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What Has Liberation Theology to Say to the Local Church?

By Wale Hudson-Roberts.

Last year, it was 50 years since Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I have a dream…”- seemingly delivered without preparation, possibly prompted by Mahalia Jackson’s cry: “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream”. The speech was an extraordinary one, delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 28th August 1963.

The text has been analysed by many and a variety of conclusions drawn, but at the heart of the ‘Dream speech’ is liberation. The dream is for a liberated black humanity – the racism that burdened black people finally removed. It was a dream for jobs and education – for freedom. In short, what King articulated in Washington to over 250,000 listeners was the best of liberation theology. If liberation theology concerns the liberating of the poor and needy, which it does, then King’s iconic speech made this possible for many black Americans, poor communities and women. It put pressure on Congress to support the Kennedy administration’s Civil Rights Bill, ultimately resulting in the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was this Act that paved the way for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in voting. It also conferred jurisdiction upon the American courts to provide injunctive relief against racial discrimination and establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity. 

This act of liberation, forced into law primarily because of Luther King’s black liberation presentation wrapped up in the ‘Dream speech’, allied with the March into Washington, is one of the many reasons why liberation theology is a hugely respected theology, for it not only has the potential to change lives, but communities and, in the case of America, a nation. Liberation theology is a theology of hope - a study of God through the prism of oppressed communities, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the Gospel, which is Jesus Christ. This is powerfully embodied in the speeches of King, including the most famous of all – “I have a dream...”.

One of Luther King’s admirers, James Cone, defined liberation theology as:

“a rational study of the being of God in the world, in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the Gospel, which is Jesus Christ”. 

Liberation theology is both consistent with the gospel and is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not possible to speak of Israel’s God without recognising that God inhabits the world of the poor – every last inch of it.

A theology that analyzes Christian faith in the light of the oppressed arises from biblical tradition. Israel’s election, for example, is inseparable from the exodus experience: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples.’[1] 

The passage is clear. Its message unequivocal - God is on the side of the disenfranchised. His quest is their liberation. The Israelite story presents a God committed to the Israelites’ condition. The rise of Old Testament prophecy is due to the lack of justice within the community. The prophets of Israel are relentless in presenting the truth of God to power, reminding the oppressed that God seeks their liberation.

Indeed, the same theme is reaffirmed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The challenge to Roman hegemony and the locating of his ministry among the very poor in society, confirm that his work was for the liberation of the poor. If Israel’s history and the New Testament description of Jesus reveal that God is a God on the side of Israel – the oppressed community – then the resurrection of Jesus means that all oppressed peoples can become his people. This means the resurrection is not exclusive to the House of Israel – it is for all, oppressor and oppressed.

There are a number of sources that inform liberation theology. Interestingly, the three sources mentioned below are included in most of Luther King’s speeches, which underscores their importance. I would go so far as to say that, if today’s church is to understand and feel the rhythm and impact of liberation theology for the 21st century, grasping these sources with the heart is imperative. 

Experience

Liberation theology cannot speak of God and God’s involvement in the contemporary world without first identifying God’s presence with the events of liberation - sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and so on. Gustavo Gutierrez hit the nail on the head when he said that “liberation theology has its origins in the reality of the premature and unjust death of many people”. Indeed, liberation theology embraces the total human experience, including those who live with the rats and mice, who listen to dub, jazz, and rap, live in subways and ghettos, experience rape and shootings, and merciless exclusion. Liberation theology maintains that the entire gamut of the human experience matters to God. Its starting point is not the corridors of academia, but the shanty towns of Latin America and South Africa.

History

African and Caribbean history is a history of enslavement. Colonisers defined blacks as non-persons, sub-humans, without soul or feeling. Black mothers would rather kill their babies than see them grow up as slaves. The African Methodist Episcopal Church and traditional Baptist churches were visible expressions of liberation theology. Liberation theology – in this instance, black liberation theology – focused on black history as a source for its theological interpretation of the world. The message it conveys to those in the Global South is simple and profound: our bloody history matters to God. Yet despite a chequered history, God is in love with our humanity, culture, tradition and history.  

Scripture

Liberation theology is a biblical theology. Scripture is taken seriously in theological discourse, even though the Bible is not the revelation of God – only Jesus is. It is, nevertheless, an indispensible witness to God’s revelation and is a primary source for Christian thinking and reflection about God. It is the biblical witness that reinforces the liberating attitudes and acts of God. The Bible reminds us that the word became flesh - vulnerable with the vulnerable, weak with the weak, and poor with the poor. However, the same Bible reminds us of the importance of a black liberation theology: a theology deeply rooted in the history of the ‘significant other’ – a precursor to liberation.

A black theology of liberation

According to an official statement of the National Conference of Black Churchmen[2] issued in June 1969 (the same year in which Cone first published his Black Theology and Black Power):

“Black theology is a theology of liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the Gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity. Black theology is a theology of ‘blackness’. It is the affirmation of black humanity that emancipates black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people. It affirms the humanity of white people in that it says No to the encroachment of white oppression.”

Cone and Wilmore define it in the following terms.

“Black theology, therefore, is that theology which arises out of the need to articulate the religious significance of the black presence in a hostile white world. Its black people reflecting on the black experience under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, attempting to redefine the relevance of the Christian Gospel for their lives.”

I am grateful to the likes of Anthony Reddie, Robert Beckford, Kate Coleman, Dwight Hopkins and Delores Williams for introducing me to a theology that is worked out in the shanty towns of Latin America, land struggles in Africa, and humiliated groups in Australia and New Zealand. I might be wrong, but liberation theology (black and Asian theologies) did not feature on the curriculum in any great depth in the college I trained at. European theology appeared to be the norm. The difference between the two is simple. European theology has been more interested in thinking about and explaining the truth of faith. Liberation theology runs parallel to real life and is in relationship with it. In short, this means that commitment to the poor becomes the space in which theological engagement and revelation can take place.

Black liberation theology is a way of doing theology rather than being a theology. The latter contrasts with much of the theology that has emerged in the last two centuries centred on university or theological institutions, with the priority placed on intellectual discourse detached from everyday reality. For me and other students of colour, theology would have been even more lively and creative if seen with an understanding of the concrete manifestation of revelation in the black and ethnic minority community.

Post college, I learnt that Black theology connects the reality of blackness with the sacred talk of God, and God’s relationship with black history, culture, and tradition. It is a subversive theology, an action-based theology about a God that seeks to respond to the racism experienced by people of colour. Within the Christian framework are the concepts of liberation and the person of Jesus Christ.  It is a Christocentric movement. The two are in relationship.

Jesus was pivotal in Sam Sharpe’s model of black theology. Sharpe was a Baptist deacon who initiated one of the largest rebellions against slavery in the Caribbean, when he and others fought for their freedom in the Christmas period of 1831. This early model of black theology can be seen in Sharpe’s conviction that Jesus was a liberator, according to Anthony Reddie, and seeks the liberation of all humanity. Reddie goes further. He argues that:

“long before the great liberation theologian Jon Sobrino wrote his landmark text Jesus the liberator, enslaved Africans were already working with an acute, practical, experiential theological framework attuned to their existential realities – albeit not written down in the form of a systematic theology.”

Disappointing, as it was, not to have been exposed to such theologies and people, it did not take long to appreciate that the multicultural church I was pastoring in North London needed to know that Jesus was the liberator of all, not some.

Jesus the liberator (Mark 11.15-19)

For many years I had been taught that Jesus’ dramatic demonstration at the Temple was purely a religious act. It meant, so I was taught, that he was decrying its lack of spirituality, or he was protesting commercialisation of its worship practices, or he was angry at the rogue money changers for overcharging worshippers. Thanks in part to Liberation theology I have learnt to read the biblical text and interpret the world through different cultural lenses, which includes Mark’s narrative.

What seems to have been simply a burst of outrage against wayward merchants was much more: it was a public attack aimed at Israel’s centre of power. It was an act of liberation. Mark’s Gospel makes this clear. Jesus did not only attack the money changers and dove sellers, but he and his followers also seized the Temple grounds and halted commercial operations. This was because the Temple did not treat persons created in the image of God with respect and dignity. Like Jeremiah, Jesus was compelled to invoke God’s judgement upon the temple.

Mark tells us that Jesus returned to the Temple the day after the demonstrations, filled with outrage at the exploitation of his people. Mark then recounts that, of all the areas of the Temple Jesus could have chosen, he chose to place himself opposite the Temple treasury, watching “many rich people putting in large sums.”[3] Jesus took the opportunity to repudiate the system when he observed the poor widow make her own meagre contribution to an institution liable to exclude her if she did not give. His public condemnation of the Temple for its role in the impoverishment of the widow, shows it to be guilty of one of the worst sins in the Hebrew Bible – the mistreatment of the needy widow – and also one of the sins Jeremiah said would result in the Temple’s destruction.[4]

Through his demonstration at the Temple Jesus sought not only to mystify the power of the Temple authorities, but to empower and liberate the people to resist those in charge.  It is no wonder the priests “kept looking for a way to kill him”.[5] Jesus was giving voice to the feelings the people had long held in silence. By invoking the Temple’s destruction, he brought the authority of the priesthood and legitimacy of the Temple into question. Jesus the liberator gave a voice to the voiceless. Jesus articulated the people’s unspoken anger; the silent words of the oppressed were given life in the words and actions of Jesus. For the many that could not be heard, Jesus empowered them by giving them the gift of hearing their tongues spoken by a man who was familiar with their culture, traditions, experience, thoughts and sorrows, which should and can be the role of the church – to give voice to those who have no voice.

Church as liberator

In my opinion, three of the great Baptist liberation theologians were George Liele, Moses Baker and Sam Sharpe. Born in Virginia, emancipated slave George Liele became a Christian in Georgia (1773) before becoming the first African American to be ordained as minister within the Baptist church. When Liele first arrived in Jamaica he baptised 400 people and built a church membership of over 450 mostly enslaved Africans. Liele was banned from preaching by the Jamaican Assembly, having been charged with “uttering dangerous and seditious words”. Even though Liele had been banned from ministering, his work continued during his imprisonment and following his death through his heir and co-labourer Moses Baker.

When Liele was imprisoned, Baker led the church. By 1806, Baker claimed to have 3,000 members who saw him as their leader, which encouraged him to embark on a plan to formulate a Christian theology that reflected the experience, culture, and traditions of the people that he cared for. For instance, his theological focus was on the Holy Spirit, an easily accepted and understood dogma among Africans. Members were required to be ‘possessed by the Spirit’ before they could be baptised, possession coming through dreams, brought about through spiritual fasts. In other words, Baker attempted to liberate the church by inculturating the gospel, with Christian practices expressed in an African way. Interestingly, this expression of a liberation theology played out in the church was strongly criticised by European church leaders who described it as a form of syncretism, with practices akin to African religion which had nothing, or at best little, do to with Christianity. As far as they were concerned, it was not worship in the Christian sense. Rather it was a form of spirit contact, voodoo, pocomania.

Despite the opposition, native Baptists developed their own Baptist hymnbook, restored the worship of God as a holistic practice, concerned about the political and spiritual aspects of their lives. Typical of the choruses they sang in those days were: ‘We shall be slaves no more’, ‘Since Christ has made us free’, ‘Has nailed our tyrants to the cross, and bought our liberty’.

It was Sam Sharpe, a Baptist deacon and enslaved person who played an important role in the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2, and built on the legacy of Liele and Baker.  The ‘sit down strike’ against slavery – which saw the execution of more than 500 people, including Sam Sharpe – is recognised by historians and theologians of having a powerful influence on the process leading to the abolition of slavery. The story is of a Baptist Christian whose actions were obviously motivated by his faith and reading of scripture. He is reported to have said, “in reading my Bible, I found that the white man had no more right to make a slave of me than I have to make a slave of the white man.”  He remains a witness to the principle of ‘liberation from below,’ that is, true liberation comes when those who are oppressed participate in making their own freedom and justice, which must be the business of the church.

The church is the community that participates in Jesus Christ’s liberating work in history, which therefore calls for the following:

1. To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what the writer of Matthew had in mind when he recorded the words of Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age”.[6]  Gospel preaching in the 21st century means confronting the world with the reality of Christian freedom and liberation and reminding oppressed communities that they are free in Christ. This is what Sam Sharpe did when he reminded oppressed communities that Christ sees them as free!

2. The church shares in the liberation struggle. It intentionally participates in the struggle of the asylum seeker and refugee, the homeless and prostitute, the disabled and women. The church is the community, therefore, that lives on the basis of radical demands of the Gospel by making the gospel message a social, economic and political reality. Its mission is the liberation of the poor, but not without its participation in their struggle. To walk in the moccasins of another is not an easy exercise. It calls for a measure of vulnerability and humility; a willingness to temporarily shed dignity and clothe oneself with indignity. This is hard stuff, yet if the church is to be a liberating force, giving dignity to those with zero self-esteem and empowering the disempowered, it has first to be participators in the pain, struggle and reality of others in order to know how to provide pastoral care, and eventually liberation.

3. Our ministers, and perhaps especially Baptist ministers, must tap into their historical roots and replicate something of the theology and behaviour of the likes of George Liele, Sam Sharpe, William Knibbs and other worthies. I was raised on the bland Jesus of Sunday school, the meek and mild Jesus who told us in a nice, passive, sentimental way to love our enemies; and who assured us that we need not worry about our troubles, just bring them to him and all should be well. This Jesus was gentle, serene and non-threatening. His main concern, I was taught, was to get the believers into heaven. That was the Jesus I knew and loved. Reinforcing that perception were the renderings of him in my church, home, and the homes of relatives and friends. The images of the blue eyed Jesus with his head tilted, soft hands bent limply in prayer, eyes downcast or beautifully turned upward, but never so strong to look anyone in the eye. Then there was the famous blue-eyed Jesus by Warner Sallman – the portrayal of the most gentle of kings. I had to divest myself from much of this to engage with Jesus the political and theological revolutionary. To say that Jesus was a political revolutionary is to say that the message he proclaimed not only called for individual change, but demanded sweeping change in the political, social and economic structures in his setting - colonised Israel. It means that, if Jesus had his way, the ruling elites among his own people would either have less power or conduct themselves differently. It means that an important goal of the ministry of Jesus was to radically change the dynamics of power so that ‘the least of these’ might have lives free of enforced hunger and poverty. I am aware of how difficult it is for a church to embrace the liberating Christ. It does call for a paradigm shift, but if the minister responsible for souls of the church is able to make the first step and gently and carefully educate and love the church, over time there might be the possibility of change.

[1] Exodus 19: 4-5

[2] Why Black Theology, June 13, 1969

[3] Mark 12: 41

[4] Jeremiah 7:6

[5] Mark 11:18

[6] Matthew 28:19-20

Wale Hudson-Roberts

Racial justice co-ordinator of the Baptist Union

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You are reading What Has Liberation Theology to Say to the Local Church? by Wale Hudson-Roberts, part of Issue 60 of Ministry Today, published in April 2014.

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