“All biblical interpretation is done either for or against the oppressed.” This claim, made by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, succinctly articulates the foundation of liberation criticism which is less a critical reading technique than a set of ideological principles. These principles were originally developed by mid-twentieth-century Latin American Christian laypeople and pastors concerned about political, social, and economic inequality and exploitation of the materially poor. But the resulting “theologies of liberation,” which developed forms of liberation criticism, quickly received a wide reading far beyond their geographical roots and central sociopolitical focus. Core values of liberation criticism—including the importance of context for doing theology, the inclusion of ordinary readers in circles of interpretation, and the movement from theory to transformational practice—have proved foundational to gender-critical approaches to the Bible.

The Origins of Liberation Theology.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) is often alleged to be the original impetus for the development of liberation theology. In the texts produced, the councilors proclaimed the center of Catholic ecclesiology to be the “People of God,” with a particular emphasis on the poor. The bishops were influenced by the writings of the council’s convening pope, John XXIII who, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963), moved traditional Christian concerns for the poor beyond just the salvation of souls to the basic human right to a life of dignity, with rights to education, food, medicine, and self-determination of life.

While Vatican II provided significant theological analysis of the situation of the poor, what developed into the liberation theology movement actually began a decade or so earlier. A main catalyst for the movement was the shortage of ordained clergy. This shortage was particularly acute in developing countries, and in the 1950s church leaders, particularly in Brazil, encouraged local Christian communities to explore new ways to rejuvenate parish life.

Gustavo Gutierrez and A Theology of Liberation.

In 1968 the Roman Catholic bishops of Latin America met in conference in Medellín, Colombia to reassess their pastoral mission and vision for a Church of the poor. In preparation for this meeting, educator and theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who was already working with parishioners in Chimbote, Peru, first articulated a “theology of liberation.” In concert with other pastors and theologians, he was knitting together a systematic theological approach that brought together both secular and theological liberational trajectories, drawing on political and social analysis of the situation of the poor as well as biblical accounts of God as liberator of the disadvantaged.

In A Theology of Liberation, Gutierrez suggested the need for three levels of investigation, forming a single, complex process: first, an analysis of and concern for the liberation of people from economic, social, and political oppression; second, analysis of history and the broader causes of current oppression which attacks human freedom and dignity; and third, reflection on the liberation from sin, which Gutierrez understood to be the ultimate cause of all oppression.

Base Ecclesial Communities.

The liberation-critical approach articulated by Gutierrez and other Latin American theologians built upon the work of the people, mostly laity, who formed the first base ecclesial communities. Their activity was informed by the thinking of Brazilian education reformer Paulo Freire, whose “pedagogy of the oppressed” encouraged educators to serve as facilitators who joined with students in a collaborative effort to critique and create knowledge.

The first communities developed independent of one another in rural areas and impoverished urban neighborhoods, often encouraged by local clergy. There was no single way of constituting a base community; some groups gathered to study the Bible in itself, but many began to read the Bible in the context of their own specific social, political, and economic situation creating, as Carlos Mesters outlined, a three-fold conversation between the Bible, the community, and the “reality” in which the community lived. Through a process of “conscientization,” the people examined the power structures that led to their oppression as a group and interrogated them in light of biblical stories of liberation. Praxis—action informed by theory—took center stage; the point of their conversations was not to discover the “correct” interpretation of a biblical passage, but to discern how the Bible could critique, or support, oppressive political, social, or economic traditions and structures.

By the late 1970s many base communities had come under fire from local ecclesiastical authorities because of their emphasis on social analysis, which often relied more on Marxist or socialist thought than on traditional biblical interpretation. Repressive governments sensed that liberation theology could be politically destabilizing and some base communities were physically attacked and even destroyed.

Liberation Theology and the Academy.

Despite such resistance, by the end of the century, theological liberation movements had spread to economically depressed or developing areas around the globe. In other areas of the world, however, the influence of earlier liberation theologies was in decline. In legitimizing the experience of the poor and oppressed, the movement provided access to power for subaltern communities often not experienced in wielding it. Some local communities valued their own experience to a degree that cut them off from communication with other oppressed groups. Thus, the rights of women and sexual minorities were de-emphasized by communities of the economically poor who came from traditional Christian backgrounds. Those on the edge of society were as susceptible as anyone else to consumerism, domestic violence, sexism, racism, and exploitation of those weaker than themselves. The early Latin American liberation theologians, who were largely white and from the middle or upper classes, appeared to overlook or idealize marginalized communities, sometimes allowing themselves to be coopted by capitalism in the form of well-funded academic positions (Althaus-Reid 2005; Madauro 2006).

Liberation theology was declared dead, or at least irrelevant, by some within the academy. R. S. Sugirtharajah, an early proponent of liberation thinking, argued that by the early years of the present century the theological climate had changed (Sugirtharajah 2006). The Christian focus of the original movement, devoted to a monotheistic God who sided with the oppressed, had become problematic in a multi-religious world, and the Bible had become a “lethal weapon” in the hands of fundamentalists. Liberation theology had been coopted by traditional ecclesiastical powers and repackaged to encourage apolitical, personal empowerment. It was now “traditional and triumphalistic” (Sugirtharajah 2006, 5) proposing largely Christian theological solutions to political and social problems in terms that could not speak to a pluralistic world.

In order to continue to address power imbalances and resulting oppression and injustice, Sugirtharajah suggested that strictly theological concerns must be superseded by postcolonial studies grounded in liberal secular humanism. The turn to postcolonial studies meant a return to the traditional center of theological reflection: the academy. “If the 1980’s was the time of the subalterns,” Sugirtharajah claims, “now is the time of the diasporic intellectuals” (Sugirtharajah 2006, 5). Rather than focusing directly on the experience of victims of colonial oppression and reclaiming the monotheistic God of the poor, postcolonialists interrogated the ways that this God has been used to support colonial structures of oppression, critiquing the texts and “exposing contradictions and inadequacies” of their traditional interpretation (Sugirtharajah 2006, 5).

Gender and Sexuality: “Paths from Liberation Theology.”

The writings of Marcella Althaus-Reid, while honoring liberation theology’s original forebears, have critiqued the early reluctance of liberation theologians to address issues of gender and sexuality. Althaus-Reid’s “indecent theology” unmasks their devotion to a modernist paradigm, a nostalgia for the past as preserved in biblical texts and their ideologies that caused earlier liberation movements to discount the experience of people oppressed by homophobia. Despite her death in 2009, her call for revolutionary change, which she understood as “a path from liberation theology,” continues to focus its attention on a broader understanding of who constitutes the poor and oppressed (Althaus-Reid 2000 and 2005).

Readers of the Bible have cleared many such paths from early liberation theology in recent years: feminist hermeneutics, mujerista studies. womanist criticism, queer theory, disability studies, transgender criticism. Practitioners in many of these fields have distanced themselves from traditional biblical/theological interpretation, but all of them rub shoulders with colleagues who adhere to the Judeo/Christian God of the oppressed and express an understanding of that God’s fundamental option for the poor and others on the margins. And none of them ignore the insights or shun the active participation of the non-academic, “ordinary” members of their communities (Althaus-Reid 2006; Walz 2013; De La Torre 2015).

Few in the fields of gender studies have been more persistent in their construction of a liberative/emancipatory, critical approach to biblical texts than Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. For over forty years she has challenged liberation theologians who limited their characterization of the “poor” to white, largely male heterosexuals. She rejects the centering of theological reflection in the academy, arguing for a rhetoric and ethic of inquiry to uncover the ways in which all scholarly work is influenced by the social location of those doing it: what you see depends on where you stand.

In the tradition of the first base communities, Schüssler Fiorenza argues for the creation of a “republic of many equal voices,” in which the views of people of all genders, sexes, races, and educational backgrounds are critical for the interpretation of biblical texts (Schüssler Fiorenza 2009, 83). All have something to offer; as Carlos Mesters put it, the biblical scholar “is like the person who had studied salt and knew all its chemical properties but didn’t know how to cook with it. The common people don’t know the properties of salt well, but they do know how to season a meal” (Mesters 1993, 16). Through the conversation of all present in a community, the workings of Divine Wisdom in pursuit of social justice may be discerned and acted upon (Schüssler Fiorenza 2009; Lanci 2014).

A Broad Vision of Justice for the Marginalized.

While liberation criticism bears clear similarities to reader-response critical approaches—in which the identity of the reader is relevant when evaluating the meaning of a text—it is less a research method than a process of discernment in which communities confront difficult methodological questions, many of which concern power relations within the interpretive circle: What is the role of the scholar in the discussion? What does the ordinary reader bring to it? What constitutes proper social analysis or biblical interpretation? What role should tradition play in discernment? How do the conversation partners fit into local society or church?

Liberation criticism is in flux and will remain so as different communities wrestle with these questions. Who constitutes “the oppressed” has broadened to include anyone who is marginalized by dominant traditions and ideologies. But most liberation critical approaches still incorporate the core values of liberation theology:

  • • The Bible and an understanding of the divine as a God of the oppressed remain important parts of the lives of many marginalized people; thus, they are of central concern for what remains primarily a theological movement.
  • • Praxis—the intersection of theory and practice—is key to liberation criticism. The doing of theology is a “second act” activity that builds upon reflection on the lived experience of oppressed people.
  • • The “ordinary readers” sit in the interpretive circle as equal partners with theologians and other experts in the discussion and discernment (Cochrane 1999; West 2014).
  • • Liberation criticism is contextual and uncovers pluralities of meaning in biblical texts. While using a variety of socio-historical methods of biblical interpretation, its practitioners eschew attempts to discover the “truth behind the text,” what it “really” means now, or what was the intent of the author, and encourage the active engagement of poor and oppressed to discern what the texts mean “on the ground.”
  • • The ultimate goal of liberation criticism is the transformation of local ecclesial communities and secular societies and the emancipation of the poor and oppressed. Its work is “a part of activism, a part of the struggle for justice” for all people that will result in a world in which everyone has what they need in order to live a life grounded in freedom and dignity (Schüssler Fiorenza 2009; Lanci 2014).


  • Althaus-Reid, Marcella. Indecent Theology. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Althaus-Reid, Marcella. “From Liberation Theology to Indecent Theology.” In Latin American Liberation Theology: The Next Generation, edited by Ivan Petrella, pp. 20–38. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005.
  • Althaus-Reid, Marcella, ed. Liberation Theology and Sexuality. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Cochrane, James R. Circles of Dignity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
  • De La Torre, Miguel, ed. Introducing Liberative Theologies. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2015.
  • Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2003.
  • Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973.
  • Lanci, John R. “Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and the Rhetoric and Ethic of Inquiry.” In Genealogies of New Testament Rhetorical Criticism, edited by Troy W. Martin, pp. 133–163. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
  • Madauro, Otto. “Once Again Liberating Theology? Towards a Latin American Liberation Theological Self-Criticism.” In Liberation Theology and Sexuality, edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid, pp. 19–31. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing, 2006.
  • Mesters, Carlos. “The Use of the Bible in Christian Communities of the Common People.” In The Bible and Liberation, rev. ed., edited by Norman K. Gottwald and Richard A. Horsley, pp. 3–16. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Democratizing Biblical Studies. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
  • Sugirtharajah, R. S. “Introduction: Still at the Margins.” In Voices from the Margin, 3d ed., edited by R. S. Sugirtharajah, pp. 1–10. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Obis Books, 2006.
  • Walz, Heike. “Key Issues for Liberation Theology Today: Intercultural Gender Theology, Controversial Dialogues on Gender and Theology between Women and Men, and Human Rights.” In The Reemergence of Liberation Theologies, edited by Thia Cooper, pp. 89–99. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  • West, Gerald O. “Locating ‘Contextual Bible Study’ within Biblical Liberation Herrmeneutics and Intercultural Biblical Hermeneutics.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 70, no. 1 (Oct. 2014). dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v70i1.2641 (accessed 7 July 2016).

John R. Lanci