“Engaged Buddhism is a Buddhist social movement that emerged in Asia in the 20th century, composed of Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the Buddhist ethics, and insights acquired from meditation practice, and the teachings of the Buddhist dharma to contemporary situations of social, political, environmental and economic suffering, and injustice.”
“Liberation theology is a Christian theological and grass-roots approach emphasizing the liberation of the oppressed.” Liberation theology is best known in the Latin American context, especially within Catholicism in the 1960s, with leaders like Gustavo Guiterrez in Peru and Oscar Romero in El Salvador but it also has been developed into Dalit liberation theology, South African and African American contexts as well as Palestinian liberation.
Both of these faith movements that are based in social justice and peace have evolved in many areas of the world and in different contexts but both arose as responses to injustice in whichever location. Interestingly they have been compared by scholars and those on a faithful path who see similarities in the missions of both the Christian and Buddhist faiths. While similar in some ways both can teach each other on the path of social justice and interfaith community.
In the article by Dom Helder (link below) the author makes some points about both that are interesting including the comparison between Mary, mother of Jesus, and Quan Yin. One of the tenets of buddhism is the non-duality of existence, which could be a lesson for Christian Liberation theologians. And Buddhists could learn from the idea of a God who chose to incarnate amongst the downtrodden, into a very human experience, as opposed to transcending the mundane. Everything is a balance and connections between these concepts are many.
Something important to note is the Catholic Church’s position on Liberation Theology has been divided through time, with more positive support from Pope Francis, but previously, many conservative Latin American bishops considered liberation theology as Marxist, and it was censored and denounced by Pope John Paul II. As a social movement in these many countries we can see that Latin American liberation theology was happening at the same time as other social movement in the United States civil rights and the South African anti-apartheid movements, as well as feminist, Dalit and Palestinian liberation through incorporating concepts of the Bible and Jesus as the voice of the oppressed. Echoes of Martin Luther King’s message of peaceful resistance can be found in his teachings of the importance of aligning with the needs of the poor. The current movement ‘A National Call for Moral Revival’ with the Poor People’s Campaign to march on Washington is a continuation of efforts started by MLK. https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/june18/
While there is a connection between social issues in the 1960s during the height of liberation theology, we can also see similar correlations with engaged Buddhists who were enduring continuous war and wanted to spread a message of peace, unity and freedom from political divisions. There are many horrifying times in human history that we are challenged to endure and to understand each other in the context of the pain and suffering that humans can inflict on one another. The Buddha’s teachings, including those specifically mentioned in the Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism (link below), can help to guide us through the suffering once we move with our emotions and manage ourselves through breath. Another way is spreading peace through our personal commitment to being mindful while serving a greater good as messengers.
These are a few ways we can begin to look at these two comparable but quite different concepts, for further reflections on our own faith and praxis in times of continuous change. In looking at the similar aims of bringing spiritual motivations into social justice and equity, especially with those whose work exemplified the message of engaged buddhism and liberation theology, we can also learn new ways to work from an interfaith and inclusionary lens. This offering of multiple perspectives can enhance the greater purpose that can be brought to communities and individuals in faith. It is additionally supportive and shows the scope of others’ work in the world and how every small step is something to celebrate despite hurdles. Looking to the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha we can see that benefiting humanity was an essential component of both traditions.
Engaged Buddhism links:
Liberation Theology links: