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Ancient Israel was said to be a specially favored nation because it sought to follow a god that cares for and loves people. For a time, this belief was put into practice as Jews built a society of equality and freedom. As time passed, however, many Jews, like all people, turned to the dark side of their souls and began to favor wealth, luxury and ease all at the expense of fellow Jews. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah spoke strongly to his fellow Jews about that attitude, “This is the kind of religious practice I want from you, let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.”
A prophet at that time was a person who speaks the wisdom of God. In many ways, contemporary prophets like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke what they perceived to be the heart of universal goodness. Jesus is perhaps the model prophet and his teaching was focused primarily on living true to the universal ideals of compassion, justice and serving others. As he famously said, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…whatever you did not do for one of the least of your brothers and sisters, you did not do for me.” Jesus clearly equates great sin with a lack of concern for the marginalized.
History’s great prophets have therefore challenged people to act according to what is universally considered good – to think less of the self, to be humble, gentle and, above all, others focused. For most prophets, the primary sin at work in our world is human pride and selfishness. Sins of greed and indifference toward the poor, sick and oppressed are major concerns of prophets and they were emphatically condemned by them. Common to prophetic thinking is a desire to liberate those who suffer and who are treated poorly by power elites. Great prophets have throughout history sought to change greed prone human society into one liberated by a god force of universal ethics.
As I have sought this month – and as I hope you have also pondered – there are multiple ways to consider what constitutes theology. Under traditional religious thinking, theology is concerned with a philosophy of god as a supernatural, other-worldly being. But just as secular philosophies have evolved over the ages, so too have ideas about god. Theology need no longer only imply a study of God as a grey bearded puppet master determining our lives and our after-life destiny. This month I’ve looked at Pantheism as an alternate theology. Last week, I also looked at Civic theology as a non-religious understanding of American political and Presidential speech about god. In both of those cases, god is not a literal being but rather a an abstract concept and an embodiment of social justice ideals. For today, I assert that another theology about god is a both an abstract concept that is also a liberating one. A little ‘g’ god is found not only in the universe of things. God is found in the hopes, dreams and suffering of the poor and marginalized. God is found in work to liberate humanity both of greed, AND of poverty. God, in this sense, is a force for social change.
We know that many people around the world are not granted equal access to basic resources or to the universal freedoms of opportunity, life and happiness. The dark side of the human soul leads many to take more than their fair share, to be arrogant, haughty and indifferent. The dark side of the human soul leads some to demean and restrain others so that their lives can operate based on one’s selfish terms – for one’s personal benefit and according to one’s personal beliefs. If that means others are denied their innate human rights, so be it.
That leads me to my third “different theology” in this September message series – a different theology that speaks of a liberating God. This theology is a modern one begun in the 1950’s in Latin America by Catholic Priests who saw the stark disparity between the extremely rich and the terribly poor. But these Priests also knew the teachings of Jesus and other prophets who said the heart of the Divine is with those who suffer. Such a theology is often derided by orthodox Christians as being heresy. It is derided by many politicians and elites as socialist and more like Marxism than religion. These are false accusations born more of fear than of truth. The clear reality of liberation theology is that it clearly reflects the teachings of both Old Testament prophets and of Jesus who acted as social and spiritual change agents. Indeed, liberation theology, I assert, is more closely aligned to the teachings of Jesus than any other theology I have studied. Jesus was born poor. He lived as a working class poor man. He hung out with everyday people and made a special effort to befriend outcasts. He was a radical who dared to challenge arrogant and hypocritical religious and political elites. The heart of God, he implicitly taught over and over again, is focused not on money, wealth or power. It is to insure all people, especially those who hurt, have the basic rights and needs of life.
This liberating god is one that dramatically re-defines and reinterprets traditional theologies about God. This is a little ‘g’ god of justice totally different from a supernatural god of most Christian or Jewish churches and synagogues. A liberating god is solely concerned about injustice in the world created by human sin. This god favors the poor and imparts its special, I repeat special, grace on them and on others who are oppressed. According to one of the foremost of liberation theologians, John Sobrino – who is also a Jesuit Priest, “The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the gospel and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else.”
While orthodox Christians widely dislike this theology because it threatens their own selfish perception of God’s grace, it is a fundamentally true understanding about how and why the poor are attracted to a god force of hope. Only by finding oneself without any hope and without any opportunity does one turn to a god of mercy and justice. This is a god of brokenness much like a crucified Jesus. Only those who are poor in spirit, broken and without the comforts and necessities of life can truly humble themselves before a force greater than themselves. This is the liberating god celebrated by African-American slaves, of poor farmers in Latin America who flock to charismatic churches, and of contemporary Hispanics, immigrants and blacks who, lacking the comforting cocoon of privilege, turn to a type of religion that tells them they are worthy and deserving of justice.
This liberating god is therefore not one for the after-life but rather one for the here and now – consistent with the declaration by Jesus that the kingdom of god is at hand. This kingdom is one concerned with present day matters of mercy and universal human rights. God is concerned with right now and right here. He or she is not sitting and waiting in some other-worldly place.
Even more important, a liberating god force is not concerned with doctrine, dogma or beliefs. It is focused solely on deeds and practice. Echoing the words found in the Biblical book of James, it is a theology that emphasizes works of service and compassion. James tells us that any belief without corresponding good deeds is an empty belief. How many theologies, religions and churches today are essentially empty? As written in the book of James, faith without works is dead. A liberating god, while not being a supernatural being, is nevertheless one totally focused on good works. Show me your good works, James wrote, and I will show you true godliness. This is a theology put into practice versus a theology that merely talks. To use latin derived words, it is orthopraxy versus orthodoxy, right practice versus right belief. A liberating god force is the expression of love as it is worked out by doing good instead of by piously preaching about it.
According to Duke University Divinity School professor Frederick Herzog, liberation theology is far removed from the ivory tower of academia, philosophy and the study of Scripture. As he says, “it carves out the truth in toil and sweat in the midst of conflict.” That conflict, he says, comes as the poor and marginalized confront sin that is found in this world – the sins of greed, power, and arrogance. The oppressed, Herzog claims, are liberated and saved as they understand their lot in life is not to simply endure suffering until an after-life of heaven. It is to seek and demand right now the rights taken from them.
Those who already have the comforts of life are also liberated and symbolically saved when they have their own epiphany – that to be good and righteous in this life, to be a person who acts according to a liberating god force, one must serve, share and care for others. This is not a simple noblesse oblige paternalism by those who have. It is not handing out a few crumbs to the have nots. It is a fundamental shift in outlook and practice. One’s theology and philosophy about god and life is no longer seen through a prism of individualism – what is in it for me in this life and how will I be rewarded in the afterlife. Instead, we live for a higher purpose to help realize a type of heaven on earth for everyone.
Liberation theology is therefore difficult to believe and practice. It asks each person to awaken to what defines god, goodness and love. It asks for sacrifice, for unconditional love, for humility in those with status and money. We cannot say we are loving people if we ignore racism, sexism or homophobia in our world. We cannot say we are loving people if we see poverty around us and do nothing to address it. We cannot say we are loving people if we see others denied the basics of life and do nothing to provide them. A liberating god force both manifests love and demands it, through tangible deeds of service and advocacy for the poor and outcasts.
For many of us who lament how fundamentalist religions have hijacked notions of god, I nevertheless still find a sense of god in our everyday world. In the streets and byways of this city I see god in the faces and actions of people who seemingly have no hope – but yet who do. It’s found in the persistence of working single moms raising their children, the entrepreneurial spirit in men who wash windows for a few dollars, the tired but still alive hope in homeless young people seeking to craft a better life, the lines of hungry waiting for a bag of groceries at the Freestore. I felt god firsthand almost every Tuesday last year when I and others tutored at Rothenberg just up the street from here. Bright eyed kids living in one of the most economically challenged communities in our nation would rush to greet us. DaVosha, the little girl I tutored, would usually run to me and wrap her arms around my legs in a big hug.
I could contrast her hope and child-like enthusiasm with that of my own girls when they were growing up – only my girls placed their hope in family, their nice shiny school, their safe neighborhood, their comfortable lives of relative privilege. DaVosha likely does not share those hopes in things. She has a hope in something more intangible. Hers is a hope not in me as her tutor or in any other who serves her – it’s a trust in the power of love, in a god force that somehow leads people to serve and give back. It’s nothing special about me or others. We are nothing. It’s something special in the liberating god force at work – one that loves and gives hope to the hopeless. One that animates every human heart to do something meaningful. Above all, it is a force of love, a god force, that can and does loose the bonds of injustice to set the captives free…