We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Contribution of Liberationist Hermeneutics

Christopher Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, and opened a significant era in the mission of the Church. The conquest of the Americas, destructive as it was, soon included the raising of important questions about the discovery of America. For example, Bartolomé de Las Casas, the ex-slave-owner who became a Dominican, asserted that indigenous people possessed equal dignity in the sight of God (Gutiérrez 1994). As a young priest, he prepared a homily on Ecclus. 34: 21–7; the words ‘Like one who kills before his father's eyes is a person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor’ crystallized a sense of the injustice of the economic system of which he was a part, which exploited indigenous peoples. The rest of his life was devoted to obtaining rights for indigenous peoples from the Spanish crown and showing that they therefore had equal rights to life, liberty, and full development. Las Casas influenced Spanish legislation and affected the encomienda system by which grants of land included all the Indians settled on them. He became a bishop who acted as ‘the voice of the voiceless’. Figures like Las Casas provided the inspiration for the movement which arose in the last decades of the twentieth century known as liberation theology.

Like the Marxist tradition with which it has affinities and has from time to time been influenced, liberation theology rejects the notion that humans think first and act on the basis of rational thought. Rather, the latter emerges out of specific contexts, and is determined by those contexts and the human interests at work in them. Talk about God, therefore, is always potentially ideological, and needs to be examined within the power relations at work in a particular social context.

Liberation theology developed in the context of the emergence of the Basic Ecclesial or Christian Communities, the CEBs. In the CEBs an alternative space opened up to reflect on the way of Christ over against prevailing ideology, thus empowering people to share in the task of bringing the transforming power of the gospel to every part of an unjust world. Understanding the Bible takes place in the dialectic between the literary memory of the people of God and the issues of the contemporary world (Mesters 1989). So, the emphasis is not on the text's meaning in itself, but rather on the meaning the text has for the people reading it. It is an interpretation which challenges a widespread view that exegesis is primarily about letting the text speak for itself, unencumbered by contexts and contemporary issues. Among grass-roots communities the Bible has become a catalyst for the exploration of pressing contemporary issues relevant to that community, and offers a language so that the voice of the voiceless may be heard. The biblical tradition becomes a catalyst for new thought and action related to the circumstances of everyday commitments. Connections between contemporary demands are made with the experience set out in the stories of biblical characters. Educational programmes enable the Bible to be a resource in which the experience of life is illumined. This can take various forms. It can be Bible study which goes straight to the text with no concern to ask questions about its original historical context. This method Clodovis Boff (1987:146–9) describes as an example of ‘correspondence of terms’, in which persons or events function in a kind of typological relationship with scriptural analogies. Alternatively, popular education also includes outlines of historical and social contexts, so that the interpretation of Scripture involves a dialectic between insights from the contemporary struggle of the people of God: the experience of poverty and oppression (often termed ‘life’ or ‘reality’) and the text as witness to the people of God at another time and place engaging in their struggle for justice (Sugirtharajah 1992).

Liberationist hermeneutics demands a break with the hermeneutical assumptions inherited from Western theology, which have been assumed unquestioningly by much liberation theology. Commitment to the struggle for justice is certainly a key hermeneutical factor, but one also needs to probe the nature of the struggle behind and beneath the biblical texts. In this, insights emerge when readers are involved in the contemporary struggle for justice to which the canonical text bears witness. The primary basis for an examination of the biblical issue is the experience of the contemporary world and the insight that the perspective of the ‘underside of history’ of the struggle may offer. It becomes essential to understand something of the culture, in the widest sense of that term, out of which the struggle for power comes and in which the biblical interpreter is located. In this she or he is not just a passive observer, but part of that conflict of interests and concerns which engulf the individual in an increasingly global capitalism.

Liberation theologians insist that all theology is inevitably contextual and conditioned by the environment and activity in which the theologians are themselves engaged. The practice of the life of discipleship itself throws up understanding of texts which would only with difficulty have emerged in the calm reflection of academy or church. The implication is that academic endeavour might not, in some instances at least, offer us the best or most appropriate understanding of a text, and that one who is engaged in ‘applied or practical theology’ might, in certain circumstances, capture the spirit of the text better. This is absolutely central to liberationist hermeneutics, and explains the belief in the epistemological privilege of the poor and the marginalized.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most hard-hitting challenges to theology has come from the recognition of the ‘ideological’ character of theology and its role within a complicated political struggle within the churches to maintain the ascendancy of certain positions. The emphasis on the contextual nature of all theology has led liberation theologians to question the absolute character of theological pronouncements from the past as well as the present and to a theological unmasking of the reality. One needs, therefore, to ask: What is the connection between a particular theological theme and a particular set of historical circumstances? Who is helped by a particular theme or a particular type of Christology? What interests does it represent, and what concrete projects does it support? The issue is summarized in a typically pungent way by the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff:

Theologians do not live in clouds. They are social actors with a particular place in society. They produce knowledge, data, and meanings by using instruments that the situation offers them and permits them to utilize…. The themes and emphases of a given christology flow from what seems relevant to the theologian on the basis of his or her social standpoint…. In that sense we must maintain that no christology is or can be neutral…. Willingly or unwillingly christological discourse is voiced in a given social setting with all the conflicting interests that pervade it. That holds true as well for theological discourse that claims to be ‘purely’ theological, historical, traditional, ecclesial and apolitical. Normally such discourse adopts the position of those who hold power in the existing system. If a different kind of christology with its own commitments appears on the scene and confronts the older ‘apolitical’ christology, the latter will soon discover its social locale, forget its ‘apolitical’ nature, and reveal itself as a religious reinforcement of the existing status quo. (L. Boff 1980: 265)

The contributions of liberation theologians form a small part of a long debate within Christianity, both modern and ancient, about appropriate attitudes and responses to the poor and vulnerable, and the Church's relations with the political powers. Liberation theologians are engaged in mediation between the poor, Church teaching, and appropriate ‘secular’ wisdom which contributes to understanding the reality of a life of suffering and facilitates theological reflection, though with a clear commitment to the poor, rather than being neutral theological brokers. Their own theological emphases are on the gospels, rather than Paul, and the exodus, rather than the accounts about the settlement in Canaan (Gottwald 1980). They have shown up the unease felt by mainstream Christianity with more revolutionary parts of the canon. But liberation theology has reminded us that the prophetic strand, with its daring convictions about a new order in this world, open to abuse and disappointment, has continued throughout the history of Christianity to be a potent resource for those who have been unwilling to cope with the demands of the kingdom by confining its demands and its impacts to a sacred sphere whether in the life of the ecclesia or the soul of the individual. Liberation theology has reminded us, if nothing else, that when viewed from the underside of history, by the poor and the marginalized, the message of Jesus looks rather different from the way in which it has been portrayed by those who have had the power to write the story of the Church and formulate its dogmas and its social concerns.

In writing influenced by liberation theology there has been an attempt both to trace the radical currents in the Bible and the influence they have had in movements down the centuries. As far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned, an influential theory has been that associated with Norman Gottwald (1980), in which the God of the Hebrews is a God who sides with the oppressed and downtrodden and who liberates slaves and offers hope for a new type of religion. That utopian project with its egalitarian characteristics is chosen by an Egyptian prince who in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews ‘chose rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin’ (Heb. 11: 25). That option for the poor and the marginalized is found in traces throughout the prophetic literature, as appeal is made to that original vision for Jewish polity embodied in the legislation of Deuteronomy and Exodus. It is this which undergirds Jesus' proclamation of God's kingdom, not as some other-worldly hope but as a this-worldly possibility. That egalitarian strain is reflected in the community of goods practised by the earliest Christians in Judaea and even reflected in the extraordinary project of mutual support instigated by the apostle Paul.

Such radical strands are at odds with those which either propound some notion of support for civilization or seek some kind of compromise with the surrounding society. In the settlement of Jews in Canaan, the links with the surrounding culture, the subject of severe critique from many of the biblical prophets as diverse as Samuel, Elijah, and Jeremiah, provide an interface between distinctiveness and difference and conformity with the cosmopolitan culture of the time. This interface was itself the very dynamic of the emerging religion of the Jewish people as the extent of compromise and difference was negotiated (Pixley 1981).

There is a parallel development within early Christianity, as the Jesus movement, made up in its earliest days of wandering radicals, interacted with more settled patterns of life whether based in Judaea or in the emerging Christian communities in the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is not too difficult to see a very different religious ethos emerging in the Pauline communities. Nevertheless, despite the tenuous links with the radicalism of the Jesus tradition, the Pauline letters indicate that the new converts did have to learn a degree of accommodation, albeit laced with subtle differences in its ethos, with the world as it was, and yet there are echoes of the call to discipleship of the teacher from Nazareth. Paul, the radical innovator and founder of the Gentile church, sowed the seeds of the acceptability of the world order as it is and passivity towards it. Nevertheless, there is at the heart of the emerging Christian identity a distinctive identity in which élite goods and privileges (wealth, power, holiness, and knowledge) ceased to be the prerogative merely of an élite but were open to all within the common life of the Christian communities (Theissen 1999).

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice