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WHAT CAN THE CHURCH IN THE PHILIPPINES LEARN
FROM THE BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY?

By: Elton L. Viagedor, OFM

A “New Way” of Reading and Interpreting the Bible
The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” has recognized the contributions of the new approaches to biblical interpretation particularly the approach by liberation theologians. It highlighted the positive impact of its emphasis on relating the meaning of the sacred scriptures to the situation of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. In other words, this approach underlines that interpretation should not just be limited on the scientific realm of biblical exegesis. It must also seek to communicate the message of the text to the current situation of the people particularly in their on-going struggle against oppression and socio-economic injustices. The liberationist approach to hermeneutics seeks to offer a new method of interpretation that is responsive to the context of the poor and the oppressed. The primary aim is to connect the meaning of the bible to the contemporary situation and to make hermeneutics closer to the real condition of the people.

For the liberation theologians, biblical hermeneutics should go beyond the scientific method of comprehending the meaning of the text. Exegesis alone, with its own tools, however perfected these may be, is incapable of deciding what the right meaning is in the present context. The scared scriptures would only find relevant meaning when it gives life and hope for the people in their present situation. For those who spouse the liberationist approach, to read the bible is to read it in the context of life. The historical meaning should be brought into an interaction and should penetrate the current life-situation of the people. In this way, the Word of God, truly becomes a Word that empowers, gives hope and strengthens the people to confront their present oppressive context and to struggle for liberation and justice.

Hermeneutic of the Poor and the Role of the Community
A key element in the liberationist approach to biblical interpretation is the so called “hermeneutic of the poor.” This means that the biblical texts should be read and interpreted from the eyes of the poor. Doing justice for the poor and liberating them from oppressive condition is the primary interpretative category through which the biblical text is read. Because God is on the side of the poor, responding to their needs and concerns should also be the primary consideration in the interpretation of the sacred scriptures. The sacred texts are interpreted in view of drawing out God’s message that will sustain, support and encourage their struggle for liberation. A constitutive aspect of this claim is the assertion on the importance of the interpreter’s context. The interpreter of the biblical text should be immersed on the very life and condition of the struggling poor. Through this, the interpreter makes a concrete expression of option-for-the-poor and by doing so, he or she adopts their “lens” through which the sacred scriptures are to be properly read and interpreted. Aside from having the proper optic, the interpreter is also helped by the poor in interpreting the meaning of the texts because they have, what the liberation theologians call, “the hermeneutic privilege.”

Another very important aspect of the liberationist approach is the importance that it places on the role of the community in the interpretation of the meaning of biblical texts. Engagement with the basic ecclesial communities or base communities has been a determining factor in the development of liberation theology. Hence, it also places paramount importance on the vital role of the local community in identifying and appropriating the message of the biblical texts in their current situation. For the liberation theologians, exegetes, commentators and the official interpreters of the Church do not have the sole authority in the interpretation of the meaning of the bible. The people in the local community should be listened and be given the chance to share their understanding of the text from the perspective of their present context. This is based on the argument that it is to the poor and the oppressed that God’s Word is specially addressed. Therefore, it is just fitting that they be given a privilege place in the hermeneutical process. The contribution from the communities becomes a significant element in the continued enrichment of the meaning of biblical texts particularly in achieving justice and liberation. In this process, the biblical text is brought in the concrete contexts of the communities and the people read and interpret their life through the sacred scriptures. It becomes a true living bread and a source of transformation for the everyday life of the people.

“Praxis” as the Ultimate Category of Understanding
For the liberation theologians, faith and theology is primarily geared towards “doing.” Praxis for the liberation theologians does not mean the opposite of theory. It is “reflected action”, that is, an act or practice that flows from a certain perspective and grounded on a continued critical reflection and analysis of experience. It is action shaped by its on-going critical dialogue with theory. In the same vein, the liberationist approach to biblical hermeneutics argues that the ultimate objective of interpretation is to apply and put it in concrete practice. In the process of interpretation, the appropriated meaning of the text will have to be clearly shown in praxis. In other words, the hermeneutical process is directed towards concrete application. To interpret and to believe in the Word of God is to practice it. It is only when the interpreted meaning is applied in actions that there will be true understanding and communication of the message of the biblical text. Above all, for the proponents of the liberationist approach, the interpretation of the bible should ultimately lead to social transformation.

The Challenge of the Liberationist Hermeneutics to the Church
The approach of liberation theology to biblical interpretation poses significant challenges especially to the to the institutional and hierarchical church. Since social justice is a central theme in the bible, liberation theology calls the “official interpreters” of the church to a “hermeneutical conversion,” that is, to give emphasis on interpreting and allowing the message of the bible to speak to the condition of the poor and the oppressed especially in their on-going struggle for holistic liberation. Implicit to this is the demand that the members of the Church hierarchy and institution go out of the comfort zones and make a concrete act of option for the poor: encountering and being in solidarity with those in the peripheries and margins of the social fabric. For it is only through this act that one can honestly interpret the bible from the “eyes of the poor.” Furthermore, this also calls for a conversion of the way of life of priests and religious. To become effective communicators of the sacred text, they are to apply and show it first in their actions and choices in life. Through this, the sacred scriptures become truly fresh, new, and alive in the life of the Church.

This may also prove to be very significant to the challenges faced by the Philippine Church nowadays. Facing a regime that attacks and undermines its moral authority, using stories of scandals and abuses as weapon, the Church in our country can respond to this by asserting its integrity by heeding the liberationist’s call of option for the poor: being among and living in solidarity with those in the fringes of the society. This may also become a concrete manner of expanding what Bishop David calls as the Church’s “religious influence” to the people especially to the Filipino masses who, owing to years of socio-political and economic alienation, have succumbed to populist political ideology and even fanaticism. Perhaps, the distance and detachment of the institutional church from the lives of the poor and the masses, have contributed greatly to our incapacity to evangelize and in return be evangelized by them.

The biblical hermeneutics of liberation theology and the very example of Jesus remind the Church that one of the gospel-inspired ways of confronting the monstrosity of the politically powerful is by turning to the masses and by being truly “among” the poor. It is by her solidarity with the deprived, the least, the excluded, and the abandoned that the Church can become a catalyst for an authentic social transformation.