Liberation Theology And The Church in Africa


Winnie Mandela shocked the world in 1986 when she stated that Africans should liberate themselves using tires and matches. Her statement referenced the now famous method of killing suspected “collaborators” in South African townships, a method known as “necklacing.” Perpetrators would place a tire around a suspect’s neck, douse him with gasoline, and light him on fire. It was a particularly gruesome way to die.

Winnie’s comment linked two concepts together: liberation and violence. This is not an uncommon linkage. In fact, the tired argument for a just war joins the two concepts together and proposes that it is impossible to achieve physical liberation without it. Certain religious figures have gone one step further and suggested that spiritual liberation accompanies physical liberation; out of this concept, “liberation theology” was born. Although liberation theology has been known world-wide as a Latin American concept, there was a development emanating from Africa, beginning in the 1970s.

A couple of years ago, I met Sister Janice McLaughlin, a Maryknoll nun on leave from Zimbabwe, where she has lived and worked off and on since 1977. In 1977, Sr. Janice became (in)famous when the Rhodesian government arrested her as a terrorist and Communist after they realized she was publishing a book, The Propaganda War, which exposed the government’s methods for discrediting the “liberation soldiers.” Sr. Janice’s detention without bail caused an enormous international stir; under U.N. pressure, the government tried and deported her. During her trial, Sr. Janice refused to use the word “terrorist” to describe the guerrillas, although it was a treasonable offense not to do so. She claimed, “I am not a Communist,” though she advocated redistribution of wealth and argued that Africans deserved independence and a free society.

Her support for the cause gained her notoriety among big-wig guerrillas and, ultimately, Robert Mugabe himself invited her to join the “liberation soldiers” in their Mozambique camps. Sr. Janice did, in fact, join them, and became something of a cause célèbre for the guerrillas, advocating their ideas and methods on the radio, in magazine articles, and in speeches.

Sr. Janice’s involvement with guerilla-style liberation movements highlights some important historical trends in the 1970s, as around the world nuns and priests committed themselves to the idea that Christianity meant not only spiritual liberation—or liberation from sin and suffering after death—but also physical liberation here on earth for people who were suffering from poverty or discrimination or unjust regimes. Even more radical than Sr. Janice’s involvement, this commitment led some priests and nuns to join guerrilla movements and kill in the name of justice.

But aside from that, Sr. Janice’s experience also highlights a problem with the word “liberation.” For those of us who see violence as begetting violence, can it co-exist with the concept of “liberation”? Although I am firmly committed to an Africa free of its colonial legacy, and freed from neocolonialism, I also see violence as a trap—and I recognize that use of the word “liberation” has become propagandized. You can be for liberation and opposed to guerrilla movements, but how can you be for liberation but opposed to “liberation” armies?

There is so much to say, all at once. Forgive me if I tumble over my words and garble the proper order of things.

Why Liberation is important to me

Growing up, I felt stifled in the Evangelical Christian community that surrounded me.

There were many reasons, many incidents, but I remember one in particular that made me feel suffocated. I was at a religious retreat, in my late teens, observing a married woman serve her husband breakfast. He stood there while she poured his cereal and poured the milk and gave him the bowl and spoon. Shocked that he couldn’t get his own damn cereal (how hard could this be?), I said something along the lines of, “Do you always pour his cereal for him in the morning?” It seemed to me the height of absurdity and laziness that he stood around, doing nothing, while she did something he could have easily done for himself. She nodded her head and one of the other women laughed and said in an apologetic tone, “Jessica is sort of the Christian version of women’s lib.”

Although she was right about that at the time (though now I am just a feminist, with no other adjectives attached), I failed to see this particular sentiment as women’s lib. It seemed more like common sense and courtesy towards another human being to me: he had two arms, two hands, and perfectly good vision; he could pour his own cereal. Why did he need to be served? It came down to roles, expectations that women are in charge of food and men are served.

Those sorts of incidents made me feel trapped. It was one reason I left the faith of my childhood. I felt the need to be free and for me, that meant leaving organized religion. I am aware that many people find freedom and joy there—liberation is one of the fundamental concepts of any religion. The opposite was true for me. Instead, today, I find solace in William James’s rather broad definition of religion: “Religion, whatever it is, is [wo]man’s total reaction upon life…” (James, 45) [brackets mine].

The Conference at Accra

The same year Sr. Janice found herself staring at the gray walls of a prison cell in Salisbury, Rhodesia, a group of African theologians met in Accra for a Pan-African Conference of Third-World Theologians. There, several African theologians outlined ideas for a theology of liberation in Africa.

The 1970s were the decade for liberation theology. In Latin America, priests and nuns had started defying local and national authorities in order to liberate the oppressed—in this case, the poor who were under exploitive capitalist economic systems. In Africa, theologians stressed the need for Africans to be liberated from “cultural captivity,” “dehumanization,” and sexism (Witvliet, 99).

South African theologian Allan Boesak argued that black consciousness was an early, secular form of liberation theology that set the path for the Church to emphasize that not only are blacks human but they are also children of God (Boesak, qtd. in Ferm, 266-268). Nevertheless, as real a problem as racism is, Boesak suggested that the economic question is as vitally important in the quest for liberation: “We have to make a proper analysis of the realities of power and powerlessness” (271). In other parts of Africa, however, the struggle was not about race and justice for all. Rather, it was “against dictatorships and domination of all kinds” (Hennelly, 162). Certain theologians saw traditional African culture and religion as “essentially liberating” (163).

The Problem of Violence

Yet if that’s true—if African culture is essentially liberating—what has happened to African liberators like Mugabe, who turned into oppressors? Is there something wrong with the concept of liberation that needs to be corrected in order to avoid the power grabbing that occurs later?

I might argue that Mugabe (and, perhaps, other African strongmen) internalized the violence they used in order to liberate and it corrupted them. Theologians who have observed the course of liberation theology in Latin America have noticed a similar theme; according to one scholar, liberation theologians “are no longer offering the easy justifications of the necessity of ‘counterviolence’ against the ‘institutionalized violence’ of the political establishment,” largely because of “the bloodshed associated with the movement in recent years” (Rhodes).

Echoing this, Sr. Janice recently backpedaled away from her commitment to violence as a method of liberation. “Because of what’s happened in Zimbabwe, the increasing violence and how the Government is using violence against the opposition, I’ve had to question the whole use of violence,” she says. “I’m not a total pacifist but I’m leaning towards it. And I keep saying, ‘Maybe this is kind of the fruits of using violence.’ What I see now happening is how governments, or people in power, can so easily use violence, you know, instill in the youth, ‘This person is the enemy and they should be beaten or killed or tortured or whatever.’ It is a very evil and insidious thing and it is so easy to instill it, particularly in young people, and what that must do to future generations—Zimbabwe is preparing to destroy itself, not just economically and environmentally, but its people. It is creating a generation of youth like those ones from the war who only know violence. And how you ever restore them to a normal life—I don’t know.”

The continued use of violence in Zimbabwe mimics the continued violence in other colonized countries that are now independent. Perhaps, one could argue, this is not unusual: Certainly, France and Great Britain and the United States all went through bloody periods on their way to independence and democracy. Still, now that we have examples of stable countries where people have a voice, are we willing to let a country like Zimbabwe go through years of bloodshed in order to achieve it? I don’t know if we have the stamina, which is why we simply condemn and then create social engineering programs to achieve what we hope will be the desired outcome. It rarely is because social engineering frequently has unintended side effects; and then we must create more programs to fix the unintended side effects.

In the last couple of years, those of us in the Western world have been treated to hours of rhetoric outlining a strategy of violence in order to achieve safety and democracy and to protect freedom. I understand—and appreciate—the concept of self-defense, though I struggle with accepting it; and I understand—and support—the idea of a “free world” (though that is a propagandized phrase and is used as a rhetorical weapon to promote the use of violence in places like Iraq). A few years ago, however, I committed myself to pacifism, then retreated into a limited pacifism, and now find myself wondering once again if total pacifism isn’t the right response. I think this, I suppose, because I recognize that violence has never really bought or gained freedom, though I can clearly see the virtue of going to war against an evil like the Rwandan government during the 1994 genocide.

Liberation and Feminism and Violence

Many years ago, when I was ensconced in the evangelical Christian world, I spent a few months in Australia listening to rather rabid lay theologians suggest how we should view the world. I was at the beginning of what would become the unraveling of my faith, and I was hurting over my place, as a woman, in the church I loved.

There had been several arguments with a gentleman who was a fellow student, and he had told me that Scripture is quite clear about women’s inferiority. We were the “lesser sex” and that meant, he said, intellectually, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

I asked directly: “You mean to tell me that even though I know I’m smarter than many men”—including you, I wanted to say, but didn’t—“and I can prove that empirically, I am still inferior to them intellectually?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s what the Bible says.”

(As an aside, I don’t know where my hurt came from. Certainly, the men in my family—my father, brothers, uncles—treated me and other women as equals. But I still had a chip on my shoulder, and it had partly to do with the incongruities between treating a woman as equal but insisting that she couldn’t be a pastor and that she had to be “submissive” to her husband.)

Later that day, or the next day, I listened to one speaker say he was tired of people claiming that God didn’t love women as much as he loved men because, after all, who had he chosen to carry his son for nine months, and who had he entrusted with the raising of his son, and if that didn’t prove exactly how high God placed women in the spectrum of humankind, what did? And later, I thought exactly how stupid of a comment that was because even if you accept that Mary was impregnated by some divine event, and the entire story of Jesus is miraculous, who else was God going to choose but a woman? I guess he could have chosen a man. Why not? Now that would have been a miracle! But still, it seems like common sense to me that God would choose a woman, so that didn’t prove anything to me, anything at all; certainly, it didn’t take away the sting from certain Scriptures that indicated my lesser status in the Kingdom of God.

I sat in my chair after the speaker had finished, and I let everyone leave, and then I started to weep. I wept and wept and wept in that room, alone, in southeastern Australia, I wept while the snot and tears pooled on the desk in front of me and I didn’t wipe it up because I was that sad. I so desperately wanted to find my place, I so desperately didn’t want to be a second-class citizen, I so desperately wanted everyone to understand that I was of equal value as a woman and that I was smarter and more adept and better equipped to take on the challenges of life than many men I knew and why in the year of grace 1995 I should still be questioning my status as a woman was beyond me. I started to hate Christianity that day.

But I did what I did in those days when I was suffering—I prayed. (These days, I write in my journal, or I write an essay. These, too, are acts of faith and of prayer, but they are not necessarily recognized by formal religion.) And I did, I swear I did, I had a vision. I don’t know how to explain these things now, now in my agnostic who-the-hell-knows-who-God-is days, but I had a vision. I was a child in my vision, sitting on someone’s lap, and this someone was trying very hard to put his arms around me and I was beating, beating, beating at him with my fists so that there was no way he could embrace me. The violence and ferocity with which I beat was in direct proportion to my inner turmoil and pain.

I suppose if I were an Orthodox Christian, I would recognize that as a vision of my relationship with God, and I would point out that I am the one at fault, and that maybe things didn’t need to be so difficult, that he/she was trying to love me and I wouldn’t let him/her. But no, I do not see it that way. What I see is that I was very hurt and I was reacting to the person (whether that was the Church or God) who had hurt me; and their action in putting their arms around me could never make up for the pain caused, in fact, it seemed hypocritical especially since I was, in submitting to the “loving” arms, expected to submit also to those notions of femininity that had hurt me in the first place. My beating, beating, beating against them with fists was a normal reaction; there was no way they could atone for what they had done.

So my own liberation has been internal, spiritual, not physical, and it has had to do with the question of being a woman. I could not answer that in the church—I had to leave. Yet, feminism is a part of liberation theology, and a part of liberation theology in Africa, and though I cannot participate in it, I am glad to see the church trying to respond.

Feminist Libertion Theology in Africa

According to church theologian/scholar John Parratt, feminist theology is the “second generation” of liberation theology. Feminist theology in Africa, he says, “has not been as strident as in some parts of the Western world, and it would probably be right to characterize it…as concerned with women’s role in the wholeness of a single humanity rather than in feminism as a revolutionary countermovement” (51).

The most well-known and one of the earliest female theologians in Africa was Mercy Amba Oduyoye. In a speech to the World Council of Churches in 1999, she compared Africa’s treatment at the world’s hands like that of a woman. Africa is “humble” and “grateful”; if she attempts to assert equality, the world “frowns” and she is persecuted, both openly and covertly. “As women resent these stereotypes,” she states, “so Africa must refuse this female typology” (Oduyoye.)

In her early work, she challenges the Church and, by extension, the world to see women’s experience as “an integral part of what goes into the definition of being human” (Parratt, 51). Her later analogy of Africa as female to the world indicates that the world, too, needs to recognize Africa’s experience as part of the definition of being human.

According to Steve Biko, the man who articulated Black Conciousness so many years ago in South Africa, Africans must accept their blackness and humanness and identity as children of God whether or not the rest of the world ever does. For Biko, that meant leaving the community of whites—even those whites who supported his ideology—and transforming himself and others from within. Others, like Mercy Oduyoye, attempt to transform the structures and institutions that have participated in both the liberation and enslaving process. For me, as a woman, asserting my identity as an equal meant—no, not becoming a pastor, though I considered it but rather, like Biko, refusing to participate in a community where I felt stifled and stymied and unequal. I can see value in both sides. Religious institutions are here to stay; they will never be abolished. It is good that there are those who work from the inside to ensure they become the institutions of justice they are intended to be.


  1. Ferm, Deane William. Third World Liberation Theologies: A Reader. Orbis: Maryknoll, New York, 1986.
  2. Hennelly, Alfred T., S.J. Liberation Theologies: The Global Pursuit of Justice. Twenty- Third Publications: Mystic, Connecticut, 1995.
  3. James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Collier Books, 1961.
  4. Oduyoye, Mercy Amba. “From Cover to Core: A Letter to my Ancestors.” World Council of Churches.
  5. Parratt, John. Reinventing Christianity: African Theology Today. Eerdmans & African World Press: Grand Rapids ,Michigan & Trenton, New Jersey, 1995.
  6. Rhodes, Ron. “Christian Revolution in Latin America: The Changing Face of Liberation Theology.” Part One. From Reasonsing from the Scriptures Ministries