Back to the Drawing Board

I have a blog! For better or worse. This blog started out as a unique response to a class assignment on liberation theology, and those posts remain available in their earlier meanderings below. I realized this evening, though, that my life has been and continues to be about rediscovering the sacred in some amazing places. And it’s time to return to the proverbial drawing board. I’m currently at Montreat Conference Center for a convocation on peace discernment hosted by the Presbyterian Peace Discernment Steering Team that I’m proud to be a part of. So much of the past two days has been an exercise in liberating theology. Students, chaplains, professors, peacemakers here are knee-deep in the complexity of racism, structures of power and injustice, war and terrorism, and ultimately participants in Christ’s imperative of nonviolence. I’m not sure what will come of all the endeavors and conversations of these few days, but such is the fertile ground for the Holy Spirit’s work.

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Toward a Politics of Liberating Theology

Mosaic at United Nations Headquarters, NY/Credit: J. Hawkinson

My goal in this brief conversation is to explore two key components which challenge both Pentecostalism and mainline Protestantism. I look first to the power and place of the Holy Spirit as a defining feature of the church’s life in the world. Second, I take up the challenge of the church’s engagement with a theology of social transformation. In conclusion, I argue for a third way as a new paradigm for theology in a contemporary context: a “liberational spirituality.”

Power and place of the Holy Spirit

Pentecostalism at its core “represents a ritualized prolongation of the original Pentecostal event (Acts 2:10, 19) that expresses the essence of Christianity with an intense spirituality that recalls the life of early Christians” (92). Throughout their work Shaull and Cesar frequently cite the Pentecostal communities as marked almost universally by the radical presence of the Holy Spirit in the everyday lives of the poor. The role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the poor in the Pentecostal church is central and powerful. Even more than traditional theological concepts like sin and salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit is central to the lives of worshippers (139). The Holy Spirit takes the form of “the immediate presence and power of God in everyday life, bringing health and material well-being and a new quality of life here and now” (139). God’s kairos, or breaking into this world, “is known as an immediate experience of the divine, especially among the poor, an experience…of sick persons being healed, of broken lives being reintegrated and restored” (152). The poor, “for whom the world has been a prison, many of whom are living, in a sense, on their own “death row”…enter, through the Spirit, into another realm” (153). The work of the Spirit, for the poor of the Pentecostal church, is the fulfillment of the word preached to free the captives and give sight to the blind.

In contrast, much of the contemporary Protestant church lacks a rich theology of the presence of the Holy Spirit in human experience. I spoke with a colleague working in the social justice ministries of the PC(USA) about this reality, and he jokingly responded that he wasn’t sure the Holy Spirit even appeared in the numerous confessions of the Presbyterian Church. For a variety of reasons, the church in the West has abandoned its spiritual disciplines (165). What once was a rich belief in the Spirit of God offering a “compelling sense of vocation in the world” is now dramatically weakened. Where once the church privileged the “spiritual motivation to struggle for social transformation,” it is now “rarely taken into account in our churches” (214). The current state of affairs is worrying at best, and life-threatening at its worst.

Theology as a tool for social transformation

One of the central criticisms directed toward Pentecostalism in the communities visited by the authors was the claim that the Pentcostal church (though this term is problematically broad) lacks a theology of social transformation. As noted above, Pentecostalism gives strong emphasis to the work of the Holy Spirit in the personal lives of its followers. In contrast, many deeply faithful individuals “gave little or no attention to the analysis of what was happening in the world around them, the social, economic, and political realities causing this destruction of life” (160). Articulated from a theological point of view, the authors “found little evidence of the development of a theology of social responsibility” in the Pentecostal churches they visited (211). In contrast, the PC(USA), as an example, has decades of resolutions and confessions which profess the church’s commitment to social responsibility. And yet, Shaull and Cesar reach the conclusion that the middle-class churches “have little or no connection with the victims of our present order” and are simultaneously “lacking the richness and depth of experience of the presence and power of God necessary for dynamic participation in this struggle for life” (210). If both the Pentecostal and the mainline communities have not created a theology of social transformation, where is the nexus of its development?

Ubuntu as a middle ground

In his life and work, Desmond Tutu has articulated what author Michael Battle has called “a new kind of liberational spirituality” (Battle, 95). Tutu captures this liberational spirituality in the South African framework of Ubuntu. In my analysis, the theology of Ubuntu articulates a vision which balances the radical transformation of the Holy Spirit that emerges from the the daily lives of the poor and the work of theology as a tool for social transformation. Tutu writes “We are each a God-carrier, a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, indwelt by God the holy and most blessed Trinity. To treat one such as less than this is not just wrong…It is veritably blasphemous and sacrilegious. It is to spit in the face of God. Consequently, injustice, racism, exploitation, oppression are to be opposed not as a political task but as a response to a religious, a spiritual imperative. Not to oppose these manifestations of evil would be tantamount to disobeying God” (Battle, 95). This “liberational spirituality” captures the need to nurture both spirituality and “effective social impact on structural forms of oppression” (Battle, 95). While the church should be cautious about adopting wholesale the ethic of Ubuntu, unique to the South African experience, the concept of a liberational spirituality rings true as a promising goal. It seems an essential concept for the Pentecostal church as an encouragement to participate in the systemic transformation of their societies. The commitment to a theology of social liberation may be one of the few ways to consolidate the voice of the most vulnerable in establishing institutions which include their agency. For the mainline churches, the theology of Ubuntu requires a commitment to the deeply spiritual and contemplative life, as well as a commitment to the restoration of justice in oppressed communities. It demands that the mainline church come to terms with its complicity in systems of oppression, while listening for the call to a new vocation in radical discipleship. The church, wherever it lives and serves in the Holy Spirit, would do well to reclaim its history as a radically transformative force in the contemporary world.

Cesar, Waldo and Shaull, Richard. Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Battle, Michael. “The Ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu.” In Archbishop Tutu: Prophetic Witness in South Africa, edited by Leonard Hulley et. al., 93-105. Capetown: Human & Rousseau, 1996.

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Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez

When I was in high school, I spent two weeks in Juarez for a youth group mission trip with the church I attended in the suburbs of Philadelphia. If I remember correctly, that was the summer of 2003. So, encountering Nancy Pineda-Madrid’s book Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez hit “close to home.” Close to home in the sense that I know the name of the place and carry with me the profound experience of walking briefly in partnership with the community of faith there. And yet, I had no awareness of what Pineda-Madrid reveals as a horrific feminicide that would have been ten years in the making at the time of my trip there. Perhaps the leaders of the trip didn’t know. We were warned against wandering the city at night, and we worked to build a women’s shelter for victims of domestic violence. I cannot imagine a more important context for facing the realities of systemic violence in the community we served. This course is not my first encounter with the history of feminicide in Juarez since that trip, but this is the first extensive opportunity I have had to reflect and write of the experience.

Almost ten years after that trip, I can’t help thinking: “Our leaders should have told us.” the church, more than any other organization or community should have been responsible and held accountable for making us keenly aware of the realities that our brothers and sisters in Christ were and are facing. Martin Buber and others would argue that our own humanity is inextricably linked with those in encounter with us, and I think they are correct. I lived in Texas for almost ten years before my visit to Juarez. Though I was hours away, Juarez might as well have been in my backyard. And yet, I had no idea.

In our class discussion last week, I couldn’t help but realize how little we talked about the experiences of the women and the community that surrounds them. The theology of salvation is central to the confessions of all Christians, and it was critically important for our class session. What seems most important to me, however, and which was not appropriately addressed, is the way in which this salvation is lived out in the world. If we are to live as “resurrection people,” it seems reasonable to explore radical definitions of salvation. This is all the more important in an era of globalization which has so dramatically made possible the encounter with the “other.” The internal-looking church would do well to consider seriously the claim of Pineda-Madrid that “We can understand salvation only through our communion with one another, with God, and with creation” (152). When we are ignorant of or inactive in the face of such great trauma to the global community of faith, we are complicit. We fail to live out the individual gift of salvation in the choice of inaction.

I am convinced that the Holy Spirit continues to make manifest salvation in the radical transformation of both individuals and the world. I would go so far as to suggest that humankind has a responsibility for the salvation of the world through the work of the Spirit. Looking back through these remarks, I recognize a lack of significant dialogue with the details of the text assigned. But I hope that these humble remarks still respond to the tensions of the text and the human emotions and commitments that this text has raised for so many colleagues and friends.

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Liberation Theology: Whither the US Christian?

In his analysis of the US Liberation Theologian, Ivan Petrella identifies the disconnect between the privileged church – the church of plenty – and the realities of poverty in that church’s very backyard. Petrella argues that “a United States liberation theologian works in a material context little different from a liberation theologian from the Third World” (Petrella, 51). Indeed, as the gap between the nation’s rich and poor continues to rise at a dramatic rate, the need for systemic change is all the more essential. The widespread participation in the “Occupy” movements are a visible manifestation of the widening gap. US sources indicate that 15.1 percent of the country’s population lives below its poverty line, higher than the number cited by Petrella (CIA, United States). Over 45 million people rely on food aid from the US government – a record high (Huffington Post, 3 November 2011). Petrella identifies US character as “a Zone of Social Abandonment,” with its stark inequality contrasting a significant state of apathy across the spectrum of the American population. (Petrella, 51).

A terrifying reality of the contemporary church is its often complicit role in the structures of Western empire in a globalized world. Rather than sit silently, however, the transformed church in the US context is called to speak a prophetic word to the powers and principalities of the day. The US church as a light to the nations would be to speak comfort to the world’s most vulnerable, to repent of past silences and to confirm that the cries of lament have been heard. Jesus lives out a liberating mission in his work. Richard Horsley writes that Jesus’ following was strengthened by his own “speaking truth to power at Passover time in Jerusalem” (Horsley, 177). The church today, in a similar liberating mission, is called to raise judgment against the forces of violence and injustice in the world, and to bear witness to a powerful God in our midst.

Petrella, Ivan. “The Material Context of the US Liberation Theologian: Poverty in the Midst of Plenty,” in Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. SCM Press, Pages 45-77

CIA World Factbook, United States:

Huffington Post. “Number Of Americans On Food Stamps Hits Another High Years After Recession’s End.” November 3, 2011.

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Poverty, Solidarity and Protest – Definitions and a Preferential Option

Defining poverty – Themes and controversies
Images of poverty flood television screens, newspapers, the internet, and our churches. The world’s number one Millennium Development Goal, affirmed by the UN and its member states, is “Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger.” Poverty is seen as something to eradicate, the poor sometimes get lost in that effort. A broad definition would include any deficiency in a human being’s capacity to fulfill his or her basic human rights. Another definition would identify hunger and income as poverty’s center. Each of these is, in short, a reflection of what is “subhuman” (Gutierrez, 164). Gutierrez provides two reframed definitions of poverty. The first is “a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God” (165). The second is poverty as “opposed to pride, to an attitude of self-sufficiency; on the other hand, it is synonymous with faith, with abandonment and trust in the Lord” (169). Brought together in synthesis, a vocation of action and struggle emerges.

Solidarity – Synthesis and struggle
A third definition of poverty that Gutierrez introduces a third definition of poverty that synthesizes and strengthens the two definitions of poverty mentioned above. Poverty is best understood, he writes, “as a commitment of solidarity and protest” (171). This poverty is a call to struggle, a solidarity that is rooted in awareness and protest against injustice. Engagement with this poverty and solidarity in it opens the possibility of embracing “the concrete, vital context necessary for a theological discussion of poverty” (173). The future of the church and its theology rests on serious engagement with its worship and mission as vessels for bearing witness to and participating in the struggle for the transformation of the world.

A Preferential Option
Gustavo Gutierrez may be best known for his Preferential Option for the Poor. He identifies poverty at its core as “Death: unjust death, the premature death of the poor, physical death” (Nickoloff, 144). A preferential option means an investment and trust in the human richness of those who face injustice and the denial of their humanity. To abandon the poor, for Gutierrez, is incongruous: “The rejection of the preference [for the poor] means failing to grasp that we must combine the universality of God’s love with God’s preference for the poorest” (Nickoloff, 145). People of faith are called to solidarity with the poor for reasons of faith. As people of faith, Christians are called to fulfill the preferential option as participation in the community of God’s people (Nickoloff, 146). As Gutierrez writes, “If we believe in the same God, then we should walk side by side in history” (Nickoloff, 146). The current poverty of the privileged church is in their abandonment of this preferential option.

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Christian Community and the New Society – Liberating history and the relevance of the new church

Liberating history – a radical precedent
Gutierrez’s theology of salvation, discussed in a previous post, centers on the work of salvation as “a reality which occurs in history” and which “gives to the historical becoming of humankind its profound unity and its deepest meaning” (Gutierrez, 143). Gutierrez and others look to the figure of Christ as a radical precedent for the liberation and salvation of history. Gutierrez highlights the marginalized church of the first centuries as a church whose status meant its recognition of wider church struggles and close attention to “the action of Christ beyond its frontiers, that is, to the totality of his redemptive work” (Gutierrez, 144). This status changed dramatically over the centuries, and much of the church’s privileged presence around the world is the contemporary manifestation of this change. As Gutierrez notes, the contemporary church in the developed world is plagued by “intraecclesial problems” of varying types (Gutierrez, 148). Preoccupation with internal struggles is hardly the vocation the church was intended for.

Richard Horsley identifies a rich history of precedent for radical liberation in the “people’s movements” of the early Roman Empire. These movements were deeply rooted in the realities faced by communities of faith. The Roman Empire wielded shocking military power (Horsley, 23), economic prowess (Horsley, 26), and an ideological strength that contributed to its widespread governance (Horsley, 39). And yet, resistance to the Empire was as widespread as its reaches. Horsley identifies several types of movements, including “prophetic and messianic movements of resistance…the principal ways in which the people of Judea and Galilee made history” (Horsley, 85). This historical resistance provided the context for the growth of the first Christian church.

Relevant church – a radical fellowship of unity
If the challenges of the contemporary church could be summarized in a word, that word would be ‘relevance.’ Gutierrez writes “For many there has even been a kind of evaporation of any meaning of the Church” (Gutierrez, 142). Declining memberships, decreasing engagement with the world, and internal decay have been the norm of the church in the developed world for the past few decades. And yet, the world of suffering and oppression that surrounds the broader community of Christian faith is desperate for liberation. The question Gutierrez poses for the Latin American churches should be the same for the church everywhere: “The question is in what direction and for what purpose is it going to use its influence: for or or against the established order” (Gutierrez, 152). Gutierrez argues that unity against the oppressive realities of the world is “the fundamental vocation of the church” (Gutierrez, 160). Joined in Eucharistic community with the global church, the vocation of the church in the developed world is to live “according to the demands placed on us by the other,” through “casting our lot with the oppressed and the exploited in the struggle for a more just society” (Gutierrez, 149-151). By reclaiming our communion with the community of faith beyond our doors, the church is better able to live out Christ’s redemptive and salvific work in history. This fellowship and communion risks relevance in a world that challenges the Gospel message of the church.

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Salvation and Christ in History & Politics – Defining Salvation, Christ, and the Kingdom

Salvation – From ancient to contemporary times, the theology and emotion surrounding the concern of salvation has been diverse and passionate. Gutierrez, along with other liberation theologians, examines the nature of salvation as both quantitative and qualitative mystery. The ‘two-dimensional’ mystery plays out in contemporary culture, with public attention given to debates about those who have been saved or risk being “left behind.” For Gutierrez, the theme of salvation has both a quantitative sense, as a cure for sin, and a qualitative sense, as communion with God and community (Gutierrez, 84-85). Departing from the preferences of the quantitatively inclined, Gutierrez locates salvation in the world as “something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ” (85). Key to Gutierrez’s thought is the theology of salvation as present in human history, salvation as “intrahistorical reality” (86). Rather than existing beyond the borders of history, salvation is recognizable as “historical-salvific fact” and requires human agency in its fulfillment (89).

Christ – If salvation is seen as a present feature of history, Christ then becomes the bearer of this salvation and liberation. Gutierrez identifies sin as “the fundamental alienation, the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation” – a deeply tangible historical reality (103). For Gutierrez, Christ enters into this reality of sin in historical context as liberator. Christ is the redemptive historical and salvific figure who addresses three categories of liberation from sin: “political liberation, human liberation throughout history, liberation from sin and admission to communion with God” (103). Christ is the figure who fulfills the mystery of salvation in historical context.

Kingdom – A salvation and a Christ which are linked in historical reality enriches an eschatological vision which is equally tied to history. The future and present of human history are made intelligible through God’s participation in human reality (95). God is not separated from history, but an actor in it. God’s kingdom is thus also a reality of history, incompletely encountered, but promised as a feature of eschatalogical reality. The promise of God’s kingdom for humanity “is a process which occurs historically in liberation, insofar as liberation means a greater human fulfillment” (104). The fulfilment of God’s promised kingdom rests not only on God’s presence in the world, but also on the human agency that presence allows. This agency also finds its center in history: “Without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the kingdom” (104). The promise of salvation in history and the coming of God’s kingdom require and give meaning to human actions for liberation.

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Options for the Churches – Defining church, its challenges, and its questions

Church – Reading the signs of the times and the “New Christendom”
Central to the present and future of the Latin American church is the recognition of “the commitment of Christians in history” as “a true locus theologicus” (Gutierrez, 47). For Gutierrez, a theology centered in the academy and religious theory has lost its relevance. In its place is the necessity of a “New Christendom” defined by a “Christian community…beginning…to read politically the signs of the times in Latin America” (Gutierrez, 58). Where development models have failed, leaving only dependence and underdevelopment, the church has the obligation to speak out and correct systems of injustice. In an era of empire, Gutierrez witnesses to the possibility of a church that can speak truth to power and contribute to the transformation of systemic injustice and oppression.

Challenges – Journeying With the Nonviolent Christ?
Gutierrez witnesses to the need of “a profound transformation, a social revolution” which will respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and oppressed (Gutierrez, 55). According to Gutierrez, Latin America is “in the midst of a full-blown process of revolutionary ferment” (Gutierrez, 55). The complexities of these revolutionary realities have “caused many to substitute working for the Kingdom with working for the social revolutions…the lines between the two have become blurred” (Gutierrez, 59). Gutierrez acknowledges the “problem of counterviolence” and that some religious leaders “participate actively in politics, often in connection with revolutionary groups” (60-61). A central unanswered question emerges from Gutierrez’s work so far. A recently published Presbyterian devotional resource on nonviolence bears the title Resurrection Living: Journeying With the Nonviolent Christ. What role does Christ’s model of nonviolence play in the struggle for the transformation of Latin America and the world?

Questions – Defining the community of faith
Gutierrez raises other critical questions which will define the community of a liberating faith. Key among these are the faith, contemplative praxis, and unity of the church. Christians are present “among the oppressed and persecuted and others among the oppressors and persecutors, some among the tortured and others among the torturers or those who condone torture” (Gutierrez, 75). What does a theology that answers to all Christians in such contexts look like? How does such a church pray? How does the community of faith live out its communion? Does the church have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and work unceasingly for the transformation of the world? These are questions not only for the Latin American church, but for the churches at the heart of and on the periphery of Empire. The community of faith is liberated through the work of the Holy Spirit – always “in the process of becoming” (Gutierrez, 75).

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation [TL]. 15th Anniversary Edition, with a new introduction by the author. Orbis Books, 1988.
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The Poverty of the Majority

Farmers march in protest of Monsanto seed donations. Photo credit: Mark Hare, Presbyterian mission connection for MPP.

Ivan Petrella offers a powerful overview of the corporate takeover of agriculture, medications, and other basic human needs in his chapter “The Global Material Context of the Liberation Theologian: The Poverty of the Majority” in Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. He writes of the agricultural sector that the private sector company Monsanto controls staggering amounts of the “world-wide genetically modified (GM)” industry. Monsanto’s power, coupled with agricultural patents like “Patent Number 5,723,765″ which “allows for the creation of sterile seeds” (Petrella, 28) destroys the livelihoods of farmers around the world. In May 2010, only 4 months after the disastrous earthquake, Haitian farmers, led by the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP), joined in mass protest. The farmers protested and threatened to burn a perilous gift: 475 tons of hybrid seeds from Monsanto. Read more about the peasant farmer protests here. These events grew, in part, from the efforts of churches in local farming communities. In early June, I had the privilege of organizing events at the United Nations and in local NYC churches with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the leader of the MPP, while I served at the Presbyterian Ministry at the UN. The Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) is a partner of the Presbyterian Church (USA) through FONDAMA (“Fondasyon Men-lan-Men Ayiti”) or “Foundation Hands in Hands Haiti,” part of the PC(USA) Joining Hands network. Visit the Joining Hands network for more information on FONDAMA. Theology is liberated when the poverty of the majority raises its voice in protest and prayer.

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Theology and Liberating Praxis – Theology as “second act”

Context – Human agency and traumatic history
Ivan Petrella, in his chapter “The Poverty of the Majority” from Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic, devotes two full pages to statistics which reveal the devastating human cost of globalization. Petrella uncovers the realities of global “idolatry” that result from the sovereignty of international systems which abandon all concern for the wholeness and well-being of the majority of the world’s population. Shocking poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, pervasive denial of basic human rights, and no end in sight to such abuses, serves as the context for theological reflection. Gustavo Gutierrez, in his work A Theology of Liberation, highlights this context alongside social praxis as a first step for developing theological reflection. He writes of the growing awareness of humankind as “an active subject of history, ever more articulate in the face of social injustice” and human trauma (Gutierrez, 30). Human beings are, more than ever before, aware of their historical context and its traumatic injustice. A critical theological praxis and reflection is the responsibility and mandate of the church in such a context.

Theological reflection – A “second act”
Gutierrez departs from tradition in his conviction that theology reflection should only occur after or alongside an investment in action and interpretation in historical context. Gutierrez writes “The first stage or phase of theological work is the lived faith that finds expression in prayer and commitment,” rooted in the experience of Christian life in historical context (Gutierrez, xxxiv). Only with this first stage in progress can theological reflection begin. The role of theology, then, is “to read this complex praxis in the light of God’s word” (Gutierrez, xxxiv). For Gutierrez, praxis and theology are inextricably linked. On one hand, “A theology which has as its points of reference only ‘truths’ which have been established once and for all…can only be only static and…sterile” (Gutierrez, 10). On the other, praxis is only prophetic when it “interprets historical events with the intention of revealing and proclaiming their profound meaning” in light of the Christian narrative (Gutierrez, 10). This interdependence of theology and praxis reveals with greater clarity God’s self-revelation in human agency in historical contexts.

Praxis – Human agency and transformative future
The most essential role of theology in the current era, for Gutierrez, is its interdependence with historical praxis as the foundation for liberation and the restoration of human dignity. Gutierrez writes “Theology as critical reflection on historical praxis is a liberating theology, a theology of the liberating transformation of the history of humankind and also therefore that part of humankind…which openly confesses Christ” (Gutierrez, 12). A focus on liberation transforms theology from a primarily internal endeavor to an undertaking that is profoundly committed to the transformation of the world as a reflection of God’s Kingdom. Through “commitment and interpretation,” the Christian community is called to encounter the “signs of the times” and act prophetically in the world it inhabits” (Gutierrez, 23). Salvation thus becomes vocation. Human action “beyond all distinctions, gives religious value in a completely new way to human action in history…the building of a just society…a salvific work” (Gutierrez, 46). The working out of the world’s salvation in fear and trembling is the work of liberation theology, Christian praxis, and the relevance of the Christian narrative for the transformation of the world.

Petrella, Ivan. Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. SCM Press, 2008.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation [TL]. 15th Anniversary Edition, with a new introduction by the author. Orbis Books, 1988.

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