Dorothee Sölle’s “Liberation Theology is a Tree”

The following excerpt is from Dorothee Sölle’s Stations of the Cross: A Latin American Pilgrimmage (Fortress Press, 1993. pp 68-69). The chapter so this text are very short, so I’m quoting an entire chapter for you to read. I do recommend purchasing the book if you can find it. The text functions a lot like a book of devotional stories that challenge us to reconsider theology and the proclamation of Christ. While I’ve not read it, I’m constantly reminded of Ernesto Cardenal’s The Gospel In Solentiname; this isn’t surprising to me know how influential Cardenal was on Sölle. Bold emphasis is mine and things I think we really need to consider very seriously in our current context.


A tree consists of roots, trunk, and branches. The root of theology is the experience of God in the world. The theology of liberation experiences God in the world of the ‘poor,’ in the economic and political sense of the word. But what is new about liberation theology is not its political discourse but its reflections about God, proceeding from the world of the poor. There lie the roots — and this theology is dangerous not because it talks of liberation but because it talks about God and in doing so proceeds from the unsettling presence of God in the struggles, sufferings, and hopes of the poor.

The trunk of liberation theology is the base communities which keep it alive. The faith of the people of God is reflected by the base communities as it emerges out of their practice, their culture, religion and traditions. An important theological activity of the base communities is the new way of dealing with the Bible from the people’s experience of faith. The criterion for interpretation is the presence and revelation of God in our contemporary history.

The branches of liberation theology are the men and women who work theologically in their meeting places, their journals, their Bible study and prayers, They depend on the trunk, or the congregations of the base, and are rooted in the spirituality of the people. What keeps this theology alive and gives it its soul are not the universities but the base movements. Its interlocutor is not primarily academic, interdisciplinary discourse but in the faith of the people, as it is organized and formulated in base communities.

I try to transfer this picture to the First World. The emerging liberation theology of the United States and Europe also lives from the one root: the presence of God in the struggles, sufferings, and hopes of those who are engaged in the project of God for justice, peace, and the integrity of Creation. To understand defeats as God’s defeats and to regard the healing of the blind among us as the work of the Spirit is a way of living from the root.

The trunk of our tree is diffuse and splintered. There is, to be sure, a developed consciousness of an ‘other’ church, but –within the breadth and relative liberality of the national churches– no organization of base communities. Groups from the women’s movement, the peace movement, the ecology movement, and the solidarity movement are nevertheless the growing trunk out of which the practice of liberating theology lives, either using or abandoning the old structures.

The branches and twigs of First World liberation theology are likewise seldom to be found in theological faculties. The interlocutor for us also is the voice of the victims; we try to hear the cry of the poor as God hears it. In our situation the poor are: the new poor in industrialized society, the still two-thirds but soon three-fourths on this planet who are impoverished, and non-human creation itself. Their cries demand another theology. If we listen carefully, the cry of the other is also in us — hidden, placated, reinterpreted, and trivialized. And it won’t let itself be silenced.

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