A Breath of Hope Amid Human Suffering

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This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and
was saved from every trouble.” – King David

At its core, liberation theology is a testament to God’s compassion and empathy. It centers on God’s preferential option for the poor, a divine choice that aligns with society’s poor and powerless, seeking justice and equality. Developed by black and Latin American theologians, this approach grows from other theological strands. For example, in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9, Dietrich Bonhoeffer declares that “Christianity should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” Thus, underscoring the biblical motifs of liberation for the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.

In my recent reflection on peace, I referenced the ideas proposed by this theological approach in connection with redressing the dehumanizing injustices created and supported by oppressive structures and institutions. I explained that liberation theology employs an approach that emphasizes the liberation of the oppressed through social and political action. The correction of these inequalities is evidenced in their attempt to reconcile the realities of God’s biblical promises of life, land, and rightful inheritance with social injustice and oppression.

On a quest for justice and equality, Latin American liberation theologians explore how modern scientific principles can transform their social context. Thought leaders like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, Juan Tamayo Acosta, and others have developed a theological framework that considers science a powerful tool for transformation. Join me as we embark on this journey of exploration to see how science and theology work together to liberate our world.

A God of Cosmic Proportions

The oppression of the poor enacted by myriad social injustices propels liberation theologians towards science. Sadly, the natural outgrowth of oppression is death. Gutiérrez describes this nefarious process as a protracted death in a strange land that is hostile to life, hope, and justice. Moreover, as Gutiérrez writes, death is caused by hunger, diseases, repression, and destruction. Therefore, given that “the whole earth” and all its resources belong to God (Exodus 19:5), the church is responsible for upholding life by seeking God’s kingdom in ways that bring about justice, transformation, and wholeness.

Even when Gutiérrez does not mention science directly, his framework includes making healthcare available to those who lack access and returning to a focus on land conservation and creation care. This spiritual stewardship establishes a “different way of following Jesus.” This new way presupposes that God so loved the cosmos (i.e., everyone and everything) that he sent his son to redeem it (John 3:16).

This God of cosmic proportions (i.e., a God who loves the whole of his creation) is made evident in Leonardo Boff’s ecotheology. Boff affirms that reality propels us to consider cosmogenic (i.e., resulting from cosmic forces) and anthropogenic (i.e., resulting from human influences on nature) processes, significantly how they influence relationships. In other words, our present reality must be understood in terms of the evolutionary process and the historical antecedents and changes that result in contemporary cosmology. Therefore, our dynamic and organic open system, which contains “an unimaginable diversity of beings and energy,” is kept in equilibrium by dynamic adaptation, evolution, and exchange processes within a changing ecosystem.

For liberation theologians, these ideas open the possibility of a framework where science and theology collaborate in discussing and developing new domains of critical thinking that result in liberation. Consequently, Boff suggests, this God of cosmic proportions calls us to a transformative process where the poor’s liberation (i.e., their salvation) becomes the point of reference in the science-theology dialogue and Christian praxis.

  • Brown University’s Center for Digital Scholarship provides a comprehensive collection of materials about liberation theology in Latin America.
  • Ignacio Silva, associate professor of theology at Universidad Austral, reviews Latin America’s latest developments in science and religion.
  • In “Ethics of Liberation,” Enrique Dussel unpacks how Eurocentric traditions impact modern ethical and theological thinking, thus articulating new responses to human suffering.
  • In a video, explore how Gustavo Gutiérrez’s work can help us establish a Christian praxis centered on compassion and equality.

A God that Stands with the Less Fortunate

One of my mentors, Rev. Dr. Jorge R. Colón León, a Redemptorist priest who ministered to Latin American indigenous communities in the margins, wrote a comprehensive treatise on Christian spirituality. Colón León underscores that Christian spirituality aims to seek God’s way to be enlightened by Christ (i.e., God’s eternal light). Moreover, he explains that this enlightenment is demarcated by personal growth, resulting in a quantitative increment in our capacity for alterity (i.e., our capacity for understanding the perspective of others) as a response to Christ’s work in our lives. This approach to spirituality will, in turn, result in a Christian community that identifies with the God of grace who stands with the less fortunate.

This statement may sound distasteful to our American affluence and sensibilities. However, for liberation theologians, the idea of a God who stands with the poor represents the axial premise of the holy writ. This means that the Bible is full of references to a God who emphasizes the liberation and the equality of the dispossessed (i.e., those who find no space within the dominant society). Now, the work of many scientists–in fields such as medicine, ecology, engineering, and education–often takes a different direction but ultimately aims to support those in need. This vocational pursuit aligns, at least partially, with these principles of liberation.

As Miguel De La Torre explains in Latina/o Social Ethics, the poor and needy inhabitants of America have been forced to fight for their survival against the powers who seek to keep them in a state of marginalization and abject poverty. This is the plight represented by liberation theology. This fight moves us, to borrow De La Torre’s language, beyond Eurocentric moral thinking and superiority to stand with the God of the margins.

The hope of liberation aligns perfectly with Christ’s words memorialized in the gospel of Luke, where he is tasked with announcing “good news to the poor,” declaring “release to the captives,” providing healing “to the blind,” setting “free those who are oppressed,” and proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV). To this aim, Latin American theologians propose a liberation praxis that leverages all available resources (i.e., science, ethics, social structures, etc.) to create a better future for all.

In my opening, I quoted David’s words as he recounted how God answered his prayers for help and liberation (Psalm 34:6, NRSV). His words paint a picture of a God who is attentive to the prayers of those in the margins and acts decisively in their favor. Countless Christians have struggled to identify with the God who stands with the less fortunate, propelling them to fight for freedom and equality for all. Yet, following these principles, many doctors, ecologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, physicists, and social scientists have dedicated their work to supporting those in need. They are embodying God’s liberation desires.

In one of his last homilies, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, a Salvadorean priest who stood against repressive regimes, declared, “My hope is that my blood will be like a seed of liberty and a sign that our hopes will soon become a reality.” This is the hope found within the constructs of liberation theology, a hope centered on the liberating good news of the gospel.

In Nobis Regnat Iesus,

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