Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Question of Liberation Theology

It is a comfort to one's soul to fight evil that is outside of us- injustice, oppression, poverty and so on. In a sense this is also a part of fighting evil within ourselves- the evil of apathy, greed and selfishnessness. However the liberation theorists I have encountered usually give up some of the virtues of the more orhotodox Christians in order to uphold the above values. Some of these may be personal values like clean language, grace, sexual fidelity and constraint, faithfulness to the the whole of the Bible in its inerrancy and resisting the temptation to take some of it with a pinch of salt, patience with people who do not readily subscribe to their thinking and so on.

There are people who respond to this by saying that Christians have no business "being nice", rather they need to be righteous, meaning uphold social justice. While it is true that there is a lot of prissy piety out there in Christian circles reflecting in our music, dressing and a list of do's and don'ts that reduce our faith into Pharisiasm, it is equally true that these values stem from a desire not just to do right by our fellow man but to please God in our thinking and actions. While Christians can enjoy a glass of wine, they often decline refills due to a desire not to go overboard.

Orthodox Christians often accuse liberation theorists of trading away this kind of personal holiness for their "causes". As Malcolm Muggeridge once said, it is far easier and more self-sffirming to hold a placard out in a street protest than actually do something righteous. In my view this is only partially true. The fact is, most liberation theology adherents I know have struggled long and hard with personal sin and guilt to the point where they have questioned themselves and the general interpretation of sin in God's Word. This manifests itself in our politics. In North America, the question of gay marriage is a case in point.

Mark Young, Denver Seminary President's point about voting in a way that allows the Gospel the best possible access into people's lives, speaks to us clearly here. Do we think homosexual behavior is sinful? If so, is it anymore sinful than a child stealing a cookie? Are we guilty of anything far wrose or at least, equally bad? I think most Christians would agree that sin, sinful behavior, propensity to sin, ambiguity about sin and its definition are all part of our messed up nature and mental make up. Is it possible for a Christian to lovingly reach out to the gay community with Christ rathern than condemnation, and just let Christ lead him or her into a full understanding of the Truth (which if we are honest we must admit we too are only still learning)? I think it is.

You see, as my friend Mat pointed out in the last blog post, simply because a liberal espouses liberation theology, it doesn't automatically become wrong. Conservatives allowed liberals to corner the market on this thinking. In the meanwhile they have failed to see the essential connection between Christ's message of personal salvation and the idea of opposing sin everywhere- both inside and outside of ourselves. Liberals in turn have also failed to see the connection between the sin or evil that exists out there in the world and the very personal sin in our own hearts (and not just in terms of being able to have more resources while the 'poor' does not).

To the conservative I say, I wonder what you would have done when Jesus whipped the money-changers out of the temple. To the liberal I say, I wonder what you would have done when Jesus let the repentant Mary Magdalene pour her life savings on to His feet in the form of the expensive perfume.

It is telling that Jesus lets Judas know that the 'poor' will always be around. I've often wondered what this means. Could it mean that we are living in a 'Long Defeat', as JRR Tolkien said and Sara Groves sang, and Dr. Paul Farmer believes is the end of all our labor, even his labor of hope in Haiti?

In the book on Farmer's remarkable work of sacrifice and justice in Haiti, “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, author Tracy Kidder uses this phrase, 'The Long Defeat'. Dr. Farmer is quoted in this book:

"I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory…. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat."

Farmer has made it known in other interviews that there are glimpses of the [final] victory that we get on earth, but our earthly efforts in and of themselves are a series of long defeats that lead up into the final victory that is not of the earth (this is all my paraphrasing).

If this is indeed the case (and Dr. Farmer is an adherent of liberation theology though I'm not sure to what extend he takes it), then is our vision of heaven simply a heaven on earth, where we bring justice to those who do not have it? What is justice after all? If everyone were wealthy will that suffice? Surely not. If everyone were mindful of others and generous will that be it? Will not there by still incidents which are beyond our comprehension- natural disasters, death, severance of relationships? At such a point when we have achieved (this is an assumption) all there is to achieve in terms of social justice and redemption, but we feel the pain of being human, would we then question God as to why He made us this way? Would we then conclude, after all is said and done, that God is simply a social construct, and that He has outlived His purpose? If that is all there is to life, would we feel the pinch of a nagging hope that there is more to heaven than out unidimensional view of earthly justice?

If there is indeed a heaven beyond the earth, then is it in anyway connected to our recreating such a heaven here on earth? What did Jesus mean when he taught us to pray 'You Kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Or, do we simply sigh and say that all injustices will be righted in heaven and do absolutely nothing about earthly injustices? Why are we the 'tweeners' who live between the two earthly advents of Christ? What is our purpose here on earth? If we have none, maybe they should hold us all down in baptism so we would go straight to heaven.

Clearly the liberation theorists and the orthodox Christians have a lot to learn from each other. We cannot offord to trade insults or dismiss each other because there is a lot of work that is still undone.

As someone who came to faith in college firmly among those who hold the orthodox view, I spent about 13 years coming around to respecting liberation theology. It could have taken a far shorter time frame. Let me explain why.

Life in Christ is a journey when we learn more and more about His character and therefore His purposes. It is remarkable that the vast majority of liberation theorists I know actually had a conversion experience that the orthodox Christians would view as a clearly identifiable point of coming into salvific faith- the point at which one prays the conversion prayer and is ushered into the Kingdom. Over the years, especially as they worked with the 'poor', they moved into a theology that is decidedly unorthodox. Very rarely have I encountered someone who was 'born again' into liberation theology. The passion that accompanies personal salvation from personal sin has been key in the vast majority of these cases to their ardent witness and eventual participation in social justice movements. As Sara Groves sang in her characteristic story-song manner, 'I love because He loved me when I had nothing.' This is Biblical. When we are set free we are free to give and set others free. If we have not experienced freedom our passion must be questioned (gently). Some of us may even believe we have always been free simply because we have not experienced the poverty that others do. The fact is, we are all- without exception- slaves until Christ sets us free. Some are economic slaves, others are sexual slaves, yet others slaves of affluence, education deprivation, racial injustice, indifference, passion, addictive behaviors, and on and on. Freedom in Christ is clearly what inspires us to be modern day abolitionists.

In my early years in Christ I encountered many dear and well-meaning friends who tried to talk me into liberation theology. It may have worked if they had helped me connect the dots between personal accountability to God and personal accountability to people. Personal sin and external evil. Personal salvation and social redemption. It may have helped if someone sat down with me and envision for me the radical and radically true idea that personal accountability to people is not simply an option, one of the many 'mionistries', like 'mercy ministry'; but an essential part of the salvation that Christ has won for me. It may have helped if I could only understand then what I understand now- that being incarnatiunal in people's lives is the only way to bring Christ to them; just as Jesus was and is incarnational into the human experience and our own lives. It may have helped if I could only understand that being incarnational necessarily means being sacrificed- whether on the cross or in terms of a life spent with people who need us.

A dear friend who tried to talk to me about liberation theology had a radically unorthodox interpretation of the Bible. He insisted, without any reference to Biblical, traditional, logical or other evidence, that the Antichrist in the Bible referred to us, people who do nothing to oppose injustice in the world. Other liberation theorists try to make the case that sin is only the enjoyment of resources at the cost of others. Broadly this means that those of us who are relatively well off (anyone who has a roof over her head and food to eat is in this category) are well off only because in a direct or indirect way we exploit or have historically exploited or are benefitting from such exploitation of those outside this category. If anyone tried to interpret the whole of the Bible this way, the argument does not go far without encountering serious challenges. What would they say about the apostle Paul's suggestions to Christian slaves? He said in 1 Corinthians 7:20-22, "Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you--although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave."

Lastly, I realize that we are all on a journey to discover truth. We need to keep our eyes wide open to God's visions. I realize of course that orthodox Christians also tend to be obnoxious in their witness to liberation theorists. Who hasn't encountered those of us (and perhaps we ourselves may be guilty of this) who rebuke a fellow believer with a glass of win in his hand but practise fiscal dishonesty in tax returns, property purchases and divisive church politics, not to mention the sex scandals that have rocked both the Evangelical and Catholic leadership? The charge of hypocrisy is the third serious form of sin or evil that we encounter (personal sin and evil that is external and unattached to humans are the others) in the list of (I would also say ONLY) objections to Christianity or belief in God in general.

The fact remains though that we can and must work together. While I see and experience Christianity for the unique experience it is, I also know that the desire for justice is within all of us- atheist, Christian, Hindu or anyone. I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as a spark of the divine in us or anywhere near it, but I would consider it as God-given, and a part of the appeal that draws us to Christ. If there is sin out there we must work together. If people of different persuasions could begin a discussion on the deepest matters in life, I'm convinced that social redemption, and not philosophical debate, is the beginning.

1 comment:

Emily said...

I stumbled upon your blog through google somehow, but I have really enjoyed reading through your posts, especially this one. Thanks for sharing and God bless you as you try to live out the kingdom reality now!