Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Liberation Theology for Earth
distributed 1/14/11 - ©2011

This weekend, the United States observes the birthday of our renowned civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a federal holiday, and communities across the country will hold rallies, seminars and worship services commemorating Martin's prophetic and non-violent leadership. His visionary and commanding role will be placed in the context of the generational struggle for equality and freedom.

Alongside the US civil rights effort, many other movements for liberation came to prominence around the world through the second half of the 20th century. The cultural and legal racism of apartheid was confronted in South Africa. In many nations and cultures, women asserted equality of rights, and challenged the patriarchy propagated in law, language, family and religion . Resistance to colonialism and empire was the basis of liberation movements in Central and South America, Africa and Asia.

In the US civil rights movement and in other efforts around the globe, Christian communities provided ethical grounding and religious passion for the cause through the development of liberation theologies. This weekend honoring Dr. King is an appropriate occasion to highlight some of the strengths of liberation theology that now must inform churches in our urgent project of bringing healing to all of God's creation.

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Four characteristics run through the broad range of liberation theologies.

  1. The experience of the community is the starting point for theological reflection. A shared experience of oppression and suffering provides the imperative for doing theology, and it shapes the questions that are central to that reflection. The cry of the poor is taken to scripture, and the theological response is measured by its ability to bring good news to that situation. This contextual process often leads to a profoundly different emphasis than what is found in systematic theologies that begin with established doctrines and conventional readings of the Bible, and only then seek to respond to contemporary situations.

  2. Liberation theology takes seriously the presence of powerful institutions. Oppressive laws, dominating institutions and systemic poverty define the community's experience. The Exodus is an often-invoked theme of the people's liberation from those who exploit and control. The promise of liberation is not found in personal relationships and individual actions. God works through the community to overthrow the regimes and institutions that create and maintain poverty and suffering.

  3. Liberation theology demands action and involvement. "The emphasis is on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy." Theology informs faith communities in their daily work of survival and revolution. Theology is not a rarified academic pursuit done at a distance from the world. It is the spiritual food for people who are fighting for justice and God's shalom.

  4. Hope sustains and enlivens the struggle for liberation. The faithful promise that God's justice will be fulfilled provides strength and encouragement for the long and dangerous work toward freedom. The conviction that the cause is just -- no matter what the outcome -- inspires faith and courage as the people act in resistance.

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If the church is going to be passionate and relevant in addressing the modern eco-justice crisis -- in which urgent matters of human justice and ecological health are interconnected -- we must incorporate the four characteristics of liberation theology.

  1. We must begin with the agony of Earth community, and go to scripture and tradition to find answers to the questions that are raised by that cry. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff wrote (in Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor):
    Liberation theology and ecological discourse have something in common: they start from two bleeding wounds. The wound of poverty breaks the social fabric of millions and millions of poor people around the world. The other wound, systematic assault on the earth, breaks down the balance of the planet, which is under threat from the plundering of development as practiced by contemporary global societies. Both lines of reflection and practice have as their starting point a cry: the cry of the poor for life, freedom, and beauty ... and the cry of the Earth groaning under oppression.

  2. Eco-justice theology names and challenges the power structures that drive Earth's destruction. We cannot presume that the dominant economic systems and cultural values are benign, or that individual consumer choices will be sufficient to create a new reality. The struggle for liberation and healing will be in direct conflict with the interests of corporations and wealthy individuals, and it will oppose the globalized workings of empire. If our theological affirmations do not acknowledge the power of nations and institutions, then they do not speak truthfully about what is going on in the world.

  3. Theology that speaks to the eco-justice crisis will call us to transformative action. Theology and ethics will shape all the choices we make -- personally and as families, in the witness and programming of our churches, and in strategies for political advocacy and economic investment. A liberation theology demands that we act in accord with our beliefs. It finds no value in elegant reflection that is purely academic or spiritual.

  4. An eco-justice liberation theology must fill us with hope. It will be certain that Exodus-like events of real transformation are possible, and that the powers of exploitation and destruction can be overcome. The bold assurance of a coming new reality will inspire the hard and dangerous work of creating new institutions and rejecting false economic and political systems. The conviction in the rightness of our Earth justice cause will sustain us, even when the struggle seems overwhelming.

In the US civil rights movement, Dr. King gave voice to his community's experience of oppression, and his eloquent theology grew from the questions and cries of that experience. The movement demanded changes in laws and customs, and used instruments of political, moral and economic power in bringing about change. Martin Luther King mobilized people to act, and his prophetic words inspired the nation with hope. Other movements for liberation have combined those four essential qualities in their faithful and passionate work for freedom.

The cry of the Earth -- the cry of its oppressed and seduced people, its devastated and diminished species, its distorted natural systems -- must be the starting point and reference point for our theology and ethics. Motivated by compassion and self-interest, we must challenge power, act boldly, and be filled with hope as we seek liberation and transformation for our troubled world, for God's suffering creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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