The Church Must Take Sides

Britain needs a liberation theology movement

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, sometime in 1995

When I arrived at the friary in Lago da Pedra in north-eastern Brazil, I was treated, at first, with suspicion. A few days before, the local branch of the Ranchers’ Union had announced that it would kill the bishop, a monk and a nun. That morning, the friary had received a phone call warning that the killing was about to begin. The man who eventually let me in told me he’d thought I was the hired gunman.

In the friary’s cloisters, 30 or 40 peasants sat shelling peas and talking in whispers. Several had suppurating bruises on their heads and rope burns on their wrists and ankles. They had been dragged from their homes by military police, hired for the purpose by the state officials trying to seize their land.

This was 1989. A few decades earlier, a Catholic friary would have been among the last places the peasants would have fled to. For centuries the Church in Latin America was incapable of distinguishing between evangelization and enslavement. There were honourable exceptions – priests who spoke out against the atrocities committed in the name of God – but their voices were seldom heard. Today, however, while many senior churchmen continue to absolve repression, bishops and priests throughout the continent have sided with the poor.

Liberation theology was a practice long before it became a philosophy. Seeing that there was little virtue in trying to help the poor without confronting the exclusion and exploitation making them poor, the pastors began to use the Bible to show people why they were oppressed. Citing Luke 4:18, they helped to establish some of the most robust labour, land and housing movements in the world. Millions who would have lost their livelihoods owe their survival to the new theology.

The movement, inevitably, has been attacked by both governments and their apologists in the Church. Monks, priests, even archbishops, have been murdered by hired gunmen and police. Proponents have been silenced or excommunicated by the Pope. President Reagan’s administration funded a Protestant evangelical movement whose key text is Romans 13:1,2 – “the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”

It’s not hard to see why some churchgoers in the Scottish Highlands are beginning to take an interest in Latin American liberation theology. During the Highland Clearances, as people were dragged from their homes and forced into ships bound for the colonies, the Established Church conspired in their oppression just as the Vatican has done in Latin America. The Clearances, pastors argued, were God’s judgement on the people’s wickedness. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, when some of the remaining Highlanders began to agitate for the return of their land, new interpretations of the Gaelic Bible furnished them with arguments.

Today, a new theology is accompanying the revival of conflicts over land and resources. Last year, one of Scotland’s most respected theologians, the Reverend Professor Donald MacLeod, called for highlanders to “reinstate our lost culture and to bring back under our own stewardship and protection those straths [Highland valleys] which violent hands stole from us.” With the Quaker academic Alastair McIntosh and the Native American leader Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, he objected to the proposal to dig out a mountain in Harris for roadstone, arguing that the enormous quarry would despoil both the community and the Creation. The land, he contended, belonged “ethically and theologically before God to the people.”

The gospel of liberation has also been spreading south of the border. On Tuesday, the London Churches Group, inspired by Brazilian priests, called for churches to move from sympathy to solidarity with the homeless, treating them less as objects of charity than as subjects of their own enfranchisement. The latest survey of the General Synod, which found members more concerned about the Third World, unemployment and the environment than adultery and homosexuality, suggests that the LCG’s report will fall on fertile ground.

Confrontation between the Church and earthly powers is scarcely a new idea – Jesus was crucified for subversion. But in Britain the need for defiance is more urgent than it has been for years. Zero-hour contracts, the detention of immigrants, deaths in custody, the abuse of gypsies and travellers, the burgeoning housing crisis and restrictions of the right to protest blur the line between political neutrality on the part of the Church and collaboration.

If liberation theology takes root in Britain, its advocates can expect trouble, and not just from such inflatable buffoons as the Venerable George Austin. But adversity is surely what Christianity is all about. Our text for today is I John 3:18: “let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” God’s kingdom will not be built on tea and sympathy. It is time for the Church to take sides.