Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Liberation Theology

Larry James posted today on liberation theology. LT is making a resurgence today in evangelical and Catholic circles because of a rising consciousness in these ranks of the horrible track record of western Christendom in the last century in syncretizing our theology with capitalism. However, I'm concerned that we're not practicing quite enough discernment WRT LT - i.e., it has both good points and bad points.

My concern with LT is that is clearly proclaims that "the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace", which sounds pretty good (i.e., as if it resonates with numerous passages from both the Old and New Testaments), until you start trying to live up to that.

For example, why would we serve the poor in our town, when the poor in Guatemala are in much deeper need? But then, why those in Guatemala when those in Darfur are needier still? Etc. Thus, we must begin by saying "we aren't going to serve the neediest/poorest because (1) we can't really say who that is, and (2) it's not practical since they probably aren't within 10,000 miles of us". So we are immediately making judgments about who is the "poor" we are to liberate.

And once you inject into the process this purely subjective human judgment, I would argue that the entire premise becomes suspect. And that, instead of seeking out poor that we do not know or encounter, we serve whoever God's put in our path - I think a careful reading of the practice of both Jesus and OT leaders and NT followers would indicate something much closer to the latter than to the former (i.e., they didn't go "seeking" a group to serve, but recognized among themselves those they had been neglecting).

Thus, for my church, that would include my neighbors who are in need, it would include members of our congregation who are in need, it would expand out to our city of which we are a part, etc. based almost exclusively on geography, until our resources run out. Thus, I argue for a geographical basis rather than a demographic basis, because the former can be laid squarely at God's providential discretion whereas the latter is inextricably ensconced in our subjective opinions. And, as we have seen played out over and over again in our horrible track record of foreign missions, almost universally becomes wrapped up in our pettiness and our personal or denominational agendas.

The fatal flaw in LT theology, as you note, is that it "pre-selects" who God has chosen for us to serve based on class law. Admittedly, on a prima facie reading of many biblical texts, this can appear to be the economically disadvantaged (as even this was the basis, as I understand it, for Paul's comment about widows and orphans - not their emotional state, but their economic jeopardy). But because I am a strong believer in on-going revelation and progressive hermeneutics, I believe that democratic systems and governments themselves are a part of the work of God in addressing injustice and economic disparity and that in a post-democratic era, we must radically reinterpret how these biblical texts apply to our very different situation.

Thus, the LT pre-selection has a built-in bias based on its origins in central and south American political systems and class dynamics. When the LT impulses are recontextualized away from Marxism/Leninism and set in a post-liberation democracy, I would argue that it changes in significant ways. I would say that those biblical texts are similarly misunderstood when simply lifted from their context and time and political milieu and dropped into ours.

So today, these sentiments would translate differently so that it isn't necessarily the widow, but more commonly, the unwed mother; less the orphan and more the urban youth.

Even that, however, can be more broadly recontextualized to say we are (1) to serve those in real need as God places them in our paths, and that we are (2) to oppose political, social and cultural structures that create injustice or oppression.

There is no doubt that everywhere we work and teach, we must have at the core of our message the relief of oppression, the lifting of barriers, the compassion and mercy on the suffering, and, yes, the eradication of poverty. The church has done a lamentable job in America in the last century in making these, rather than personal pietism and moralism, the center of our gospel. We must change that. But we must avoid the error of the liberation theologians in setting up, encouraging and propogating class warfare and strife that has always resulted in the perpetuation of the systems of government that oppress the marginal and powerless.


Scott said...

Don't you make the mistake here that James warns about in his article of making a sweeping generalization of LT when he says, "Further complicating any basic understanding of this particular theological point of view are the many ways the interpretive tool has been used and abused by countless and vastly different groups."

I see much of the the resurgence of LT being an attempt to redeem it from the failings of it's past. The initial concern you mention is not a flaw of LT per se but more a problem of our own limited perspective.
I know that you address that with a call to highlight geographical concerns over above demographical ones. But must that be either/or? There is still an undercurrent of the concept of "seeking" in the NT that must not be discounted.
I know that we probably come down to a semantical squabbling here but I believe that the concept of liberation theology is essential because it resonates with people, is timely and is capable of being redeemed into our 21st century Western mindset.

Jeff said...

Scott - As I say in the post, there are good elements to LT - just as there are bad ones. I specifically was trying to avoid overgeneralization on the opposite extreme - accepting LT without recognizing its obvious and well-documented deficiencies and failures.

LT's emphasis on orthopraxy over orthodoxy is much-needed and long overdue.

This is somewhat about semantics, as you say. There needs to be a careful teasing out of LT as a specific historical artifact (which is flawed and has built-in characteristics (the reification of the poor, for example) that are problematic) and LT as a revised concept.

As a concept, the ideas of anti-consumerism, anti-materialism, demythologizing of dogma, building the practice of justice and mercy into the core message of the gospel - all these I fully agree with and believe are correct. But hung on that admirable skeleton is a lot of objectionable and regrettable baggage from actual LT in history.

We may be in different places in terms of the handling biblical texts as I believe these are starting points and examples that may or may not be applicable to our situations and times