Stephen Chan: From the 1960s onwards, there was a new phe­nom­e­non, or at least it was noticed as new at that point in time, which has been called lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy.” It began in Latin America. It began with Catholic priests want­i­ng to take a stand against injus­tice and cor­rup­tion, and par­tic­u­lar­ly on behalf of the poor­est cit­i­zens in Latin American coun­tries. These were often very senior church­men. You had peo­ple who wrote about the need for lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy in schol­ar­ly terms. People like Gutiérrez. And you had peo­ple who preached it in such a way that it dis­com­fit­ted those who were exploit­ing soci­ety. And they were tar­get­ed for per­se­cu­tion, and in the case of Óscar Romero, assassination. 

The assas­si­na­tion of Romero, who was the arch­bish­op in El Salvador, sparked out­rage around the world, but at the same time was seen as a warn­ing sign to many many in the Catholic faith who had been dis­qui­et­ed by the advent of lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy. Not because it preached com­fort and jus­tice for those at the bot­tom of the heap. Not because of its Christological mes­sage that you had to look after the poor, and that when you were treat­ing them with jus­tice it was as if you were treat­ing Christ with justice. 

What the con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ment, the broad con­ser­v­a­tive wing of the Catholic Church, was aggriev­ed about was the great sim­i­lar­i­ty in terms of this new lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy and Marxist out­looks upon eco­nom­ic injus­tice in the world. There was a very very broad cor­re­la­tion between the care for the work­ing class, the care for those immis­er­at­ed, and the care for those at the very bot­tom of a long line of depen­den­cies in inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal that res­onat­ed with new cur­rents in Marxist or Neo-Marxist thought, much of which also had Latin American ori­gins, or Latin American case exam­ples. The work of German polit­i­cal econ­o­mists like Andre Gunder Frank, the begin­nings of the Dependencia school of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, all spoke a con­gru­ent lan­guage to lib­er­a­tion theology.

And of course what this meant by means of a con­cen­tra­tion on the immis­er­at­ed major­i­ty at the bot­tom of the heap was an empha­sis on their mate­r­i­al con­di­tion. So not only was it Marxist or Neo-Marxist or seem­ing so, it seemed also that the mate­r­i­al was being pri­or­i­tized above the spir­i­tu­al. Never mind that the Christological exam­ple of car­ing for the mate­r­i­al needs of those most impov­er­ished actu­al­ly led to the spir­i­tu­al uplift­ment of the per­son doing the car­ing. The res­o­nances at that point in time as the 60s advanced was such that as the world in gen­er­al, as the new younger post­war gen­er­a­tion came of age in gen­er­al, and began their agi­ta­tions around the devel­oped world—in the United States the Berkeley upris­ing; in Europe the Paris uprising—all of these things spoke to a new form of look­ing at the world which was dis­qui­et­ing to more con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments, not least in the Catholic Church.

But far from being sub­dued, lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy car­ried on. It spread to con­ti­nents like Africa, where peo­ple like Canaan Banana who was the first cer­e­mo­ni­al pres­i­dent of Zimbabwe wrote a superb book called The Gospel According to the Ghetto in which he out­lined a pro­gram of lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy for those who were at the very poor­est lev­el in African society. 

Once again this was dis­qui­et­ing to church elders of a con­ser­v­a­tive bent. Because what Canaan Banana was writ­ing res­onat­ed with the work of peo­ple like Frantz Fanon, peo­ple who were con­sid­ered rev­o­lu­tion­ary, to the extent that the writ­ings of lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gists start­ed to seem almost hereti­cal. It was not yet time, as far as the Catholic Church at that moment was con­cerned, for this kind of emer­gence of the­ol­o­gy into a lib­er­a­tion that engaged with the world and its mate­r­i­al con­cerns as mate­r­i­al deprivations.

Where the Catholic Church came of age was in fact some years lat­er in being able to trans­act on a face-to-face basis the ter­ri­ble con­di­tions caused by pover­ty and war. And this was in Mozambique. Mozambique came to inde­pen­dence very late, 1975, after pro­longed colo­nial rule by Portugal. It alarmed South Africa, then still under­neath Apartheid. And then when oth­er states in the region also shook off minor­i­ty white rule, par­tic­u­lar­ly Zimbabwe in 1980, the response of the South Africans was mil­i­ta­rized. Each coun­try in the region was attacked, but in a dif­fer­ent way, using a doc­trine called Total Strategy.” 

And Mozambique was torn apart by a rebel move­ment spon­sored and equipped and trained by South Africa, lead­ing to a bit­ter civ­il war in which the gov­ern­ment forces found it very dif­fi­cult to hold ground. This was the advent of two things: the mod­ern phe­nom­e­non of the child sol­dier bear­ing assault rifles. Therefore one child capa­ble of mass destruc­tion. And also the advent of atroc­i­ty. The idea was that you lit­er­al­ly blood­ed into loy­al­ty to the side that had induct­ed or con­script­ed you, killing peo­ple in your own vil­lage so you could nev­er have a place to which you could go back. So that the great psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma caused to the chil­dren who were induct­ed or con­script­ed to fight, for instance induct­ing them by means of mak­ing them com­mit atroc­i­ty, became a mark­er of this ter­ri­ble con­flict in Mozambique. It was only right towards the end of the 1980s, when Total Strategy had run its course, when the south African Apartheid mil­i­tary machine had been defeat­ed in Angola, that there seemed to be a chance for a nego­ti­at­ed settlement. 

But how do you nego­ti­ate with those who are atro­cious? With what means would you nego­ti­ate? With what induce­ments would you nego­ti­ate? This is where there was a very very inter­est­ing medi­a­tion in Mozambique led by the arch­bish­op of Beira. He con­tact­ed the rebel groups and said, It’s time for you to come in out of the cold. Your patron, your spon­sors in South Africa are them­selves fac­ing up to a new real­i­ty. You too must do this. However, we know that because of the ter­ri­ble atroc­i­ties caused by this war there are going to have to be all kinds of very dif­fi­cult things to be trans­act­ed and nego­ti­at­ed. We the Catholic Church will lead the way and vouch­safe your safe­ty dur­ing the process of nego­ti­a­tions.” Which then also involved neigh­bor­ing coun­tries in par­tic­u­lar Zimbabwe, led by Robert Mugabe at that point in time, who met with the rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama. 

But it was the Catholic church who made all of the run­ning in terms of mate­r­i­al progress in these nego­ti­a­tions. The arch­bish­op of Beira hand­ed over the process to the monastery of Santo Egidio just out­side Rome, a very lib­er­al, far-sighted monas­tic com­mu­ni­ty who slow­ly, stage by stage, con­duct­ed nego­ti­a­tions, induced the rebels to come to Rome for talks, induced them to take these talks seri­ous­ly by involvement—gradually—of the Vatican itself, and then through the Vatican of the Italian gov­ern­ment. Then a com­bi­na­tion of work by the Italian gov­ern­ment and the Zimbabwean gov­ern­ment final­ly led to the treaty of Rome in 1992, and a peace—of sorts—was signed for Mozambique which did allow suf­fi­cient sta­bil­i­ty for the coun­try to come through to this present moment as some­thing able at least to devel­op, even if on a ten­ta­tive foundation.

But the grap­pling of the issue by the monastery of Santo Egidio, the realpoli­tik that the priests employed, the com­plete lack of illu­sion that they were able to field into the nego­ti­a­tions, the hard­head­ed­ness with which they con­duct­ed all the inter­changes, spoke of some­thing which was not spir­i­tu­al in any way except the desire for peace. Or at least a desire for less vio­lence. It had noth­ing to do with pun­ish­ing the wicked. It had noth­ing to do with ret­ri­bu­tion. It was entire­ly pro­mot­ed for the desire of an end to vio­lence, but deal­ing with peo­ple who had com­mit­ted vio­lence. So the world­li­ness of this, for all of the moral ques­tion­ing that needs to be posed accord­ing to this process, was not what we would call lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy. It was a the­ol­o­gy which came to a moment of lib­er­a­tion by grap­pling with ter­ri­ble real­i­ties. But it was a lib­er­a­tion that was freed of spir­i­tu­al constraints.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course infor­ma­tion