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Liberation theology. Unlocking hearts and minds?

Liberation Theology, by Phillip Berryman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 231 pp. Hardcover, $16.95. New York: Pantheon. 231 pp. Paper, $6.95. IN 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero y Galdamez, the human rights activist who called on El Salvador's army to ``obey God's law'' rather than government orders, was assassinated, allegedly by a pro-government death squad. Leaflets found on San Salvador's streets that day compared Romero to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

The same year, a blueprint drawn up by supporters of then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan urged, ``US policy must begin to counter liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the `liberation theology' clergy.''

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The two events, as recounted in Phillip Berryman's ``Liberation Theology,'' reflect the depth of fear among politicians, even superpowers, of the new Roman Catholic activism. The United States policy blueprint said liberation theologians used the church ``as a political weapon against private property and productive capitalism by infiltrating the religious community with ideas that are less Christian than communist.''

The reaction at the time was in part due to the clergy's role in Managua's 1979 revolution. As then Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Nicaraguan primate, conceded, ``We incited to rebellion, we justified armed struggle, and the only thing we did not do was take up a rifle and kill National Guardsmen.'' And three priests were members of the first Sandinista cabinet.

But Berryman contends there is little to fear and much to support in liberation theology. It is, in effect, a self-help program based on Christian tenets that fills an urgent need, he says. Liberation theology emerged in Latin America in reaction to poverty and oppression that eventually forced the hand of even conservatives such as Romero and Obando.

Like other less visible but equally challenging new theologies, liberation theology seeks to expand the Roman Catholic church's emphasis from doctrine and institutions to contemporary experience and desperate people. In other words, the church was to be a body for the poor rather than just of the poor.

``Consciousness-raising,'' Berryman says, implicitly means activities that extend into politics. ``People do not simply happen to be poor; their poverty is largely a product of the way society is organized. Hence, liberation theology is a critique of economic structures that enable some Latin Americans to jet to Miami or London to shop, while most of their fellow citizens do not have safe drinking water.''

The new undercurrent seems so radical, according to Berryman, because the church had historically been part of European conquest and colonization of Latin America. Popes twice pronounced against the early 19th-century wave of independence and delayed recognizing the new states. Since then church hierarchy has usually been tacitly aligned with local governments of conservative elites.

As in his earlier book, ``The Religious Roots of Rebellion,'' Berryman is clearly sympathetic to the new trend and highly critical of those who equate it with Marxism. Some Latin American clerics have made ``eclectic'' use of socialist tenets, he says. But there is ``little concern for a total system.'' Indeed, the movement in general is disjointed, with wide variations on interpretation and application.

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A former priest, Berryman worked in Central America between 1965 and 1973, as liberation theology took root. Drawing on this first-hand experience, he is most convincing when he provides graphic examples of the political and socioeconomic context for the emergence of the new activism. He correctly notes that ``Latin American liberation theology - however important in itself - is but one aspect of a much larger movement, the emergence of the excluded - women, non-whites, the poor - onto the stage of history.''

In disparate corners of the globe and in different degrees, dissent is now being played out through religious channels. Militant Muslims have challenged the leaders and their Western sponsors in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Egypt since 1979. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, symbolizes the rising leadership of the clergy in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. In India, religious leaders have taken over from Sikh politicians in the campaign for self-determination.

Roman Catholic activism has not been limited to Latin America. The church played a pivotal role in last year's ouster of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. And due to his outspoken criticism of the South Korean government, Cardinal Kim Sou Hwan now has a following disproportionate to his small flock. The strongest of several common denominators is that, in many third-world areas, the only viable, legal way to fight for human rights and reform is through religion. Opposition leaders have often been silenced or imprisoned; groups frequently outlawed.

That's evident today in Nicaragua, where Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo is a leading critic of the Sandinistas, urging reforms as he did in the final days of President Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

And that is also one of the chief reasons liberation theology and its counterparts are not fleeting phenomena. Berryman's conclusion about liberation theology also applies to other faiths. ``In the years ahead I think it is reasonable to expect that the interpretation of religion will continue to be debated on the public stage, both in Latin America and outside. ... Such controversy is likely to continue as long as the underlying crises remain unresolved.''

Robin Wright, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, formerly wrote for the Monitor from Rome.

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