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Latin American Liberation Theology.

LATIN AMERICAN LIBERATION THEOLOGY. By David Tombs. Boston: Brill, 2002. Pp. 334. $39.95

This well-written book stands as a significant contribution to liberation theology. In five parts, Tombs chronologically and contextually situates the development and maturation of the discipline in a way that allows students to access and appropriate it. The work is synthetic in that it integrates the sociological, political, historical, and economic realities of Latin America into a survey of both theological and philosophical developments. Two bonuses for the teacher-scholar are the extensive footnotes and excellent bibliography.

Part 1, "Power and Privilege: 1492-1959," explores the history and reality of the Catholic Church as it sided with the privileged in the exploration, oppression, and eventual domination of the New World. Some individuals in the Church, such as Bartolome de Las Casas, are cited as opposing certain policies of the Conquistadores, but T. emphasizes that the institutional Church solidly supported colonization and its consequences. Of particular interest is T.'s articulation of the legacy of colonialism. Contemporary realities related to work (who works and who does not), personal industry vs. native exploitation, the view of Latin America as at the service of European conquerors, and the pattern of land distribution emerging from the latifundios and haciendas are developed clearly and effectively. Throughout this section, T.'s masterful interweaving of the social, economic, historical, political, theological, and philosophical realities provides a deeper understanding of the history of Latin America.

Part 2, "Engaging the World: 1960-1969," articulates the political, social, and theological developments that provided the conditions for the possibility of liberation theology. The Cold War, the effects of the Cuban Revolution, and a brief history of Catholic social thought all serve to contextualize the emergence of a new way of thinking. The material on Vatican II is solid, with an emphasis on the importance of Lumen gentium and its theological link to Gaudium et spes. This section shows the Church responding to the world in a very particular way. It also shows the rise of liberation as a category for action and reflection. Paulo Freire, Dom Helder Camara, Medellin, comunidades de base, and Paul VI's Populorum progressio represent steady developments in the way the Church engaged the world. The Church's engagement, T. argues, is key to the development of liberation theology: it developed from the way the Church ministered to a world torn by violence, hunger, and affliction of every kind. T. is correct in asserting the primacy of praxis in the development of "liberation" as a new way of doing theology.

In part 3, "The Preferential Option for the Poor: 1970-1979," T. provides an excellent overview of the theology and work of Gustavo Gutierrez and, to a lesser degree, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. The section is nuanced and informative especially on the relation of liberation theology to socialism, Marxism, and violence. T. knows the issues and the debates and discusses them comprehensively. Chapter 8 directly addresses both the persecution of the Church in Latin America and the importance of ecclesial base communities. These would form a solid basis in popular culture and thought for liberation theology and are critical for its ongoing existence. T. emphasizes the centrality of "church" for doing liberation theology in a way that critics of liberation theology often overlook. It was out of concrete communities of ministry and how they engaged Scripture that a commitment to the liberation of the poor emerged and grew.

Part 4, "The God of Life: 1980-1989," surveys challenges to liberation theology. The economic and political developments of the 1980s required adjustments of expectations and a greater emphasis on spirituality. The magisterium's suspicion of liberation theology represented by Cardinal Ratzinger's personal animosity toward the movement has also defined this era. Finally, the feminist challenge represents a failure of liberation theology to adequately address the origins and consequences of patriarchy in Latin America.

The final part, "Crisis of Hope: The 1990s," summarizes perceptions and developments in a post-Cold War world. The perceived failure of communism and the triumph of the free market stood as challenges to the agenda of liberation theologians who embraced socialism as a more humane way to organize the social and economic resources available to a given population. Ultimately, the ability of liberation theology to adapt and apply its methodology in a changing world is the lasting contribution of a movement that simply refuses to die.


Creighton University, Omaha
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Author:Kelly, Thomas M.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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