What Is Liberation Theology? (First in a series published on Fridays)

Jesus as pictured by Nicaraguan peasant artists. Undeniably human. His most faithful disciples, women. His executioners, the U.S-supported Nicaraguan National Guard.

What is liberation theology? In a single sentence: liberation theology is reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed like the women in the painting above. More accurately, it is reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of those among the poor who are committed to their own liberation. Liberation theology comes from a place of commitment to social change.

Change, liberation from what? In a word, from colonialism and from the neo-colonialism represented today by contemporary forces of corporate globalization whose leading champion is the United States of America. As we all know, those forces have half the world living on $2 a day or less. They’ve concentrated the world’s wealth in the hands of a sliver of 1% of the world’s population. Three men own as much wealth as the 48 poorest nations. Two hundred and twenty-five people own as much as today’s 3 billion living on $2 a day. According to the U.N., an annual 4% tax on those 225 would provide enough resources to feed, clothe, cure and educate the entire Third World. To the wealthy (often supported by Christians who present themselves a pro-life), such taxation is unthinkable. As a result, 30,000 children die of absolutely preventable starvation each day. In the eyes of liberation theology’s protagonists, that’s sinful and runs entirely contrary to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

And what were those teachings? (This is the heart of liberation theology.) They were first of all those of a man recognized by the impoverished as someone like themselves. He looked like them — not like me or other white people. If we are to believe forensic history experts (see posting of April 26th below), he resembled the poor majority we see everywhere in our globalized world. He probably stood about 5’1’’ and weighed about 110 pounds. His skin was brown. He was a laborer, not a scholar. His hands were calloused.

Jesus also exhibited the characteristics that good Christians among us often find repulsive and ungodly. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother. According to Matthew’s account, he was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. The good people of his day called him a drunkard and the companion of prostitutes. They expelled him from his synagogue because he didn’t seem to care about the most important of the 10 commandments – the Sabbath law. The religious authorities said he was a heretic and possessed by the devil. The occupying Roman authorities identified him as a terrorist. They arrested him. And he ended up a victim of torture and of capital punishment carried out by crucifixion which was a means of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. He was not the kind of person Christians usually admire. He was far too liberal to merit their approval.

In fact, the gospels give the impression that Jesus spent his public life roaming from one party, one banquet to another. At one point, he is said to have enlivened a wedding feast by producing more than 175 gallons of wine for partiers who had been drinking plentifully for days. And he was always finding excuses to break the law. In fact, he made a point of violating Sabbath restrictions whenever doing so might help someone who in most cases might have equally been helped any other day of the week. He was clearly a feminist. Many of his disciples were women. He spoke with them in isolated places. He actually forgave a woman caught in adultery, while implicitly criticizing the hypocrisy of patriarchal law which punished women for adultery and not men. And Jesus refused to recognize his contemporaries’ taboos around segregations. He crossed boundaries not only dividing men from women, but Jew from gentile, lepers from non-lepers, and rich from poor. . . .    Jesus actually touched and ate with lepers and others considered contaminated and unclean. He couldn’t have been more liberal. In a sense he was an anarchist. He honored no law that failed to represent the loving thing to do. His attitude towards the law is best summarized in his pronouncement about the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was instituted for human beings,” he said, “human beings weren’t made for the Sabbath.” This was pure humanism placing human beings above even God’s holiest law. Again, it was anarchistic.

Jesus’ teachings were politically liberal too. They centered on social justice. As such they infuriated his opponents but were wildly inspiring to the poor and oppressed. His proclamation was not about himself, but about what he called “The Kingdom of God.” That was the highly charged political image he used to refer to what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that kingdom everything would be turned upside-down. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would be poor; the poor would be rich. Subsequent reflection by followers of Jesus in the Book of Revelation teased all of that out and drew the conclusion that with the dawning of God’s kingdom, the Roman Empire would be destroyed and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth entirely unlike empire. There (as indicated in the Acts of the Apostles) wealth would be distributed from each according to his ability to each according to his need. There would be room for everyone. If that sounds like communism, it’s because, as the Mexican exegete Jose Miranda points out, the idea of communism originated with Christians, not with Marx and Engels.

Once again, most of this is not the kind of thing  Christians are usually thought of as endorsing. But that’s the vision of God, Jesus, and his message that liberation theology presents. And it’s all supported by the research of 90% of contemporary biblical scholars, even those who know little or nothing of liberation theology.

Questions for Reflection:

1. What questions do you have about liberation theology as defined in this post?

2. Why do you suppose the U.S. government was so alarmed by the rise of liberation theology in the 1960s?

3. Would the U.S. government have been similarly alarmed by Jesus himself? Why? Why not?

4. Are you upset by the idea of liberation theology as described above? Why?

Next Friday: “St. Paul: Christianity’s First Liberation Theologian”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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