(the previous title for this post was
“What Does Easter Sunday Have To Do With Social Liberation?”)
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
‘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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’”
– Luke 4:16-21, ESV
Though the idea of a “social gospel” has been (often rightly) condemned by conservative Christians, there are elements in such a view which are actually central to the biblical message. Note that in the passage above, Jesus’ first announcement of His mission is one of social liberation. Though one could arguably read between the lines to find it, there is no discussion of traditional views of atonement (how it is that Jesus saves us) like Penal Substitution or even of the conquering of death in this announcement. The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus speaks of is the Mosaic year of Jubilee, wherein the debts of those who had fallen into hard times would simply be wiped away and those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay for their debts would likewise all be freed. In other words, Jesus’ first explanation of His earthly ministry is connected to upending oppressive social systems.
Jesus liberating the oppressed also flows from the idea of recapitulation (a view of atonement propounded by the church father Irenaeus, wherein Jesus reverses what Adam did by initiating a new humanity in Himself). Oppression is a symptom of the sin which mankind is responsible for, and Jesus came to undo this oppression. Much to our surprise, He did so by becoming a helpless human baby born of a Jewish peasant in a land overrun by pagan conquerors; He then chose to die at their hand in order to free others. As noted at the end of the previous chapter, Paul taught in Philippians chapter 2 that the incarnation by itself was an act of supreme humility when undertaken by an omnipotent deity. God’s identification with humanity, apart from any explicit teaching, underlines His concern for the weak and lowly. That He chose to become incarnated into an oppressed class highlights it even more so. God identified Himself with the humble and oppressed, a concept pregnant with theological meaning.
This latent meaning is revealed, for instance, in Matthew 25, where Jesus claims that we will be judged based upon how we treated those who were less fortunate. Where there are those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or who are foreigners in a strange land, Jesus is present; so much so that to turn these away is to turn Jesus away. There is therefore grievous sin where there is wealth and power without concern for those without, and this sin is under the judgment of God. Before Jesus was even born, His mother spoke of the theological impact of her pregnancy in this way:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53, ESV).
That the cross had a socially liberative meaning is shown in how John the Revelator looked at history through its lens. In Revelation 13:4, a beast which is a composite of the beasts in Daniel 7 (which all represented various empires) oppresses the people of God and is said to be empowered by Satan, who was/will be defeated by the blood which was shed by Jesus (Revelation 12:11).
The ultimate fate of the beast and of the oppressive politico-military power he uses and represents is described in Revelation 19:
“And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse [Jesus] and against his army. And the beast was captured… and thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:19-21, ESV).
Though Revelation looks forward to Jesus dealing with the powers of evil most finally in destructive judgment, the amazing message of the New Testament is that on this side of judgment day, these powers have already been defeated, and that by the sacrificial—not violent—work of Christ. When Jesus rose from the dead after being murdered by the wicked power structures of his time and place, the inevitable conclusion was that man’s power structures, even with their ability to arrest and kill at will, had lost. Unrighteous authority has to use violence to bolster its power, but this violence, says the resurrection of Jesus, has failed. The power of death, the greatest power that any oppressor can use against its victims, has been taken away from Satan and from satanic authority structures. They have lost, regardless of whether or not they’re willing to acknowledge that fact.
Of course, the idea of God liberating the oppressed and conquering the oppressor is not one found only at the end of the Bible, but is indeed quite near the beginning. In Exodus 2:23, we read that the Hebrews, while slaves in Egypt, cried out in their oppression and God heard it. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman pointed out that the text does not say that the cry was addressed to God, but God was predisposed to hear it nonetheless:
“The slaves did not raise up a cry to God. But the cry had its own intentionality. The cry knew, all on its own, that it was precisely addressed to ‘God…’ The cry of the victim is central to the faith and practice of Israel… It is the oppressed human’s cry, in other words, that will unleash the chain of events that will ultimately result in your being punished… If you victimize someone, then that someone will cry out and [God] will have to act against you.”i
The Passover observance, which prefigures Christ, is a celebration of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery, though blood atonement to redeem their lives is also most certainly prominent. If we are to take this parallel at face value, Jesus as the fulfillment of Passover at least partially represents liberation of His people from social oppression. This imagery of the exodus of God’s people because of His redeeming acts is connected to Christ in the New Testament in various places, and Scot McKnight highlights one important example:
“When Jesus is transfigured, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus’ ‘departure,’ which translates the Greek word exodus (Luke 9:31). The ‘exodus’ death of Jesus leads his followers to freedom, and that freedom is what the kingdom is all about in Luke.”ii
It is also worth noting that concern for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner are common throughout the Old Testament, so much so that it appears to be a primary preoccupation of God’s. Jeremiah 22:16 even goes so far as to connect supporting the cause of the poor and needy with knowing God. As Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “There must be no theology of liberation without the glorification of God and no glorification of God without the liberation of the oppressed.”iii
The prophet Daniel likewise looked forward to a day when the edifice of man’s system of oppressive power would come toppling down since it was built upon a shaky foundation—namely that which is in opposition to God’s rule. Daniel interpreted a vision which came to Babylon’s king wherein man’s kingdoms were represented as a great statue with many layers. This statue, which was described as “mighty” and “frightening” would suddenly meet a surprising fate:
“A stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35, ESV).
The stone was Christ, and the mountain is the Kingdom of God which He preached:
“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44, ESV).
Jesus does nothing to undermine this Old Testament concern for the poor and oppressed, let alone the idea that God’s kingdom would judge those who had used their power corruptly. In fact, He sometimes used language which suggested what Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian who is generally viewed as the father of Liberation Theology, would call a strong “preferential option for the poor,” so that the wealthy often seem to be painted by Jesus as corrupt oppressors. Jesus’ identification with the poor is probably connected with the fact that they are some of the chief victims of a sinful world which He has come to set to rights:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:20-25, ESV).
Social justice is such a strong biblical emphasis that the fourth century church father Basil of Caesarea went so far as to argue that if one hasn’t given up one’s excess to those in need, this one’s salvation is questionable. To be a Christian means to be on the frontlines of combating social inequality:
“I know many who fast, pray, sigh, and demonstrate every manner of piety, so long as it costs them nothing, yet would not part with a penny to help those in distress. Of what profit to them is the remainder of their virtue? The Kingdom of Heaven does not receive such people, for ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.’”iv
The vanguard of preaching the socially liberative dimensions of the good news are Liberation Theologians. Liberation Theology has much in common with a Christus Victor view of the atonement, except that instead of conquering death, the focus is on Jesus’ conquering of oppression by His identification with the poor and His judgment upon oppressive systems, and it is our job as Christ’s representatives to enact this liberation. Liberation Theologians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff explain the underlying idea for how the gospel message relates to the plight of the poor:
“Jesus Christ, second person of the Blessed Trinity, incarnated in our misery, revealed the divine plan that is to be realized through the course of history and to constitute the definitive future in eternity; the kingdom of God. The kingdom is not just in the future, for it is ‘in our midst’ (Luke 17:21); it is not a kingdom ‘of this world’ (John 18:36), but it nevertheless begins to come about in this world. The kingdom or reign of God means the full and total liberation of all creation, in the end, purified of all that oppresses it, transfigured by the full presence of God.”v
The Boffs rightly emphasize a “now and not yet” component of atonement that extends to social transformation. God has given us the seeds of social transformation, but the fullness of its growth comes about when God fully restores creation. Gutierrez gives this liberative definition of salvation, which emphasizes the “now” over the “not yet,” while holding them both in tension:
“Salvation—the communion of men with God and the communion of men among themselves—is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ: ‘Thus the center of God’s salvific design is Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection transforms the universe and makes it possible for man to reach fulfillment as a human being. This fulfillment embraces every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity. Christ, the image of the Father and the perfect God-Man, takes on all the dimensions of existence…’ The absolute value of salvation—far from devaluing this world—gives it its authentic meaning and its own autonomy, because salvation is already latently there. To express the idea in terms of Biblical theology: the prophetic perspective (in which the Kingdom takes on the present life, transforming it) is vindicated before the sapiential outlook (which stresses the life beyond).” vi
By no means is Gutierrez original in his take on the present consequences of the Kingdom of God being inaugurated by Christ. The second century church apologist Justin Martyr pointed to Isaiah’s promise of a future kingdom where swords would be beat into plowshares and war would disappear as being, in at least one sense, fulfilled by Christians before the eschaton:
“And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”vii
Jesus has redeemed our social relationships by breaking down the racial, social, and gender barriers between us (see Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28) and by demonstrating that we have full equality both in that we are all deserving of death and that despite this Christ considers us to be his brothers. Since this is the case, we ought to seek for peace and the liberation of the lowly brother or sister from the shackles of institutionalized violence. If Jesus came to restore the created order, then our relationships with each other ought to be a part of what was/is/will-be redeemed by Him. N.T. Wright, noting the places where Jesus “saving” someone is applied to physical healing or rescue (for instance, Matthew 9:22), points out that, “this juxtaposition makes some Christians nervous (surely, they think, salvation ought to be a spiritual matter!), but it doesn’t seem to have troubled the early church at all.”viii They clearly had a broader idea of salvation that didn’t limit it to merely “spiritual” matters. Our evangelical church today is unfortunately far too Gnostic. In contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr. charged the church with the responsibility to make a difference in the oppression in the world around them:
“There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”ix
King pointed out that suffering Christians are powerful Christians because they follow in the path of Christ. Suffering should not be neurotically sought out, but where it cannot be avoided, the one who suffers with Christ has not been conquered because the suffering Christ has not been conquered. As Moltmann wrote, “In their hearts all true men worship one God – the naked, wounded, bloody, but unconquered and unconquerable Christ.”x It is the oppressor who has been conquered since that which is joined to Christ cannot be vanquished, while that which is not is fit only to be thrown into the fire. As the prophet Malachi, speaking for God, put it:
“I will be a swift witness against… those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:5, ESV).
The tendency for Christianity’s scriptures to challenge our system of violencexi coalesced into a uniquely modern view of the atonement referred to as the scapegoat view, proposed by René Girard, wherein society’s tendency to place blame on a scapegoat to whom they do violence is confronted when it results in murdering God. As pastor and author Brian Zahnd wrote:
“The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God! The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.”xii
While there is much truth in this, the biblical witness to the fact that God used the cross as a sacrificial atonement and as a means to conquer death, sin, and the devil must be brought in to balance such a view. Man’s sinful systems did murder God, but the sovereign God used our sin to achieve our salvation. Christ has already, in a sense, conquered the oppressor (whether human oppressors, death, or the devil), though this victory will not be fully realized until His second coming. As Paul told the Corinthian church:
“For as by a man came death, 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. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:21-26, ESV).
Though Liberation Theology has some indispensable insights into the atonement and Jesus’ mission on earth, it also has a tendency for some dangerous imbalances. For instance, when the oppressed are identified with the poor and seen as incorruptible, and those with wealth and power are thought of as necessarily evil, the gospel fails to be relevant to all people as sinners in need of salvation. The gospel challenges us all in unique ways, but it still challenges all of us. The poor are not immune from sin, nor are the rich always necessarily greater sinners.xiii This false dichotomy probably emerges out of Marxism, which is unfortunately one of Liberation Theology’s major underlying extrabiblical influences.
Another danger of Liberation Theology is that it can have a relativizing effect on morality—the view of the oppressed can begin to be seen as the only moral viewpoint and they are therefore free to determine the proper moral course of action in enacting their earthly liberation. This, of course, in turn creates an oppressed class which is poised to become an oppressing class that is unwilling to listen to God’s challenge to their own sin. In other words, Liberation Theology, when taken by itself, has the capability of instilling the oppressor mentality into the oppressed.
When James Cone, father of Black Liberation Theology, comments that, “American theology is racist; it identifies theology as dispassionate analysis of ‘the tradition,’ unrelated to the sufferings of the oppressed,”xiv and notes that the cross of Christ was nothing less than a lynching tree,xv he is surely speaking truth to our tendency for hypocrisy, particularly when we have power or privilege to protect. But when he says, “we have reached our limit of tolerance, and if it means death with dignity or life with humiliation, we will choose the former. And if that is the choice, we will take some honkies with us,” one is immediately alerted to the fact that there is something in the Christian tradition which he disparages that is worth holding onto. In fact, it is our failure to apprehend the Christian tradition which leads to our siding with satanic power structures. If the idea that God created only one human species which now finds itself in desperate need of salvation is orthodoxy, then surely racism and classism are heresy. On the other hand, if Christ is our example for achieving our own liberation, then we must take note of the non-violent, non-retaliatory means by which He effected it.
In 1965 at the Cambridge Union Society of Cambridge University, James Baldwin argued the affirmative against William F. Buckley on the topic “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin demonstrated his case by highlighting how slavery helped to build the economic prosperity of the United States but that black Americans had still not benefited as white Americans had from their own labor. In contrast to the violent separatist rhetoric which was coming from some black Americans at the time (and understandably so from a human perspective), Baldwin did not argue for the intrinsic moral inferiority of the white oppressor, but highlighted their shared humanity:
“One of the things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murders, liars. We are human, too.”xvi
With surprising empathy, he also mustered the insight to feel pity for the oppressor of his black brothers and sisters:
“What has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there… Something awful must have happened to a human being [in this case, Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama] to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”xvii
Though he could have argued from the good that we have in common to demonstrate that all humans are fellows, he chose, interestingly, to highlight the wicked tendencies which are in all of us. Had the roles been reversed, it could have easily been a black sheriff abusing a white woman. Depravity knows nothing of skin color– it affects us all equally.
Though it is out of the scope to address issues of Christian non-violence and how it doesn’t require acquiescence to evil (Walter Wink’s Nonviolence: A Third Way and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail are excellent, concise, popular level introductions to this philosophy), it is worth noting that Jesus destroyed the powers of evil not by “taking some honkies [in this case Roman soldiers and those Jews who held up their power] with Him.” He destroyed it by loving His enemies while still being radical in His truth-telling. This does not mean being obedient to sinful and dehumanizing laws or stuffing your dignity in your pocket, but it does mean that you never forget that you share a common humanity, spots and all, with an oppressor. As Baldwin noted elsewhere, “if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”xviii
And if our fallen nature makes us comrades, how much more our being joined to Christ as the fountainhead of our new humanity? As Paul argued in Ephesians 2:13-15, the wall of hostility between races has been broken down by the blood of Christ. We are not all different types of man, but one new man in Christ Jesus. Likewise Colossians 3:11 claims that Christ has made meaningless the categories which we invent to assist in our despising one another:
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (ESV). When Liberation Theologians are concerned with tearing down these walls to make us one man, they are living out the fruit of the gospel. Insofar as they play the game of Marxist dialectical struggle, imposing a dichotomy that must be erased through violent struggle, their solutions are not Christian solutions.
What we sometimes see in Liberation Theology is an unbalanced emphasis on Christ the Victor, or Christ the Conqueror. It is ironically the same view of Christ which has undergirded the dangerous theocracies of the past. Placing it in the hands of the oppressed does not somehow baptize it as Christian. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, urges us to achieve moral ends by only using moral means. Insofar as Liberation Theologians commend to us the tools of the oppressor (and by no means do all Liberation Theologians do this), there has been no liberation in the Christian sense. However, its insights are both timeless and timely. If Christ’s incarnation represents an identification with the lowly, His resurrection and exaltation are good news for the same, and those who are in power have an obligation to identify with them as well, lest they crucify Christ afresh with their apathy.
i. Walter Brueggeman, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle Edition.
ii. Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, Kindle Edition.
iii. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.
iv. St Basil the Great, On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38), Kindle Edition.
v. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 52.
vi. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1973, p. 151-2 . Note that this definition and explanation of salvation carries some of the essential qualities of Christian salvation (often those qualities which conservative theologians underemphasize), but it doesn’t emphasize the importance of sin, repentance, or Jesus’ death for sins. Because Liberation Theology’s primary concern is present social liberation, the means by which we are reconciled to God takes a back seat.
vii. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. 39. Cited from www.ccel.org.
viii. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, Kindle Edition.
ix. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
x. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.
xi. See, for instance, my own discussion of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk at http://www.cantus-firmus.com/?p=496.
xiii. When God judged Israel and Judah, He did not spare the poor, as they were often just as actively engaged in wickedness and injustice as their wealthy counterparts (Jeremiah 16:6, 11-12).
xiv. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Kindle Edition.
xv. Note his recent book title, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
xvi. From a transcript in The New York Times’ March 7, 1965 article “The American Dream and the American Negro.”
xviii. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Kindle Edition.