Learning something from Liberation Theology

Obama critics are beginning to talk about the president’s former membership at a church pastored by the infamous Jeremiah Wright. At the American Interest Peter Berger has a nice little post explaining the connections between Wright, black theology, and the broader stream of liberation theology. In our little Reformed (or Evangelical) cocoons it is easy to forget how prominent this version of Christianity is in certain circles. Conservatives tend to assume that everyone realizes it is not “real Christianity”, and they therefore reject it outright. We all know, after all, that Jesus was not a Marxist.

In reality, there is much that can be learned from liberation theology, insofar as it offers a critique of versions of Christianity that pretend that God cares nothing about justice, righteousness, or liberty for the poor and the oppressed. Indeed, liberation theology helps to remind us that the kingdom is about these things too. To be sure, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and does not advance by the sword or by politics, but that does not mean it is any less concerned with justice.

In fact, I would suggest that Berger understates the contribution of liberation theology somewhat. Berger writes,

Where are the liberationists right? On one point only:  The New Testament sources make clear that Jesus was indeed concerned with poor and marginalized people… I, for one, am willing to concede that Jesus can be plausibly said to have had a “preferential option” for people outside the elite (including the tax collectors, despised henchmen of Roman imperialism) – apparently he sought such people out wherever he went.

Actually, more than that needs to be said. Jesus described the gospel of the kingdom in terms of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed, and most New Testament scholars recognize that he was not using these terms metaphorically. For that reason the proclamation of the gospel should have at its very core hope proclaimed for those who suffer in this age, if they will find their salvation (and repentance) in Jesus. The gospel does not simply address the human relationship to God (i.e., piety); it also addresses relationships between human beings (i.e., justice, or righteousness). Many conservative Christians fail to appreciate how central liberation is to the gospel, and I cannot help but think that this is part of why the poor and marginalized don’t often appear in our middle class churches.

All of that said, Berger’s more basic point, noting the real problem with liberation theology, is right on the money.

Where are the liberationists and their sympathizers wrong? Very few New Testament scholars would agree that Jesus’ “good news” was a program of social transformation here and now; it was the proclamation of the coming of a supernatural order in which the reality of “this eon” would be totally transcended.

In other words, while it is true that Jesus proclaimed a gospel of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed, the fullness of the kingdom is not yet. As he worked hard to show his disciples, the Messiah must first suffer and go to the cross, and after he is raised up, the gospel must yet be preached to all nations. In other words, because today is the day of salvation, for now Jesus comes as a suffering servant not as a conquering king. Christians are likewise to witness to the justice and mercy of the kingdom (which is the main reason why we have the diaconate), but in the age of the gospel we do so in a context of suffering service. The servant is not greater than his master. We need to be willing to take up our cross, and follow Jesus.

In that sense, therefore, liberation theology is guilty of what we might call an over-realized eschatology. But it is not wrong in highlighting the liberation that is central to the reality of the kingdom. Most Christians could afford to think a lot harder about the implications of the gospel for our treatment of people less well-off than ourselves. Most churches could work much more diligently to bear witness to justice and mercy in their congregations. Jesus cares about this stuff, he talked about it a lot, and it was at the heart of what it meant for him to take up the form of a servant. The church should not be any different. The servant is not greater than his master.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 9, 2012, in Liberation Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Learning something from Liberation Theology.

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