Liberation is one of the great slogans of modern politics and one of the major themes of the Bible. The Exodus from Egyptian bondage was the foundational narrative of the Jewish nation, and Jesus inaugurated his ministry by announcing that he had come ‘to release the oppressed’. Scripture teaches that Christ brings redemption from slavery to sin, but it also depicts deliverance from material forms of oppression. This paper explains how that biblical theme has inspired early modern revolutionaries and nineteenth-century abolitionists as well as modern liberation theologians. While highlighting the failings of Christian liberationists (old and new), the paper concludes that we need a holistic theology of liberation which addresses the diverse forms of spiritual, relational and material enslavement that are rife in the twenty-first century.
The Bible and modern liberation politics
‘Liberation’ has been the battle cry of Marxists and revolutionaries, Allied armies and colonial independence movements, feminists and civil rights protesters. Its popularity owes much to the secular Enlightenment (conceived as a movement of emancipation) and to the French Revolution. But it has deeper sources in the Western past, in Greco-Roman notions of slavery and freedom, in the Jewish story of the Exodus, and in the Christian concept of ‘redemption’ from spiritual bondage. The eminent historian of slavery, Orlando Patterson, has argued that ‘Christianity not only became the first, and only religion predicated on the notion of freedom but also…was the primary means by which the ancient intellectual heritage of freedom was transmitted to the Middle Ages and the modern world.’
The biblical origins of modern liberationist politics are particularly evident in Anglo-American culture, which has been significantly shaped by the Calvinist and Puritan tradition. From the Reformation onwards, Protestantism was billed as a movement of liberation from papal servitude, but Luther insisted that ‘Christian liberty’ was a purely spiritual freedom. Very soon, however, Reformed Protestants came to disagree. In the English Civil War, Puritan preachers told Parliament that they were living through a new Exodus or a Year of Jubilee. ‘Deliverance’ became one of the key words of the Puritan Revolution. The Calvinist theologian John Owen declared in the wake of the regicide that ‘the great discovery of these days’ was ‘the overthrow of spiritual and civil slavery’. Oliver Cromwell was hailed as England’s Moses, and he himself told Parliament that the Exodus was ‘the only parallel of God’s dealing with us that I know in the world’. In his defence of the republic, John Milton wrote that Christ had ‘the heart of a liberator’.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 was also acclaimed as a divine deliverance from political and religious slavery; William and Mary were compared to Moses and Miriam. By the mid-eighteenth century, English-speaking Protestants were convinced that God acted providentially within history to promote the spread of liberty. When the American colonists rebelled against the British, their preachers saw them as re-enacting the biblical Exodus. Jefferson and Franklin even suggested that the national seal should bear an engraving of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea.
Yet even as they praised God for political deliverance, white Americans held hundreds of thousands of Africans in chattel slavery, and the English had become the world’s greatest slave traders. As this moral contradiction became increasingly glaring, an abolitionist movement coalesced on both sides of the Atlantic. Evangelical preachers began to argue that the liberation of black slaves was on the agenda of God. Abolitionist iconography was emblazoned with biblical texts: ‘I have heard their cry’ (Exodus 3:7), ‘Let my people go’ (Exodus 5:1), ‘Liberty proclaimed throughout the land’ (Leviticus 25:10), ‘Break every yoke’ (Isaiah 58:6) and ‘Deliverance to the captives’ (Luke 4:18). In America, the leading abolitionist journal was called ‘The Liberator’, and for fifteen years its masthead carried an image of ‘Jesus, the Liberator’, under the text ‘I come to break the bonds of the oppressor’.
Moreover, as black slaves embraced evangelical Christianity, they were drawn to the Bible’s message of emancipation. Exodus became the most important text for African-American identity. Negro spirituals voiced the longing for both spiritual and civil liberation: ‘When Israel was in Egypt’s land / Let my people go / Oppressed so hard they could not stand / Let my people go.’ The most important black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, spoke of ‘the God of the Oppressed’, and repeatedly cited the Jubilee, Isaiah’s call to break every yoke, and Christ’s Nazareth sermon. The black church clung on to these biblical traditions of liberation, and they were to provide vital inspiration for Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
Modern liberation theology
It was at this point – concurrent with the radicalism of the late 1960s – that modern liberation theology first emerged. It developed simultaneously, and quite independently, within the ‘base ecclesial communities’ of South America and the black churches in North America. Its most influential early exponents were the Peruvian Catholic Gustavo Gutierrez and the African-American Protestant James Cone. In contrast to previous generations of Christian activists, these learned theologians used liberationist principles to rethink the entire theological enterprise, setting out ‘a new way to do theology’. In A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), Cone responded to the assassination of King and the challenge of Black Power and the Nation of Islam, which dismissed Christianity as ‘white man’s religion’. Arguing that classical ‘white theology’ had little to say to the plight of African-Americans, Cone sought to forge a ‘black theology’ centred on God’s ‘blackness’ (i.e. his identification with the oppressed). If race was at the heart of Black Theology, class was central to the Latin Americans. In A Theology of Liberation (1971), Gutierrez built on the recent statement of Latin American bishops that the church should provide a ‘preferential option for the poor’. This version of liberation theology had precedents in the Left Catholicism of earlier decades and in Vatican II, though it borrowed Marxist categories. While protesting against dictatorship and neocolonialism, it also became associated with socialist regimes like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
The combination of theological revisionism and Marxian politics worried both the Vatican and leaders of the worldwide evangelical movement. The Lausanne Covenant of 1974 insisted that ‘political liberation’ was not to be confused with ‘salvation’. A decade later, Pope John Paul II and his doctrinal advisor Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) issued an ‘Instruction’ severely critical of ‘certain aspects’ of liberation theology. When the Brazilian Leonardo Boff turned liberationist principles against ‘the hierarchical church’, he was called to Rome and temporarily silenced. This clampdown, together with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, was seen by many as the death knell for liberation theology.
In the event, the movement has proved highly adaptable. South African church leaders like Allan Boesak and Desmond Tutu drew on both black and Latin American liberation theology in their struggle against apartheid, and women critical of sexism produced feminist or ‘womanist’ (i.e. black feminist) theology. There was a remarkable proliferation of contextual liberation theologies: South Korean minjung (people/masses) theology; ecological, Dalit, gay and deaf liberation theologies; even Jewish and Islamic ones. In the United States, Cone’s Black Theology was a powerful influence on President Obama’s former pastor, the Revd Dr Jeremiah Wright Jr. Obama himself praised the black church for its ‘biblical traditions that call for empowerment and liberation’.
If liberation theology proper belonged to the religious left, visions of liberation have also entranced politically conservative and centrist Christians. American foreign policy has long been influenced by the providentialist idea that God uses the United States to promote liberty. In his second Inaugural, President George W Bush confessed his ‘complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom’ and declared that ‘History…has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty.’ On this view, the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq was the latest episode in the providential march of freedom.
The case against liberation theologies
Given the sheer variety of causes clothed in the language of liberation, we need to tread carefully. The following points apply to some cases more than others, but they do highlight problematic tendencies.
Modern liberation theologians advocated a new starting point for theology – praxis, by which they meant participation in the struggle of the oppressed. The theologian was to begin with a social text (the suffering of the poor) and then turn to the written text (the Scriptures). For some, praxis became the criterion of theological truth, and experience was elevated to a theological norm. If a theology failed to serve the cause of human liberation it was irrelevant; theologians must start again, reconstructing Christian doctrine from the ground up. Orthodoxy would follow on from orthopraxis, not vice versa. The result, for some at least, was a massive programme of theological reinterpretation.
Ironically, praxis itself was a theoretical concept, one derived from modern Western philosophy via Marx, who said (in a famous line often cited by the early liberation theologians): ‘until now, the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.’ As Miroslav Volf has argued, theory has a logical priority to praxis, and a formative impact upon it. Christian revelation ‘is accessible to us only through the medium of a particular kind of theory – the written word of the Holy Scriptures’. We know Christ through the Scriptures, and he ‘has to remain the decisive criterion of the truth or falsity of any theory or practice claiming to be Christian’.
Beginning from politically-engaged praxis, modern liberation theologians have often read Scripture with a one-sided politicising hermeneutic. Emphasising the horizontal dimension of Exodus (its story of political, economic, social and racial oppression and liberation), they frequently downplay its theocentric character (encapsulated in Yahweh’s words: ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me’, Exodus 7:16 etc.). As Chris Wright puts it, ‘YHWH was not merely intent on liberating slaves but on reclaiming worshippers.’ By failing to present an integrated interpretation of ‘exodus-shaped mission’, some liberation theologians have ended up playing off political activism against worship and evangelism, and suggesting that the kingdom of God comes whenever earthly liberation takes place, even in the absence of churches being planted or people coming to faith in Christ. Older liberationist readings of Scripture were rarely so one-sided, but their political applications of biblical texts do need to be carefully weighed.
Preachers of political liberation have typically been deeply shaped by non-Christian traditions. Godly republicans like Milton were steeped in the history of ancient Rome; British abolitionists were often wedded to imperialist agendas; black theologians were influenced by Black Power and Malcolm X; Latin American theologians were indebted to Marxist theory; feminist theologians to the secular women’s movement; self-styled ‘queer theologians’ have adopted the values of the gay rights movement. Of course, Christians have always ‘plundered the Egyptians’, as the early Church Fathers did when they drew creatively on Greek thought. The Latin Americans insisted that in employing Marxist tools of analysis they were not swallowing Marx’s secularist philosophy. But there is a danger of the church being defined by a secular programme rather than by Word and worship. Liberation theology can be a vehicle with biblical paintwork that is fuelled and steered by worldly ideology.
Modern liberationists sometimes denigrate an emphasis on the life to come as a distraction from what really matters: the political struggle in the here and now. Yet the need to prepare for the last judgement is an unavoidable emphasis of Jesus: ‘What shall it profit you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?’ (Mark 8:36). This neglect of the afterlife was not a prominent feature of earlier liberationist movements in Christian history, but they did sometimes share with their modern counterparts an over-realised eschatology that expects the triumph of God’s reign in the here and now. Excitement about liberation can dissolve the necessary tension between the now and the not yet.
Finally, a heavily politicised Christianity can be all too ready to believe in the redemptive power of war and revolution. This was true in the English Civil War and the American Revolution, as well as in slave revolts led by lay preachers like Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. In Latin America, supporters of liberation theology sometimes took up arms for revolutionary causes, and George W Bush invoked the God of freedom as he launched wars of liberation. There is, of course, a venerable tradition of Christian just war and resistance theory, and liberationist violence was often a response to violent oppression. But as Volf points out, ‘the categories of oppression and liberation provide combat gear…they are good for fighting but not for negotiating or celebrating.’ They do not help with messy conflicts, where both sides are guilty, and both sides claim victim status. While oppression and liberation are indispensable biblical categories, they are penultimate ones. In Christianity, love is a more fundamental concept than freedom, and liberation must be crowned by reconciliation, a truth powerfully modelled by Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu.
Despite their mistakes, we should not shut our ears to the voices of liberation theologians. In the 1970s and 1980s, they addressed burning issues of military dictatorship, endemic poverty and white racism. Resisting the modern pressure to turn faith into privatised piety, they articulated the Christian faith as public, prophetic truth. Some, like Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, suffered martyrdom. Others lived and ministered among impoverished communities, and spoke up for the voiceless. They shifted the focus of modern theology from the post-Enlightenment cultured despisers of religion to the ‘non-persons’ whom Western theologians had largely overlooked. Exposing the situated character of the theological enterprise, they reminded cosseted intellectuals that the view from the seminar room was not the view from urban ghettos and favelas. At their best, they produced valuable insights into the ethical and social ramifications of the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation. They underscored the practical character of theology, its power to change the way we live. Last but not least, they highlighted important dimensions of the scriptural witness, reminding the churches that the God of the Bible hears the cries of the poor and the marginalised.
Both conservative Roman Catholic and conservative evangelical theologians found it difficult to dismiss liberation theology out of hand. In 1986, the Vatican issued a second ‘Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation’, which affirmed the primacy of spiritual liberation but stressed the ‘integral’ character of biblical freedom. John Paul II – who played an inspirational role in the overthrow of Communist tyrannies – ‘believed that liberation was a great biblical and Christian theme and that the Church had a responsibility to develop an authentic theology of liberation’. Among Protestants, John Stott listened carefully to the arguments of Latin American evangelicals like Samuel Escobar and René Padilla. They engaged in a systematic critique of liberation theology and denied its claim that the church needed a new way to do theology; instead, they sought to construct an integral doctrine of liberation grounded in the whole of Scripture. Their influence can be seen in the Lausanne Covenant, which declared that Christians should share God’s ‘concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression’.
This evangelical theology of liberation avoids the twin pitfalls of spiritualising the gospel so that it has little to say to the material afflictions of humanity, or politicising the gospel so that it fails to meet our deepest spiritual needs. It builds on the insight that Scripture itself integrates spiritual and material in a holistic vision of God’s mission. As Chris Wright points out, God’s first great act of redemption from slavery in the Bible is the Exodus, in which the concept of ‘redemption’ is introduced almost for the first time (Exodus 6:6; 15:13). The deliverance from Egypt is comprehensive – it is political, economic, social and spiritual. The Hebrews are an ethnic minority subjected to slave labour and escalating state violence, and prevented from worshipping God.
Of course, the Exodus was a supernatural deliverance of God’s covenanted people and it should be read as a type of redemption from the kingdom of darkness (cf. Exodus 15 and Revelation 15:2–4). But it is not clear that we should restrict ourselves to a purely typological reading of Exodus, denying its paradigmatic status. As John Goldingay points out, God is on the side of Israel and against Egypt not simply because Israel is his people, but because God sides with the downtrodden. The Exodus reveals Yahweh as the God of the slaves, and the rest of Scripture shows that God’s mission is global, not merely local. Israel is elected that through her, God might be made known among the nations. Israel’s God is the God of all the earth who has compassion on all he has made (Psalm 33:13–15; 145:9; 146:6–9). He sees, hears and delivers Hagar and Ishmael, even though they are not part of the covenant people (see Genesis 16). Indeed, the prophet Amos startles his Jewish audience by declaring that God has delivered the Philistines and the Arameans as he has brought Israel out of Egypt (Amos 9:7). Moreover, in revealing the kind of God Yahweh is, the Exodus lays an obligation on his people to love outsiders as he loves them (see Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 10:17–19). To participate in God’s Exodus-shaped mission is to challenge both idolatry and injustice, to point to Yahweh as the one true God and the God of the Oppressed. So Gustavo Gutierrez had good grounds for saying that ‘The Exodus is paradigmatic’, and the African-American Methodist preacher Absalom Jones was justified in celebrating the abolition of the slave trade as ‘striking proof’ that the God of Exodus ‘is the same yesterday, today and forever’.
While the New Testament extends and deepens Old Testament teaching, it does not exchange a social message for a spiritual one. God’s ‘passionate priorities’ – his hatred of social and political oppression, corruption, callousness and bloodshed – are inscribed throughout the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms and the Wisdom Literature, and they are not forgotten in the New Testament. Christ inaugurated his mission by reading Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, a text which (according to many commentators) alludes to the Jubilee of Leviticus 25 (see Luke 4:18–19). As Volf argues, Christ’s mission statement works at various levels, and to understand its full significance we need to integrate the personal-spiritual aspect emphasised in classical Protestantism, the individual-physical aspect emphasised in Pentecostalism, the socio-economic aspect emphasised by liberationists, and the ecological aspect highlighted by the Sabbath principle (Leviticus 25:4–5). In the Gospels, the ministry of Jesus is integral – he forgives sins, heals the sick, feeds the hungry and shares meals with outcasts. When Jesus tells people, ‘Your faith has made you whole,’ he refers to both physical and spiritual wholeness (Mark 5:34; Mark 10:52; Luke 7:50; Luke 17:11–19). Healings in the Gospels both reflect the social or this-worldly side of salvation and point to the Messianic identity of Jesus. The poor in Luke’s Gospel are both the spiritually humble (6:20) and the socially marginal (11:41; 12:33; 14:13); the blind are both the spiritually blind (1:78–79; 2:29–32; 3:6) and the physically impaired (18:35–43); release is from the power of Satan (13:10–17) and from debts (11:4). Christian mission, then, should reflect what Craig Blomberg calls Christ’s ‘holistic gospel of liberation’.
We must add that liberation in Scripture goes far beyond the modern secular notion of personal autonomy. In Exodus, ‘slavery’ to Pharaoh is described using the very same word (aboda) as ‘service’ to the Lord. This becomes a key motif of the Bible, but it is largely neglected by modern liberation theologians. In the New Testament, believers are freed from slavery to sin and Satan in order to be ‘slaves of Christ’. Paradoxically, we humans are only truly liberated when we submit ourselves to the incarnate God who humbled himself, taking the form of the slave (doulos), washing his disciples’ feet, and dying a slave’s death on a Roman cross (Philippians 2:5–8). The Cross does not mean that God is no longer a God of justice who hears the cries of the poor and enslaved and comes down to deliver. But in working for social or political liberation, Christians should look at the paradigm of the Exodus through the lens of the Cross.
Putting liberation into practice
The human yearning for what the New Testament calls aphesis – variously translated as freedom, pardon, release, deliverance, forgiveness, remission – is as strong as it ever was. Our most radical bondage is our enslavement to sin and death, and at the heart of the gospel is the claim that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). But as we preach Christ crucified we should share Christ’s concern for the marginalised and the downtrodden. Modern slavery is thriving and millions of vulnerable people are subjected to debt bondage and trafficked across the globe. In many parts of the world, women are oppressed by honour killings, forced prostitution, genital excision, (sex-selective) abortion, and exclusion from education and literacy. The poor are exploited by unfair trade, and large swathes of the world’s population are denied basic religious freedoms. Moreover, as the Vatican’s 1986 ‘Instruction’ pointed out, ‘the deeply rooted modern liberation movement remains ambiguous. It is laden both with the promises of true freedom and threats of deadly bondage.’ While free-market capitalism has generated great wealth, it has also placed us in thrall to advertisers and overpowering consumerist impulses. As Oliver O’Donovan notes, ‘The peculiar forms of oppression experienced by a daily commuter in a large Northern conurbation, a check-out assistant in a supermarket, or a democratic politician hoping to avoid deselection by a party…have attracted astonishingly little notice from the political theologians of our generation.’ Our search for sexual liberation has produced an epidemic of addiction to internet pornography, and recreational drugs that promised to free the mind have shackled the body.
The Bible reveals a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and loves to bring deliverance. The mission of God sets an agenda for the Church. In our preaching, prayer and worship we need to recover an integrated vision of the gospel as a message of liberation ‘from every kind of oppression’. Church should not be a cosy retreat from the world, an insulated spiritual bubble containing privatised piety. Instead, churches ought to pray for the spiritual and material needs of the world, and educate and empower their members to tackle injustice. On a very practical level, our congregations could do more to support the many Christian organisations that work heroically to liberate people from various kinds of oppression: drug and alcohol addiction (small rehabilitation centres), religious persecution (Open Doors, Christian Solidarity, Barnabas Fund), modern day slavery (Stop the Traffik, Dalit Freedom Network), human rights abuses (International Justice Mission), deprivation and debt (Tear Fund, Micah Challenge, Christians Against Poverty, Jubilee Debt Campaign). Oppression and poverty – like sin and doubt – will be with us till Christ returns, but when we ‘loose the chains of injustice’ we open the door to spiritual renewal (Isaiah 58:6–9) and anticipate the day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21).
John Coffey is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leicester. He writes on religion, politics and ideas in post-Reformation Britain and America, and has recently co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism (CUP, 2008), and Seeing Things their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion (Notre Dame University Press, 2009).
For comments on an earlier draft, I am grateful to the Writing Group and to Tim Chester and John Hayward. As with all issues of Cambridge Papers, the views expressed remain the author’s own. John Stott, The Incomparable Christ, IVP, 2001, p.108.
Category: Cambridge PapersDecember, 2009