LIBERATION THEOLOGY: a Biblical Response to a Hostile Environment

My family in Christ,

The purpose of this blog is to investigate the biblical justification for LT. To start off with however I think I need to define some terms. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry for LT reveals that although the term is most commonly applied to the Church physically helping to alleviate poverty within Latin America, there are a number of offshoots for liberating specific marginalised groups. For the purposes of this blog, though, I shall concentrate on poverty (although a number of other types of LT will be alluded to). By ‘poverty’ I mean that as defined by Gustavo Gutierrez [1]:

“The term poverty designates in the first instance material poverty, that is the lack of economic goods necessary for a human life worthy of the name…What we mean by poverty is a subhuman situation…Concretely, to be poor means to die of hunger, to be illiterate, to be exploited by others, not to know that you are being exploited, not to know that you are a person” [2].

I also need to say what I mean by ‘hostile environment’ [3]. As I understand it, a ‘hostile environment’ is a political environment in which a set of administrative and legislative measures [are] designed to” harm specific groups. Having defined these terms, let us now delve into the Bible to see what it has to say about liberating the poor.

When sin entered the world, it not only affected our relationship with God (Gen. 3:8) but also our relationship with each other (vv. 15-16). Indeed, when God seemed to favour Abel’s gift over that of his brother, Cain was driven by jealousy to murder him (4:3-8). But rather than being isolated to one family, sin was (and still is) a universal fact of life, and so humanity as a whole (save Noah’s family) was condemned to death in the flood (6:7). After the deluge, God told Noah that He would never again try to sweep away humanity from the face of the earth:

“Then the LORD thought it over and said, ‘I will never again curse the earth because of man’s works, although the mind of man is diligently involved with evil things from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done’” (8:21b NKJV)

It seems to me that the rest of the Old Testament can be viewed as the failed efforts of the created to renew and rebuild both their vertical (spiritual) relationship with God and their horizontal relationship with each other. This is seen in the context and from the point of view of Israel, a people that God chose for Himself. Although it may be argued that God’s favouring of Israel put all the other nations of the world at a spiritual disadvantage (cf. Acts 14:16-17), in the writings of the Pentateuch we find that God does not neglect the foreigner (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:10; 23:22; 24:22; Deut. 24:17-22); nor does He withhold justice from slaves (Gen. 15:14; 21:13; Ex. 6:6-7).

Israel was to be God’s example of how His people should live in harmony with each other. But sin takes many forms, and one of the ways in which it is manifested in the world is by social divisions between people. But God catered for this fault. There are a number of laws in the Pentateuch which should havs reminded the religious and civil leaders that allowances must be made for the poor (Ex. 23:6; Lev. 19:10; 23:22; 27:8; Deut. 15:7, 11; 24:12-14). This may have seemed like a daunting task: however many great works were carried out to relieve poverty it never seemed to be eradicated. So the Psalmists sing praises to God for He succeeds where they have failed (Ps. 9:18; 14:6; 34:6; 35:10; 40:17; 41:1; 68:10; 69:33; 70:5; 72:12-13; 74:21; 82:3-4; 112:9; 113:7; 140:12). But the problem still persists, and the Babylonian exile is partly attributed to Israel’s failure to provide protection for the poor (Is. 1:17; 3:14; 10:2; 32:7; 58:6-7; Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:11; Zec. 7:10; cf. Jer. 22:16).

In the New Testament we are presented with the fact which the people of the Old Testament were being taught. That is, their God is a God for the people. Whereas the supposed gods of the Gentile world were unable to bring either prosperity to the rich or misery for the poor [4], the God of the Jews gave no consideration to earthly status or riches. As the world was about to find out, the Father God is compassionate, having mercy for every individual, and thus desires each person to come to Him as individuals (that is, just as they are).

In Christ, God came down and walked among His people. It was in a synagogue in Nazareth that God Incarnate (who had been born in a stable) proclaimed His mission statement:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poorHe has sent Me to heal the brokenheartedTo proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blindTo set at liberty those who are oppressedTo proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD” (Luke 4:18-19 NKJV)

Here, Jesus announces that He has come into the world for the abandoned. By ‘abandoned’ I mean those viewed as inferior to the Jewish religious authorities. Jesus went to the outcast and welcomed them. These included tax collectors, the economically poor, the blind, the lame, the crippled, lepers and the ethnically excluded (Matt. 8:1-3; 9:27-29, 32-33; 10:3; 11:5; 15:30-31; Mark 2:15-16; 10:46-52; Luke 2:32; 4:18; 5:27-29; 7:29; 10:33; 11:41; 14:13; 15:1-7; 17:11-16; 18:13-14; 19:2-10; John 4:7-9; 9:1-7). For,

“…’It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill’…’I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt 9:12-13 NIV)

Does this imply that Jesus is a doctor who comes to cure the sick? Yes it does. If Christians follow a doctor [5] what should we do in order to show that our discipleship is worthwhile? If you answer ‘cure the sick’ then what of those whose illnesses are directly linked to material poverty? Isn’t prevention better than cure? I don’t think that anyone can deny that Jesus is alluding to spiritual illness here, but is there any justification for us not to help to alleviate the sickness that is brought on this way; for this is an act of mercy (cf. James 2:14-26).

In contemplating Jesus’ earthly life, I feel that in Him God came down to make Himself known to His children – both the recognised and the ostracized – and I doubt that anyone has ever been born into this world who wasn’t His. Whether a named religious leader or an unrecorded worshipper; diseased in mind or body or living a healthy life; Jew, Samaritan or Gentile; oppressor or the oppressed, nothing can stop them receiving God’s love and Spirit, although some people’s lack of the basic necessities of life – food, water, shelter, clothing and healthcare – is a barrier to this. (To this list of necessities must also be added tolerance and acceptance. It is a tragedy of history that no (or very little) concern was given to these last 2 categories for so long. Even now, they are not fully appreciated!)

After Jesus’ ascension, the apostles spent a period of time in prayer, discussion and contemplation in an upper room near the Mount of Olives (Acts 1). The Holy Spirit came upon them, and spurred on by being understood by foreigners, healing the sick, encouraging the poor, and bringing to Christ those lost sheep who had once gone astray, there was an explosion of evangelical outreach (ch. 2ff.). Under the leadership of the Holy Spirit the apostles continued to alleviate physical poverty and to help the ostracized as Jesus once had (3:2-8; 9:36; 10:24-48; 14:8-10; 24:17; Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 13:3; 2 Cor. 9:6-14; Gal. 2:10; cf. Eph. 2:10; Jas. 2:1-7; Rev. 3:17).

By the grace of God, a great persecutor of the early Church was converted (Acts 8:1; 9:1-19). If that miraculous act was not great enough, this once notorious persecutor became the great evangelist who took the Gospel message beyond the boundaries of Judea, Samaria and Galilee and out into Asia Minor and Macedonia. Paul now understood that God’s love, mercy and grace were for the Gentiles just as much as for the Jews. Through him God enabled the apostles to gain a clearer understanding of this (Acts 15; Gal. 2). The Jew/Gentile divide was at last crumbling away.

Like all the apostles Paul felt a sense of urgency. That is, evangelistic missions immediately needed to grow in number and reach as many places as possible in order to save the maximum number of souls before the eagerly anticipated second coming of Christ. And this belief would possibly have led him to speak of equality, for any recourse to divisions and human status would simply hinder the missionary process (cf. the troubles in the Corinthian church). This is one of my favourite quotes from the Pauline letters:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) [6]

Indeed, we can see that the apostolic Church started with this ideal, with possessions being shared with all as they had need (Acts 2:45; 4:35). I think that this concept was felt to be so fundamental to the early Church that we are warned against breaking it in such a strong way (5:1-11). One regrets that such a great example of love, of familial solidarity did not become a general Church practice. 

During the two millennia between Christ’s ascension and now, the Church and its members have tried in numerous ways to emulate the life of the Messiah. But sadly there have been many monstrous examples of the Church standing over the poor and seeing them as less than children of God. Sometimes the clergy were the oppressive force which inflicted pain in the name of purging Christendom of evil (e.g. the Inquisitions); at other times the Church stood and watched the plight being caused by others (e.g. the slave trade). These are just 2 examples which still stain the Church’s reputation. However, although sporadic, the godly practices of almsgiving and charity carried on (and praise the Lord they are still carried on today), although the damage done to the global Church in other ways is too vast for small plasters to cover. Hopefully one day the honourable and powerful practice of sharing common resources (Acts 2:44; 4:32b) can return to its rightful place within the Church and heal its wounds:

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear childrens, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18) [7]

So for those of us who are filled with God’s Spirit…

…let us reveal Him to the world. Doubtless God can be shown in ways that I have not even imagined, but in regard to the theme of this blog let us show Him as the rescuer of the poor, the captive, the sick, the abused, the exploited, the neglected and the forgotten:

God bless you.

POSTSCRIPT: Awhile ago I said that I would write something substantial on Liberation Theology (LT). I confess that I got a bit above myself and I didn’t quite appreciate the rocky road that lay ahead. The following blog was originally intended as the first in a series on LT but, alas, I have found this task to be so taxing and mentally draining that after this I will go back to writing short blogs. But there is a positive: that is to always keep in mind the search for “the preferential option for the poor”.

Endnotes

[1] Often referred to as the father of LT.

[2] Gutierrez, Gustavo ([1971] 1974) A Theology of Liberation. London: SCM, p. 288, 289.

[3] This term has come into common usage in the UK ever since the ‘Windrush’ scandal emerged. The scandal refers to the people who emigrated from the Caribbean aboard the British ship Empire Windrush in 1948. Having contibuted to the UK economy for 70 years both the original immigrants and their descendants are being forced by the xenophobic Tory government to leave this country. The term is also used in regard to the treatment of the disabled.

[4] See Saint Augustine’s The City of God.

[5] I know that there are many other great images of Christ and this is in no way a denial of them.

[6] There are a number of texts within the Pauline literature which contradicts the text here (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:34-35). I feel that some of my readers may be a bit offended if I were to delve any deeper into this subject. However, for those who would like to know more, I recommend the blogs Bart Ehrman – Forged: A Book Review, The Special Case of Women Keeping Silent in Church in 1 Corinthians and Blaming Paul for Things He Never Said by Jesus without Baggage.

[7] For where in the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) does it say that the poor are less worthy than the rich to be brought into the family of Christ and taught His commands? Sometimes, actions speak louder than words!

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