Liberation Theology is normally associated with Latin American Catholicism. However, it can be understood as a radical tendency existing within all the major world religions, which each contain currents emphasising the following themes:
* working with the poor
* challenging authority
* seeking liberation in this life as well as the next
* favouring activism over contemplation
Liberation theology focuses on the needs of the poor and, in their interest, is prepared to challenge political and ecclesiastical hierarchies. In Latin America, the prototype was Bartolomé De Las Casas (1484 – 1566), a Dominican priest who became Bishop of Chiapas (the area which in recent times gave birth to the Zapatista movement). Against the grain of Spanish colonialism, De Las Casas envisioned a just society where indigenous people would co-exist peacefully and freely with the colonists instead of as slaves.
In the 20th Century, an important figure was Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, assasinated in 1980. Previously a conservative, Romero inclined to liberation theology after a Jesuit colleague was killed for creating self-reliant groups among poor peasants. When the government refused to investigate, Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assasinations and torture, until the death squads killed him too.
Within Hinduism, Gandhi pioneered liberation theology. He successfully challenged the colonial power, and he also challenged the orthodox Hindu authorities, particularly with regard to untouchability, which led to his assasination by a Hindu extremist in 1948. Gandhi practiced karma yoga, the path to liberation through work, which in his case meant social and political activism. Gandhi combined the traditional Indian ideal of non-violence (ahimsa) with the Christian ideal of active love, to produce satyagraha, the theory and practice of non-violent direct action. Later, satyagraha was successfully adopted by Martin Luther King, another major figure in the history of liberation theology.
Sheikh Amadou Bamba of Senegal (1853 – 1927) offers a great example of liberation theology in an Islamic context. Founder of the Mouride Sufi movement, Bamba led a non-violent struggle against French colonialism. The French exiled and tortured him, which only strengthened his movement. Notably, Bamba emphasised work as a spiritual practice, and his followers are renowned for their industriousness, being involved in many economic enterprises throughout Senegal, such as groundnut cultivation.
In Sri Lanka the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement uses traditional Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and the Wheel of Life to improve worldly conditions such as sanitation and food cultivation.
Activating our soul isn’t easy, and finding a way to change the world through soul-power (God we need it) can be even harder. This is the meaning of Satyagraha, the term first introduced by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his campaign in South Africa, now made into an opera by Philip Glass. Satyagraha the opera places Gandhi’s life in a mythological context, showing how Gandhi was first inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the figures of Tagore and Tolstoy, and how he in turn came to be an inspiration to others, notably Martin Luther King.
At the start of the opera we see Gandhi inhabiting the mythical battlefield between the Pandava and Kaurava clans, together with the hero Arjuna and the god Krishna. Just as Arjuna is caught between the competing claims of the two clans, towards both of whom he feels loyalty, so Gandhi is caught between the rival claims of the British empire and the Indian people, towards both of who he feels loyalty. Just as Arjuna’s soul (Atman) is activated by Krishna’s wise counsel that he must have the courage to do his duty in the face of life’s conflicts, so too is Gandhi’s. The scene ends with the solemn vow of Brahmacarya, as Gandhi / Arjuna promises to dedicate his life to courageous service.
Mobilising the soul as an active force in human politics and the affairs of the world is no easy task, and Gandhi draws hostility, ridicule and even violence upon himself as he adopts the dress and lifestyle of a renunciate. Yet the ways of the spirit are subtle, and profoundly affect the human sphere through what appear, on the surface, to be simple acts, but which are imbued with great symbolism and resonance. We see this played out as Gandhi and his followers burn their identity cards (‘passes’) to protest against the racist laws of the time. This simple act is incredibly liberating, both spiritually and politically, and lifts them to a new plane of existence.
Satyagraha is ‘the surgery of the soul’, because it is a method for bringing about a profound change of heart in ourselves and others which leads to political and social change. The Satyagrahi must be courageous and willing to sacrifice his or her own well-being in order to demonstrate truth. It is only the courageous demonstration of truth that can touch the soul of the oppressor, and cause him to change or at least relent. This, finally, is the meaning of Satyagraha – that profound, long-lasting change, whether personal or political, must originate from within, and the only method that ultimately works is one based on understanding and harnessing the soul.
How can we distinguish between fatal and liberating choices? That was the question posed this week by Sheikh Aly N’Daw, head of the International Sufi School. He was speaking at his book launch in Westminster, which was hosted by Ian Stewart MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Friends of Islam group. Aly N’Daw is from the Mouride school of Sufism founded by the Senegalese saint Amadou Bamba (1850-1927) who emphasised service to others as the path to God. Sheikh Aly encourages his students to study the lives of great men and women who have bridged the gap between politics and spirituality, and have demonstrated how peace within leads to peace in the world.
Sheikh Aly asked us to consider the choice that Martin Luther King made when he decided not to opt for a comfortable lifestyle in Chicago, but to take his ministry to the South and confront the spectre of racial discrimination. On the surface, it appears that Dr. King made a fatal choice, because his ministry ended with his assasination. However, in reality he made a liberating choice, because he could have suffered spiritual death by taking the easy option of remaining in Chicago, and his sacrifice contributed to the political and social liberation of millions of African-Americans.
Next we were asked to consider Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of micro-credit and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. A professor of economics, he became disillusioned with academic life and went to live with a group of peasants. Many people would consider this a fatal choice, at least professionally, but for Muhammad Yunus it was liberating because it showed him how small sums of money loaned on trust could yield massive results if targetted at the right people, particularly women. By 2008 the Grameen Bank had loaned US$7.8 billion to the poor.
Ian Stewart MP talked about his own difficult choice, to vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He explained that his motivation had been to help the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but now that hundreds of thousands of people had died as a result of the war, he could not be sure if he had been right. He described the whirl of conventional political life and how politicians, caught in the maelstrom, are on auto-pilot, without time or space to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. As he is not standing in the forthcoming general election, he expressed the hope that he would now have time to learn more about what Sufism describes as the spiritual heart.
The first two books in Sheikh Aly N’Daw’s series are ‘The Initiatory Way To Peace’ and ‘Liberation Therapy’. If you would like to buy a copy, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org . The International Sufi School’s next event is a conference in Edinburgh in May entitled ‘Nonviolence Within: Peace For All’ (http://www.nonviolence-edinburgh.com/)