Imagine stumbling into a kind of Christianity that was almost entirely different from anything that you had known about before. That is what happened to me in my early 30s. I had grown up a Christian in a minister’s home and had received my own call to ministry. After Bible College, I had been pastoring for more than a decade when I decided to returned to seminary. While writing my Master’s Thesis at an evangelical seminary on ‘Contextual Theology’ I stumbled into something called Liberation Theology (notice the modifiers). I had been raised and ordained in a Missionary denomination, but I was unaware of what had been developing in some foreign countries amongst the local believers.
Liberation Theology: This term most often refers to a theological movement developed in the late 1960s in Latin America (where it continues to hold prominence). In attempting to unite theology and sociopolitical concerns, liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez emphasize the scriptural theme of liberation, understood as the overcoming of poverty and oppression. Liberation theologies have also found expression among representatives of seemingly marginalized groups in North American society, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 797-800).
It was in the midst of engagement with different authors for my thesis that I stumbled upon a form of contextual theology (an alternative perspective) that stood apart from the enlightenment/colonial models. It was called ‘Liberation’ and it was unlike any of the other models being examined.
I had been sold a brand of Christianity where salvation was mostly about personal sins (like lust or being tempted to drink or do drugs) and God was concerned with getting us out of this filthy world and to heaven after we die. Politics was a dirty word – part of the kingdom of this world – and not the kingdom of heaven. We drew a big line between the spiritual and the temporal.
Liberation thinkers were almost the complete opposite, it seemed. Gonzalez explains some differences:
Some liberation theologies center their attention on international economic oppression, while others are particularly concerned with classism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and other foci. Besides acknowledging and claiming their contextuality, … liberation theologies insist on the need to promote and practice justice and love, not only at the personal level, but also in societal practices and structures.
Justo L. González. Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2442-2446).
Another significant difference between classic forms of Christianity and liberation camps is that Western Christianity is often saturated in and framed by philosophy (primarily Greek and Roman schools of thought) where liberation circles are influenced by and framed in political terms and modern concerns about colonialism and capitalism. There is a teaching about ‘God’s preferential concern for the poor’. God chooses sides and is always with the marginalized and oppressed.
There is much to be said on this issue not just because the incarnation sets the tone for liberation models of ministry but because the entire Christian gospel is based on the reality that the logos was made flesh and dwelt (camped or tabernacled) among us.
As early as the 6th century B.C.E. Greek philosophers were addressing the logos as “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.”
The Gospel of John borrows/appropriates/adopts this term to address the pre-existence of Christ and how that manifested in the person of Jesus. It is important to understand that the gospel writer integrated/adapted Greek philosophy. This move is significant for several reasons:
- Proclamations about Jesus were not made in a vacuum.
- Some early church writers drew from Hebrew narratives and themes.
- Others spliced in philosophical ideas and concepts from non-Jewish sources.
- Both in scripture and in church history we see a constant and elaborate mixing/integrating of external philosophies and concepts.
I bring this up because a major objection to Liberation theology is its use/appropriation of secular political theories (like Marxism) and critics will use this to discredit Liberation thought. Admittedly, liberation theology does have its drawbacks and limitations (as do all approaches) – but simply having political partnership is not one of them. In fact, there has never been a theological or ‘biblical’ expression that did not have philosophical underpinnings or explicit frameworks.
Christianity does not happen in a vacuum. All theology is contextual theology. The only problem is when certain theologies don’t recognize their contextual nature with time and place and purport to being both universal and timeless.
Liberation theology is not for everyone and it does not happen everywhere. While true that it is thoroughly political and radically ideological at points, it is also highly contextual and local – as all theology should be.
I have proposed that there are 3 primary ways that churches in North American relate to the ‘powers’ – i.e. the system, the status quo, etc. These can be broken down as:
Messianic churches focus on helping one survive until God delivers you from the system. This can be rapture, evacuation, eschatological, etc. Messianic churches often have animosity toward culture’s slippery slope ‘slouch toward Gomorrah’ and view change as resistance. Anything else is just ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic’.
Prophetic churches critique the as is structures to confront the system. They speak truth to power. Prophetic churches look toward the marginalized and those being run over by the machine.
Therapeutic churches help people exist within the system. ‘Chaplains to the Empire’ as we say. Therapeutic churches work within the ‘ways things are’ to help make you a better version of yourself.
Liberation is an entirely different approach that incorporates elements of all three but in a grass-roots way that listens to, takes its lead from, and is primarily concerned with the common people. It organizes itself in ‘base-communities’ and takes its direction from what is happing in those local contexts. It is much more of a bottom-up model instead of a top-down hierarchical model.
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