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Liberation Theology and its Potential for Guidance Towards Peace on Earth:
A Bahá'í Perspective

by Fleur Fallon

published in 75 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Australasia
Rosebery: Association for Baha'i Studies Australia, 1996
"O Thou kind Lord! Unite all. Let the religions agree and make the nations one, so that they may see each other as one family and the whole earth as one home. May they live together in perfect harmony. O God! Raise aloft the banner of the oneness of mankind. O God! Establish the Most Great Peace."

      'Abdu'l-Bahá (son of Bahá'u'lláh)


INTRODUCTION: THE DILEMMA OF NON VIOLENCE VERSUS VIOLENCE

In the film The Mission (1986), a group of South American Indians were converted to Christianity by a gentle Jesuit priest, Father Cabrici, and lived peacefully at the mission of Saint Carlos in a remote location near the borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. The mission provided some protection from Spanish slave traders. The year is 1750. Enter Rodrigo Mendoza, a brutal slave trader and mercenary, who is full of remorse for killing his brother in a fit of passion. Mendoza is accepted into the mission and learns to live a peaceful life. He is a changed man.

When an emissary for the Spanish Church visits the mission, he is impressed with the set up, yet decides that the mission cannot continue. In this decision the Church supports the violent oppression of the political powers of the day. The small dedicated group of missionaries refuse to disband. When they are attacked by the Spanish military, Mendoza and all the missionaries, except Father Cabrici steal arms and fight back. In the process, they are all killed. Father Cabrici, the women and children, opt for a non-violent approach. They remain in the mission, and walk calmly towards the enemy, singing. They are killed, and the mission burnt. Only a handful of children survive the massacre and escape into the jungle. In this instance, neither the violent nor the nonviolent approach was successful in bringing a peaceful resolution with the dominating imperialists. The Church emissary regrets his decision and acknowledges that the Spirit of the dead remain in the living. Violence is not the way of the world - "...thus have we made the world."

The question for today is whether a violent or non-violent approach is the more effective method for liberation theologians. Will those who wield the power and the wealth listen to the voices of the oppressed and be willing to share some of their power and wealth? If the answer is "no", then we, who are interested in global peace, may as well give up now. Turmoil and turbulence will continue until we self-destruct.

If the answer is "yes", and we use a violent approach, justified by an "eye for an eye" ethos, are we no better than those who oppress? Will we, or can we, stop being violent if we achieve our aims?

If the answer is "yes", through a non-violent approach, then there is a sense of urgency to spread the message to create global peace. When a critical mass in thinking is achieved, then global peace may have a chance. If we believe in the adage that "human nature can not, or is not likely, to change", we use that as an excuse for inaction and indifference. If we believe that we, as individuals cannot make a difference, we use that as an excuse, to remain in our comfort zone. We can make a difference if, and only if, we understand our purpose on Earth is to know God and to advance civilisation. What does this mean in the context of Liberation Theology?

LIBERATION THEOLOGY: WHAT IS IT?

Liberation theology was first used to describe the situation in Latin America in the 1960s when the oppressed poor attempted to overthrow oppressive state structures, often financed by Uncle Sam. This liberation movement could be referred to as a Marxist revolutionary movement, except that the oppressed fervently declared that God was on their side. They were backed by enlightened members of the Christian Catholic church, inspired by Pope John XXIII and the Vatican Council's statement that the Church "has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel" (in McCann 1982, p149).

Traditionally, theology has been concerned with God above and the life hereafter. The poor need to accept that they are poor because that is God's will. They need to submit to whatever is dealt to them in a pious way, and their reward will be heaven. The Church, generally part of the power structure, was happy to present this view, to retain its wealth and power and stay on side with the political power of the day.

Enlightened theologians are concerned with God on Earth. They interpret the scriptures in a historical context. They take as their prime example Jesus Christ, son of God. Every day, the poor witness the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In their oppression, they are crucified. In the joy of living, they are resurrected - when someone shares food, when a sick person is helped, Jesus lives again within them.

Liberation theology is theology in practice, or theo-praxis. It occurs when people of the elite, not only recognise the plight of the poor, but also actively work with the poor, to try and influence positive change in the circumstances of the poor, and work towards changing structures of power to ensure a more equitable sharing of wealth and power. In essence, liberation theology espouses a preferential option for the poor. This does not mean that the rich are ignored. It means that liberation must take its lead from the poor for the poor, and in evoking God as divine inspiration, this will lead to liberation for the oppressors from their oppressive ways.

The main emphasis in liberation theology is that it is religion from the grassroots "up" and not religion from "on high". Theologians look at liberation in practice, and reflect on it. In Latin America, thousands of base communities have been formed. On a regular basis, these communities meet to study the Christian scriptures to reflect on their meaning for their lives today, and to find inspiration for liberating action. There is no formal hierarchical structure. Priests are of the people, and not above the people, and put their lives on the line in the name of liberation, justice and God.

Whilst liberation theology is a relatively new term, it is not a new phenomenon, and not one confined to Latin America and Christianity today.

HISTORICAL EXAMPLES OF LIBERATION THEOLOGIANS

St. Francis of Assisi provides an example from the thirteenth century of a liberation theologian at work (Boff 1982). St Francis found his inspiration in Jesus. St Francis worked with the poor and sick. He freed animals from cages, saved sheep from the slaughterhouse and cared for all living things. He taught his monks to go in Peace and to think well of everyone, even if they were highwaymen and robbers. St Francis did not see the world in terms of good or evil. He believed the evil desires in people could be overcome by gentleness, humility and a peaceful approach. This did not mean that he avoided confrontation. St Francis was often called upon as a mediator.

St Francis found joy in every day and every thing, despite his body being racked with pain in his last days. He blessed his afflictions, and died singing, naked on an earthen floor at his request. St Francis saw God in everything. To be free, we need to do likewise, and accept with joy, the inevitability of some things.

Another example of a liberation theologian is Martin Luther, a humble monk who led the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Luther agonised over the scriptures. He found it difficult to accept that the oppressive politico-socio-economic structures of his time, supported by self-interested powerful Church, was God's will. In his time, you sinned, confessed to a priest, received redemption at the hands of the priest, and went away to sin again. You were poor because of God's will. Confess, and God the redeemer would grant you salvation in the next world. The status quo was unchallengeable. If you dared to challenge it, you were a heretic and tortured and/or put to death.

Martin Luther dared to challenge the Catholic Church. He expressed the view that God is available to us daily through our conscience if we live by faith and for others. We do not need to access God via a priest or the Church. In his thinking, Luther raises the poor to the level of priest with direct access to God. He challenged the poor to live as Christ on a daily basis, serving others with love. This message is exactly the same one that forms the basis for liberation theology today.

However, Liberation theology is not a monopoly of Christianity. Another example of a great liberation theologian is Mahatma Gandhi (Jesudasan 1986).

Gandhi was a Hindu, although he was greatly influenced by the story of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. Educated in law in London, Gandhi worked in South Africa, before returning to his native India. He did not aspire to wealth. He lived a very simple life, and succeeded in galvanising the diversity of religious beliefs of India's masses into united action against the British colonial Imperialists that was courageous, yet non-violent. When oppressive measures were used against them, as in the example of the British stopping salt production by the local people, the Indians were disciplined, calm, persistent and showed no violence against their oppressors. This of course, was very embarrassing for the British, and India eventually succeeded in gaining independence without a bloody civil war.

VIOLENCE VERSUS NON-VIOLENCE AS A METHOD OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY.

Black liberation theology in the United States of America is not so supportive of non-violent methods as a process for liberation. James Cone (1975 and 1986) argues that we live in a violent society. That violence was created by whites. Not only is there direct violence, but also deep pervasive structural violence, designed to keep the poor and oppressed, in particular the blacks, in their place, that is, at the bottom of the pecking order. He believes that the blacks must turn to the scriptures for their inspiration. He expresses anger at black theologians who support the white Church, with God on high, and also condemns blacks, who are seen to make it in, and thus accept white politico-socio-economic structures. He believes that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed, that is, the blacks. Black is good, black is beautiful. Everything white is evil. White must be stamped out; white people must become black, not black people become white by accepting the whites' systems. God is black, and in being black, God gives blacks the right to use whatever means is necessary to change the oppressive capitalist democratic structures of the whites.

In contrast, in Latin America, racism is not emphasised as a key issue. However, the oppressed are fighting the same oppressors, as it is the United States government who has covertly and overtly supported brutal military dictatorships to protect their own foreign interests.

A MODEL FOR LIBERATION THEOLOGY TODAY

Bernard Swan (1988) states that the choice for Christians today is "not the risk of being over-run by militant atheistic communism and nuclear counterthreat, but between pragmatism dressed up as prudence on one hand, and Christ on the other."

He believes that the Sermon on the Mount offers the only political realism in the nuclear age. This is true, in part only. The question arises: what is the choice for non-Christians? Another question must be asked: What is there besides Christ and the Sermon on the Mount? Christians in the past have made the mistake of being one eyed about God and Christ. In the name of God and Christ, Christians have fought wars, invaded countries, taken away the innocence and peace of indigenous peoples, plundered, raped, tortured, murdered those who did not hold the same views. Governments do the same today. With God on their side, they keep the poor poor, and the rich rich. As Mahatma Gandhi said, we need to see the Christ in Buddha and the Buddha in Christ. We need to accept there is one God, yet many manifestations, or messengers, such as Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, Zoroaster and Bahá'u'lláh.

Writers such as Walbert Buhlmann state that by the year 2000 AD., Christianity will be a minority religion. The third Church with membership and power emanating from the Third World will be more open to other manifestations and a diversity of expression of truth in building a new world social order based on justice. (in Ferm 1986 p.118) It is also worth noting Tissa Balasuriya's plea for self-transformation and the acceptance of all as brothers and sisters. World apartheid has no place in the new millennium.

"We are called on to transcend our narrow particularities in order to arrive at a higher, wider, and deeper level of sharing among all human beings. This calls for a transformation of ourselves from within our innermost being to accept all others as brothers and sisters. Our growth to a planetary dimension is an invitation to spiritual deepening, a purification from selfishness to a more universal communication in real life, to our own humanization. Insofar as we do, we shall become truly civilized, approach the ideals of the best in all our religions and cultures, and pursue the deepest and best aspirations of every human heart and mind." (in Ferm 1986, p.86) In essence, this is what the Bahá'í Faith is about.

Bahá'u'lláh, whose name means "Glory of God," founded the Bahá'í Faith in Persia. He was born Mírzá Husayn-'Alí, the son of a wealthy noble family, in 1817. His was, and could have remained, a life of comfortable privilege. From an early age, Bahá'u'lláh showed a mature wisdom. He chose to live among the poor and help them. He was known as the "Father of the Poor". Bahá'u'lláh was a follower of the Báb (the Gate), who prophesied that there would be one who came after him who was the Promised One, who would show the way towards a new unity of humanity. The Bábís were persecuted for their beliefs. Over 20,000 were martyred. The Báb was martyred, shot on the second attempt by a firing squad before a large crowd in 1850.

Bahá'u'lláh was imprisoned for being a Bábí. In an overcrowded, smelly, dark prison in Teheran, and with a large chain around his neck, he received the first Revelation from God that he was the Promised One.

Bahá'u'lláh was released from prison after four months, and exiled with his family to Baghdad. It was there, ten years later, in the garden of Ridván (Paradise) that Bahá'u'lláh told his family and close followers that he was the Promised One. This was accepted with great joy. On 3 May 1863, Bahá'u'lláh was exiled from Baghdad to Constantinople, and later to the remote prison city of Akker [`Akká] in Palestine. He lived here for forty years and wrote over one hundred volumes, including the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (the Most Holy Book in the Bahá'í Faith), which form the blue print for the liberation of mankind to the Greater Peace. Like Francis of Assisi, he asks us to see goodness in our enemies. We must use a non-violent approach in our personal life in general, but must defend and protect the oppressed. While the structures of power are inappropriate, we must be good citizens, and abide by the laws. We cannot participate in politics, as politics by its very nature, is divisive and against the Bahá'í principle of oneness of mankind. In Iran today, the Bahá'í Faith is not recognised. It is labelled a political group that operates under the guise of religion. Consequently, the Islamic Fundamentalists persecute the Bahá'ís. They cannot hold jobs, go to school, or university, or get a passport, unless they recant their faith. Many submissions have been made by both parties to the United Nations Social and Economic Council and Human Rights Commission. (Bahá'ís 1983).

How then, to change systems we know to be so corrupt?

First, we need to liberate ourselves, and have unity in the family. If there is no unity in the family and community, how can there be unity on a global basis? Bahá'ís uphold a very strong moral code with no alcohol or drugs. There are no priests or dogma in the Bahá'í Faith. Communities are formed, based on local government boundaries. These communities meet regularly to read, discuss and understand the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and his son, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, who became the Centre of the Covenant, following his father's death. The community elects a local spiritual assembly of nine adults to administer the local affairs. Regional groups of communities elect a delegate for an annual national assembly. At this convention, delegates are elected for the national assembly. World conventions are held and nine members are elected every five years to the Universal House of Justice, based at Haifa, Israel. Like Luther's example, Bahá'ís are encouraged in an independent investigation of the truth and to find God in everything and everyone. The way Bahá'í communities are set up has strong parallels with the Christian base communities of Latin America and the Sarvodaya communities in Sri Lanka based on Buddhist and Gandhian philosophies.

Bahá'ís accept that there is diversity in how one worships God, but this should not stop us from working together for the new World Order. Bahá'ís must not have any prejudice, or speak badly of anyone. Intermarriage between ethnic groups is encouraged. Whilst there is an urgency to proclaim the message of Bahá'u'lláh, and the Bahá'í faith is now recognised as the second most widespread faith in the world today. Teaching is done in a dignified way, when the people are ready to hear. The keystone to liberation is in the high moral education of children, both girls and boys.

The League of Nations and the United Nations are organisations that Bahá'u'lláh prescribed were needed to aid the world towards international justice in all spheres. At the latest United Nations Economic and Social Justice Convention in Copenhagen, the Bahá'í Faith was one of three non-governmental organisations invited to speak. Instead of denigrating political structures and setting up arguments against other beliefs, Bahá'ís both concentrate on education to overcome the negatives and focus on the positives in each to work towards building common ground - just like St Francis of Assisi.

Bahá'u'lláh said that the Earth was but one country and mankind its citizens. We must not be blinded by national boundaries, but work towards the unity of humanity. We can build a Heaven on Earth created by humanity, rather than accepting the status quo and looking towards a Heaven above promised by prophets.

The Universal House of Justice statement on the Promise of World Peace (1985) was sent to the leaders of all governments. It is interesting to note how the terminology of "the New World Order" and "Unity of Humanity", is often repeated by heads of governments. It is not so important that people are converted to the Bahá'í Faith, but that people come to know God from within and work together in consultation and co-operation to liberate themselves and others. While one is oppressed, all are oppressed.

THE BAHA'I FAITH - A UNIVERSAL LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Liberation theologians have tended to look at specific regional examples and prescribe local solutions, as in Latin America and James Cone in the United States of America. Similarities in theological thought and liberation can be found in St Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Mahatma Gandhi and Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'u'lláh in prescribing not only a moral code for individuals based on knowing God, but also a design for a system of world government offers the most holistic answer for liberation theologians today - one that advocates a long-term vision and non-violence as the process for the goal of global peace both on an individual and collective level. This is not a short-term quick fix, but one that demands total commitment and a long term strategy, working at the levels of education, development, social structures, political structures, judicial and legal systems on a global basis.

In accepting the message of Bahá'u'lláh, people of other Faiths do not need to desert the teachings of that Faith.

Christians are not denying or deserting Christ - they are acting to take Christ's lessons one step further to eliminate all forms of oppression and -isms, such as colonialism, imperialism, sexism, racism, elitism, and exploitation of the environment.

Bahá'u'lláh's is truly a theology of universal liberation.

A PRAYER FOR PEACE

Glory to Thee, O God, for Thy manifestation of love to mankind!

O Thou Who art our Life and Light, guide Thy servants in Thy way, and make us rich in Thee and free from all save Thee.

O God, teach us Thy Oneness and give us a realization of Thy Unity, that we may see no-one save Thee. Thou art the Merciful and the Giver of bounty!

O God, create in the hearts of Thy beloved the fire of Thy love, that it may consume the thought of everything save Thee.

Reveal to us, O God, Thine exalted eternity - that Thou hast ever been and wilt ever be, and that there is no God save Thee. Verily, in Thee will we find comfort and strength.

      Bahá'u'lláh

Bibliography

Bahá'ís 1983, Report for the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Bahá'í Universal House of Justice 1985, The Promise of World Peace - a Statement, October.

Boff, L. 1982, Saint Francis - a Model for Human Liberation, Crossroad, New York.

Brown, R.M. 1993, Liberation Theology - an Introductory Guide, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.

Cohn-Sherbok, D. (ed.) 1992, World Religions and Human Liberation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.

Cone, J.H. 1986, A Black Theology of Liberation - Twentieth Anniversary Edition, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.

Cone, J.H. 1975, God of the Oppressed, Seabury Press, New York.

Davidson, J. and Tidman M. (eds) 1992, Co-operative Peace Strategies, Bahá'í Publications Australia.

Ferm, D.W. 1986, Third World Liberation Theologies, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.

Hayes, T.G., Hill, R.A., Scheffer, A.M., Atkinson, A.G. and Fisher, B.J. (comps.) 1986, Peace - More than an End to War, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois.

Huddleston, J. 1976, The Earth is But One Country, National Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom.

Jesudasan, I.S.J. 1986, A Gandhian Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.

McCann, D.P. 1982, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.

Pieris, A. 1988, An Asian Theology of Liberation, T & T Clark, USA.

Shaull, R. 1991, The Reformation and Liberation Theology, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.

Swan, B. 1988, Christ, Servant of the Lord - Discovering the Prince of Peace in the Nuclear Age, University of New England.

The Mission (motion picture) 1986. Kingsmere Productions, Producers: David Puttnam and Fernando Ghia.

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