Brief Reflections on Liberation Medicine's Roots in Liberation Theology


Presented by Audrey Edmundson Lenhart

Secretary of the Board, DGH, recently returned from Volunteering one year in El Salvador; MPH Candidate, Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University and MA Candidate, Columbia Seminary (focus of study: Liberation Theology)


Although liberation medicine is not aligned with any particular religion, some of its ideological roots can be found in Christian liberation theology. In the time I have been given, I will mention some of the main themes of liberation theology that I feel are most relevant to this emerging idea of liberation medicine.


First, I'll give a bit of background on liberation theology Liberation theology emerged on a large scale in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council during the early l960s Vatican Council U reaffirmed that the church should be focused on service rather than power. Acts of solidarity with the poor and oppressed in their fight for justice were deemed the most fitting ways for the church to react to its missional call.


Liberation theology is based on a preferential option for the poor and oppressed God is seen as coming from the poor through God's incarnation in Jesus Christ. During Jesus' time on earth, Jesus surrounded himself with the poor. Jesus met a similar fate, void of justice, as the powerless and oppressed of the earth. Jesus is understood as being subversive to the dominant power structures of his day, and is seen as the liberator of God's people. Through Jesus' example, oppressive poverty is understood as an affront to human dignity and therefore an affront to God.


One of the cornerstones of liberation theology's praxis. Simply defined, praxis is action informed by ideology. According to Gustavo Gutierrez (one of the most well known and well respected liberation theologians), liberation theology reflects on a praxis of solidarity in the interest of liberation, which finds its inspiration in the Bible In this sense, the Bible acts as the norm which informs liberation theology. In the realm of public health, this praxis can exist in nearly the same capacity. We can understand liberation medicine as being based in a praxis of solidarity in the interest of liberation. The norm, or 'inspiration" from which this praxis arises does not necessarily need to be the Bible-it can arise from other religious books, secular documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the words and deeds of people and communities whose lives are spent fighting oppressive power structures.


In an attempt to outline practical applications of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez contrasts the concepts of 'development' and 'liberation.' I think this theme is especially relevant to public health. Development has acquired a negative connotation in recent years because it usually connotes a connection to groups that are closely tied to organizations arid governments that control the world economy. Hence many development initiatives have posed no real threat to the status quo and have ensured that the interests of' those organizations and governments in power are safeguarded. This is usually done at the expense of any type of sustainable development initiative that seeks to benefit the poor by significantly raising their quality of life. As a result, poorer countries are realizing that the only way true 'development' can come about is to break their ties with the dominant organizations and governments, and thus liberate themselves to be engines of their own change.


In public health, I understand this as change arising from the grassroots. As public health professionals, our role in this is that of 'accompanier' rather than administrator. We are called to turn the power structures around and work in the interest of human liberation rather than efficiency.


Liberation medicine is a channel of 'radical change' through which true development can come about. Liberation frees poor countries from the detrimental influence the dominant principalities and powers have on most sustainable development initiatives. Gutierrez describes liberation as a 'permanent cultural revolution" whose historical consequences are ongoing. Liberation allows the poor to decide for themselves what they need and empowers them to explore different ways of achieving their goals. Once the poor are empowered, true development and in our case liberation medicine, can occur.