Briefly put, liberation theology (there are many definitions, by the way) is a Gospel-based critique of the world through the eyes of the poor. Contrary to what Beck implies, the liberation theologian doesn’t see himself or herself as victim; rather proponents call us to see how the poor are marginalized by society, to work among them, to advocate on their behalf, and to help them advocate for themselves. It has nothing to do with seeing yourself as victim. It is, like all authentic Christian practices, “other-directed.”
It also sees the figure of Jesus Christ as the “liberator,” who frees people from bondage and slavery of all kinds. So, as he does in the Gospels, Christ not only frees people from sin and illness; Christ also desires to free our fellow human beings from the social structures that keep them impoverished. This is this kind of “liberation” that is held out. Liberation theologians meditate on Gospel stories that show Christ upending the social structures of the day, in order to bring more — uh oh — social justice into the world. Christians are also asked to make, as the saying goes, a “preferential option for the poor.”
Even Pope Benedict, who as Cardinal Ratzinger had plenty of criticism for Liberation Theology, acknowledged that many movements and ideas may go by that name. What he and his predecessor seemed to have against some versions of Liberation Theology was that it seemed to them to focus too much on human efforts in politics and not enough on God. Another way we could say it is that without an inner change in the heart, outer changes forced by political solutions will at best be less effective and at worst may end up becoming perverted and defeating their intended goals. Yet this does not obviate efforts at social justice or expressing solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised, nor does it mean being abandoning political efforts to work towards these ends.
As Fr. Martin summarizes:
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man. Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see? Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion. It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.