What Is Liberation Theology? - Definition & Overview

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

This lesson discusses liberation theology as a form of activism and a sampling of modern activist organizations. We discuss the history of the movement, along with several of the movement's key predecessors, who are viewed as honorary members today.

Liberation Theology

'What would Jesus do?' is a commonly seen bumper sticker. The message of the sticker is the message that many Christian churches want their adherents to consider: 'If Jesus were in this situation, what would He do?' Though it is a simple enough message, there are times when the exact words, actions, and desires of Jesus may be in dispute. Believers and nonbelievers alike turn to theology in those cases. Theology is the study of religious texts and ideas; note that there are a variety of different types of theology, each concerned with a set of religious writings and ideas--some Christian, some non-Christian. The focus of this lesson is upon liberation theology, which is a set of ideas about how Jesus and his followers viewed social issues, such as helping the poor, inequality, and charity work. There are non-Christian ideologies that promote ideas similar to liberation theology, but the term is generally used to represent Christian ideas. There are a variety of different definitions of liberation theology, and this lesson will concentrate on giving the student the broadest possible picture of these ideas.


The proper origin of the term 'liberation theology' comes from the 1971 book A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation by Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Latin American priest. As a form of theology, the basic premise is that textual and oral sources reveal God's love of the poor and outcast. As such, the ideals claimed by liberation theologians stretch back to the stories of Jesus's association with the poor, downtrodden, and undesirables, such as tax collectors and prostitutes. Other less ancient sources of these ideas include Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest in Hispaniola who argued that it was better for Native Americans to live free as pagans rather than die as slaves, even Christian slaves. Other early Catholic sources include several encyclicals, letters from the pope to the bishops and other leaders of the Catholic Church. These incluce Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) and Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno (The Fortieth Year)--discussed the proper place of charity and the lopsided nature of wealth distribution.

A notable liberation theologian, though he didn't use the term, was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. An African American civil rights leader, he promised to fight for equal rights for all, regardless of color or creed. As Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he was never able to officially align himself with the aims of liberation theology. However, modern liberation theologians look to their predecessors as spiritual predecessors of the movement. In this case, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly supported a similar struggle for civil rights and promoted similar techniques, such as passive resistance to violence, awareness-raising events, and grassroots-level organizations.

The nature of liberation theology discussed in A Theology of Liberation was based upon the experiences of Latin American priests as they ministered to their communities. Rev. Gutierrez discussed three types of liberation in his book: liberation from social injustice, liberation from poverty, and liberation from sin. The book shared many ideas with the encyclical of Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), published in 1963, in which the pope discusses the role of the Catholic Church in charity and the pursuit of equality. Though it matched with much Church doctrine, many individual priests that were following liberation theology were publicly censured by the Church, as their beliefs offended some conservative Catholics.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account