Liberation Theology: God Is Not a "Capitalist"
Copyright 2000, Telford Work. All rights reserved.

Race-class-gender consciousness: A new Reformation?

By the sixteenth century, the Church's accumulated failures caused those we call "the Reformers" thoroughly to rethink the idea of Christian salvation and the nature of the Church. Their efforts produced some stunning failures, but also some stunning achievements. This "conservative" school, Westmont College, is really a revolutionary school -- a child of their revolution.

Now in the twentieth century, another series of failures has led Christians back to the drawing board to rethink the ideas of God, humanity, sin, salvation, and Church. It too has its failures as well as its successes. Like the earlier Reformation, this new reformation has its radical and its reactionary excesses. But these movements deserve more than my (or your) quick criticisms; they deserve to be heard for what they are bringing back to the Christian faith: A reawakening of the joy that the first Christians felt when they realized God had included them in the Kingdom. It wasn't just for the powerful, for the pious, for the credentialed; it was for everyone who needed to experience God's transforming grace throughout their lives. It wasn't just a private, inward experience that gave the faithful great "quiet times," but left the rest of their lives and their communities unchanged. Jesus started a revolution in the created order that goes on today, and will only be finished when he returns to judge all humanity for how it responded to his invitation. When the Church stopped proclaiming his revolution, God raised up new people to proclaim it. Don't take everything these people say uncritically; they need your discernment like you need theirs. But don't ignore them, because if you did, you'd be ignoring the Holy Spirit.

Marx: The poor are made poor by society

The category of social "class" is a lot more real than most Americans think. America generally thinks of itself as a classless society, and so here we speak of wealth and poverty rather than upper class or lower class, or "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat" (in Marxist terms). And our Calvinist heritage has supported an attitude that your social and economic status depends on how hard you work, what risks you take, whether God favors you, and so on. If you're poor, it's because you're lazy, or unlucky, or ill-prepared for the workforce. These attitudes have helped keep Marxist thought on the margins of American ideology.

In much of the rest of the world, the concept of class is more firmly embedded in people's minds. You die in pretty much whatever class you're born in. And there, Marxist economic categories have been much more influential. According to Marxism, what separates social classes is really economics ownership of the so-called "means of production." The poor are poor because they work for the rich, and the rich are rich because they extract wealth from workers by paying them less than their labor is worth. This is a very different view of power and powerlessness, wealth and poverty: They are created and perpetuated socially, not personally. You're poor because other people have made you poor.

Now this vision of the world hasn't proved itself in the economies where Marx thought it would. Marxist economic theory has been pretty well repudiated in industrialized societies. But it was very persuasive in colonial societies, where civilizations were literally taken over and turned into a workforce by the occupying power. When the Spanish and Portuguese colonized indigenous South and Central America, they set up an airtight class society: European owners on top, Indian workers on the bottom.

Conquistador Christianity: The Church as colonizer

They also set up a religion: I'll call it "Conquistador Christianity." Along with the Gospel came a vision of European "Christian" society as superior, and of the indigenous, pagan societies as savage and radically in need of not just evangelism, but "civilization" itself. Being "evangelized" and being "civilized" came hand in hand. That's some "Gospel," isn't it? In effect, Jesus became an agent of the conquerors, whether the missionaries wanted it that way or not.

As the colonies won their independence from Spain and Portugal, power passed to elites within the new countries. These elites were pretty much European families. The conquerors were gone, the conquest completed; but the class structure remained.

I'm telling you all this colonial history because theology never rises out of a vacuum. The European and American theologians you're reading in this class think the way they do in part because of their histories, and the same is true of the non-European and non-American Church. Every vision of the Christian life you encounter -- African-American radical theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, my own evangelical and Pentecostal tradition, mainline Protestantism -- comes from somewhere, and you do too. There's no neutral ground.

Christ the Conquered

Colonial history profoundly influenced the kind of Catholic Christianity that dominated Latin America until recently. It generated what I'll call a Christology of "Christ the conquered" -- "Christus Victim"!

You see "Christ the conquered" on the crucifixes so prominent in Latin American Catholicism. One liberation theologian, Joao Dias de Araujo of Brazil, says, "Crucifixes ... have created in the mind of the people the image of a Christ who is dead, nailed to wood, rendered incapable of reacting, wasted by the forces of evil defeated" (Jose Miguez Bonino, ed., Faces of Jesus: Latin American Christologies (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984], 32). Its effect: Fatalism, and conformism. Freedom from oppression and exploitation are there, but only in the next life.

Now this is an awfully convenient image of Jesus, for elites who want the lower classes to accept their authority and their actions without questioning, or at least without violently rebelling. "You want to freedom from oppression? Be like Jesus -- accept it." This is exactly what Marx meant when he called religion "the opiate of the masses." The result, says Dias, is a distant Christ, powerless to help people in need, unworthy of respect, and irrelevant to human life (Faces, 32ff). Such a theology either strips God of all his sovereignty over the present creation, or it makes Jesus powerless and the Father an autocrat -- the "muscle" behind the oppressors in society.

Conscientization: Unmasking the Powers of Oppression

When Marxism rose in prominence in Latin America, it shattered this illusion of justice and divine authority. Marxism unmasked the power structures behind the Latin class societies, and revealed Latin Christianity's complicity in oppressing the poor. It created something called "conscientization" (J. Severino Croatto, Faces, 106) -- a new and revolutionary awareness of the world. And as this way of seeing the social structure spread, the old social structure lost its power. The emperor lost his clothes. And so did Christ the conquered. When faced with the alternatives of Marxism's version of the world and traditional Latin Christianity's, it was no contest. Intellectuals deserted Christianity.

But then something surprising happened. Like American slaves who learned the stories of Scripture and found the God of the exodus, some Latin American Christians (primarily Catholics, but also Protestants) returned to Scripture with their new eyes. And there they found not Christ the conquered, but Christ the liberator. Marxism had acted as a "tool for social analysis," a way of exposing the workings of the world. And it turned out that the world it exposed, a world of powerful people oppressing and exploiting powerless people, was the world Jesus came to save. Jesus, you might say, was a radical revolutionary.

Biblical examples supporting this point include the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55; Jesus' fulfillment of Isa. 61 in Luke 4:16-30; Luke 6:17-31 (the "Sermon on the Plain"); and Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37 on the life of the early Church. I've taken them all from Luke-Acts for a reason: Luke is what we might call a "theologian of liberation." But there are many others outside Luke-Acts in both testaments.

So hear this, loud and clear: In a way it's right to trace the development of liberation theology by starting with Marxism. But in another way, it's really wrong -- because Christianity had always had this side to it. Its attention to the poor didn't start with Karl Marx. Liberation theology may have a Marxist flavor, but it doesn't get all that flavor from Karl Marx. What Marxism did was sharpen people's perceptions about dimensions of the Gospel that had been largely forgotten (or coopted by the powerful).

Features of Liberation Theology

Here's a list of some of those dimensions of the Gospel:

1. God is the God of the poor. God is not an impartial observer who views you and me with neutrality. God takes sides -- and specifically, God takes the side of the powerless against the unrighteous powerful. This is already demonstrated by the exodus; but it's best demonstrated by the incarnation: God chose to become human not as a prince in Caesar's or Herod's family, but as a working class man in an obscure part of an occupied and oppressed nation. The Second Person of the Trinity grew up such a person, hung out with such people, and called such people to join him as the leaders of a new Israel. "A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." Again, this isn't just a random choice; it's a choice that reveals God's character. Because Jesus shows what God is like (John 1:18), the working-class Jesus reveals that God is working-class and not ruling class. The specifics of Jesus' life reveal the specifics of God's nature.

2. God's work is liberation. Under the influence of colonialism, but also mysticism and individualism, salvation had come to be overly associated with life-after-death for individuals, and not much more. Liberation theology saw that Jesus came to save not just by offering us a Sinner's Prayer to say, but to offer us a life of new relationships in a new social order called the Kingdom of God, which is available even now through his catholic ("universal") Church. Incarnation is meant to put a stop to social unrighteousness and create a community after God's character, free from oppression and full of healthy human relationships (political, economic, sexual, and all the rest).

3. The poor have a privileged perspective on God. This means that you don't have to be poor to understand and appreciate God, but it helps. Why? Because theirs is the Kingdom of God. (Luke 6.) Jon Sobrino: "The poor are the authentic theological source for understanding Christian truth and practice." Again, neutrality and objectivity, the old Enlightenment ideals for gaining knowledge, are here impediments that keep people from understanding God's character and purposes. (In fact, they're really tools of oppressors to distance Christ from his own people.)

4. Theology works when it reflects upon and furthers God's/the Church's work of liberation. Theology isn't just a mental exercise, but a part of ministry. It's healthy when it builds up the Church, and it's unhealthy when it doesn't.

5. The Lord's Supper/Eucharist acts out God's character and the Church's mission. Since liberation theology flourished in Roman Catholic contexts, it paid great attention to the center of Catholic worship -- the Eucharist (also called Communion or the Lord's Supper). The eucharist remembers Jesus' gift of himself to those who needed him. He is broken, in solidarity with broken humanity, in order to unite the broken into a new body, the body of Christ. In revealing Jesus' self-gift, the symbol of the eucharist also reveals the character of God as self-giving in solidarity with those in need of the gift of God.

6. Salvation/liberation is communal (as God is communal). We evangelicals are right to stress the personal nature of both sin and salvation. Our personal faith in Jesus Christ is the means for restored relationship with God. Liberation theology helps us recover the awareness that it isn't just persons in isolation that need saving, it's also human relationships. Sin isn't just personal immorality, but social injustice and alienation. Liberation is liberation to a new set of just relationships (akin to the relationships among Father, Son, and Spirit).

I think a wonderful summary of how liberation theologians see God is in Faces, 44-45, from a student of Saul Trinidad and Juan Stam. It's a paraphrase of the Apostles' Creed (which you should know, or read first, to appreciate it):

I believe in God the Just One, the Liberator, who created the world and my neighbor,
And in Jesus of Nazareth, his only son, and my only head,
Who was born of a woman, like my mother,
suffered under the oppressor's might,
was despised, marginalized, and crucified.
He descended upon the mechanisms of power, staged a coup d'etat, and is in command, together with God the Just One, the Liberator.
And soon, when everything is under control, he will pass judgment on rich, poor, and indifferent.
I believe in the church, which lives in the world and for it, in liberation from alienation, in the equality of human beings, in the Prince of Peace, and in the new life dawning on the horizon of history. Amen.

More Evangelical Than You Think?

Liberation theology has tended to look foreign to twentieth-century evangelicals, but evangelicalism has a history that looks very liberationist. So I'd like you to entertain the notion that this movement has more in common with supposedly conservative Westmont than you might think. Consider the following:

1. Both liberation theology and evangelicalism are missionary, aiming to include the excluded.
2. Both seek to be practical, never insulating faith from practice. Both tend to resist theological abstractions.
3. Both seek to expand the doctrine of salvation beyond the "otherworldly," as evangelicalism did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (abolition, temperance, the Social Gospel).
4. Both champion the overlooked in society. Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals all have social heritages from beyond America's social elite, and have often continued to reflect that heritage with anti-elitism.
5. Both are suspicious of Church structures that compromise the power of the Gospel and reduce the Christian life to one of passivity.