force. In addition to Lula, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, ex-bishop and president of Paraguay Fernando Lugo, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and the current President of the UN Assembly, Nicaraguan priest Miguel de Escoto, all have identified themselves publicly with Liberation Theology. Its primary force lies not in the pulpits of theologians but rather in the innumerable grass- roots church communities (there are about 100,000 in Brazil alone), and in the many thousands of Bible-reading groups that see scripture in the context of social oppression and the so-called pastoral missions.

Rome remains caught in the profound illusion that its doctrinal documents, emitted by cold bureaucracies far from where the faithful live, will succeed in reining in Liberation Theology, which was born heeding the calls of the poor and is now moved by the cry of the earth. As long as the poor continue their lament and the Earth suffers the rage of consumerism and the mania of production, there will be a thousand reasons to listen to the call of a revolutionary and liberational interpretation of the scriptures. Liberation Theology is a response to an unjust reality and is saving the central church from its alienation and cynicism. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian and writer, is co-author of the Earth Charter.

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