Monday, July 21, 2008

Liberation Theology: Trinitarian Communion with the Poor and Oppressed

This is a paper I wrote in 2005... interesting reading though considering the current attempts at "liberation", "revolution" etc in Fiji.


This paper briefly examines the divine communion of the Trinity in relation with the call for faith lived in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed that is at the heart of Liberation Theology. In this journey into the mystery of our faith and to the developing world where oppressive regimes exploit their fellow human beings, many brothers and sisters in Christ, for maximum profit and personal gain, our primary guides are Catherine LaCugna and one of the prophetic voices of Liberation Theology, Leonardo Boff. Given the often complicated writing of LaCugna, I will use her work on Liberation Theology in Chapter Eight of, God For Us,[1] as the starting point in which to consult with Boff’s work, Trinity and Society[2], which is a piece of dynamite in terms of a Trinitarian perspective of Liberation Theology. Therefore in addition to reflecting on LaCugna’s writing on the topic, this paper will focus on Boff’s contribution to how the Trinity can serve as a basis for Liberation Theology.


The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics defines Liberation Theology as a range of practical theologies characterised by: (1)claims to represent the concrete experience of groups seeking to understand their Christian faith in the midst of organised struggle against various forms of oppression; (2)the conception of the theological task within certain philosophical assumptions regarding the unity of theory and practice and the resulting shift in methodological focus from merely perceiving the truth to doing the truth; (3)the criticism of the ruling ideologies of oppression and the construction of alternative ideologies of liberation; (4)the affirmation of an intimate connection between the struggle of liberation theology and the authentic meaning of the Christian faith; and (5)an compromising prophetic view and confrontation of the oppressive characteristics of both mainstream churches and dominant patterns of society.[3]


According to LaCugna, Liberation Theology aims to address the polarisation between rich and poor, in support of an authentic human community characterised by equality, mutuality and reciprocity among persons.[4] She uses a term coined by the 8th Century Greek theologian John Damascene, Perichoresis to describe how the Trinity expresses its divine equality, mutuality and reciprocity[5]. Perichoresis is taken as meaning, being-in-one another, referring to the fact that we exist in relation to one another. LaCugna argues that as there is equality in the divine persons of the Trinity so, according to Liberation Theology, there should be an equality of human persons. She cites Wilson-Kastner who also insists that as Perichoresis upholds the values of inclusiveness, community and freedom as the form of life for God, it is therefore the ideal for humans if our life is to reflect that of the Trinity. Boff uses the concept of Patreque, Filioque and Spirituque (Son proceeds from the Father and Spirit; Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son; and the Father proceeds from the Son and Spirit) to describe his understanding of the mutuality of a divine perichoretic communion and according to LaCugna, this is Boff’s basis for the opposition to individualism, isolationism, asocial personhood, and by extension, liberal capitalism (which reduces people into means of production) and socialism (which invalidates differences among persons).[6]


Boff, writing on Trinity, Society and Liberation, describes the background conditions for the rise of Liberation Theology. He writes of the stigma of dependence for developing or third-world nations, such as ours here in the Pacific, under firstly, imperial colonial powers, then expansionist European capitalism and now multinational and trans-national capitalism of globalisation and resulting poverty and deprivation on already poor countries – inequality, injustice. One of the reasons for the perpetuation of this, according to Boff, is the individualistic or separatedness of the elements of the Trinity, which in turn reinforces negative human values. For example, the emphasis on God the Father, in agrarian and post-colonial societies, due to the Patriarchal system, results in a Paternalism which makes people objects of help which hinders development by maintaining dependence. This type of monarchic Father God, is supreme judge and absolute Lord and legitimises the might is right concept and is classified as a dominant, vertical relationship. In contrast the modern society based on horizontal relationships, where charismatic leaders inspire the masses, the emphasis on God the Son, means a heroic, humanitarian, leader figure of Jesus. Boff calls this the religion of the Son alone. Finally, the rise of Pentecostal, Charismatic and NRM’s provide for many of the upper and middle classes of society, enjoying, as Boff puts it, the benefits of an individualistic social system working in their favour, satisfaction of their religion through inward looking spirituality and for poor and oppressed classes, who have no real participation in society, a channel for expressing their need for freedom, respect and recognition. This Spirit-led concept finds its extreme manifestation in fanaticism and anarchy. This is the religion of the Spirit alone, its main relationship is with the inner self.

In this case then, the lack of coherence or communion in society manifests itself in the way in which the society experiences the Triune God, with an oppressive image of God, dominating leaders and pastors, and the danger of anarchism.[7] One can therefore see the need to liberate the notion of the Trinity based on communion or perichoresis.

Boff discusses perichoresis in terms of social symbolism, highlighting the interconnectedness and interaction of three basic structures of society: economic, political and symbolic. These three structures provide inclusion, organisation and meaning to society in the access to the ‘goods of the earth,” emphasis on social relationships and the common good, and recognition of human dignity.[8]The illustration that Boff terms Formal Symbolism[9] is an expression of the unity in diversity and mutuality or equality of the Trinity that inspires liberation for creation. In a circle there is no up or down, only the turning round. Boff believes that the communion of the Trinity is the basis for Social and Integral Liberation. The starting point for Boff in this respect is what is expressed in the illustration, that merely expressing the real existence of the Three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is not enough. We must place an equal emphasis on the relationship that binds them together, that flows between them. Therefore, in expressing an option for the poor, Liberation theology calls on the experience of the Trinity. We seek a liberator Father God who hears the cry of the suffering and oppressed today as he did to the Israelites in Egypt. We emulate the expression of love and healing to the weak and outcast by the Son, Jesus who also entered in to solidarity with them, joining us with their suffering. The Holy Spirit, the third person in the Trinity, empowers us with the gifts that enable us, on behalf of the community, to boldly undertake a truly prophetic and liberating action.

Some scholars and theologians, who have been critical of Liberation Theology, have pointed out that these concepts which place great emphasis on communion are socialist or communist in outlook. Boff’s response to this criticism or anticipation of the criticism is two-fold. Firstly Boff accepts that societies with a socialist regime are based on a right principle of communion between all and the involvement of all in the means of production, the basic understanding of the social value in society. However Boff also criticises Socialism for not recognising or reconciling differences between persons and communities but the imposition of the social element or value from above, by the Party. He states that the type of community that emerges from socialist perspective, when seen in light of the Trinitarian communion, is not that of perichoresis, as there is no recognition of individuals as different-in-relationship. For Boff the sort of liberated society that would emerge from inspiration by the Trinitarian communion, would be one of fellowship, equality of opportunity, generosity in the space available for personal and group expression. This society would not tolerate class differences, dominations based on power, whether it be economic, sexual or ideological, or that subjects those who are different to those who wield that power and marginalises the former from the latter.


For Pacific Islanders who are finding themselves oppressed in new ways, increasingly pushed to the outskirts and outside the boundaries of the global village, or swamped by the capitalistic, individualistic, materialistic waves of the tsunami of globalisation, liberation theology offers hope. As the concept of communion or perichoresis, embodies much of the Pacific emphasis on community, mutuality, equality and reciprocity, (even if equality is an as yet unachieved goal) it enables Pacific Islanders to understand Trinitarian communion in a way that resonates with them, and provides a culturally acceptable practical form of social praxis. Only a society of sisters and brothers who weave together a mat out participation and communion of all in everything can justifiably claim to resemble in some way of the Trinity, the source and solace of creation.

The following statement, in my opinion, suma up Liberation Theology in its Trinitarian sense: Liberation is communion; communion is respect, equality, mutuality and reciprocity. I would like to end with a quote that Boff uses. It is from Jurgen Moltmann who wrote:

“Only a Christian community that is whole, united and unifying, free of dominion and oppression, and only humanity that is whole, united and unifying, free of class domination and dictatorial oppression, can claim to respect the Trinitarian God. This is a world in which human beings are characterised by their social relationships and not by their power or possessions. This is a world in which human beings hold everything in common and share everything except their personal characteristics.”

Boff’s Formal Symbolism of the Trinity[10]


Boff, L. Trinity and Society. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988.

LaCugna, C.M. God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco: HarperCollins,


The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics. Ed. John Macquarrie. Philadelphia: The

Westminster Press, 1986

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991)

[2] Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988)

[3] The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ,ed. John Macquarrie, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), 349

[4] LaCugna, 266

[5] LaCugna, 270-273

[6] LaCugna, 277

[7] Boff, 13-15

[8] Boff, 107

[9] Appendix I

[10] Boff, 109

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