As it is popularly used these days, the term “liberation” derives from Marxist usage. Marxists employ it as the battle cry against capitalism, or what the Communists call imperialism. The word has been scooped up into the vocabulary of the Church and is used by many as the equivalent of salvation. Professor James Cone of Union Seminary in New York has defined liberation specifically as “God’s activity in history, setting people free from economic, political and social bondage.” And liberation, he argues, precedes reconciliation. Thus he concludes that “God’s salvation is for the poor and the helpless, and it is identical with their liberation from oppression” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Dec., 1972, p. 2).

Liberation movements exist all around the world. Virtually all of them have to do with political, economic, and social matters. In Latin America the quest is for social justice, which means taking political power and economic control out of the hands of a small minority and giving it to the powerless and economically underprivileged masses. In South Africa blacks are engaged in a struggle to throw off the political, economic, and social yoke put on them by their white masters. In Hungary and Czechoslovakia, liberationists seek freedom from the rule of a foreign conqueror, the Soviet Union. In Greece and Spain they want to escape a dictatorship of the right. Intellectuals in the Soviet Union want personal freedom to think and to express their thoughts, to differ from dialectical materialism.

One of the agonizing questions is whether the Church as Church ought to play a leading role in this quest of men everywhere for justice, for deliverance from oppression of every kind. Leaders of the ecumenical movement have identified that movement with the liberation movements as part of what they claim is the prophetic role of the Church. They attempt to validate this stand by citing the Old Testament prophets, such as Amos and Isaiah.

There is, undeniably, much oppression and injustice in this sinful world, and the Christian does wrong to feel complacent about this or to suppose he can steer clear of the struggle for justice. The important thing is for the Church and Christians to identify the true cause of oppression and to take their place in the struggle where it will count the most.

The fundamental cause of the world’s ills is sin. Man is alienated from himself and his fellow man because he is alienated from God, and his first and greatest need is to get right with God. Men who have been reconciled to God should be vitally concerned with healing man’s alienation from man as well as his alienation from God. But unfortunately there is a vast gap between justification and sanctification. There is no doubt that professing Christians have been guilty of supporting wicked, unjust institutions, such as slavery. Furthermore, some people who have made no particular profession of Christian faith have had a keener sense of institutional and societal evils than others who have professed Christianity. (Indeed, some of these inherited a social passion from parents whose Christian faith they refused to follow.) God works in common grace in the hearts of unbelievers even as the devil works on believers to keep them from becoming what they ought to be.

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This much we know from history: deliverance from one oppressor does not always result in the liberation hoped for. The Russian revolution delivered the people of the Soviet Union from the oppression of the czars; now they have other oppressors and other forms of oppression. Cuba was delivered from a dictatorship only to come under a more oppressive left-wing dictator who imposed far more economic and political deprivations than the people had known before.

Who is to say that God himself may not sentence nations to servitude because of their sins? The Babylonian captivity of Judah is a case in point. God delivered his chosen people into the hands of a cruel and unbelieving conqueror. For seventy years they suffered under this yoke and felt the sting of injustice. In the days of the judges, God repeatedly delivered his disobedient people into the hands of oppressors. When Jesus walked the Judean hills, the Jews fretted under the oppressive yoke of their Roman overlords. They looked for a messiah who would bring national economic, political, and social liberation. When they wanted to make Jesus king in order to bring this about, he quenched their hopes, saying: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Certainly he never proposed establishing a national liberation front. Nor did he ever exercise “a prophetic ministry” by denouncing Caesar; in fact, he instructed his followers to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” When he sent forth the Twelve he commissioned them to preach the Gospel, and to heal the sick as a sign of their apostolic office.

Moreover, the most exacting study of the life of the Apostle Paul yields no more of a mandate for the Church to think its essential mission is to work for politico-economic liberation. The prime concern of both Jesus and Paul was that men get right with God first. Men needed then, as they need now, to be born again. For churchmen to use the word “liberation” with its Marxist overtones is unfortunate and unnecessary. This usage implies far more than it should biblically.

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A look at the hymnody of the Church to find out what the hymn-writers have said and worshippers have sung through the centuries reveals the absence of the note being sounded by so many contemporary ecumenists—that the mission of the Church is to liberate men from economic, social, and political oppression. The Wesleyan awakening produced extensive social reforms as a fruit of spiritual regeneration. But one need not look beyond Charles Wesley’s hymns to conclude that his primary concern was man’s alienation from God. And the major social reforms that followed the evangelical awakening were due not so much to any church activity as to concerned Christian citizens whose labors were related to groups like the Clapham Sect (known as “the Saints”), led by the indefatigable Wilberforce, who said, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” The Saints, who were bankers, lawyers, civil servants, and members of Parliament, did indeed change English manners:

Parliament stopped debating game laws and enclosures and began to discuss prison reform and the rights and wrongs of colonial slavery. Politics became an exercise in morality; the aristocracy assumed a high seriousness and devoted themselves to good works. Above all, a middle class which might so easily have lost faith in the prevailing political system found satisfaction in taking up great moral causes [Ian Bradley, “How the New Prudery Began,” The Observer, Aug. 13, 1972, p. 74].

Does all this mean that the Church should do nothing to reduce injustice and overcome oppression? By no means. The Church should lay down biblical principles for a just society from Scripture, and it should train its people to do their job as citizens of Caesar’s kingdom to bring about needed social change. But while the Church is to be concerned about temporal power struggles, its first and ultimate interest lies in the spiritual struggle with the powers of darkness. The watchword is not liberation but salvation, the reconciling of man to God by faith in Jesus Christ through Christ’s blood sacrifice on Calvary.

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