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Re: Kingdom-World-Church and Liberation Theology

A couple months ago I expressed some reservations regarding how liberation theology is appropriated near the end of the Kingdom-World-Church theses posted over at Inhabitatio Dei. A bit later I posted a couple quotes from Roberto Goizueta that reinforced a couple of my points. Last week Halden noted the critiques some have made regarding the theses and their relation to liberation theology (I don’t know if he had mine in mind or not) and provided a lengthy quote from Leonardo Boff in support of the appropriation of liberation theology within the theses.

The quote from Boff illustrates very well the ways in which the authors of the theses rightfully draw upon liberation theology and the ‘church of the poor’ within their work. Contrary to ‘ecclesiocentric’ theologies, Boff, Sobrino, and others de-center the church vis-a-vis the Kingdom of God and the poor. As I mention in my first post, the de-centering of the church in view of the Kingdom is a significant point of agreement. The inclusion of the ‘church of the poor’ within this de-centering further shows the commonality with liberation theologians. These points are important and thus I do not think that the engagement with liberation theology is merely superficial.

Nevertheless, significant divergences seem to remain (and remain unaddressed in Halden’s new post, which simply reinforces the point of agreement I just described and affirmed in my original post).  There were two main issues I raised that still remain.

First, it is stated in thesis 11 that the preferential option not only lies at the center of the mission of the church, it is the mission. This needs to be further explored, as the general flow of the theses does not seems to support this claim. I illustrated this in my first post by looking the critical reading of liturgy in the 4th thesis. Many liberation theologians offer critiques of liturgy and ritual in a way that flows directly from the preferential option for the poor . They worry that liturgy can devalue human action in such a way that we become passive before God and pacified before oppression. The critique of liturgy in the 4th thesis does not seem to be shaped in the slightest by the preferential option as the mission of the church; rather the danger of liturgy and the devaluation of God’s action the temptation of (ecclesial) self-aggrandizement. 

The second has to do with what is meant by “church of the poor” or the “preferential option.” Although the theses still need to be expanded, I think we can see the authors affirming the preferential option in terms of ethics/solidarity and for our understanding of God (in theses 10 and 11). The further question is whether or not (or how) they understand the preferential option in terms of theological method. This aspect is absolutely essential within Latin American liberation theology (including in Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor, the work cited in thesis 11). This aspect was shown in one of the quotes from Goizueta in my earlier post (“The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the church and in the world. The crucified people are the privileged historical mediation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. When they extend mercy, they embody Christ’s own offer to the apostles after the resurrection: ‘Peace be with you'”). It is also clear in Sobrino’s affirmation of the preferential option as ‘pre-theological’; and even clearer in Juan Luis Segundo: the option for the poor is the hermeneutical key for the Gospel, “the antecedent element required in order to interpret the gospel and keep its letter from killing”; “the epistemological premise for an interpretation of the word of God”; “the human attitude that we adopt, on our own responsibility and at our own risk, toward the Word of God, before reading that Word” (Segundo, “The Option for the Poor” in Signs of the Times, 120, 122, 126). For Goizueta, Segundo, Sobrino, and many others, the preferential option demands not only a different way of being Church (the focus of the theses), but also a very different way of doing theology (not represented in the theses).

A further point related to this which needs to at least be mention (and it is gestured at in Halden’s newest post in his concern about Boff’s notion of ‘mediation’) is the view of the poor as ‘sacraments’ of God. This is shown well in the Goizueta quote above. The way this is often described within liberation theology would seem to go against the apocalyptic, Barthian shape of the theses as a whole, and  yet it shapes the methodology of many liberation theologians in a way that I assume would not be acceptable within the theses.

The theses are, of course, theses.  They await further development and Halden’s latest post promises us further exploration. As they develop their notions of the preferential option and the church of the poor, I hope they not only continue to draw on the points of agreement mentioned at the beginning, but also focus in on those points where they seem to diverge significantly with essential aspects of Latin American liberation theology.

  1. Jeremy
    September 14, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks for this reflection. I think you’re right to methodological implications of liberation theology. The authors seemed to parachute Sobrino and Latin American liberation theology into the heavily Barthian theses. I suspect that the authors do in fact agree in with regards to ethical implications of the preferential options for the poor. But you’re right to suggest that these theses would need to be re-worked if in fact that is the key to understanding the gospel. Anyway keep us these posts and challenges. I look forward to hearing Halden et al. respond in turn.

  2. robbbeck
    September 15, 2010 at 10:55 am


    Thanks again for posting another helpful corrective to the Kingdom-World-Church Theses. I think you’re spot on with the difficulty the Theses will run into given Liberation Theology’s sacramental and mediatory aspects of the poor.

    Quick question for you given your background on VonB and Lib Theo, and I pose this as one who is on the ecclesiocentric side of things (though I think it’s a false dichotomy). I saw somewhere that Kerr is trying to push for a “mission makes the church” instead of “the Eucharist makes the church” paradigm, which I think fits seamlessly with the general nature of the Theses. This struck me as an interesting claim to make given the unique influence the French Nouvelle theologians had on Liberation Theology. I’m thinking more along the lines of Blondel, de Montcheuil (and perhaps even de Lubac by implication) more so than vonB. Of course the Nouvelle were painfully hesitant to draw out the political implications of their thought (especially so with de Lubac), but it still seems like there’s continuity there; especially so with the focus on what constitutes communion, sacramentlogy and the social nature of salvation.

    My question is: in order for the theses to really have a Liberation bent or a sacremntal understanding of the poor vs. a mere “parachuting” as Jeremy perfectly described it, don’t they need a sense of “the Eucharist makes the church,” provided “Eucharist” is understood in the Nouvelle-Liberation Theology sense?

    I realize I’m painting with broad strokes here, so apologies in advance if this question isn’t clear.


    • Todd Walatka
      September 15, 2010 at 9:33 pm

      Thanks to both of you for the response. As for your further question, Robb, let me give at least some initial thoughts. First, not every liberation theologian has a sacramental understanding of the preferential option (Segundo comes to mind here). Of course, the two cited so far in the theses and in Halden’s follow up (Sobrino and Boff) do have a strong view of mediation or sacramentality. There is some diversity in terms of method in liberation theology; yet, as far as I can tell each method is fundamentally shaped by the option for the poor.

      In terms of the mission makes church versus eucharist makes church question, I think Balthasar’s view is striking. Both his anthropology and ecclesiology are grounded in an Ignatian view of mission. The individual Christian and the church as a whole are defined by the call to act in and for the world within the all-encompassing mission of Christ. We become who we are to be by responding to God’s call to enter into the drama of salvation. Yet, the Eucharist (along with other sacraments, rituals, practices, structures, etc.) is an essential part of Christ’s drawing humanity into his mission and into the life of God. This is particularly clear in his discussion of the working of the Holy Spirit in Theo-Logic 3. But even with this, I always tend to emphasize the connection between Eucharist and mission in his thought: any gift of God (Gabe) includes within it and is oriented towards a calling, a task (Aufgabe) to do in the world.

      I don’t know if that answers your question. In the end, I also would like to bring to two perspectives together, although I usually put my emphasis on mission or vocation.

  3. robbbeck
    September 16, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Thanks, Todd. And thanks for calling to mind Theo-Logic 3.


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