In the first post trying to close the loop on a six-year-old thread I started, I got a bit carried away. So I decided to break it down further. The first post tackled the idea of the Trinity as a contribution from the Christian tradition that can be a unique benefit to cross-cultural work and contribution to the world. The second post explored the idea of incarnation and its implications. This final post will tackle Jesus’ subversive ideas of liberation and solidarity.
“I have already offered my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. May my blood be a seed of freedom.
Desde ya ofrezco mi sangre por la redención y resurrección de El Salvador. Que mi sangre sea una semilla de libertad”
– Archbishop Oscar Romero
Liberation theology was a movement particularly among Catholics in Latin America in response to the violence and oppression in their countries. Priests formed base communities where they read the Bible with the people not imposing an interpretation on their reading but asking them to respond to what they heard and apply it to their context. One incredible text that came out of these communities was The Gospel in Solentiname by Ernesto Cardenal (The original work was published in four volumes in Spanish!). There were also similar movements of Black liberation theology and Feminist liberation theology.
One of the basic ideas of this movement is that God and the Bible have a “preferential option for the poor,” popularized by Gustavo Gutierrez in his book A Theology of Liberation. This idea comes in part from the overwhelming number of verses in Scripture that are concerned about the poor. Jim Wallis did an experiment in the early days of Sojourners that he is fond of retelling:
For example, one of our first activities was finding every verse of scripture about the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. We found more than 2,000 texts that we then cut out of an old Bible. We were left with a “Bible full of holes,” which I used to take out with me to preach.
This is in contrast to many Christians’ obsession with moral purity related to sex and alcohol which ranks much lower in terms of the number of verses dedicated to that theme in the Bible. Throughout Scripture, God sides with the poor and oppressed and denounces those who cause the oppression and poverty through their wealth and power. Jesus depicts the final judgment that God makes between “sheep” and “goats” as directly related to how we treated the most vulnerable among us.
It is important to remember that this liberation is not just for the poor and oppressed. The wealth and power of the oppressors enslaves them as well. They are bound up in the injustice and inequity of the system from which they benefit. Think of Jesus’ interaction with the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10:17-27 in which the liberation of that man involves his divestment of wealth that separates him from the poor. Also, consider the way in which salvation/liberation comes to Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10. The tax collector proclaims, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” When the one who benefits from the oppression has his eyes opened and seeks to make things right and work for justice and on behalf of the poor, then Jesus proclaims that salvation has come to his house.
Jesus continually subverts our ideas about the way the world works and/or should work. Jesus continually reorients us to imagining another world that is possible where we can live in right relationship with our neighbors. However, this subversion and reorientation requires those who have more to give something up in order to restore justice and right relationship. In other words, Jesus reveals a vision of shalom, of right-relatedness, that God intends for the world and gives us a means and a model to pursue this vision. Throughout Christian history, you can find stories of holy fools such as St. Nicholas of Myrna and St. Francis of Assisi who eschewed their wealth or gave it extravagantly in order to find solidarity with the poor.
This tradition of solidarity and liberation holds incredible resources and benefits to the work of Christians in development and cross-cultural contexts. That is not to say that other traditions don’t hold similar ideas. In fact, much of the development of liberation theology grew out of a Marxist analysis of the structures of power and wealth in a burgeoning global capitalist economy. For some, this is off-putting and they are not able to get beyond the connections to Marxism. However, a clear reading of the Scripture points to the same conclusion: God, again and again, sides with those who have been oppressed and marginalized and calls the wealthy and powerful to repentance.
The Gospel asks and challenges us to view the world from the bottom, from the perspective of the least of these. This is the work of repentance that God does in our hearts. So when we are out in the world extending this Trinitarian Gospel love to others, we MUST consider the context in light of this upside-down kingdom that has captured us! This is what Jesus did when he encountered situations of injustice in his day. He read the context fo the situation at the temple and saw that people coming to worship God were being exploited by those selling sacrificial animals. When he saw the religious loudly dropping their coins into the temple treasury while the widow quietly gave all she had, he was pointing out the injustice and inequality AND the origin of that inequity in our own brokenness, our own greed, and selfishness. So he does not preach only a social gospel of justice and activism, nor is his message only one of mystical spirituality and enlightenment.
For the same reason that Jesus breastfeeding is so important, it is also essential that his message is an integral whole that includes the spiritual and the physical. This focus on solidarity with the least of these and the liberation of both oppressed and oppressor means that we can (hopefully) see the world in the same subversive way of Jesus. We can circumvent the dualisms and prevailing narratives and find ways to cut to the heart of the matter, to what’s most important. I think it’s appropriate then, to conclude with the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who despite her lowly status accepted not only her role in God’s plan (not knowing fully what that meant) but also embraced this radical vision of shalom that her son would fulfill:
46 “My soul exalts the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48 For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
49 For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
50 And His mercy is upon generation after generation
Toward those who fear Him.
51 He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
54 He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy,
55 As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.”