Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Future of Liberation Theology

One of the major trends in contemporary theology 30 plus years ago was the rise of liberation theology, in various forms. I suppose that makes it no longer quite so contemporary. Of all the branches of this theology, its most influential form came out of Latin and South America and involved a variety of Catholic and Protestant writers, some of whose names are still very well known-- for example Leonardo Boff (Brazil), Gustavo Guttierez (Peru), Jon Sobrino (El Salvador). This theology arose as a response to the extreme poverty of many Christians and others in these regions, and the oppressive dictatorships and regimes that kept wealth in the hands of the few, while leaving millions of residents in these countries in abject poverty. It was also a reaction, to the Roman Catholic complicity in this state of affairs, either in not opposing oppressive governmental policies and business practices, or even openly supporting them in some cases. This in turn led to martyrs in the movement, when I few brave priests, like Archbishop Romero stood up against what was happening, and were killed for their troubles.

In essence, Latin and South American liberation theology had as its major theme that God had an especial concern for the poor and oppressed, which is true enough, and that the church itself should reflect God's agenda which was understood to involve "a preferential option for the poor". But this theology was not content to simply deal in depth with what the Bible has to say about poverty and wealth. It welded such materials to a Marxist liberation schema, involving political action of various sorts, and in some cases even supported Marxist guerrillas in some countries, in their opposition to the governments of the region. Interestingly enough, some of these folks have had enough influence that one at least has come to power supporting various aspects of this ideology, and openly opposing the U.S.'s support of oppressive regimes in various countries in the region. I will let you guess which country's president I am referring to.

At the heart of this theology is not only a political or ideological reading of the Bible and what it means by liberation and salvation is inherently political and only to a lesser degree spiritual. It also entails an assumption that some sort of communistic or socialistic approach to government is more nearly in line with what the Bible says about corporate responsibilty, shared wealth, societal governance and the like.

Needless to say, the Vatican has been concerned all along about this theology, and its advocacy by various of its priests, and some in fact, like Leonardo Boff have left the priesthood (in his case in 1992) in order to continue to support this theology and its praxis. If you were to ask who was the former Pope's point man in opposing this theology in past decades, the answer would be Cardinal Ratzinger. And now of course, he is Pope Benedict, and you can read all about his coming trip to Brazil. Here is the link


That trip ought to produce some Mallox moments for some of the Catholic faithful in Brazil.

My concern at this juncture is to talk about one of the linchpin notions of this theology--- namely the idea that there is a "preferential option for the poor" in the Bible, and behind that on the part of God Almighty. In one sense this theology is the anti-prosperity Gospel and the ultimate share the wealth theology. How exactly does one reconcile what the Bible says about God showing no favoritism and being no respecter of persons (see e.g. Acts 10) with this notion of the preferential option for the poor?

Well, in some respects these two ideas cannot be reconciled. God doesn't love a person less or more based on their income bracket. For that matter, God doesn't bless anyone more or less based on their income bracket. Nor does the Bible suggest that poverty in itself is a virtue. Yes indeed God and Jesus and others show great concern for the plight of the poor, in many forms wishing to alleviate or even eliminate the problem. All this is clear enough. What is not the case is that the NT or the OT suggests that a Marxist approach to dealing with the problem is the most Christian way to attack the issues that poverty entails.

Consider for example the way the Jerusalem community came to grips with the poverty of its own widows, and the general problem of people in need as recounted in Acts 1-5. The situation was not resolved by attempting to change the government, get more government funds or the like. The situation was resolved by the Christian community taking care of their own. Both of the summaries in Acts 2 and Acts 4 speak not of a communistic ideology (as opposed to a capitalist one-- there was no communism or free market capitalism in the modern sense in Bible times), but rather of a sort of communalism.

No one was claiming any exclusive right to property, and whoever was in need was to be taken care of by the Christian community. The story of Ananias and Sapphira is very revealing. Their sin was not retaining some of the assets they had liquidated. Their sin was lying to the Holy Spirit. Notice what Peter asks Ananias-- "Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold was not the money at your disposal?" (Acts 5.4). The answer to these questions was yes. But the ideology of that community was that to whom more was given more was required, and the more they ought to give. But the matter was left in the individual's hands-- it was not settled by a tax system, nor by a community of goods system either, so far as we can tell.

Notice as well how Paul in various of his early letters (Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians) urges his Gentile converts to contribute to the fund for the saints in Jerusalem suffering from the famine and the resulting food shortage. It is assumed that the church ought to take care of its poor, whoever and where ever they are. What is not assumed is that a communist ideology or praxis was the way to solve the problem. The assumption is that one has to justify keeping such resources when there are people need, not justify giving and sharing them.

Now it needs to be said that the whole modern notion of charity is all wrong. Charity assumes "what's mine is mine, and if a choose to share it, which is optional, I am a generous and charitable person." From a Christian point of view, the earth is the Lord's and we are merely stewards of it, not owners of it. So giving is not optional, its a part of loving one's neighbor and bearing one another's burdens as Gal. 6 says. And there is an especial responsibility to "do good to the household of God". Nowhere in the NT are Christians commanded to bless themselves or their physical families first, and then others.

To the contrary, Christians are called out by Paul and others to be truly self-sacrificial. Phil. 2.3-4 says "Do nothing at all out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility value others above yourself, not looking to your own interests, but rather to the interests of others." Then Paul cites the example of the totally self-sacrificial Jesus.

When one has a proper theology of generosity and stewardship then one is looking for opportunities to help others and be self-sacrificial. No one need provide a rationale. It is interesting to me, that the only time in the NT we are told about a church collection, it has to do with setting aside money on the first day of the week for the poor in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 8-9; Rom 15). So yes indeed, there is a great concern for the poor, and a belief that there should be no starving or poor Christians anywhere-- that if there are, it is a failure of the body of Christ to take care of their own, and do good to the household of faith.

So, what I would want to say is that Marxist liberation theology is no more a correct reading of what the Bible says about wealth and poverty than the prosperity Gospel. Both are soundly critiqued in the Bible. I don't think either Marxist liberationist theology or prosperity theology has a future in God's plans for us. I will leave you with a story.

When a twister came through Ohio where we lived some years ago, it destroyed numerous homes. The towns effected were all screaming for FEMA and federal assistance and waiting for the government to do some. The local mainline and Evangelical and Catholic churches did what little they could on the basis of their benevolence funds and agencies, but it was a drop in the bucket. The hotlines to insurance companies were on speed dial.

Meanwhile, the morning after the disaster, the Amish, who had no insurance, and accepted no government help, began to rebuild everything in the communities they lived in for FREE. They rebuilt their own houses and barns, and then they went about rebuilding their neighbors houses and barns--- free. After they were done, they asked for nothing in return, and went back to their own normal communal life. Which response more nearly approximates what we see in Acts 1-5 and elsewhere?

Think about these things.


Unknown said...

I'm a fan of liberation theology but have always wondered about the need for Marxism in it. Here is a genuine biblical concern to care for the poor and the downtrodden and to do it out of loving concern.

At the same time let me say that 'the poor' is not the Christian poor but all the poor, all the suffering, and that's how i read the beatitudes and Matt 25 too.

Capitalism is also not the biblical ideal. Something like 'Stewardism' is really what we should be practicing, as you so correctly point out!

Bob Bliss said...

Ben,good post. I would add some fine tuning on these points.
1. In Acts 2-4 the selling of property may have had more than just the focal point of helping the poor. Many of the 3,000 baptized were from out-of-town. They were there for Pentecost. They wanted to stay and learn from the apostles about their messiah but could not afford to. Those who lived in Jerusalem and those from out-of-town who owned land there (Joseph, aka Barnabas; Acts 4:36-37)sold it to help fund those who didn't have the means to stay. Of course the selling of property was also to bless the poor as is evident in Acts 6 with regard to the distribution of food to the widows.
2. God's concern for the poor is because they are part of a larger list of vulnerable people (i.e. widows, orphans, the blind, etc.). God condemns those governments, rich people, and anyone who takes advantage of the vulnerability of these groups (James 5:1-6).
3. God likewise condemns those who may not take advantage but do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those within their influence. Such is the case of the rich man who saw Lazarus daily but did nothing (Luke 16:19-31).
4. God does not endorse any specific type of government. He does watch over the actions of those governments and how each responds to the vulnerable within the borders of that country. That means what counts in government officials is heart and actions not the form of government. Any government can take advantage of the people, especially those whose conditions make them vulnerable.

My daughter has an interesting post about how their congregation is attempting to be good stewards and find some unique ways of imitating the Jerusalem church in Acts 2-4.


Bob Bliss said...

The link I left on my comment got cut off. Here is the whole link.


PamBG said...

I'm on the same page as samlcarr. Especially the idea that "stewardism" is the biblical ideal.

It seems to me that what is incorrect about Marxist liberation theology is the Marxism and not the liberation theology.

What Marxism got wrong was it's atheism and it's blatent seeking to be a power which controlled the lives of people. It is right to criticise these things from a Christian perspective.

However, capitalism has a lot of risks. Capitalism self-centredness is a risk, as you point out. Capitalism often seeks to control the lives of people in place of God but it's a lot less blantant about this than governement-led Marxisms where. That doesn't make it any less of a risk.

In the UK I don't think that Christians are so complacent about blessing capitalism and conflating it with Christian values as seems to happen in some places in the US (I speak as a US citizen.) I believe in restorative justice and, in that context, a preferential option for the poor makes sense. It doesn't mean that God dislikes the wealthy. It means that God goes out of his way to say that he loves those who the world ignores or despises.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

It's amazing how the Amish continually show us what Christianity is supposed to be. From this story to how they supported the family of the man who killed those girls. They get it more often than not.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bob:

Interesting post. I am unconvinced that the funds were collected in the Jerusalem Church primarily for supporting visiting Jews who wanted to learn more, and were not indigent. The persons described as "to anyone who had need" in the context of Acts 2.42-47 are believers who meet together in one place and share all things in common. The 'they' throughout this passage refers to the Jerusalem Jewish Christians who continued to meet both in homes and in the temple. The baseline for that community was --- no one in need. Nothing is said here about an endowment for seekers.


Ben W.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington, God bless you. Thank you for this pointed and challenging post. Richard Hays rightly identified the top two priorities for the 21st century Church as 1) recovering biblical nonviolence and 2) sharing resources.
I've been delighted to see your posts on these themes.
The Amish are a blessing (though it won't do to romanticize Amish life, of course), and serve as a reminder to the rest of the body that the Church has a prophetic witness by virtue of its existence, and not by the politicians/laws it endorses.

Bluebird said...

Very good, thought-provoking post. I certainly agree with you about stewardship. My church history is quite rusty but I don't think that this wonderful sense of community lasted very long.

Meanwhile we Christians (with the notable exception of the Amish - may their tribe increase!) continue to build comfortable churches out in the suburbs, as far away from the poor as we can get. We struggle to uphold that pitiful idea of charity against the onslaughts of our brethren who believe poverty is God's idea of justice.

Liberation theology is certainly flawed. But at least it gives offers hope and empowerment to with little of either.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I am not extremely familiar with much liberation theology but do you see somewhat of an absense of emphasis on the empowerment by the Holy Spirit in this theology? I don't know this first hand, I have just heard this.

Adam Gonnerman said...

When I began my nearly three year stint as a missionary in Brazil, I was completely unprepared for how deeply the people there believe in socialism. From evangelicals to Catholics to atheists and spirits, everyone seems to see no problem in using legalized theft to redistribute wealth. In Brazil, it isn't a question of whether someone is a socialist, but of the degree of socialism which they embrace.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Adam:
Thanks for sharing your experience in Brazil. My seminary roommate has been there for decades. In theory, there should be no problem with a practice of considerable taxes of those with resources in order to eliminate poverty, if it was all done with the consent of the governed and through proper legislative processes. This I would call a voluntary share of the wealth plan-- not legalized theft, and completely in line with the Gospel principle that those to whom more is given have more responsibility to help others-- and it is a responsibility, not a mere option.


broady said...

Could it be not so much that God has a preferential option for the poor, but rather a preferential option for justice and mercy - the very things often denied the poor?

Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington, I wonder what you feel about collective action as a norm for Christians? Do you think the gospel asks us to swing right (Dobson et.al.) or left (Wallis &Co.). Or are we to be individual in our focus and politics?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Broady: I think God has a preferential option for love and mercy, but of course he is also just. I think collective action is important when you are dealing with systemic evil structured into the very character of society, for example in the case of slavery or apartheid.


Ben W.

paul said...

Ben, great post. Thanks.

A question. You wrote: “Nowhere in the NT are Christians commanded to bless themselves or their physical families first, and then others."

I think I understand what you are getting at. But what do you do with 1 Tim 5:3-8? I guess this is a practical question not just a theoretical one. Many of us have families who are struggling and we channel large amounts of resources to help them. Is my brother "poor?" as in the kids I support in Honduras? No. Will he be homeless if I don't help? Will his power get shut off? Yea, maybe.

I guess I'm questioning your statement a bit in that, to "look after" (1 Tim.) my physical family in this world is very expensive. I do realize that (in my case) my brother has larger issues, but I hope you get the heart of what I'm asking.

chris s said...

So, what I would want to say is that Marxist liberation theology is no more a correct reading of what the Bible says about wealth and poverty than the prosperity Gospel.

Or indeed an evangelical gospel of comfort, ease and retreating into a cradle-christian ghetto.

I have a huge problems with aspects of liberation theology, but the point that they were flourishing in the face of official support (by the church) of the various right wing regimes that were being run solely to benefit an elite is well made. That last, it has to be said , runs in total opposition to the biblical concepts of shalom and stewardship.

Support wasn't just restricted to the RCC, there were plenty of evangelicals who were willing to hagiographise any head of state on the profession of faith and a professed hatred of communism, without a careful examination of their actual deeds. Usually they went completely unchallenged by the rest of the church apart from an unfortunate tendancy in the opposite direction in certain parts of the church.

Even conservative economists would agree that part of the problem with Latin America is the inefficient allocation of capital, and so we would expect a certain amount of progressive taxation to follow. Without an avowed aim to mulct the rich, and with the consent of the governed, I'm not sure it remains a 'christian concern' unless you identify a certain form of taxation with christianity.

Matt said...

I read your post several times before I decided to comment. I have a few comments and a couple of questions:
1. What's your point? Is it that the ideas behind liberation theology are wrong and to be avoided by the Christian, or is it that the praxis surrounding liberation theology has been misguided? If we critisised all theologies for the misguided praxis that sometimes surrounds them, then we'd have to reject many theologies from the Church throughout history...
2. Is it just marxism that you object to? If it is, consider that even though marxISM has become a dirty word in the west, Marx's historcial approach to economics has added much needed depth to the field. He has many ideas that even the most ardent of capitalists could learn from...
2. In thinking of liberation theology and it's evolution, one has to ask, 'If God has a preferential option for the poor (as you, and I, would admit He does in the scriptures), then why?' It's certainly not income level as you appropriately pointed out. No, it's JUSTICE. That's the ethos of lib.th. is Justice. One can hardly investigate the theology of liberation w/o studying the passages, both NT and OT, that pertain to God's Justice. You've missed, among the many, Isaiah 58, the many Mosaic texts from Deut. concerning the 'setup' of Jewish Theocracy the jubilee year(s) the Tx of slaves and foriegners, etc. You've missed all the minor prophets, and even in the NT, Luke 16:19-31 (the rich man and Lazarus). All these speak for the poor, not b/c the rich have money, but b/c as you implied, b/c they are/were the oppressors of the time. Again it comes to Justice. It is inadequate to criticise liberation theology using only the new testiment and the misguided praxis surrounding a theology that, though flawed (what theology is/was perfect?), has a potentially high value added component for the Church Universal.
3. I agree with you that communalism is a biblical view of christians living together, and I agree with your statements of charity, but let me push back a bit and ask, don't structural injustices need to be addressed as well. Can the idea the 'just me, my bible, and my helping hand' change the structures that perpetuate injustice? Some of the OT passages i mentioned above speak to this. What do you do with MLK Jr's, quote : "It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." I think that this is what Lib. Th. is trying to get at, even if it does it in a flawed way.
4. The last thought is one that you alluded to, and one that I will leave as a question: Why was it, or what was the political and religious climate that spurred many strong Christians to see the need for a theology of Liberation?

Ben Witherington said...

Well Matt I think several things about your post and the one previous to it: 1) I don't agree that Marxism added anything positive to our understanding of economics or human nature or proper politics. Especially useless was it's "religion is the opiate of the people" nonsense. There is not very good and there is worse, and Marxism is just worse than capitalism by far. What Marxism produced was mind-numbing stripping of individual dignity and freedom in Russia. 2) if you look at the response to apartheid in South Africa or the response of Ghandi to the Raj in India, neither of those responses involved the kind of systemic 'response' to systemic evil, and both were successful. I don't really see much evidence in Latin America that the poor are much better off with Marxism than with the current alternative. The poverty is still as widespread either way. It's like choosing between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

As it turns out, the Pope has now indicated that his main concern while in Brazil is the loss of RC members to evangelical denominations, even above his concern about abortion.


José Solano said...

I do not see “liberation theology” so much as a “theology” as a socio-economic and political activity supported by numerous Catholics and others in Latin America to obtain justice and prosperity on earth. It is intimately integrated with ecological concerns. It has biblical foundation only in its appeal to caring for the poor and earth stewardship but in terms of true liberation, which comes only through Christ and the hope of salvation, it is no more than a fool’s gold. It will not liberate anyone but merely, and perhaps inescapably, places the poor in a struggle against the rich for resources. This is precisely what Jesus was hoping his followers would not fall into, at least not in a militaristic or revolutionary way, since his Kingdom, in which alone we may find freedom, is not of this world. The materialistic struggle leads directly to Marxism or capitalism with their focus on worldly gains.

I think that this is the illusion that both Pope Paul John and Pope Benedict have been working hard to prevent certain Catholic Bishops from spreading among the poor. Aurum nostrum non est aurus volgi. “I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you might become rich. . . .”

To stir the people into seeking materialistic gains is not the true gospel and is not what the bishops should be making paramount in their preaching. It co-mingles the spiritual and truly liberating dimension of the gospel with the futile pursuits of freedom through matter. It places one’s ultimate treasures in the world and thereby, through distraction from what should be our primary focus, jeopardizes one’s salvation.

Certainly we may seek social justice and improve our living conditions but this is not the goal of the gospel and the minister’s of the Word should not present it as if it were. The hope of the gospel is something far greater.

thunderbeard said...

this isn't really very relevant to the conversation at hand, but i was just curious; were you referring to the tornado that tore through xenia years ago? sorry to interrupt the more important conversation (about which, i agree with you wholeheartedly).


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