From Wasteland to Promised Land

4. Life in the Wasteland: The Just Society vs. Baal Worship

ertile ground for the emergence of liberation theology was provided by the clash of views over the role of politics in the Latin American Church in the first half of this century. One problem encountered was how to acknowledge God's sovereignty in history when the everyday world was structured in ways that seemed to deny it. Where could one find a divine presence in a civilization that, in so many ways, seemed so uncivilized? And was it up to individuals or governments to establish a reign of righteousness?

Leonardo Boff points to three models of the Church that have impacted on the liberation dialogue in Latin America. First, "the Church as City of God" holds that politics and government are essentially outside the realm of religion, which is for individual salvation. Second, "The Church as Mater et Magistra" sees the Church as educating and persuading political leaders to work for social betterment. Third, "The Church as Sacrament of Salvation" has the religious community opening itself to the world and actively collaborating with the state in uplifting the members of society.

Finding all three historical models of the Church wanting, Boff suggests a fourth, drawn from his experiences in the Brazilian basic ecclesial communities. This model, which can be called "The Church of People-hood and Justice for All", would be much more participatory, avoiding centralization and domination. Being democratic, it would emphasize the community more than the individual. Behind Boff's model is liberation theology's concern for the loss of "people-hood" in Latin America and in much of the world.

The new wave of Latin American theologians couple their critique of "individual Christianity" with an affirmation of the broader concept of being a "people of God." In the Bible, we are reminded, God has a chosen people. He loves the poor, oppressed, and landless -- as a group. He hates he oppressors -- as a group. It is the people who leave the Wasteland and enter the Promised Land. And although the generations had passed away, their children and grandchildren repeated the history of Egyptian oppression and God's salvation in the first person: "And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord... and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deut. 26:5-10)

The Judeo-Christian meaning of liberation is clarified by some attention to Baal, the most active "foreign god" of the Canaanite pantheon. To the Canaanites, fertility depended upon sexual union between Baal and his sister and consort, Anath. Baal worship consisted in reenacting the mating of the gods in orgiastic rites with temple prostitutes. Beyond maintaining natural fertility and harmony, Baal religion was used by the aristocracy to uphold the social order. Canaanite tenants worked as dispossessed farmers on estates owned by magnates, the temple, and the king. They worshiped the landowners, the baals, who held dominion over both the land and the peasants themselves. Old Testament exhortations against Baalism emphasize the proper way to worship Yahweh: by acting with mercy and justice towards one's fellow humans.

Because justice does not prevail when some, like the baals, claim the land and its bounty while others are excluded from these privileges, Hosea denounces Israel for betraying its covenant to recognize God as the true owner of the earth. And Amos, referring to the greed for possessing the land and its fruits, said God is angered by those "who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end" (Amos 8:4). Amos' indictment of Israel mentions oppression of the poor and cultic prostitution as if they were one (Amos 2:6-8). This seems strange until one recognizes that the link between these two sins is a wrongful concept of land ownership. Recall that Baal-worship and its sexual rites glorified inequitable land possession and control. In the Prophets, the role of land is crucial in the divine providential scheme, and the flouting of just principles of land possession has grave consequences. Human beings are caretakers, not the owners, of God's creation.

Amos and Hosea underscored that being a caretaker of the earth, while defining people's relationship to the land, also defined people's relationship to one another. Being a caretaker meant loving justice and doing mercy, letting go of selfish possession and the desire for power over others by usurping their means of livelihood, and instead becoming, like God, compassionate. Consider what a revolutionary break this represents from Baal worship, which idolized control of the soil and deified the landowners!