Today Reformed Margins is honored to post this guest article from Wong Tian An. Tian An is Malaysian, and a mathematician by trade who is writing a book on an Asian American theology of liberation.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to liberate the oppressed and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Freedom. It is a hallmark of USA patriotism: from the “freedom fries” that were in response to French opposition to the Iraq War, to today’s “freedom gas” or “molecules of U.S. freedom” exported to US allies “as a diverse and affordable source of clean energy.” It is also a deeply biblical theme. From the Exodus from Egyptian slavery, to the freedom for which the Messiah has set us free (Gal 5:1).
Syntactically, the English word liberation captures the biblical theme better. “Freedom” like the Germanic vridom or freiheit tends to evoke autonomy, self-determination, whereas “liberation” from the Latin liberationem or the Spanish liberación, tends to evoke emancipation, the attainment of freedom. With this in mind, consider then that each time the Greek eleutheria appears in the Epistles, it refers to freedom from bondage, from slavery, from oppression. Similarly, the Hebrew root word hofesh that is often used to translated “freedom” is closer to liberación, whereas the more abstract concept of freiheit correlates with the Hebrew word cherut, only found in rabbinical rather than Tanakhic or Old Testament texts. All this to say that when we read “free” in the Bible, we should really think “liberate.” It is for liberation that the Messiah has liberated us.
Of course, it is easy to get mired in word studies, so let me get to the point.
Liberation theology, which appeared in the 1960s and remained popular until the 1980s, still has a bad name in conservative evangelical circles. Its detractors criticize its connections to Marxism, its emphasis on the social rather than individual, and its support for revolutionary movements. It even made the news a decade ago when Obama’s pastor was found to be a proponent of it. But what is it really?
Liberation theology is in fact a shorthand for theologies of liberation. Theologies, because there is no monolithic theology of liberation. The first premise that they each share is that all theology is contextual. That is, hermeneutics not only of the biblical text and context, but also hermeneutics of the present. Taiwanese theologian Shoki Coe first articulated the notion of a contextual theology, a theology that is sensitive to its context. But all theology, including theology that presents itself as universal, is contextual, colored by the social location, language, and cultural biases of its interpreters. This is not an outrageous claim.
The second premise is that the suffering of the oppressed is central to God’s mission in the world, and the liberation from that suffering is the primary task of theology. Who exactly are the oppressed then varies according to context: poor Catholics in Latin American slums, Black communities in the USA, poor non-Christian Asians in the Third World, Palestinians and Native Americans whose lands are occupied, the Dalit or untouchable caste in India, colonized Puerto Ricans, and poor women worldwide. It is important to note that the interpreters of theologies of liberation have all been people of color, indigenous people, or Third World people, and its loudest detractors have been white men in North America and Western Europe. This itself should lead us, who are on the margins, to examine the contexts of those who are speaking on either side.
While liberation theology today is largely an academic subject, we must remember that its original emphasis was on praxis, walking along the way, la caminata. It is a theological reflection on praxis, each informing the other. This is crucial in the context of today, as the world agitates in protests for Black lives, for Indigenous sovereignty, against the rampant sexual abuse in churches, against extreme economic inequality, against inaction towards climate change, and against the exploitation of wage workers. Each of these can be understood as but one aspect of liberation for all, the movement of God in our world.
Who would dare say we are too concerned with the poor? Or with disenfranchised Black communities in the USA? Or with dispossessed indigenous people? Or with the suffering of the abused and exploited and trafficked?
Which one of us has shared a meal with a sex worker lately? Or touched a leper? Or talked with a disabled person? Or defended an adulterer?
Have we taken seriously the first words Jesus uttered on the Mount, blessed are the poor? And James emphasizes the point:
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? […]If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:5–6, 15–17)
This is a stern rebuke to those who claim to the bible literally. And what do we do with Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me? Which of us takes this seriously? The basis of Latin American theology of liberation is the Catholic teaching on the preferential option for the poor.
The tendency is to theologize away too quickly, to interpret Jesus’ actions and teachings as only spiritual rather than total, the spiritual and the social. Liberation theology is caricatured as focusing too much on the social rather than the individual, but in fact the call is to be able to hold both social and individual liberative praxis together. Theologies of liberation do not ask for any formal affiliation or membership, but rather a commitment to the poor, the refugee, the undocumented, the incarcerated, the worker, the trafficked, the racialized.
The gospel that we proclaim is a call to liberation in all its fullness. As Central American and Middle Eastern families seeking refuge from violence and poverty are being separated, starved, drowned, and abused, as fellow Muslims are being banned from the US, jailed in China, massacred in New Zealand, and goaded into war in Iran, what good news do we have to give in the those in the midst of such suffering and violence? Would not our faith die without works? Dare we look away if we are to be followers Jesus?
Where else would Jesus rather have gone?