Liberation Theology: From Pope Francis to the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Pope - liberation theologyWith the visit of Pope Francis to the United States, there has been a lot of discussion over the views of Pope Francis and his connection with liberation theology.  Paul Vallely just recently wrote a fascinating article on this in Al Jazeera. While liberation theology blossomed primarily in Latin America and Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s, it is rare that a pope holds such views, and therefore it is cause to reflect on what liberation theology is and how both the pope and the anti-apartheid movement exemplified it.

Liberation theology calls for the Catholic Church to involve itself in the political and economic as well as spiritual liberation of the poor.

First off, there are two different types of liberation theology.  The liberation theology that influenced the pope is that of South American Catholicism, which is distinct from the American “black liberation theology.” They trace their roots back to two different commonly-cited foundational texts: James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, and Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, both written in the early 1970s. The two theologies definitely share some significant similarities, namely a reading of scripture that puts the emphasis of the Christian concern with sin on social problems, rather than individual ones. In other words, Christians adhering to a liberation theology should orient themselves toward action against oppression. More symbolically, liberation theology argues that God identifies with the oppressed, and that Christianity should take upon itself the lens of the poor.

The predominant view of the church at the time opposed this more revolutionary perspective as they saw that they should stay concerned solely with spiritual matters, as opposed to political and economic issues.

helder_camaraThe difference can best been seen in the words of Dom Hélder Câmara, a Catholic archbishop in Brazil from 1964-1985: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Many conservatives in the church feared that getting into political and economic affairs would be too problematic and secular for the church to get involved with. Others, like Dom Helder and Pope Francis, disagreed.

Liberation Theology and the Pope

Francis, who was then the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became the leader of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1973 in the middle of this fractious debate.

Mario Aguilar, the editor of “Handbook of Liberation Theologies,” said that in those days, Bergoglio’s care for the poor was “enormous, warm and empathetic” but “his theology was traditional and conservative.” He did not see the poor in the context of a larger, unjust social order. In fact, he barred his priests from working with political organizations, unions, cooperatives and even independent Catholic organizations working in the slums.

Eventually, as an assistant bishop in his hometown, Buenos Aires, he became more forgiving and more open to moves to empower the poor.

He deepened his understanding of poverty. He spent so much time among the poorest of the poor in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires that he became known as the bishop of the slums. He learned about the impact of drugs and prostitution on poor people and eventually began to see them as more than just victims.

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio quadrupled the number of priests serving in the slums. Bergoglio began to see the underlying economic structures — like the corrupt financial systems that keep people poor — as what liberation theology calls structures of sin. He shifted from seeing the world through the lens of charity to one of social justice. He began to adopt the vocabulary of liberation theology.

Just six months after he became pope in 2012, he welcomed the founding father of liberation theology, the Rev. Gustavo Gutiérrez, as a guest at the Vatican. Summing up the change, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the chief doctrinal watchdog in the Catholic Church, announced that liberation theology should “be included among the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology.”

All this sets the background for the pope’s recent anti-capitalist pronouncements. In his papal manifesto “Evangelii Gaudium,” he wrote that trickle-down economics have done little for the poor and that “worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money.”

In his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si’,” he specifically criticized rich countries for exploiting the resources of the poor. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise, he told his aides the day the document was published, explaining that the rich world’s exploitation of the environment is rooted in the same worldview as its callousness toward the poor. Both, he said, are symptoms of a greater ill: the pursuit of short-term economic profit at the expense of people and the planet. “This economy kills,” “Laudato si’” concluded bluntly.

During a trip to Bolivia this summer, Francis delivered his most ferocious denunciation to date. Behind all the “pain, death and destruction” wrought by unrestrained global capitalism, there lurks “the stench of the dung of the devil,” he said. “Let us not be afraid to say it,” he told a gathering of activists.

On this trip, Bolivian President Evo Morales presented the Pope a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle.

Bolivian President Evo Morales presented the Pope a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle.

Bolivian President Evo Morales presented the Pope a crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle.

To read more about Pope Francis and Liberation Theology in the Catholic Church, check out Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.

Liberation Theology in South Africa

Liberation theology was not only present in Latin America, but also throughout Africa.  But in Africa, so-called “black liberation theology” emanates from Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation.  This not only greatly influenced the Black Power movement in the United States, but also the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Picture1One of the most outspoken and visible parts of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were religious leaders. Regardless of denomination, numerous individuals were actively engaged in bringing down apartheid for decades, and they based much of their protest on their religious beliefs and scripture. Religious protest took the form of church sermons, letters, marches, and civil disobedience, amongst others, but what made it unique was that it was consistently at the forefront of the call to abolish apartheid.

From Trevor Huddleston in the 1950s to Beyers Naudé in the 1960s to Allen Boesak, Frank Chikane and Desmond Tutu in the 1980s, religious leaders used their positions as spiritual leaders in their communities to organize and lead protests against apartheid. Their opposition to apartheid was based on their religious beliefs. The South African government, which held ultraconservative religious beliefs and even justified apartheid based on their interpretation of the Bible, greatly feared this religiously-based protest. What also made these religious leaders effective in their protest was that the police did not know how to handle them, not wanting to arrest or imprison them as they would other activists since this would bring heightened levels of international condemnation. It was not just individual religious leaders either, but also entire religious organizations who spoke out, including a number of new religious organizations and movements that were formed during the resistance movement.

Furthermore, there was not merely one faith or denomination which was particularly active in the resistance. Within Christianity, Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, and even some members of the Dutch Reformed Church all greatly contributed to the struggle and based their abhorrence of apartheid on the Bible, using scripture to argue why apartheid was wrong. Other faiths, including Islam, Judaism, and African Independent Churches, also contributed to the resistance movement, using religious doctrines to condemn apartheid and leading their communities in protest.

While numerous members of the clergy in South Africa were strong opponents of apartheid and its discriminatory policies, two of the most ardent supporters of the tenets of liberation theology were Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane.


Allan Boesak

Allan Boesak was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), but since he was Coloured, he could not be a part of the main white Church. He was thus part of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, which was the segregated “non-white” arm of the DRC. Although part of the DRC, the Mission Church was much more critical of apartheid and segregation than other sects. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church first came out publicly in their opposition to apartheid at their General Synod of 1978, rejecting apartheid as being in conflict with the gospel.

Boesak became a leader in the concept of liberation theology, which in Africa was focused on rejecting Western Christianity as a form of colonialism. In Africa, the goal of liberation theology was to “Africanize” Christianity, to relate it to the history of black people and to help people recognize that they were equal in God’s eyes. They viewed Christ as a liberator, focusing on freeing black people from a slave mentality, an inferiority complex, and the continued dependence on others which culminated in self-hate. In essence, liberation theology was the religious form of activist Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness ideas. This theological viewpoint became popular amongst many black Africans as it connected with Christ’s identification with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed. Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu, and Frank Chikane were all adherents of liberation theology and it greatly influenced their role as leaders in the struggle against apartheid.

Allan Boesak’s anti-apartheid activism took off with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). The WARC was formed in 1970 as a fellowship of more than 200 Reformed (Calvinist) churches around the world, including the Dutch Reformed Church. At the August 1982 WARC conference in Canada, he put forth a motion to declare apartheid a heresy contrary to both the Gospel and the Reformed tradition. The conference adopted the motion in what became known as the Declaration on Racism, declaring apartheid both a sin and heresy. The Declaration stated, “It is sinful and incompatible with the gospel.” The alliance’s statement reflected many of Boesak’s beliefs, rejecting the use of religion as a cultural or racist ideology. The 1982 WARC conference also voted to suspend South Africa’s white Dutch Reformed Church from the alliance until they opened their doors to black people. The decisions that WARC made at this 1982 conference stripped apartheid of its moral, ethical, religious, and political foundations, rendering it indefensible.

As an outspoken participant at the 1982 WARC conference, Allan Boesak was unanimously elected president of the alliance at the conference. He went on to lead WARC in further repudiations and condemnations of apartheid throughout the 1980s.

It was under Boesak’s leadership that in 1986, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa adopted the Belhar Confession. This declaration stated that the white DRC was guilty of heresy and idolatry because of its theological justification of apartheid, stating that racial and social segregation was a sin.

Boesak’s outspoken condemnation of apartheid, based on scripture, greatly influenced other Dutch Reformed Church leaders to speak out publicly against apartheid, most significantly in 1982. In August of that year, 123 Dutch Reformed Church ministers and theologians signed an open letter in which they repudiated much of earlier apartheid-endorsed church policy and called for fundamental changes. The so-called Open Letter specifically cited laws on mixed marriages, race classification, and the so-called Homelands, saying that these apartheid laws “cannot be defended scripturally” and “cannot be reconciled with biblical demands for justice and human dignity.”

The white Dutch Reformed Church slowly started to make the necessary reforms that Boesak and others had been calling for. In 1983, the white Dutch Reformed Church finally admitted that the ban on mixed marriages was not based on scripture, and finally said that separate development was not based on scripture. This was a massive concession for the Church to make since they had resolutely believed this was the case for decades up to this point. In 1986, further transformation took place when the DRC membership was finally desegregated and opened to all, as well as deciding that apartheid could not be accepted on Christian grounds. This decision was such a shock to many conservative members of the DRC that it led to 20,000 members of the Church to leave the DRC and join a breakaway denomination in protest. However, even with all of these reforms, it was not until 1998, four years after the birth of democracy and the official end of apartheid in South Africa, that the Dutch Reformed Church synod finally accepted that apartheid was a sin, and that its biblical justification constituted heresy.

Allan Boesak also took his opposition to apartheid out of the church and into the street, forming the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, the largest and most powerful legal opposition force in South Africa at the time. The UDF was an umbrella organization that swiftly became the main anti-apartheid group in South Africa, bringing together over 400 organizations (civic, church, students’, workers’ and other organizations) representing about two million white and black South Africans. Boesak led numerous marches and rallies, preached at funerals and marches, and resisted apartheid at all levels throughout the 1980s as the head of the UDF.


Frank Chikane

In 1980, Frank Chikane was ordained as a preacher in the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) church, the oldest and by far the largest Pentecostal church in South Africa.

Due to his outspoken criticism of apartheid and political involvement, the conservative-minded AFM suspended Chikane in 1981. The suspension lasted nine years until his eventual reinstatement in the church in 1990.

After suspension from the AFM, Chikane joined the Institute for Contextual Theology, a Christian think-tank inside of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) which promoted liberation theology. Just like Allan Boesak and others, Chikane became an advocate for liberation theology, focusing on Christ as liberator, seeking to liberate people of color from multiple forms of political, social, economic, and religious subjugation.

Picture3In 1985, Chikane was one of the leading promoters of the Kairos Document, a leading Christian denunciation of apartheid. This was a theological statement issued by a group of black South African theologians. Originally signed by 156 theologians, it rejected the apartheid government’s claim that God was on their side, arguing that God sides with the oppressed. The documents said, “This god [of the State] is…the god of teargas, rubber bullets, sjamboks, prison cells and death sentences.” In other words, “the very opposite of the God of the Bible.” These theologians said that the God that the apartheid government believed was on their side was nothing more than “the devil disguised as Almighty God.”

The Kairos Document also maintained that a tyrannical government, like South Africa, has no moral right to govern, “and the people acquire the right to resist.” In terms of resistance, it argued that the counter-violence of the oppressed could not be condemned in the same way as the violence of the oppressor, thereby calling the armed struggle by groups like Umkhonto weSizwe a “just war.” This document was soon seen as one of the most important theological declarations of its time.

In 1987, Chikane succeeded Beyers Naudé as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). He brought a heightened level of social and political activism to the SACC, which continued to play an important role in the anti-apartheid movement up until the end of apartheid. In 1988, the SACC, under Chikane, launched the Standing for Truth Campaign. Church leaders asserted that they were not obliged to obey unjust laws, but in obedience to God were forced to disobey apartheid laws, based in the Biblical scripture that says, “We must obey God, rather than men.” This religiously-based campaign included non-cooperation and non-collaboration with apartheid in social, economic, and political fields, and they supported rent and tax boycotts, boycotts of elections, defied group-area restrictions, and withdrew chaplains from the South African Defense Force. It was one of the most militant decisions that a group of theologians and church leaders had taken during the apartheid era.

By referencing these two adherents to the tenets of liberation theology, I do not mean to limit the role that other religious leaders who played prominent roles in the anti-apartheid movement: Albert Geyser and Beyers Naudé in the Dutch Reformed Church; Denis Hurley and Cosmas Desmond in the Catholic Church; and Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu in the Anglican Church.  Outside of Christianity, other religious leaders also served as a powerful religious voice against the discrimination of apartheid, especially Imam Abdullah Haron of the Islamic faith and Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz of the Jewish faith.

These religious leaders helped bring down apartheid with their faith and scripture as their weapon.

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