Liberation theology in modern Australia


Liberation theology was once caricatured as Marxism with a Christian tinge, or the Bible plus Kalashnikov. In fact, thinkers identified with the movement were involved in a serious theological exploration. They wanted to think coherently about Christian faith from the perspective of those mainly rural poor who were oppressed in Latin American nations, and how Christians should respond to their plight. The theological responses to their enterprise is relevant to the public conversation in Australia.

Revolutionary JesusSome theologians questioned the narrow focus on the grounds that the Christian message is preached to all people and supposes a universal truth. Would not a partial or partisan perspective inevitably lead to a stunted theology and a distortion of Christian faith?

This question about universality was raised in practical terms by other Christian marginalised groups. If there was to be a liberation theology based in the lives of the Latin American poor, should there not also be a feminist theology that came out of the lives of marginalised women, a black theology that began with racial discrimination against Black Americans oppression, and so on?

The variety of theologies then invited reflection on how they could speak to one another and whether one theology had precedence over others.

In public conversation in Australia these theological questions are of marginal significance. But secular variants abound in which society is analysed in terms of the discrimination suffered by various minority groups at the hands of the majority or of those with power.

We need think only of the analysis of the treatment of women at the hands of men, of Indigenous Australians at the hands of non-Indigenous, of gay at the hands of straight Australians, of asylum seekers and recent immigrant groups at the hands of earlier arrivals, of tax payers at the hands of tax avoiders, of shooters and bare-headed cyclists at the hands of the prissy, of Catholics at the hands of secularists, of young and elderly Australians at the hands of those with political power, and so on.

In each case the story of the minority group is told as one of oppression and denial of rights by the majority or the powerful. Advocates point out the injustice, and demand society change its attitudes and redress discrimination through education, legislation and financial commitments to enable change.

In almost every case, the stories told about the suffering caused to individuals are moving, and the arguments made for changes in legislation and community attitudes are plausible.

But the challenges that their advocates face are formidable: they compete with one another for attention in public conversation, and the connection between their different causes is not clear. As a result the public is likely to be briefly moved, but then move on to another complaint.

What is lacking is a shared overarching view of human flourishing in which individual rights can be set alongside one another and their connections explored. Without this larger view, rights will inevitably be seen as competitive and apparent clashes between them will be resolved by the exercise of naked political power and not of ethical and political wisdom.

The proper starting point for reflection is to focus on the stories of people who claim to be discriminated against, and to be imaginatively present to them as persons without judging them. To see unemployed people as persons and not stereotypically as layabouts, for example, and similarly to see women, prisoners, religious people, LBGT people and Indigenous Australians as persons. They deserve respect for their claims because they are people not because they are members of a group.

Their claims, however, need also to be set within reflection on the common good of society. The common good supposes that the ordering of society must look to the good of each person in society through securing the good of all, especially the most disadvantaged. People are seen not simply as individuals or representatives of groups, but as mutually dependent, so that they must be seen in the context of their relationships to others.

From this perspective, some rights claimed by individuals will be overridden by care for society. The right to shoot wildlife for sport and to ride bicycles without helmets may be examples. But in such cases the priority given to the good of society must be supported by compelling evidence.

The connection between claims of discrimination must also be considered. They will often lie in structural injustice in the ordering of society. The privilege of amassing and keeping disproportionate wealth by the very few, for example, may be protected at the expense of vulnerable people in many social groups.

Within groups claiming discrimination, too, some claims may have priority over others. The claims of migrant women to a decent wage, for example, may take precedence over the rights of others to equal board representation.

Finally, claims can come into conflict, as for example the claims to non-discrimination and to religious freedom. Generally claims in conflict must be vindicated, but in a way that is mutually limiting. This requires that the resolution be resolved in conversation about the common good, and not simply by the exercise of power. That was a lesson learned in the debates about liberation theology.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, liberation theology



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Existing comments

Andrew is right to point out the need for 'a shared overarching view' but is he really serious in suggesting that Catholics or the Catholic Church in Australia are in danger of becoming one of his 'oppressed minorities'?

Ginger Meggs | 24 February 2016  

"What is lacking is a shared overarching view of human flourishing in which individual rights can be set alongside one another and their connections explored. Without this larger view, rights will inevitably be seen as competitive and apparent clashes between them will be resolved by the exercise of naked political power and not of ethical and political wisdom." "The proper starting point for reflection is to focus on the stories of people who claim to be discriminated against, and to be imaginatively present to them as persons without judging them." "Their claims, however, need also to be set within reflection on the common good of society.... People are seen not simply as individuals or representatives of groups, but as mutually dependent, so that they must be seen in the context of their relationships to others. From this perspective, some rights claimed by individuals will be overridden by care for society." If Catholicism suffers at the hands of secularists, it will be because, like Islam, some of its thoughts about the person appear to fail the utilitarian precept that a thing is licit which does not harm others. Is LGBT socially harmful? Should swimming pools be sex-segregated for rates-paying Muslim women?

Roy Chen Yee | 25 February 2016  

Ginger Meggs, what is the official belief of the Catholic Church in Australia and what is sitting inside the heads of some Australians who self-identify as Roman Catholics are not necessarily the same thing, as is the case with the official view of some aspects of Obamacare by the Catholic Church of the US and the views sitting inside the heads of various self-identifying Roman Catholic senior members of the Democratic Party in the Administration and in Congress. Can 'Catholicism' be oppressed by 'Catholics'? Not a problem. Easily done.

Roy Chen Yee | 25 February 2016  

"...bare-headed cyclists at the hands of the prissy" seems to be trawling pretty near the bottom of the human right barrel , Fr Hamilton. society through it s democratic processes decides that it wants to mandate protection of individuals agianst having their brains smeared over the road, and having to pay the great cost of trying to push them back inside the skull; AND provide care for the rest of their disabled life! Do you also see imposed speed limits, seat belts and traffic lights as other such assaults on your human rights? Or are they the trivial costs of living in a civilised and caring country?

Eugene | 25 February 2016  

Andrew is right. No bicycle should be ridden without a helmet! But where to attach it: I suppose over the head-set is most appropriate.

Vin Victory | 25 February 2016  

Andrew's comments are undoubtedly true but Marx's structural vision remains relevant. To him, culture, power, etc., are dependent on the economic base and its effects. At the centre of most marginalised groups is economic disadvantage. At the centre of all marginalised groups is their differential access to power. Those groups which are most economically disadvantaged and which lack access to power are the most disadvantaged marginalised groups. As an example, take the case of gay rights. This issue is by no means settled but gay people have a strong political and social voice. This is because in this group there is a strong middle class presence who are economically advantaged, politically aware and articulate Contrast that group with single parents (usually, but not only) mothers. In comparison they are most often extremely economically disadvantaged and their social status (Weber) is marginalised as well. This means they have little or no political clout. Then, of course we have refugees and asylum who are not even recognised as a marginalised group by politicians. It is on the basis of economic advantage/disadvantage and ability to access power that preferences should be given.

Anna | 25 February 2016  

And then there is the liberation of theology itself, a lot of which sits on the first or second storey of human interest and well being, often passively removed from 'on the ground' issues which are raised in the article. The truth needs to be done in the face of so much status quo in our church and civic experience. In the words of one stream of liberation theology, a good place to start is suspicion, that there is a lot of uncritical living and idle ritual in what passes for value in present day Australian society.

Noel McMaster | 25 February 2016  

"the Christian message is preached to all people and supposes a universal truth" The universal truth preached to all people is usually expressed as an Ideal that in reality is applicable only, or at least mainly, to ideal people in ideal situations. Too often the Church insists on the ideal where Christ would say, 'Let anyone accept this who can.' (Mt 19:12). In the realm of contraception, it has been said that the insistence by the Church that 'the pill' not be used, 'liberated' many Catholics to rely on the primacy of their conscience in deciding on this matter.

Robert Liddy | 25 February 2016  

Gustavo Gutierrez OP (the ‘father’of LT) wrote in “The Power of the Poor in History” (1983) that Liberation Theology cuts right across sectional interests, social cliques and enclaves. For Gutierrez, authentic Liberation Theology is concerned with those things which perversely dehumanise people and strips them of their personhood: “Our [liberation theology’s] question is not how to speak of God in an adult world [as Bonhoeffer did]. That is the old question posed by progressivist theology. No, the interloquter of the theology of liberation is the “nonperson,” the human being who is not considered human by the present order – the exploited classes, marginalised ethnic groups, and despised cultures. Our question is how to tell the nonperson, the nonhuman, that God is love, and that this makes us brothers and sisters.” There are plenty of non-persons created by the scores of 'isms' at large in Australian society.

David Timbs | 25 February 2016  

I wonder how Fr Jon Sobrino SJ would react to seeing a fellow Jesuit attempting to apply his version of Liberation Theology to the situation of people in Australia who believe they are discriminated against, or are told by concerned advocates that they are being discriminated against. By a coincidence I meditated this morning on the parable of Dives and Lazarus. Would Lazarus have been carried off to the bosom of Abraham if some practising Liberation Theologian had freed him from his poverty? Moses and the prophets, even Jesus Himself, risen from the dead, preached against aggrandisement of riches but the rich would not listen. (See Luke 16:19-31) The over-arching theology for Christians is that for all men, women and children Jesus is our brother in relation to God. And yet this tenet of Sobrino is criticised for seeming to diminish the Divinity of Jesus. From what I have observed of Pope Francis's visit to Mexico he has not hesitated to follow the lead of the manly Jesus and reminded the rich (both clerical and lay) of their obligations to the poor and destitute.

Uncle Pat | 25 February 2016  

Roy Chen Yee, you are surely not trying to say that the capital 'C' Church that holds and promulgates the 'official beliefs' is in danger of becoming an 'oppressed minority', without wealth or power? Do you really think that 'self-identifying Catholics' are threatening to marginalise the One true capital 'C' Church?

Ginger Meggs | 25 February 2016  

Ginger Meggs, if you ignore or put down those views of the Church which you don't like (which the Church holds to be important) but revel in its theatre of bells and smells, you're just preening a prettified poodle in public. The poodle makes the owner look good. When the owner has had enough, the poodle is made to go home where it becomes another element in the owner's design of how his world should look. It might even complement the colour and pattern of his sofa - an outcome of how it was bred. When the progress of time dictates that the poodle should meet its maker, it can always be replaced by a sphynx, a bit different but also very pretty, and which also, as an outcome of breeding, looks nice on a sofa. A church can be marginalised by being made a pet or an ornament. If, in the past, royalty tried to make popes look like their sofas, today commoners ignore him unless he matches theirs.

Roy Chen Yee | 25 February 2016  

One of the problems I found with Liberation Theology, as with any theology, is that many people wanted to discuss it as a purely intellectual exercise. Jesus, the Great Liberator, was extremely practical. He set all people free. Nothing would ever be the same again. He was all for the poor and marginalised and preached against excessive consumption. He was not a social revolutionary although I suspect he would be all in favour of social action of the Wilberforce or Dorothy Day sort. The problem with Jesus and any sort of movement or theology is that he is bigger than all of them. For Christians he contains it all within himself. He would, I believe, encourage social engagement but not see it as an end in itself: there is something called The Kingdom of God which he said you cannot fully experience in this life. That does not mean you should not try to bring something of that Kingdom to earth. The way you do it is important.

Edward Fido | 25 February 2016  

All good theology is liberation theology for Jesus railed against injustice in the treatment of the poor and told us all to embrace the truth since the truth would set us free. In the modern context we have Pope Francis "doing a Jesus" calling on us to stop ripping off the poor or through our indifference simply ignoring their needs. Those who advocate for asylum seekers in Australia are oft disparaged as do gooders who would throw open our borders. What a stance by those happy with the immoral policies now in place. It is an indictment on our government and opposition party that neither can suggest a morally acceptable alternative as if none is possible!

Ern Azzopardi | 25 February 2016  

Well Roy Chen Yee, I guess that if Humpty Dumpty could make a word mean whatever he wanted it to mean, then you could say that the big wealthy powerful influential Church is in danger of being 'marginalised', but I don't think that's using the word in the same sense that it is being used by Anna and the sincere believers who have commented here.

Ginger Meggs | 26 February 2016  

Ginger Meggs, to be 'marginalised' is to be treated as if your views don't matter. The Church's official views on personal moral matters are so treated by many of the agencies in society that set the culture, such as parliaments which have the power to set legal norms which eventually become cultural norms, as well as wannabe cultural entrepreneurs such as the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. I read Anna to mean that without money, you have no influence. Yes, money talks. However, if you have money but are unfashionable, the same applies. The Church's writings on economics and industrial affairs are also treated the same way, but by that wing of politics opposite to that of the liberation theologists. To mistake the real influence of the Church in society on the basis of the grand façade it still manages to portray to the word is to play Humpty Dumpty with words such as 'marginalise', 'influence' and 'power'.

Roy Chen Yee | 26 February 2016  

OK, Roy, I'll accept that the Church can be marginalised in the way you argue. Perhaps it has marginalised itself, just as some other religious and political groups in Australia have done (think Plymouth Brethren, Orthodox Jews, Communists, etc) but you could hardly call it an 'oppressed minority, could you? Catholics may soon comprise less than 50% of the population (the next census may tell) nut neither Catholics, Catholicism, nor the Church are illegal, proscribed, kept poor, excluded, targeted by police, held up to ridicule by the state, or any other common method of 'oppression'.

Ginger Meggs | 28 February 2016  

What would Sobrino say? What would Jesus say? (ie about liberation theology being applied in diverse and different cultural/historical contexts) I'm guessing they would say what Galileo once said: " eppur si muove." And yet it moves! The fact that we are simply discussing this is a positive thing and shows theology isn't restricted to history, and it isn't restricted to Catholic/Christian/ethical doctrines apparently already defined, and allegedly already regarded as unquestionable. If we stop "doing" theology, we stop having faith.

AURELIUS | 28 February 2016  

Roy Chen Chee, being marginalised means suffering for who you are, not simply for your views. I'm sure we don't all want to go througth the same old argument again about whether LGBTI people's orientation or identity is nurture or nature - but for the sake of argument let's say in good faith that it's not merely a whim or a weakness - and the fact that LGBTI people merely exist requires some theological response that's just as specific to their situation as lib theol is to those who suffer through material poverty. It's not either/or, but both/and.

AURELIUS | 28 February 2016  

Ginger Meggs, how many billions of dollars is the RC Church in the USA worth? And yet, when Obamacare makes it compulsory for all church instrumentalities to provide their employees with health cover for abortions and contraceptions, on pain of fines and gaol, even though core Catholic teaching regards both activities as intrinsically evil, isn't that akin to the State passing a law making it a criminal offence for anyone to abstain from eating meat on Good Friday? How relevant, then, are all those billions of dollars? If to pass that hypothetical Good Friday law would be to ridicule the Church, isn't the actual passing of the Obamacare law the very same? They say that what begins in the US will eventually find its way to Australia. In any case, of the ALP's decision to strip its federal parliamentary members of the right to a conscience vote in relation to same-sex marriage by 2019, is that not a ridiculing of Catholic conscience by a past and virtually certain to be a future party of government? Dollars might make an organisation look big. So does air in a puffer fish.

Roy Chen Yee | 09 March 2016  

Aurelius, LGBTI are not a discrete group of people. They are different categories in coalition, and their respective interests may not be the same. How do Bisexuals fit into same-sex marriage? You would think bisexualism tends towards polyamorism in the form of two parallel 'monogamies', with perhaps a shared male or female, or maybe two of each gender, something that Ls, Gs and Ts would disavow because they would like to claim that a same-sex marriage is all but identical to the normative heterosexual marriage. But, having achieved their goal of same-sex marriage through an LGBTI coalition, are Ls, Gs and Ts going to have any moral ground for not supporting their coalition partners, the Bisexuals, in calling for another form of legal recognition of a domestic relationship? There are many ways of becoming or staying poor too, so they are not a discrete group either. Yes, specific theologies are needed to address the varied situations of 'the' LGBTI or 'the' poor, 'the' being plural rather than singular. As far as marriage is concerned, the theology is not about why people enter a marriage but how they will affect the human rights of the children within it.

Roy Chen Yee | 10 March 2016  

Roy Chen Yee, you have totally missed my point, and the point of this article - that it's about INCLUSION, not favouring discrete groups of people. And my comment had nothing to do whatsoever with the debate on same sex marriage, and neither does the article. Your reasoning that bisexuality somehow equates to polyamorism beggars belief and shows you have no concept of the difference between sexual orientation and sexual activity.

AURELIUS | 13 March 2016  

Roy Chen Chee, health insurance cover for abortion and contraception does not compel an individual to engage in either abortions or contraception. It's left to the conscience of the individual. If abortion and contraception are intrinsically evil, the why do you have absolutely nothing to say about state-sanctioned warfare? Church teachings on contraception are arbitrary and possible to change, as they are not based on scripture, but tradition. The scriptural principal against combat and warfare, however, is quite unambiguous and none of the wars in recent times can be justified on the basis of Christian ethics and self defence.

AURELIUS | 13 March 2016  

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