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Liberation Theology and the Biblical Christ

How interesting and providential is the fact that theological issues should be raised in the midst of a presidential campaign. By now, those who follow the news, regardless on which side of the political aisle they find themselves, are no doubt tired of the rhetoric associated with Barack Obama and his pastor Jeremiah Wright. On the one hand, Wright defends himself by appealing to his worldview which is grounded in the black liberation theology of scholars such as James Cone who considers Christ to be a “black messiah,” blacks as the chosen people, and embraces a god who supports their cause of destroying the white enemy. On the other hand, conservative pundits, in the main, have criticized Wright (and Obama) and focused on political issues including those of racism and anti-Americanism. However, little has been said from a biblical worldview perspective. Politicians are quick to point out the need to have a dialogue at some point about “important theological issues” but seem never to get around to having that dialogue. In light of this circumstance, perhaps the time has come.

Our purpose herein is not to focus on Senator Obama, Rev. Wright, or even James Cone. Our purpose as Christians, cultural commentators, and bible teachers, is to dialogue about theological issues raised in response to liberation theology of any kind. With reference to Jeremiah Wright and Black Liberation Theology, neither he nor such a theology is representative of Christ. Nor does he represent black Christians. The questions raised then are clear: what is liberation theology and what does Christ have to say in response?

What is Liberation Theology?

Liberation theology is an innovation within Roman Catholic Theology. It is a theology that is applied through the means of political action in a social context and concerns issues such as justice for the oppressed and impoverished. In general, it appeals for human rights, or at least the rights of the socially marginalized. Liberation theologians would see the oppressed as a channel of God’s grace. They would interpret ultimate questions and faith itself through the lens of the plight in which the outcast find themselves. It is a worldview of the down and out as the special object of God’s favor.

Biblical texts are cited in liberation theology. For example, Jesus came to preach the gospel to the poor (Lk. 4:18). Further, it was Christ who said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34).” These verses and others like them are interpreted to mean that Christ came for the physically poor (as opposed to the spiritually poor) and that His mission was to bring social unrest. In one sense, the driving issue for the liberation theologian is social justice. That end may be accomplished in any number of ways including violence. One may see how varying political philosophies might find support among those with such a theology including those of Marxism and socialism, revolution, and even anarchy.

A number of non-Roman Catholic groups have adopted a sort of liberation theology. While Tony Campolo, for example, calls himself an evangelical, he has been a major proponent of liberation theology with a goal of establishing the on earth through the poor, the downtrodden, or the proletariat by means of political progressivism. In his book, Letters to a Young Evangelical, he regards certain segments of conservative evangelicalism as enemies of God and calls for a revamping of political and economic structures in our society as current structures do not adequately address the needs of the poor and oppressed.

Liberation theology is “this world” in focus and not “other world.” Its primary concern is not with salvation from sin, Satan, and death, but with deliverance from earthly oppression. One may see similarities between it and the false notions of first century Jews looking for a political, warrior messiah. As they would learn through the gospel of Christ Himself, there is no doubt that God is concerned with the oppressed. However, His primary concern is far greater.

What about the biblical Christ?

Christ and Division

It is true that Christ divides. However, that division is spiritual and does not promote violence between different groups within a given society. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it (Matt. 10:34-39).”

Jesus’ point is that He alone must be supreme in the Christian’s life. He says that He has come to set a man against his father. In another place He tells believers to honor their parents. These are not contradictory ideas when we understand that He is not calling for violence against parents but honor. At the same time, He is saying that our ultimate allegiance is not to our parents but to Christ if we are truly His.

Moreover, Christ is simply affirming the New Testament vision of a composite society. Societies prior to the New Testament were sacral. Those in any given culture were seen as loyal to the state as long as they all worshipped at the same shrine. Business was conducted along those lines. Jesus sets forth something completely different. He says that we are to render unto Caesar’s that which is his and we are to render unto God that which is His. We may serve God in the context of a pluralistic society. The church and the state are two different things and we may conduct business with non-Christians. The real issue He is getting at, however, is that Christians will be at odds with society in a number of ways. After all, we are strangers here and our ultimate citizenship is in Heaven. In that sense there is division: a spiritual division that will cost us at times.

Christ and Freedom

It is true that Christ came to set the captives free. Again, that reality has implications for slavery and oppression and legitimate means of working to eliminate such. However, ultimately, again, He is speaking of a spiritual dynamic. Christ declared in Lk. 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”

This is the gospel. Christ came to preach the gospel to those who are poor or humble in spirit, to heal those who are brokenhearted over sin, to proclaim liberty from the bondage of sin and Satan, to recover spiritual eyesight, to set at liberty those who are oppressed by Satan, and to proclaim the dawn of the new order where grace is offered to all now. One comment may be added here in terms of interpretation. If one is to interpret “the poor” as the physically poor, then one must also interpret “the blind” as the physically blind. What are liberation theologians doing about physical blindness? These issues are obviously spiritual.

Certainly the gospel has implications for social ministry. Christ Himself is the Prince of Peace. “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). But, while these things have implications concerning war or even the final state, they refer ultimately to peace between God and man.

Christ and Racism

The gospel alone is that which actually brings people from different nations, socio-economic levels, cultures, ideologies, races, prejudices, genders, etc. together. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).” Violence will not and cannot do that.

Christ and Wisdom

God’s multi-faceted wisdom is on display before the entire universe in the gospel by the church as related to the “neither Jew nor Greek” dynamic. Paul also wrote that God’s purpose of grace and calling upon His life as a preacher of the gospel was “to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” It is God’s multi-colored wisdom manifested as the church breaks down all social, economic, and racial barriers by putting on display before a watching universe the spiritual union and practical unity of the body of Christ despite the members’ diversity. They are one in Christ Jesus. Nothing but God can bring so disparate a group together and make them one in spirit, mind, and purpose.

Christ and Truth

The messiah of black liberation theology is a false messiah. Jesus warned, “Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect (Matt. 24:23-24).” In one sense, the radical form of liberation theology is no different from radical Islamic theology in that hatred and murder are foundational tenets. It is a false gospel that seeks liberation in the here and now only.

Christ and Oppression

Certainly Christ is concerned about oppression and temporal deliverance from such. His gospel is holistic. If He is concerned with eternal salvation, He is concerned with temporal problems as well. James noted that pure and undefiled religion is to help the fatherless and the widows. God castigates those who would oppress the poor. Christians must be concerned about the plight of the outcast. But, that concern flows from the gospel, is connected to the gospel, is a result of gospel influence. It is the practical outworking of the gospel. But, if the focus is on the practical outworking, even in a non-violent way, then there is no gospel, no real motivation other than personal prosperity, that can only lead to a focus on self and this world to the exclusion, ultimately, of a focus on others and happiness in Christ in the world to come.

Christ and Ultimate Things

The point is that Christ is concerned with the plight of the oppressed, but He is concerned with so much more. He is concerned that people be saved for eternity. He is concerned that those who would be liberated from oppression in the here and now would be delivered without violating biblical principles. And, He is concerned with the massive reality that those who are not set free from temporal injustice would bear it with grace for their joy in the glory of God revealed in and through them. Oppression is an arena for God’s glory as His power and grace are on display in the lives of those in that context who know Him as they react differently than those who do not know Him.

Christ and Ethics

Remember, it was the real Lord Jesus Christ who set forth a radically different ethic for believers. “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:44-48).”

Christ taught that we are to love even our enemies. Pagans love those who love them. We have a power outside of ourselves to love our enemies. This power is not present nor is Christ’s teaching present in Liberation Theology. Christ taught us to return good for evil and thereby prove that we are sons of the Father. Common grace, as distinct from saving grace, comes from God and is extended to all. We are to be gracious then and in this sense to others. Our ethic is radically different from those who are not saved. They love those who love them. We love those who do not love us. And, our ethic is radically different from the Liberation Theology ethic. Christ declares that we have a reward for such things and for being His.

Thus, when we are asked to defend our radical ways, and they are radical in this culture, our defense is simple. We emulate our Father in Heaven, not James Cone.

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