Liberation theology gets improperly defined and beaten up on a regular basis. Some complain that it ignores the spiritual element, ignores Jesus as savior, and tries to ignore sin. It’s fairly easy to make this case out of the Bible. There is, after all, Romans 13, in which Paul tells Christians to submit to the authorities, or the experience of Peter as he is told to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21). Generally interpreters miss the irony in that one.
They also miss the pure politics of Romans 13. In this case Christians are hoping for the protection of Rome. The Roman authorities are the ones who are more favorable to Christians. We tend to think of them strictly as persecutors, but at the time the letter to the Romans was written, Rome was the best hope of Christians for protection.
On the other side, it would be easy to point out the many cases in the Bible in which people refuse to obey the authorities. Slavery, for example, was clearly Egyptian law when the Israelites left under Moses. The Israelites than entered Canaan as illegal immigrants and began a crime spree, or so I imagine the Canaanite perspective might be. But the higher powers all over were very annoyed by what God’s people did.
While David respected the person of Saul as God’s anointed, he wasn’t at all opposed to violated all kinds of laws and customs, and was even prepared to fight for his Philistine masters. Prophet after prophet stood up to power and some of them died for it. The apostles, when told not to preach, were not subject to the higher powers. Instead, they told the authorities that they should obey God rather than man.
Law and custom has repeatedly been used in opposition to liberation. One could point out in the early 19th century that slavery was according to the law, but liberators chose not to obey the law–they obeyed God rather than human beings. During the civil rights movements there were many laws and customs that were discriminatory and just plain wrong. The folks who brought liberty were not the ones who said, “It’s the law.” They were the ones who said, “The law is wrong.” They proceeded to break those immoral laws.
When Jesus spoke in Nazareth and quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 “liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:16-21). Generally, established governments don’t like it much when you liberate their captives. They think their captives are captive for a reason. Those who preach liberty and mean it are often not popular with the powers that be, because they are preaching liberty to people that government thinks should be captive.
Liberation theology was sometimes abused. It is easy to become a liberator with no theology, to free men’s bodies and forget about their souls. If the church becomes that kind of liberator, then we’re merely another social organization, except that we carry a lot more baggage. We can also become stupid in the way in which we liberate. Many would-be liberators either become oppressors themselves or enable actual oppressors through their lack of good sense. A number of left-wing liberators have fallen into that trap.
But Christianity has a much greater tendency, I believe, to fall into the trap of becoming an arm of the government. We like the status quo, and we produce theology that helps keep it established. And unless the laws we support are so absolutely just that they deserve the backing of a divine mandate, tragedy often results. In the same way when a truly moral crusade receives the backing of state force, it will often go astray.
In America I think we have tied both the gospel and its liberating power far too much to a particular political process. We should comment on politics, we should be a prophetic conscience for our politicians, but we should not allow ourselves, as a church body (in the broadest sense) to become identified with particular parties and institutions. Our consciences cannot be in the pay of established power.
A liberating theology, in my view, provides a divine mandate to hold everyone’s feet to the fire and demand that they live a life worthy of the gospel. When torture happens, we should be like the ten plagues on Egypt, until people are let go, are treated with dignity and respect. When we see oppression, we should be there to proclaim liberty. Our theology should continually challenge our society to be better than it is.
I think that is what Martin Luther King did to us in the 50s and 60s, and it is what the church needs to do today. No person, no society is so right and so good that it does not need the annoyance of a sensitive conscience, speaking to it prophetically.