Why I Am Not a Liberation Theologian

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.

5 thoughts on “Why I Am Not a Liberation Theologian

  1. Very good write-up. You say: “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.” When I have read Rauschenbusch social-gospel work, it seems, probably due to the desire to emphasize ideas not previously emphasized, that the key thing which must be done is corporate and political. This certainly is united with Liberation Theology to that extent. Yet, it seems to me like it’s not the church’s job to do such things: does the church have the capacity to know how to achieve justice at the highest levels? Isn’t the church’s job simply, when it comes to acts of mercy, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, give hospitality to the alien, cloth the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned? (I realize that it is the “nations” who are gathered before Christ in Matthew 25, but the directives appear to be individualistic in nature. Is Jesus telling us to “visit the sick” vicariously through government agencies? I don’t think so). Jesus’ directive doesn’t appear to call us to judge the worthiness of any recipients of our mercy. I understand the need to operate within an understood narrative (the “big picture”), but I am likewise pessimistic about the ability of the church (much less, humanity) to fix these problems absent a direct intervention of God (i.e. the consummation of the present age).

  2. Bush’s “freedom agenda” goes back a long way: to the Civil War, to Wilsonian national self-determination of peoples (you’re welcome, Yugoslavia), and especially FDR’s “arsenal of democracy” and “four freedoms”, etc. Anyone born in the 1940’s, as I was and as Bush Jr. and Clinton were [all within a year of each other, actually], would have grown up in a culture and world order based on Roosevelt’s ideology along with the Cold War of Truman et al. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom; the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots; etc. Freedom as an ideal, and the US as it’s chief guardian in this world, was the final adaptation of the American civil religion. The later served a useful purpose in promoting national unity and the assimilation of a large immigrant population. But it also provided a continuing pretext for the increase of federal power and the aggressiveness of its use. The system worked pretty well until the seams unraveled in the 1960s. Bush was harking back to the conventional wisdom of his youth in a time of crisis – I also felt the same things as a conditioned response. In case of doubt or ambiguity, the example of the attack on Pearl Harbor as the stimulus of instant and unquenchable national resolve to obtain the unconditional surrender of all our enemies was reiterated every year of our childhoods each December 7th.

    I suppose the point of the above is just that it should not be surprising to find the neo-conservative meme in all sorts of places, since the latter was itself an echo of what was once a dominant idea in the national consciousness.

    That is just a minor observation. On the main point here, I can’t disagree.

    Of course, we live in communities at various levels, and there are more and less prudent and compassionate ways of ordering those communities. What the gospel has to say about that, I suppose, comes under the instructions to love God as wholly as we can and our neighbors as ourselves; along with whatever practical knowledge and prudence we can glean along the way. The authors of the Federalist papers knew quite a lot about classical history (it good and its very bad examples) as well as the Bible. They certainly did not believe in the essential goodness of mankind (not in the romantic express-your-essence way American culture today tends to).

    • Mostly what I am concerned about are people — and the whole notion — that we can, should, even ought, to address “systems” without somehow actually loving our neighbors (or ever loving our neighbors at all). It presumes that before modernity and democratic governance, when people could not hope to have that kind of control over their communal (and individual) lives, some aspect of our salvation was missing. If God promises “freedom,” and freedom must have a political, social, and economic expression, then what of the promises of God where that expression cannot be realized? It presumes a kind of divine impotence. Our salvation is not complete without concrete human action. And that’s nonsense.

      And part of this is also a reaction to the Revolutionary Islam I was a part of. That was an ideology which saw a clear human role in the ordering of the Cosmos — God made Man specifically for that purpose. And if that purpose is not fulfilled, then human beings are in error. This is one important reason some Muslims are at war. Because of this, I am opposed to even the very notion that human beings are necessary and that God demands a particular ordering of the world. That way lies violence, and I will have no part in that and take no stake in its outcomes.

  3. One other observation, FWIW: In Romans 6, we are told that we have won our liberation as slaves to sin, but that now makes us slaves of God – a far preferable form of bondage which leads to sanctification and eternal life. This is not [to paraphrase a new-left book of the late 60s] Liberation for the Hell of It.

    Your contention that God redeems us only from our own sins does raise another question in my mind. You may have stated in your book or elsewhere that you have a dim view of the doctrine of original sin (or am I wrong?). But if we do admit such a thing, whatever its origin or nature, that seems to imply by your reasoning that God intends to redeem all the world’s sinfulness. Of course all sin is redeemed in principle by the incarnation and sacrifice on the cross. But to be redeemed from the consequences of the sins of others may have to wait for that eschaton.

  4. 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.

    I agree that the promise of kingdom which looks like a modern utopia of equality and prosperity for all are oversold goods. I think though that to have power to act, and to not act, is still a decision which is bound up in loving ones neighbor. Let’s suppose there is an area where there is a lack of justice and violence reigns and people ( who may or may not be innocent) suffer from this ordering. If you have means and resources to improve the situation and you choose to do nothing, is that loving your neighbor? I suppose someone could say, yes well the proclivity to evil won’t be stopped. New orders of violence might arise. The situation could be made worse. All of those things are true, but it does seem to advocate for a fatalistic view of Earth. Loving your neighbor in Jesus’s parable meant being willing to risk oneself in order to bandage up the stranger on the side of the road. We also pray that God s will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. I don’t feel like I can pray that prayer without being willing to take some action to make it look a little more like that. That may invite arrogance or mis interpretation, but I think there are dangers on the other side as well.

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