Liberation Theology

by Jay Atkinson

Liberation theology is the prophetic response to oppression.

When most people hear of "liberation theology," they think of revolution. Actually the revolutionary situation had already existed and a theology followed once the liberation concept in a spiritual sense was understood. The oppression existed and then came the prophetic experiences through the political context they found themselves in. As the prophets denounced the injustices, they began a process of understanding the way that the Kingdom of God was being fulfilled through the poor and oppressed. A theology of an oppressed culture emerged as theologians saw the relationships with the struggle for liberation throughout God's people in the Bible and through history. The Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea , the cross and the Jerusalem Council are all parts of the liberation process toward the kingdom of peace, love and justice.

The thought of Jesus at His Second Coming is of course revolutionary. If we are to have the peace, love and justice that Jesus promised to us, it includes denouncing injustice and whatever hinders the peace. Liberation is an ongoing process and molds itself into the circumstances that it finds. The first and foremost understanding of thought behind adherents to liberation theology is a preferential option for the poor.

Spiritual liberation came from Jesus at the cross; the struggle continues as the people of God take up the cross and flesh out the kingdom here on earth. There is a relationship between theology and practice, the theology here is the insistence that the practice in question is the liberating force of the exploited classes bringing in the Kingdom of God. Now these prophets become a transforming force by not just preaching the gospel but being the gospel, the Christian community becomes an agent of liberation and theology becomes a spiritual experience through action (praxis).

The theology of liberation shifts the emphasis toward liberating praxis in a strongly political sense. Liberation Theologians do not create the conflict, it is recognized and denounced in that political context. The political aspect of eschatology is also an important recurring theme in the theology of liberation. Justice and judgment both begin at the house of God and this is a theology of action. The process of liberation as it is going on now implies the need of the Church to make a choice between the mark of the beast or the seal of God and speaking the truth is no longer an acceptable substitute for doing the truth.

There is a groaning in the universe of the need to be free. Latin American Liberation Theology emerged surrounded by profound economic, cultural, and religious upheavals. It began in the sixties among ordinary Christians who felt called by their faith to work for and with the poor. This was a concrete way of living out faith in the God of Moses and Jesus which understands the gift of salvation as intimately bound up with the struggles of the oppressed for liberation in history. Any theology which does not directly relate to and contribute to the liberation of the oppressed - despite its other possible virtues - is lacking in useful Christian theology. Christianity's message of salvation is one of liberation from sin and the consequences of sin that enslave humanity.

Once you start working for the rights of the poor in an impoverished nation, you are suddenly an economic threat to the forces that will oppress and exploit them. Think of liberation theology however in the Christian context that it is anti-authoritarian, anti-imperialist, has a preferential option for the poor and stands against laissez-faire economic domination and oppression. This will provoke attacks from the right.

Any economic system that seeks to deny privelege and advantages to the poor merely to enrichen themselves are fair game for denunciation. There will be a time when the wealth of this world will be given over to God's people. As there are many Christians part of a worldy system serving God and mammon, there are many Christians feeling an obligation to speak out against the injustice. Marxism was an atheistic and anti-christian ideology that stood for violence to achieve their goals, it has no place in genuine liberation theology. Brazilian liberation theologian Archbishop Helder Camara says, "When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the poor have no food, they call you a communist."

The former U.S. Senator Frank Church, on the shortsightedness of 'rollback' as our foreign policy doctrine" states that "You might think that revolutionary nationalism and the desire for self-determination would be relatively easy for Americans - the first successful revolutionaries to win their independence - to understand. But instead we have been dumbfounded when other peoples have tried to pursue the goals of our own revolution two centuries ago...."

William Geider writes that "The great multinationals are unwilling to face the moral and economic contradictions of their own behavior - producing in low-wage dictatorships and selling to high-wage democracies. Indeed, the striking quality about global enterprises is how easily free-market capitalism puts aside its supposed values in order to do business. The conditions of human freedom do not matter to them so long as the market demand is robust. The absence of freedom, if anything, lends order and efficiency to their operations."

When Christian ministries are open to the moving of the spirit among the poor and dispossessed people of God, we contribute to a theology of liberation. We can only accomplish our goals in the Christian community when we have included ourselves in the process of liberation and deliverance and involved ourselves with the poor and oppressed. Ours is a theology of the denunciation of oppression and we look forward to the worldly confrontation. We have come to proclaim release to the captives.

Interest in liberation theology grew rapidly in North America. It was an important and relevant issue to discuss because of related developments. Liberation theology later found itself in black and women's liberation movements. It is an ethical theology that grows out of social awareness and the desire to act. Liberation express the hopes of oppressed peoples and the realization that we are not seen as a passive element, but as an agent of righteous change in history and fulfilling prophecy. More profoundly, to see history as a process of man's liberation places the issue of desired social changes in a dynamic context.

If Liberation Theology and its reference to the gospel of Jesus is to be meaningful for our people today, then it must be lived and expressed within the liberation project of the poor. Housing, feeding, employment and empowering. The liberating love of God is ever historically linked to the poor and alienated. For it is there that our relationship to the world as religious will find real historical roots. The overwhelming fact about the third world is that the majority of its people are poor, exploited, and marginalized. This is a sign in all its force and meaning and the chief sign is Jesus the poor person. We cannot dissociate the condition of the poor and oppressed from the mystery of Christ. Jesus still presents Himself to us as the chief Liberator and we can easily recognize Him as such.

To be consecrated to the poor of the land means to have opted for those who not only are the favorites of the Lord but will also inherit the land in these last days. Our option for the poor and oppressed is not one task among many others, it is the key act, and will represent exponential growth. Human brotherhood is central to the project of the poor. The poor are the bearers of the message as the body of Christ. Solidarity with the poor implies a commitment to turn human love into a collective experience from which there is no turning back. It is a spiritual experience to understand that liberation praxis is the decisive factor in our love for God and in the sanctifying action of the spirit. It is to bear the cross, take on the love of Jesus with the gospel of the kingdom to the poor.

Martin Luther King once said.

All over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The starting point is our objective situation as oppressed and dependent peoples.

The tendency toward messianism in the third world is one of the most vigorous potential liberating forces of the people. The Biblical concept of messianism, understood as the collective expression of the historical hope of a people on its way, can become one of the most important sources for a theology of liberation. The political Right in poor countries are coming more and more to the conclusion that it cannot count on the support of the Church, whereas the Left is beginning to regard it as an ally. Indeed, Jesus' whole teaching can take on liberating power, and He is seen to preach a God who stands with the poor. Liberation Theology becomes a way of understanding Christian life, faith, and the mission of the church through the eyes of the poor and their demand for justice.

The commitment to the process of liberation challenges one with a meaningful look to the future, a hard questioning of a social order and its ideology and a break with tradition. That is why the liberating praxis, in the measure that it starts from an authentic solidarity with the poor and oppressed, will be in short, a praxis of love.

Isaiah 61:1,2, The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.

Liberation in poor countries is not only a divine imperative but the obligation of the entire world. Those called to liberation realize a conscientious participation in their common calling and offer a meaningful and fruitful challenge to Christians everywhere. The very living of Christian faith involves the creation of a new world with peace and justice fertilized by Christian hopes. An entire church working for the establishment of those value structures endorsed by the gospel including liberation, justice and love. A prosperity church has for too long focused on individual faith and family and put down the Biblical notion that kingdom salvation involves liberation from oppressive economic and political structures as well. Liberation theologians have emphasized that unity among Christians is only a myth so long as there are oppressed and oppressors within their ranks.

Jay Atkinson

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