Not that anyone (at least anyone who knows me) has called me one. But it Liberation Theology is inescapable at seminaries today, and this is a decidedly mixed blessing.
I’ve never been a Liberation Theologian. What I’ve heard during (and since) my time at LSTC of and about Liberation Theology sounded an awful lot like the Marxism — particularly the kinds of Marxism coming out of the Third World — I encountered at San Francisco State University in the late 1980s. (In fact, all Social Justice talk sounds like that to me…) The big difference is that Liberation Theology is a lot less intellectually rigorous and a great deal more sentimental than proper Marxism.
I took the time to read Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation, but found roughly the same thing there, with patches of that book reading an awful lot like something Michael Gerson could have written for George W. Bush (especially that wretched Trotskyite manifesto of a second inaugural). Gutierrez clearly missed his calling as a neoconservative speech writer advocating for the “Freedom Agenda.” The language he uses is exactly the same. And I suspect many of the outcomes, if tied to power, would be too.
In fact, Daniel Larison saw that as well in his takedown of George W. Bush as a “liberation theologian” (the subtitle says most of what needs to be said here: If God promises universal freedom, why does He need our help to liberate the world?), and most of my substantive political objections to Liberation Theology — especially Larison’s critique of agency and despair — are encapsulated here.
But until recently, I never had solid theological and scriptural reasons for not being a liberation theologian. And I am a biblical theologian. I need to ground my theological understanding in scripture — particularly the story of God’s people Israel.
Before I can say what I find theologically and scripturally objectionable about Liberation Theology, I need to state what Liberation Theology gets right. And why it is useful to study and learn and keep in mind.
1) Liberation Theology takes the story of scripture seriously, and focuses on God’s redemptive rather than creative acts. Whether we are concerned about “Natural Law,” take Genesis literally, or are somewhere in-between, our theologies are all far too creation centered. As are our confessions of faith. From this, we tend to argue our theologies from some understanding (or confession) of the essential goodness and order of the world.
But Israel’s first encounter with God is not as creator — it is not “Let there be light” — but rather is a one who calls and redeems. Israel’s first encounter with God is in Genesis 12:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV)
This is where the story really begins. This is where the encounter with God begins. With a calling and redeeming God, who reaches out and acts to redeem the called-out people again and again. Our experience of this redeeming God is in a fundamentally disordered world, and Liberation Theology reflects the encounter with God by a people who have experienced the order of world as something less from good.
This is not to say that the creation is evil. Only that the world is encountered and experienced as disordered, even violently so. Israel succumbs to its sin on a regular basis, and needs redeeming — an act most potently and forcefully experienced when God pulls Israel out of Egypt in a series of acts so incredibly violent and terrifying and even destructive.
To believe in the fundamental goodness of the world is to then have to intellectually argue the need for a redeemer and a redemption — something scripture never does. Redemption is felt, perceived, hoped for, and promised. But it is never really explained. Because it doesn’t need to be. Israel understands its circumstances. And Israel knows it needs to be saved. And that Salvation is promised.
Liberation Theology is the product of a people who understand the order of the world is not so good. They understand what matters is not God’s creating power, but rather God’s redeeming power. (What bourgeois westerners have made of Liberation Theology is another matter entirely…)
Which gets me to the second point in favor.
2) Liberation Theology understands where God really resides — not in the powerful and well-ordered people and places of the world, but with the poor, the conquered, the broken, the outcast.
Israel’s story is that of a failed polity, a kingdom made from God’s chosen and called-out people that grew powerful and wealthy and then fell to civil war and conquest precisely because of that power and wealth. This, I believe, is the church’s story as well. God resides, God dwells, God is most embodied and incarnate, in those who exercise the least political, social, and economic power in this world. The promise of the restoration of “The Kingdom” (a promise made to David, and again through the prophets), and all of the promises made to Abraham (blessing, patrimony, great nation), are somehow fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ.
The history that matters, the stories that matter, are of this people who are a failed polity. Again, the people who experience the order of the world, who meet the creation, not as an inherently good thing, but as a mixed blessing, something that works against them as often — or much more often — then it works for them. Liberation Theology understands this.
But that is as far as it goes. So we get to my objections to Liberation Theology.
1) As seriously as Liberation Theology takes scripture, it doesn’t take the story seriously enough. It doesn’t read it completely. And because of that, it doesn’t understand sin and doesn’t understand redemption.
The most important biblical story for Liberation Theology is the redemption of Israel from Egypt. (The words “freedom” and “liberation” are frequently used to describe this, but scripture itself never uses those words, not in the Exodus telling, not in Israel’s confession in Nehemiah 9.) It is a powerful story of God acting to pull God’s people out of their exile and form a community bounded solely by their reliance on God and God’s teaching.
But it’s a problematic story when applied to the oppressed of the world today.
Liberation Theology shares a number of Liberal Theology’s conceits. And one of those conceits is that redemption is largely for “the suffering innocent,” people who are unfortunate but have somehow not contributed to their misfortune. They suffer through no real fault of their own, and because of that, God has come to liberate them.
That is most definitely NOT the Exodus story.
Israel sets up the conditions for its own enslavement. This is outlined in Genesis 47:13-28. Joseph had become Pharaoh’s prime minister, wielded nearly dictatorial power to save Egypt from seven years of famine.
13 Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. 14 And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15 And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16 And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. 18 And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”
20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. (Genesis 47:13-21 ESV)
As a result of saving Egypt, Joseph has enslaved it.
23 Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. 24 And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.” 25 And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh. (Genesis 47:23-25 ESV)
The word in v. 25, servants, is עֲבָדִים, obodim, from the verb עבד ebed, which means to serve or to worship. It is the same word used in Exodus to describe Israel’s relationship to Pharaoh — a word usually translated there as “slavery” or “slave.”
Israel benefits from this situation. How could it not? Their most powerful kinsman is the savior of the nation. Likely, refugees come from hither and yon to seek sustenance and salvation in Egypt. All because of Joseph.
27 Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. (Genesis 47:27 ESV)
This sentiment is echoed at the beginning of Exodus.
1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:1-7 ESV)
Now, I’m not saying here Israel profited from the enslavement of Egypt under Joseph and Pharaoh. But Israel clearly benefitted from its close association with power. We tend to think of minorities solely as oppressed people, but in antiquity (and even well into our day), minorities could also just as easily be privileged, their outsiderness prized, cultivated, and protected by whoever ruled. And Joseph clearly created the system by which it was perfectly legitimate to enslave a whole people. Once Joseph was gone, and his memory distant — when no one in power had any memory of the relationship with the man who saved the nation, and with his people, Egypt suddenly realized there was a powerful and likely very privileged minority in its midst. That was terrifying. And something needed to be done about it. (This still happens too.)
8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves. (Exodus 1:8-13 ESV)
Now, this is our story, and I love the bit here where “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.” They have enslaved us, but we still scare them. And no matter what they did, we were fruitful and we multiplied. This is persistence as resistance (something the modern nation-state of Israel should consider every time they decide to pulverize Gaza), and it speaks well of us.
But Israel is not innocent here. Israel lived well in Egypt. Did Israel care as it lived well that the rest of Egypt was enslaved to Pharaoh? (To be fair, scripture does not say Israel was not also enslaved, only that they prospered and grew strong.) Did God care about the groaning of Egypt?
(Did Egypt groan?)
Now, this is a fairly indirect setup. It’s easy to miss Israel’s contribution to what will eventually be its enslavement in Egypt. But Israel is not innocent. Israel needs to be redeemed precisely because of the situation it created for itself. This is a subtle set-up for what is very explicit Judges 3:7-11 — Israel sins by serving (עבד again) other gods, they are given over to captivity as a consequence of serving those other gods, Israel cries out to God, God sends a redeemer, who then keeps Israel on the straight and narrow for as long as the redeemer lives.
Israel is redeemed from its very own sin. And the consequences of that sin. And only from their very own sin.
Compare this with the liberationist rhetoric of redemption for the world’s unfortunates. It would be wrong to look at Black Americans, or peasants in Latin America, or the suffering urban masses, or occupied peoples, or the Natives of the Americas, and say: you are suffering because of your sin. Because they are not.
Conversely, those most likely to say the world’s oppressed are suffering because of their sin are unlikely to proclaim their redemption. They are, instead, making an argument from creation — some people, by nature, should be enslaved or oppressed. Or even exterminated.
There are promises to the poor of Israel, part of the bill of indictment God hands to Israel through the prophets that condemns the wealthy and the powerful for their mistreatment, their cruelty, and their violence toward the poor and the powerless. But this indictment, and these promises, are part of the judgment of Israel — because yes, the whole people suffer when those who lead behave badly — and are part of the general promise of redemption to the whole people.
I appreciate how powerful the Exodus story is, but it’s not about a people who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s about a people who, in part, engineered the machinery and the circumstances of their enslavement — something that cannot be said of Africans hauled in chains to the Americas to work sugar and cotton plantations, for example. Like liberal theology, Liberation Theology gets hung up on the undeserved suffering of innocents, and solving the “problem” of that suffering by imposing the story of God’s redemption onto circumstances that simply do not fit.
God redeems God’s people from their sin. And not from their misfortune. Nor from the sins of others.
Which gets me to my second objection.
2) Liberation Theology still carries Liberal Theology’s faith in purposeful and effective human action on behalf of its own salvation. That is, once the “liberating” work of God has been discerned, human beings can know what this work looks like, what direction it is going, and act.
My argument against this is much less biblical, and I’m willing to be more agnostic about this. But by the end of history in scripture, however, Israel is less an active maker of its own story and more a spectator as others act. (Israel had failed as a polity, remember?) The last words of the Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible — are the words of Cyrus, the King of Persia, proclaiming that the exiles can go home from Babylon and that the temple of God shall be rebuilt in Jerusalem.
But this restored sovereignty is highly conditional — Israel is subject to power that is not its own. As long as that power is fairly open and tolerant Persian power, things are okay. But Greek power, especially that wielded by the Syrian successors of Alexander, is a great deal more problematic. Yes, Israel successfully rebels against that power, but that’s just a set-up for Roman intervention. There are no “final” political solutions or arrangements, just temporary ones, and just as with Joseph, any act of saving good is a set up for the next act of evil. Any machinery of justice can just as easily, and very quickly, be used for injustice. (Moral: careful what you give to Pharaoh.)
I do not believe exile ever ended. We have a resolution of exile in Christ, as we have the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Israel from Abraham onward, but we live in that long moment between promise and fulfillment. The final resolution of all the promises await the eschaton, the final promised unveiling. It is not in our hands to rearrange the world in any meaningful way. And our attempts to do so, to fulfill the promises of God — think Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham as an example — always end up in some kind of pain and suffering. Yes, there is blessing — God does not ignore Ishmael, even as God makes it clear that Ishmael is not the person through which the promises to Abraham will be realized — but that blessing is more accident than purpose. It is God working in and with the mess we have made.
But the effort neither thwarts nor realizes the promises of God.
I am deeply sympathetic to concerns about injustice, about violence, inequality, suffering caused by the use of power, racism, war, and how we as people of God should live in the midst of these things. Living out our faith in love, loving God and loving our neighbor, means we live in the promise of the eschatological future in which the world is remade and these things are no more. But nothing I have seen in my life suggests we are capable of making an end of any of this. The eschaton is not ours to bring about. We do not possess that kind of agency. That was the promise of Liberal Theology, with its faith in industry, modernity, progress, freedom, the nation-state, and all that did is give us the slaughter of the Somme.
Thankfully Liberation Theology has a much smaller body count.