Theology and Society: Development of Liberation Theology

By Rowena Robinson

If a ‘this-worldly’ discipline like sociology finds it hard to agree on its role in the public sphere — for Burawoy and his supporters have many dissenters — how much more difficult must it before an ‘other-worldly’ subject like theology to come to terms with its relationship with politics or social life? The Jesuit sociologist, Heredia 1) shows that, with the advent of modernity in particular, the Church had to contend with what its response should be to the ‘social’ question. Modernity obligated the Church to rethink the relationship between theology and the social world (faith and justice).

According to him, the first response of Catholic and Protestant Churches took the form of ‘liberal theology’ which came to be represented respectively by the efforts of the Second Vatican Council and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Liberal theology was not radical political theology and it frnctioned very much within the framework of capitalism and the welfare state. Certain forms of a ‘social gospel’ also permeated the Protestant and Catholic Churches from the early times and this response was considered inadequate by Christians in the developing world, for whom it appeared clear that any tackling of the ‘social’ issue would have to deal with the structural roots of social injustice and inequality. In particular, for those influenced by Marxist ideas, development was perceived to be a problem requiring an analysis of the class structures of society.

This became the basis for ‘liberation theology’ and it is certainly critical for us to understand the form this theologizing took as well as its relationship with what we are dealing with — public theology. Liberation theology developed first in Latin America. If liberal theology essentially focused on individual freedom, liberation theology was rooted in Marxist social analysis.7) For one of the most prominent voices within liberation theology, it is possible to distinguish three levels of liberation,

Christ the Savior liberates man from sin, which is the ultimate root of all disruption of friendship and of all injustice and oppression. Christ makes man truly free, that is to say, he enables man to live in communion with him; and this is the basis for all human brotherhood” 3)

For, it is not possible to direct oneself only to purging one’s own sinfulness or renewing one’s relationship to God without attending to one’s relationship with other human beings.’ In this, the struggle for social justice is crucial. For the Christian, solidarity with the poor is essential; otherwise there can be no liberation for all. At the same time, this is not an anti-rich; stance; for the rich too are considered to be ‘alienated’ from their true humanity due to their hegemonic position as the class of exploiters. For the Christian in liberation theology, therefore, there must not only be an ‘option for the poor’ but ‘action for the poor’ on the basis of the Marxian analytic perspective. As he goes on to say:

The theology of liberation attempts to reflect on the experience and meaning of the faith based on the commitment to abolish injustice and to build a new society; this theology must be verified by the practice of that commitment, by active, effective participation in the struggle which the exploited social classes have undertaken against their oppressors.2)

It is true that after its initiation in Latin America, liberation, theology influenced both Catholic and Protestant Churches, to some extent, particularly in Asia to shift away from a perspective based on ‘charity’ to one which gave centrality to social justice and human rights.

As Heredia 4) points out, in India, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) affirmed the ‘right to development’ and began to call for the empowerment of Dalits and tribals. The Protestant Church of North India (CNI) began to shift from a perspective of social service to one of empowerment through a rights-based approach, while the Church of South India (CSI), which has a predominantly Dalit membership, made from its early constitution onwards a commitment to Dalits, and this began to be expressed from the 1980s onwards in efforts to articulate a Dalit theology.


1) Rudolf, Heredia, “Development as Liberation: An Indian Christian Perspective”, in Gurpreet Mahajan and S Jodhka, (eds.) Rekgion, Community and Development. Changing Contours of Politics and Poly in India, New Delhi:Routledge, 2010.

2) Michael, Burawoy, “Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas and possibilities”, in Social Forces 82, 4, (2004): 1603-1618.

3) Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, New York: Orbis Books, (1973): 37.

4) Cf Rudolf, C. Heredia, op. ait.



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