Ivan Petrella and the future of liberation theology

In his recent work Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic, Ivan Petrella lays out a manifesto of sorts for what he sees as the foundations, problems, and potential of contemporary liberation thought. In contrast to much of the work previously discussed, Petrella’s thought begins at the ground level, in an attempt to see reality through the eyes of the poor and oppressed. Although his work possesses a level of practicality not necessarily present in the previously discussed interventions, he doesn’t fail to recognize the foundational theological and philosophical issues necessary for the re-thinking of liberation theology. In this concluding section Petrella’s project as a whole will be outlined, and his paradigm for liberation theology will be used to critique the critiques presented previously.

Liberation Philosophy

In the opening section of Beyond Liberation Theology Petrella emphasizes this necessity for liberation philosophy shaping the way in which he approaches liberation theology. For Petrella, the importance of liberation philosophy is the priority it grants to the concept of life; because for liberation philosophy “life itself isn’t a goal, but rather underlies the possibility of having goals.”  Rather than existing as an ethical norm, Petrella notes, “life, in fact, precedes all such norms.”  By founding the possibility of all further ethical and intellectual discourse on the condition of life, “Liberation philosophy thinks that the absolute pragmatic condition of all argumentation [is that] the subject be alive.”
Turning from liberation philosophy to liberation theology, Petrella points out that just as liberation philosophy locates the precondition for all normative claims in the ability of life to reproduce; liberation theology is founded on the understanding of God as a God of life, not in the abstract sense, but as a material human of flesh.  With this in mind, Petrella can argue that the “preferential option for the poor (which is at the heart of liberation theology) is thus based on God’s own focus upon those who lack the means to sustain bodily life.”  In this way the God of liberation theology (and the God of theology tout court) must be a God of life that stands in opposition to the idols of death.  Theology must find itself concerned with any social, political, or economic structure that fails to recognize the priority of life in itself; and especially any structure that places life on a variable scale of value from least to most valuable.  Already one can see how this emphasis on life undermines much of the radical orthodoxy critique of liberation theology, because “from a liberationist perspective, radical orthodoxy forgets that life is prior to peace”, and the God of radical orthodoxy seems to put peace prior to life.

Beyond Identity Politics

Another important step Petrella makes in re-thinking liberation theology is arguing against the race based identity politics that have dominated much of liberation discourse in recent decades. Rather than liberation theology being about race or gender, it is necessary that the common denominator be poverty, not color.  Whereas ‘color based’ theologies (Black theology, Asian Theology, Latino Theology) only further the separation and racism existing within the body of Christ, the commonality of poverty and oppression has the ability to spread across national and racial divides, and provide a common theology for those in all three ‘worlds’. The temptation to turn liberation theology into identity politics has only blurred the fact that “material deprivation, that is, the deprivation that comes from one’s class standing in society, remains the most important form of oppression.”  This emphasis on poverty also makes liberation theology more historically aligned with the Church, which has always existed as the Church of the poor, in celebration of Christ who was also poor and oppressed among men.

The Four Causes of Poverty in Liberation Theology

The crux of Petrella’s project resides in his acknowledgement of four crucial conditions that must be overcome for liberation theology to have a future. He calls them: monochromatism, amnesia, gigantism, and naiveté. I will attempt to briefly yet accurately summarize each of these conditions below.


For Petrella, monochromatism is the more important debilitating condition found amongst North American liberation theologians.  These theologians suffer from a limited range of vision, causing them to see theology as only black and white, or black and brown, or theological and non-theological.  Petrella traces the emergence of monochromatism to the black theology emerging in the United States under the influence of James Cone.  Monochromatism could also be applied to the critiques of the radical orthodoxy theologians, not because they fall into the trap of seeing things as ‘black or white’ but instead as ‘theological or non-theological’. Whereas relying on neo-scholastic sources for developing an ontology falls safely into the discourse of ‘theology’, using contemporary anthropological theory to better establish the conditions and causes of poverty in the third world would fall into the category of ‘non-theological’. For Petrella, this theological monochromatism limits the resources available to the theologian, as well as limiting the relevance of her theology for the liberation of the material poor.

Petrella identifies amnesia as being the most general of the debilitating conditions afflicting liberation theology, noting that it has no founder or genealogy.  Theologians suffering from amnesia begin with identifying poverty as the key problem to be addressed and liberation as the desired goal. The theologian then forgets the first problem (poverty) and focuses all of their intellectual efforts on the cultural advancement of a particular ethnic group, and this advancement replaces the liberation originally identified as the theologians’ goal.  This amnesia causes theologians to begin with the goal of liberation from poverty, and end with its focus on the middle class in a particular culture. As Petrella notes, “this [amnesia] is not a theology of liberation, it is a theology of inclusion for the middle class.”  Amnesia produces theology primarily concerned with culture and identity; not oppression and poverty.

Gigantism is the condition most commonly found among the Latin American liberation theologians.  It happens when these theologians become obsessed with discussion of the various forces causing the oppression of the poor, and this obsession with what can be seemingly insurmountable conditions leads to a condition of paralysis for the theologian.  This gigantism can be seen to some extent in the previously discussed work of Daniel Bell, for whom “capitalism has won.”  For the liberation theologians infected by this gigantism, there is no such thing as an outside to capitalism, and thus no grounds from which to overthrow systems of oppression.  With an enemy as undefeatable as capitalism, it is no wonder that many liberation theologians end up caught in the paralysis of gigantism.


Simply put, the liberationists affected by naiveté fall so far into poetic and ideological descriptions of the conditions of poverty and oppression that their work ends up consisting of little more than poetic license and wishful thinking.  These theologians produce long, and seemingly eloquent, works which detail the social and political conditions they wish to resist, and then move on to provide idealistic and vague descriptions of how they plan to overcome these systems. Once again, Daniel Bell seems to fall into the trap of naiveté when he calls for the “refusal to cease suffering” as the solution to the domination of capitalism in the two-thirds world. Rather than put forward any positive political, economic, or ecclesial program, he relies on rhetoric and theological idealism which may satisfy the literary needs of a theologian living and working in the most affluent nation in the history of mankind, but fails to offer much for the third world Christian struggling to stay alive in the face of devastating social and economic conditions.

Liberation Theology as (non) Contextual

In one of the most powerful, and undoubtedly important, sections from Beyond Liberation Theology, Petrella makes a strong argument against liberation theologies being considered ‘contextual theologies’. According to Petrella, “the designation of liberation theologies as contextual is the new way to take the edge off their critique.”  This designation of liberation theologies as contextual leads to a degradation of seriousness in which the ‘greater’ theological community takes these theologies. As far as the academy is concerned, theologians working in North America and Western Europe are responsible for producing ‘mainstream’ and ‘orthodox’ theology, while the liberation theologians working in the third world are the ‘minority’ as far as academic theology goes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Because two-thirds of the worlds population lives in poverty, and because the majority of the Church resides in the global south (which contains a majority of the world’s poverty), liberation theology is “grounded in the broadest context available today and so come as close as possible to being the first truly global theologies.”
This point cannot be tossed aside easily. There is no arguing against the fact that liberation theologians live and work in the most universal context available in our day and age. Two-thirds of the world’s population live in conditions of poverty, and a large number of first-world residents are now experiencing similar conditions.  In a world where every second child on the planet lives in poverty , any theology hoping to be the least bit universal needs to respond to this crisis; and with one billion children living in poverty we need more than just a ‘better’ Christian metaphysics, we need a drastically new way of doing theology that incorporates both the highest of intellectual as well as social resources. As Petrella notes:

Whether people live or die is most directly related not to theology, but to disciplines such as economics, political science, medical anthropology, sociology, and development studies. As the place where God’s promise of life is most concretely played out, the social sciences themselves are theological spaces in possession of idolatries that must be unmasked or deposits of tools to be grasped for the cause of liberation.

If Petrella is correct in his assessment, maybe the future of liberation theology won’t be as tied to the academic field of theology as it has been historically. As Petrella notes at the close of his work, “To work in liberation theology today could mean to work outside of it.” Maybe the most faithful thing a liberationist could do in this day and age is to sacrifice their title as ‘theologian’ and instead engage in the intentional subversion and infiltration of non-theological fields for the sake of the poor and oppressed. Thus Petrella leaves us with this question:

Could the future of liberation call for the dissolution of liberation theology as an identifiable field of production?


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