Liberation Theology Part I


I’m switching directions to move onto a short series on liberation theology.

In my opinion, liberation theology offers the most exciting and opportunity for the future of theology. Whether it be feminist, Latin American, Asian, black, womanist, or queer theology they all argue for the centrality of justice and God’s concern for the marginalized in the Biblical narrative. I want to visit in this short piece black theology and womanist theology. James Cone’s black liberation theology was probably best explicated in his brilliant work God of the Oppressed. This work is foundational for liberation theology and remains my favorite book in this genre. He rescues resources from the African American experience such as the blues and old folklore to discuss how liberation from oppression was at the heart of black spirituality. Here, the exodus narrative carries much weight because of God’s vindication of the enslaved offering hope to slaves struggling against the white slavocracy. Likewise he discusses the importance of justice that was emphasized by Jesus in his proclamation of the coming Kingdom. Cone believed through the revelation of Jesus, God had disclosed Godself as being one who cared passionately for the freedom of the downtrodden. (Side note: In an interview he gave, Cone said that the cross often translates poorly to American Christians because we have no parallel in our culture. He argued that that to redeem the meaning of the cross our best analogy in American history would be the lynching tree. I thought that was fascinating, and I hope he publishes a work on this).

Delores Williams’ provocative book Sisters in the Wilderness continues along similar lines of black liberation theology but differs at crucial aspects. She first notes that black women have either been silenced by the patriarchy of black liberation theology (not even King was immune from this) or their struggles has been universalized by white feminists. Jacqueline Grant said this about feminist theology, “Which women’s experience is the source of theology? Further, one could ask, how do these experiences impact the direction taken in one’s theological perspective? Is it the experience of the daughters of slaveholders or the experience of the daughters of slaves?” Womanist theology thus stands in an awkward position with regards to both liberation movements. Williams believes the best paradigm for the black woman’s experience is Hagar. Hagar likewise occupied a difficulty position in the Bible. She was Sarai’s slave and bore Abraham’s first child, Ishmael much to the disdain of her mistress. Because of her mistreatment at Sarai’s hand, she flees to the desert for freedom while pregnant. However, she quickly finds herself in great peril. Yahweh comes by her side and demands that she returns to her slave quarters and obey her mistress. This is a God of liberation? The odd thing about Hagar and God’s conversation is that she refers to God as El (akin to Allah for Islam). Notice, she refuses to address God as Yahweh, the God of her oppressors.

Williams recognizes the obvious themes of liberation in the Bible. However, she suggests that if we read the Bible from a different perspective than from God’s elect people, tyranny not liberation would be a central theme. Thus by reading the Bible from the vantage point of Hagar or the Canaanites we have to ask how fair of a reading is it to say liberation is the consistent motif. This is the question I want to ask. How do we balance the particular and the universal in Christianity? It’s obvious that the God of universal love is not always manifested in the Bible, but rather the God of a specific people who yearns for their freedom from injustice and sin. Likewise, we must too recall that Jesus did not go on a world tour to proclaim the coming Kingdom. He interacted almost exclusively with Jews in Palestine, with some obvious memorable exceptions.

Recall this story in Matthew 15:23-28:

“But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.”
But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Now, of course this is another example of Matthew attempting to paint Jesus as the Christ who is fulfilling the Scriptures, barring that we must ask about the partiality of God. Liberation theology has a controversial position that advocates God’s preferential option for the poor, which I believe is completely scripturally accurate especially if one reads the prophets. We could easily add God’s partiality in general, especially for his elect people.

My question is this: how does one reconcile God’s supposed universal love of man with his blatant partiality? Perhaps our understanding of love is too close to tolerance and should be focused more on the singular as opposed to the universal (a la Kierkegaard). Again, this perhaps the meaning of my favorite expression of Jesus where he says he has come to bring the sword not peace, and he demands that we hate our family to be worthy of the Kingdom. Perhaps we must hate or exclude our general commitments for the singularity of our neighbor akin to how God prioritizes the needs of the Hebrews over the Egyptians or the oppressed over the oppressors. One more question. I believe that the love of one’s neighbor is a love akin to what Levinas suggested that the face of the other calls us to infinite responsibility. So if Christian love is an imbalanced love that is wholly committed to the neighbor (and hence not a flighty universal love), how can we balance that with a love that motivates us to fight for the liberation and salvation of the oppressed (especially if one lives in America where one’s neighbor is usually free)?

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