Thursday, May 31, 2012

Liberation Theology and Whippoorwills

Wednesday’s ChurchandWorld linked to an article in the New York Times, “A Campaign Pitch Rekindles the Question: Just What Is Liberation Theology?” The author, Mark Oppenheimer mainly focuses on Jeremiah Wright and the Black liberationist theologian James Cone. But he does bring in other liberationist theologies including womanist theology and mujerista theologies both feminist theologies which could be grouped under liberation theology. But Oppenheimer’s take on liberation theology is rather sentimental and unscholarly. He writes:

Contrary to the simplifications of the past four years, liberation theology, which has become hugely influential, teaches not hate, nor anti-Americanism, but a renewed focus on the poor and the suffering, as embodied by Jesus.
Well, it does in a sense do that, but still, most Christian theology includes a focus on the poor and suffering. Think of Mother Teresa, none have cared for the poor with more zeal, but she was not involved in what is called liberation theology. And really some liberationist theologians are very anti-American seeing America as the evil empire or even the beast.

Several years ago I wrote a paper on liberation theology. So in some sense it may be slightly dated, but I am going to post it here although it is fairly long.


Often, my granddaughter, Melissa, after visiting, leaves me a small picture she has drawn, or a poem or essay she has just composed. Recently I found written on a small yellow piece of paper:

          Why, Why?
           Does the whippoorwill cry?
          Or the cat at the late moon
          When all is fine
          On mouse he’ll dine,
          Or maybe, on whippoorwill.

At first I saw this as just a fun ditty, but pondering deeper these verses merged with a lot of information I have been reading about liberation theology and the small ditty took on a deeper meaning. The cat and the whippoorwill have something in common; they are both touched by the horrendous fall of humanity. They suffer from the pangs of humanity’s sin. (Of course the mouse does too!) We are sure of why the whippoorwill is crying; he is going to die in the mouth of the cat. Perhaps the cat, red in tooth and claw, wails, because he is the one who will kill the whippoorwill. But what does this have to do with liberation theology?

First some explanations about liberation theology: Liberation theology had some of its early beginnings in the Afro-American struggle for equal rights. But that movement and its main spokesperson, Martin Luther King Jr., did not really provide the main tenets of liberation theology. They did open the door for the whole church to understand that poverty and loss of freedom should and could be addressed by the Christian faith. Not really a new idea, but one that needed to be renewed in the United States.

The basics of liberation theology can be found in the Christian movements against repressive governments in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s.[1] The most basic understanding of the various liberation movements, as Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson state, is that liberation theologians insist, “theology must be intrinsically linked with a specific social and cultural situation.” While this particular kind of contextual theology could lead to relativism, Grenz and Olson explain that liberation theologians hold a mediating view as a shield against relativism, but one that links liberation thought to Marxist thought. That is, “In order to rise above the self-enclosed ‘knowledge’ of class and race interest, people can and must exercise ‘critical consciousness’ or ‘dialectical thinking.’” Grenz and Olson explain:
This means that each person must gain awareness of one’s own vested interests and subject them to scrutiny and criticism. By becoming suspicious and critical (dialectical) in relation to the dominant thought-forms of one’s own culture, a person’s knowledge can rise above the social-environmental conditioning[2].
Grenz and Olson point out that within this system it is believed that all knowledge arises out of the “conditioning process of the social environment,” including theological knowledge. Therefore, even theological viewpoints are something to critique and rise above. Within this system absolutes in theology are often seen as detrimental.

Since such knowledge is bound up with the “unique situation,” of the knower a different theology is required for each situation and it arises from the experiences of the people. According to Grenz and Olsen all liberation theologies are “contextual,” and therefore not “universal.”[3] In this scenario the theology of Martin Luther, the German Reformation leader, may not apply to South East Asia; the theology of John Calvin may not apply to Ghana.

For instance Sara Hurtado Rogers reported in a letter on the web site of The Institute for Theological Education of Bahia, concerning the course, ‘Women Doing Theology,’ that the class, “examined a variety of myths and ideologies, deconstructing those that suppressed them . . . and celebrating those that empowered and continue to empower them.” [4]

Linked to the understanding of theology as knowledge growing out of cultural experience, is an understanding that when doing theology, “praxis”(action) precedes reflection. One acts for the poor and oppressed and then reflects on the meaning of the action in the light of God’s word. This is in opposition to reflecting on God’s word and then allowing its light to shine on the needs of the poor as well as the action of those who are assisting the poor.[5]

Additionally, many liberation theologians insist one only encounters God in action on behalf of the poor and oppressed or even simply, one is encountered by God in the poor and oppressed. This can be seen in the movie The Mission. Robert De Niro plays a degenerate slave trader who has killed his own brother. In repentance he carries his pack of armor up the steep terrains of the jungle where a young tribe member finally releases him from his burden.

For the Evangelical Christian the young South American Indian becomes a metaphor for the work of Christ who has both saved the slave trader and reconciled him to his former enemy. For the liberation theologian the encounter with the young man is the actual means of salvation. The slave trader can only find release in the actions of a potential slave. This too often places humanity above Christ.

If the oppressed poor are the essential subjects of liberation theology, then their oppression is the central focus of liberation theology’s view of evil and sin. Generally such evil is seen as a corporate entity, not individual sin. With some links to Marxist ideology, most liberation theologians have usually focused on capitalism and corporations when explaining the causes of poverty and oppression in poorer nations and among oppressed peoples.

However, there are those liberationists who hold to a very biblical view of individual sin. Martyr, Oscar Romero, wrote in 1977, “When we preach the Lord’s word, we decry not only the injustices of the social order. We decry every sin that is night, that is darkness: drunkenness, gluttony, lust, adultery, abortion, everything that is the reign of iniquity and sin. Let them all disappear from our society.”[6]

However, at present, according to most liberation thinkers, globalization is the tarnished arch that holds together the evil empire of capitalism. Novelist, Paule Marshall, gives an example of sin and evil expressed as capitalism and corporations in, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. She pictures a hog butchering in a small island nation whose people, in the past, were oppressed by slave traders and are, in the present, oppressed by foreign corporations. The old sow becomes a symbol for the greed of empires and corporations as well as a sacrifice meant to appease, not the wrath of God, but the wrath of the people. The hog is described as “enormous.” Marshall writes:
In its younger days it had been known throughout Spiretown as a thief and aggressor because of the habit it had of breaking out of its pen and invading other person’s yards, where it would not only set itself up as the supreme authority over the pigs and chickens, but would appropriate whatever it found there that was edible, battening on it until its stomach sagged.[7]
The story becomes a complete deconstruction of religious symbols and meaning. The pig is the sacrifice, the people show wrath against the dead sow, cursing it, and tearing off its hair in “savage fistfuls.” And one of the main characters, Saul, a Jew, finds a kind of redemptive feeling in the sacrifice of the pig and the actions of the people. In the story he mulls over his feelings about the hog killing:
And in the midst of all the things that had disturbed him about the pig-sticking, there had been beneath the violence of the act an affirmation of something age-old, a sense of renewal, which had left him exhilarated, in a high mood.” He saw himself as an old bowl, “He was as cracked and chipped, as flawed, but scoured clean, a vessel into which new wine could be poured.[8]
While the political and religious views of liberation theologians are widely debated among theologians, liberationists at least can be praised for insisting that God cares for the poor and that Christians are responsible for the poor and oppressed.[9] There are, however, several serious flaws in their theology and that leads back to the crying whippoorwill and the wailing cat. The cat and the whippoorwill, as well as the mouse, are waiting for the final redemption that delivers them from a corrupted creation, corrupted by the sin of humanity. They are wailing and crying for the final redemption of the children of God.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8: 19-24 NRSV)

Corruption has to do with more than the sin of corporations and empires, for their sins are, themselves, a symptom of individual sin. The decay of society is caused by fallen humanity; by the inner corruption that alienates each of us from a holy God. We are all individuals in rebellion against God. Since sin begins with individuals, the unique Son of God, through his death and resurrection, overcomes sin in the lives of individuals. For, even though together we become, in Christ, the Church and the one body of Christ, we are each called individually to Christ. In Christ we are restored to God and then to our brothers and sisters.

Because liberation theology often does not call for the redemption and transformation of the individual person, it carries the seeds of furthering evil. Movements, meant even for the oppressed and poor, filled with unredeemed individuals, who believe a utopia is possible because of human potential and goodness, have often grown into monstrosities. Religious history is cluttered with the remains.

The modern phenomenon of Jonestown, whose leader forced its members to commit suicide, and the nineteenth century perfectionist community, Oneida, whose members practiced free sex as a means of negating their attachment to any material thing or person, are examples of small religious communities whose leader’s ignorance or denial of both human sin and God’s redemption caused horrible suffering. [10]

The rise of Communism and its disastrous consequences is the major contemporary picture of a utopia meant for the poor and oppressed, which in turn oppressed and made poor because of human sin. It seems the cat is always waiting to eat the whippoorwill although they both are crying and wailing because of sin.

Moreover, the emergence of expanding hierarchical bureaucracies within mainline churches in the west, whose leadership often espouse some features of liberation theology mixed with the norms of western culture add to a constant deteriorating vision of Christ’s kingdom. The deterioration comes because they also reject most biblical and orthodox theology in its expressions of sin and redemption. There is no biblical, hence no real prophetic substance coming from such leadership. With only a focus on rights from a secular point of view, and sin as a corporate entity, the uniqueness and holiness of the kingdom is worn away.

Sometimes even sin prevails as “Christian” in the bureaucratic system. For instance, while the Presbyterian Church USA often focuses on rights that are culturally acceptable, e.g., the rights of the poor or the rights of women, etc. the rights of the unborn are ignored. Ignored despite past calls for the life of the unborn by Christians as diverse and as devout as Dietrich Bonhoeffer [11], Elizabeth Achtemeier, Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa. Liberation theology emptied of biblical substance and pushed as merely social agendas can and in some cases is becoming a foundation for ‘mere politics’ rather than a theology for the oppressed.

Additionally, theologians, who are open to reformulating, from experience, the person of Christ to meet the complexity of situations, rather than seeking answers in God’s word, are on shaking ground. Jesus Christ cares for the poor, his parables often show concern for the poor, (Luke 16:19-31) and in the Gospels he even equates himself with the poor, (Matt 25:31-46) but he does not place the poor or the oppressed in the position of being the door that opens the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather Christ offers himself as both the door and the Shepherd who watches over the sheep.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. . . I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and go in and out and find pasture. . . . I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (John 10: 7, 9, 11).”

Here Romero also concurs, devoutly, with the more biblical view. He writes:
It would be worthless to have an economic liberation in which all the poor had their own house, their own money, but were all sinners, their hearts estranged from God. What good would it be? There are nations at present that are economically and socially quite advanced, for example those of Northern Europe, and yet how much vice and excess! The Church will always have its word to say: conversion. Progress will not be completed even if we organize ideally the economy and the political and social orders of our people. It won’t be entire with that. That will be the basis, so that it can be completed by what the church pursues and proclaims: God adored by all, Christ acknowledged as only Savior, deep joy of spirit in being at peace with God and with our brothers and sisters.[12]
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus sitting as King, and as Son of Man, puts the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. He calls the sheep blessed by the Father and tells them “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (34).” He commends them for having fed the hungry, offering hospitality to the stranger, clothing the poor, and visiting those in prison. And he tells them they have done this as though he himself was the recipient.

John Calvin, equating these passages with Ezekiel 34:18, is careful to remind the reader that these verses do not imply that salvation is earned by charitable works. He writes of verse thirty-four, “but before speaking of the reward of good works, he [Jesus] points out, in passing, that the commencement of salvation flows from a higher source; for by calling them blessed of the Father, he reminds them, that their salvation proceeded from the undeserved favor of God. Among the Hebrews the phrase blessed of God means one who is dear to God, or beloved by God.”[13]

It is the ones blessed of God or dear to God who will feed the hungry, offer hospitality, cloth the poor and visit those in prison. The one belonging to Jesus Christ turns their attention first to Christ and his word, and in that relationship turns their attention to the needy of the world. It cannot be otherwise or the needy will be harmed.

Finally, the Church of Christ, those who belong to Jesus, in the midst of caring for the oppressed and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, wait for the final and ultimate coming of the kingdom of God. They wait for their Lord. And so does the whippoorwill, the cat and the mouse.

Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
(Titus 2:13, 14)

1 Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, 20-th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1992), 212.

2 Ibid., 214-15.

3Ibid.,, 215.

4 Letters of Sara Hurtado Rogers at,

5 Grenz & Olson, 20-th Century Theology, 219-20. and, H.M. Conn, “Liberation Theology, New Dictionary of Theology, Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, editors, J.I. Packer, consulting editor, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1988), 387-391.

6 Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Words of Oscar Romero, trans., James R. Brockman, forward, Henri Nouwen, reprint, (London: Fount Paperbacks, Collins 1989) 13.

7Paule Marshall, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, reprint (New York: 1969, New York: Vintage Books, Random House 1992) 252-53.

8 Ibid., 259.

9 See Grenz & Olson for a very helpful assessment of all the problems connected to Liberation Theology. 222-224.

10 For an excellent article featuring the Oneida community, see: Frederica Mathews-Green, “The Oneida Experiment: What We Have Discovered About Not –So-Free Love,” found in Gender: Man, Women, Sex, Feminism, published by Conciliar Press, also article in Touchstone, November, 2002, and at

11 “Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Eberhard Bethge, editor, Neville Horton Smith, Trans., Macmillan Paperback Edition 1965, eleventh printing, (New York: Macmillan Publishing 1975), 175-6.

12 Romero, Violence of Love, 10.

13 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 3, trans, Rev. William Pringle, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids at

Picture by Melissa Tregilgas


will spotts said...

Very interesting piece.

I notice something here. When Grenz and Olsen discuss a mediating factor - critical consciousness - they overlook a very crucial point. Their posture of 'critical consciousness' becomes the dominant thought-form of their created community. It takes on its own vested interests, and must therefore be itself regarded critically - in short, overcome.

This is a difficult concept to put into words, but the implied self (cultural) criticism remains the criticism of the other because the critic, by her or his critical posture, steps out of the culture. Judging culture rightly presumes the judge is above the culture. When the human agent attempts this he or she only moves into a new culture / subculture that imagines itself above culture. It is, therefore, no guard against either relativism or self-interest.

Will Spotts
North East, MD

Viola Larson said...

Will, you are right in that, it (critical consciousness) must be regarded critically. But Grenz and Olsen are not arguing for liberation theology they are just explaining it.

Your thought that judging culture presumes you are outside the culture is the very heart of the problem. That is why the revelation of the Scriptures is so important and why God's direction or judgment through his word on our actions must come before our actions.

No critical consciousness isn’t a guard against relativism but the ideologies of the nineteenth century including Marxism were considered absolutes—so they were suppose to overcome relativism. A false assumption at best.

will spotts said...

I figured that, but their presentation didn't seem to consider that. Obviously I'm also commenting on a tiny quote.