Liberation theology began as a movement with-in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, but soon found quarter in some sectors of Protestantism. It is a political theology that interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of liberation from unjust economic, political, and social conditions. Proponents say it is the way to view Christian faith through the eyes of the poor; opponents say it is nothing but baptized Marxism.
I tend to side with the detractors, and yet the liberation theologians—people like Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, and Jon Sobrino of Spain—had one thing right: the church's call to make the cause of the poor its own cause. That often entails challenging unjust regimes that grind the face of the poor ever deeper into misery. Certainly one finds biblical justification for seeking political liberation—for one, in the Exodus story, a great inspiration to blacks caught in the clutches of American racism.
That being said, liberation theology as it usually comes to us seems more indebted to Marx than to Moses. Yet the main problem is not that liberation theology went too far but rather that it did not go far enough. When the Bible—in particular, Jesus—speaks of liberation, there is much more at stake than politics. And it is for this reason, among others, that I think evangelicals should adhere to a liberation theology of our own. And we should frame that theology not with politics but with religion, morality, and spirituality—the three greatest oppressors humanity has ever known.
To be sure, you can't have a Christian life without religion. The Bible recognizes that life in God has no meaning if it is not embedded in religious activity such as Scripture study, worship, and ritual. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumed that the devout life includes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Matt. 6). The Bible shows that Jesus was a man of prayer (Mark 1:35) and a regular church attender: "And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day …" notes Luke early in Jesus' ministry (4:16, ESV, used throughout).
At the same time, the Bible can talk about religion as if it were a curse. We're not just talking about false religion or idol worship, against which prophets like Isaiah waxed eloquent and sarcastic (Isa. 44:9-17). The Prophets could also indict perfectly acceptable religious practices. Take for example Isaiah's classic charge, where he quotes God as saying:
When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them. (1:12-14)
This must have been shocking rhetoric in Isaiah's day, because offerings and feasts and religious gatherings are what books like Leviticus are all about. The Israelites were doing in spades the exact thing they were commanded to do.
Religion as such is not the problem, of course, only religion that becomes an excuse for or means of social and economic oppression. God despises religion when people use it to avoid some rather elementary matters of justice. Take this passage from the prophet Micah:
Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel,
who detest justice
and make crooked all that is straight,
who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with iniquity.
Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
its priests teach for a price;
its prophets practice divination for money …. (3:9-11)
This type of oppression goes hand in hand with political oppression, but in this case, religion does not question but supports the oppressive order.
People look to religious leaders to bring order and peace to their spiritual lives. And they are willing to pay good money to know what God thinks of this and that. It starts out justly enough; the laborer is indeed worthy of his hire even if the laborer is working in the fields of the Lord. But it doesn't take long before the money is the main thing and religion is a means to an end. Pretty soon pastors are opening up wedding chapels (a brisk little business) and going on speaking tours (a lucrative big business), teaching for a price, and offering spiritual counsel for money. And people are so desperate for moral and spiritual order, they will pay the extortionist fees.
The solution to such religion is not to abandon it but to fulfill it—that is, to use religion to inspire not works of mammon but mercy:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? (Isa. 58:6)
In short, God's mission when it comes to religious oppression is the same as his mission when it comes to political oppression: liberation.
In the biblical story, we see that religion gets twisted by people in other ways, for instance into moral oppression. This is a recurring theme in Jesus' conflict with religious leaders of his day. One classic encounter happens when the Pharisees, defenders of the moral order, criticize Jesus and his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath, a technical violation of Sabbath rules. Jesus will have none of it. He is not one to bend the knee to moral law just because it is moral or law. That's to enslave oneself to the letter and to refuse to live by the Spirit.
Jesus' pithy response gets at the heart of the matter: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The point of this religious law, as with all religious law, is not found in itself. No, the law is designed to bring freedom and life.
There is no more succinct expression of Jesus' exasperation with moral oppression than his famous sermon against the Pharisees, which begins,
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. (Matt. 23:2-4)
The apostle Paul is one with his master on this. His letter to the church in Galatia is very much in the spirit of Jesus' sermon against the Pharisees. In this case, it is new Christians, not Pharisees, who make the law an end in itself, who use it to burden instead of free people. In this case, some Christians were arguing that accepting circumcision was part and parcel of being a Christian. They assumed that since God's covenant with Abraham included circumcision, God's covenant in Christ would require the same.
Paul responds with a decided "No!" In so many words he argues that what had once been a sign of God's gracious relationship with his people had become a mere external ritual. Instead of it being a free act of gratitude for God's goodness, it had become a religious yardstick for measuring one's righteousness. This is not freedom but moral oppression. Paul puts it this way:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery …. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Gal. 5:1, 6)
With the coming of Jesus Christ, every law and commandment is turned on its head. They are not ends in themselves but means to an end: a life of freedom and love.
There is one more form of oppression that is of particular concern to Jesus. We see this in the many stories in which Jesus delivers people from sickness and the demonic. Time and again, people who are "oppressed by demons" come to him to be freed from illness, which Jesus understood as a type of spiritual oppression. Thus when Jesus commissions his disciples to share in his work, he sums up that work in this way: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons" (Matt. 10:8).
Spiritual oppression takes another, more debilitating form. Jesus frames his ministry in this light in the middle of the Gospel of John:
If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free …. Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31-32, 34-36)
Paul put it this way in his letter to the Romans:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (6:6-8)
The sin that Jesus and Paul refer to in these passages took its first form in the eating of the forbidden fruit, followed by the murder of a brother. Then we see it manifested in Abraham's initial refusal to trust in God's promise and provision, and in Moses' impatience to get on with his call. It is impatience about living from God's daily provision of manna, and building altars to golden calves when God does not speak quickly enough. Sin takes the divine commandment and turns it into an iron rule rather than a living word, something we control rather that something that controls us. Sin is the yearning to live safe, controlled, predictable lives instead of lives born in and driven by the wild and unpredictable Spirit of God. Sin is fundamentally a desire for order where God does not want order, and to control that which God does not want us to control.
Not surprisingly, what comes of this panting after order and control is that our lives are ordered and controlled by that which cannot give life—thus, spiritual oppression. Sin enslaves the person who participates in it. It's spiritual heroin. It is something we partake in because we think it will increase our options, but it soon narrows them to the point of death. The tragedy is that when we realize the trajectory our sin has put us on and try to break from its grip, we find that its grip becomes stronger than ever. We are powerless over our addiction to it, an addiction from which only death itself could set us free.
Dealing with this oppression—the oppression in which all oppression finds its root—was the mission of God in Jesus Christ. Liberation from the oppression of sin required a death, but in a gift as mysterious as it is wonderful, it was the death of Jesus that has made the difference.
Gift is the key word here, according to Paul in Romans:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned … But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many …. For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (5:12, 15-17)
For what Christ has done is not obligation. It is not duty. It is not a quid pro quo, something for something. It is gift, and as gift it is an offering made in freedom. Only a free gift can bring true freedom.
To signal that he was free to give this gift of his life, and free from the curse of Adam ("for you are dust, and to dust you shall return") that has oppressed humankind, Christ overcame death and rose from the grave. "For as by a man came death," writes Paul, "by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:21-22).
It is no wonder that, in trying to sum up all of who Christ is and all that he has done for us, Paul's words cascade over one another: "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5:1).
It is not just Paul who sums up Jesus' work in this way. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus went to the synagogue to explain the work he was about to embark on. He quoted a passage from the prophet Isaiah, and in doing so pointed to himself:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed …. (Luke 4:18)
Jesus announced that overcoming oppression in whatever form it comes—political, religious, moral, or spiritual—is the object of his life. He is the liberating Son of a liberating Father, who then sent a liberating Spirit to complete the work.
Freedom at the Core
There are many wonderful ways to talk about the wonderful work of God. Certainly the ideas surrounding the word salvation will always be central, as will grace, forgiveness, justification, eternal life, the kingdom of God—and more. Each is necessary to fill out all that God has done for us in Christ.
I am not suggesting that liberation should replace any of these ideas. But for the past few decades, evangelicals have been reluctant to talk about God's gracious work in terms of liberation, fearing, I think, being associated with Marxist ideology—or maybe just fearing a loss of the religious, moral, and spiritual control we like to exercise in our institutions.
But no matter how the word has been misused or why exactly it has been ignored, we are wise to recall that at the heart of the Good News is a very simple affirmation: For freedom Christ has set us free.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker), from which this article is adapted.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Mark Galli's book Chaos and Grace is available at Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Other Christianity Today articles about the Bible include:
Changing Forever How You Think | Recovering the lost art of Scripture memorization. (January 26, 2011)
God's Writing Life | Our Creator has chosen a medium that is the most challenging of all. (September 13, 2007)
Galli also writes a regular SoulWork column for CT.
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