By ICRD Intern Isaiah Anderson
In the Christian lexicon, human dignity derives from the imago Dei, the “image of God,” a value which, for Christian missionaries in the New World, conflicted with the practice of human sacrifices in the religious rituals of some Native Americans. Bartolomé de las Casas, the first American priest in the sixteenth century, would often preach against these barbaric acts. While taking the Eucharist one day, Las Casas realized that the bread and wine consisted of grains and grapes harvested by Native American slaves. The blood, sweat, and tears of enslaved human beings were what Las Casas was sacrificing to God. In that moment, the practice of slavery became for him the same idolatrous human sacrifice against which he railed. With this revelation and after witnessing the cruel treatment of slave laborers, Las Casas committed his life to helping the Native Americans regain their human dignity, fighting against slavery and helping this marginalized group. This was an early example in the Americas of what Father Gustavo Gutiérrez would articulate four centuries later as a “preferential option for the poor”.
Gutiérrez developed this idea into what would come to be known as “liberation theology”, claiming that absence of God’s Kingdom is most evident in the experiences of the poor, and believers are therefore called to follow his example by liberating them from oppression. Liberation theology uses examples in the Bible, such as the Exodus story and the acts of Jesus, who walked with the marginalized and spoke of their redemption, to prove that God does not ordain the poverty and injustice caused by human society. God loves all His children equally, but universal love does not equate to neutrality, for passivity towards injustice is to be complicit in denying the poor God’s grace. The “preferential option” should not be misunderstood as a “preferential option AGAINST the powerful”, as God’s inclination toward helping the poor does not take away from his universal love, but as Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
Liberation theology calls people to show love by walking alongside the poor in witness, while striving to correct the system that hurts them, but it does not call for avenging the poor by punishing the rich. In many parts of Latin America, for example, liberation theology’s emphasis on the liberation of the poor transformed into “anti-rich” sentiment and action. While this shift is understandable under the circumstances of violence and exclusion, radical Catholic clergy and college students transgressed the principle of God’s universal love when they resorted to the use of violence to pursue the rights of the laboring class. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, for example, Colombia liberationists formed the National Liberation Army (ELN) in the 1960s, turning to kidnapping and extortion to generate revenue and later shifting to the drug trade. Together with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), another radical anti-government group that emerged in the 1960s, they claimed to represent the rural poor. However, the actions of these movements, purportedly aiming to advance justice and liberation for the rural poor, have resulted in fifty years of ongoing violence and conflict, the impact of which has largely fallen upon the very poor they claim to defend. While this is not to excuse the serious complicity in human rights violations of the government and other groups, the people of Colombia are crying for an end to the violence, which has delivered little in the way of justice.
In the midst of a different conflict, namely apartheid in South Africa, Desmond Tutu emerged with his Ubuntu theology, now one of the best examples of restorative justice following identity violence. Tutu became a leader against apartheid in South Africa, but his political influence stemmed from his spirituality. He preached a message of peace and reconciliation that highlighted the importance of every human being, for each individual is formed in the imago Dei. Apartheid says human beings are fundamentally irreconcilable; but for Christians, God says all persons are united through Christ who breaks down racial and other barriers. Tutu does not play down the important of race or culture. On the contrary, he points out the need for a diversity of theologies specific to each group’s context – black theologies, women theologies, Latino theologies, etc. – but he acknowledges that these different theological priorities should not divert attention from the universal, ecumenical theology of Jesus Christ that unites all people as a single humanity.
Ubuntu theology relies not merely on political action but on the spirituality of the individuals and community to bring about social justice. In this vein, social reconciliation and forgiveness are key to the work of the Washington-based International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) in re-integrating ex-combatants into conflict-affected communities in Colombia. Re-integration without reconciliation has proven to make the reconstitution of society extremely difficult and can unintentionally reinforce societal divides. Former combatants find that they are broadly marginalized and stigmatized when they seek legitimate ways to exit the militancy in which they have been involved. Conflict-scarred communities are distrustful of these ex-combatants, as is the business community. This, in turn, has led to numerous failed efforts at reintegration. Many demobilized combatants abandon government-run reintegration programs before completing them, and a significant number return to their former lifestyle by joining narco-criminal bands and networks.
In Colombia, religious communities including indigenous faith leaders, women faith leaders, and civil society actors are engaged in the difficult process of re-integrating ex-combatants. Recognizing the critical role that women and religious leaders can play in reconciliation, ICRD partners with them in promoting social reintegration into the combatant’s former home communities. This work carries a restorative tone rather than a liberationist tone, for it promotes the humanity and importance of every individual in order to facilitate the ex-combatants reentry into civil society.
Since faulty interpretations of liberation theology have been linked to the formation of violent combatant groups rather than restorative justice, should the entire concept be abandoned? The focus of liberation theology is not to replace the oppressor with another oppressor or to respond to violence with violence. Jesus says that serving those in need is like serving Him, so, as Jon Sobrino states, His followers are called to “take the crucified people off of the cross.” Liberation theology shares the goal of restorative justice by bringing the marginalized back into view in society and giving them a voice in the socio-economic politics that affects them. However, history has demonstrated that even this justice-focused interpretation of the Christian faith must be wary of the danger of abandoning the basic principle of love for all people, even the oppressors, in the process. That being said, the power of liberationist thinking with respect to bringing the reality of the poor and oppressed to light and working with all people to increase participation, meaning and dignity in their lives is perhaps more relevant today than ever.