African American Studies Liberation Theology
Anthony B. Bradley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0019


Liberation theology generally refers to a theology applied to the core concerns of marginalized communities in need of social, political, or economic equality and justice. Liberation theologies existed long before they became academic disciplines in the both the Latin American and African American contexts. However, during the 1960s there was a simultaneous, yet formally separate, emergence of African American and Latin American theologians who began to ask new questions about the application of Protestant theology, in the African American experience, and—primarily, though not exclusively—Catholic theology, in the Latin American context, to their respective experiences of oppression. The answers to these questions led theologians to think theologically from the perspective of the oppressed classes rather than ask questions from the perspective of the dominant cultures. Liberation theologians began to explain what the Bible and the Christian tradition teach if the poor and the oppressed serve as the birthplace of theological discourse. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Americas were embroiled in various types of social turmoil. Liberation theology, unlike other theological subdisciplines, cannot be properly understood outside of the personal narratives of its key architects. In the African American context, theologians were wrestling with new applications of Protestant theology during the height of the civil rights movement. Theologians like James Cone were trying to make theological sense of slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Black Power movement, and the political gains of the civil rights movement. In various parts of Central and South America during the 1960s, revolution and social struggle dominated the atmosphere. The Cold War complicated the political stability of the region as Latin Americans were struggling for freedom and the sovereignty of their nations to rule themselves according to their indigenous interests. Violence, oppression, and poverty dominated the lower classes throughout the region and there was much frustration that the Roman Catholic Church was either complicit in the some of the oppression or simply turned a blind eye to the suffering of the common person. The developments of Catholic and Protestant liberation theologies were positioning the Christian Church to be an active advocate for social, political, and economic change for the poor the oppressed. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Roman Catholic priest and theologian, defines liberation theology as a “theological reflection based on the Gospel and the experiences of men and women committed to the process of liberation in this oppressed and exploited sub-continent of Latin America. It is a theological reflection born of shared experience in the effort to abolish the present unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human” (Gutiérrez 1988, cited under Gustavo Gutiérrez). Leonardo and Clodovis Boff explain liberation theology this way: “Liberation Theology was born when faith confronted the injustice done to the poor. By ‘poor’ we do not really mean the poor individual who knocks on the door asking for alms. We mean a collective poor. The ‘popular classes’; the poor are also the workers exploited by the capitalist; the under-employed, those pushed aside by the production process” (Boff and Boff 1987, cited under Leonardo Boff). In Cone’s view, Christian theology is a theology of liberation, which is “a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ” (Cone 1990, cited under James Cone). One of the tasks, then, of black theology, says Cone, is “to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed blacks so they will see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, and bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression” (Cone 1990, cited under James Cone). For Cone, no theology is Christian theology unless it arises from oppressed communities and interprets Jesus’s work as that of liberation. It is best to frame liberation theology in the plural form, as “theologies” instead of a monothematic theological construct, because so much of its development over the past few decades is derivative of personal stories of many key voices. The Latin American and African American versions of liberation theology gave birth to many later liberation theologies, which have many concepts in common. First, they all focus their theological reflection on the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized. Second, they all have strong reservations about the proliferation of unchecked capitalism and are more open to more communitarian and Marxist formulations of human flourishing. Third, the Bible is to be interpreted in light of the social situation of those on the margins. Lastly, liberation theologies are driven by praxis, with the expectation of concrete social change that will set the stage for developing liberation theologies among other groups, such as women and indigenous peoples, in others regions, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East.

Latin American Liberation Theology

Originating in the late 1960s, Latin American liberation theology constitutes a religious movement and school of thought that centers those abjected by industrial capitalism—the non-Western poor—in its imagining of Christianity in the modern world. While such interpretations of Christianity had long existed prior to the 20th century, the beginning of the movement is generally dated to the Second General Conference Latin American Bishops’ in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia, at which a formal document was issued stating that industrial capitalism enriched the developed “West” at the expense of the non-European poor through long-term exploitation of their labor and resources. Movement leaders sought to build this movement bycreating local “base communities” (communidades de base) of ten to thirty members in towns and cities across Latin America, which would provide both religious activism and direct services to aid the physical, social, and economic needs of the poor. The movement grew in prominence, influence, and popularity throughout the 1970s. Due to its leftist, anticapitalist ethos and activism, the Vatican sought to repress liberation theology during the 1980s and 1990s. This theology is grounded in an emphasis on the core injustice of modern capitalist exploitation of labor and resources, which leads to deep, widespread poverty and wealth inequality. Thus, Latin American liberation theology asserts that economics and wealth distribution are inherently Christian concerns, and that Christianity ultimately demands supporting the poor and dismantling the oppressive political and economic systems that ensure their continued subjugation. Latin American liberation theologians connected biblical scripture to modern political and economic thought opposing capitalism, asserting that the Bible itself condemns the enrichment of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Leonardo Boff, José Míguez Bonino, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino serve as the key theological architects. Stemming from this conviction, these theologians also strongly critique the traditionally conservative institution of the Latin American Catholic Church as complicit in—and, indeed, a key tool in facilitating—the exploitation of the poor. Indeed, Latin American liberation theology emerged out of the particular historical context of colonialism and Christianity in South America, in which issues of race and economic class are deeply intertwined. Exploitation of and violence toward indigenous peoples and resources are thus at the core of Latin American liberation theology. This articulation of the centrality of race to industrial capitalism and the economic class system it creates resonated with emergent political resistance movements among communities of color in the United States and beyond, and its influence is thus widespread.

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