Hunkering down in mainline seminaries all over America is an invidious, but popular theology, a myopic view of Jesus’ teachings on “social justice”: liberation theology. This theological construct has grown from a Latin American fight for social equality in the 1960s to become a ubiquitous term applicable to any number of purported theologies that belong to minorities or the “oppressed.” In and of itself, it is hard to define, as so many disparate groups have clung on to its base principles to make their own unique theological claims. For the most part, this has been an academic exercise. But slowly these academic lessons found their way into pulpits across America, and became part of bigger social and political movements. The liberation theology movement is now on the precipice of its greatest triumph with Barack Obama: electing an American President well-schooled in liberation theology.
Alongside the somewhat improbable rise of Obama into the national spotlight have been his spiritual influences, notably Jeremiah Wright and Fr. Michael Phleger. Far from being the fringe, these two men are prime examples of liberation theology, as much as that genre can even be defined. To be intellectually honest, however, even the soundbytes now made famous do not do this theological framework justice, even if I am gladdened that millions of Americans are now exposed to what a lot of my seminary education was about. Liberation theology does indeed deserve criticism, but not for the outbursts seen on YouTube, but because of its problems in principle.
Liberation Theology is an assortment of theological views that purport to be from the “underside.” To put it in practical terms, it is not built on the theological assumptions of old, white, middle-class theologians, but rather from the poor, who are seen to have a “preferential option” in the gospels. This preferential option gives the poor an exalted status, and the freedom to ignore the theology of the “rich,” and promote a theology to their own circumstances. But while it is true that Jesus’ had a specific ministry to the poor (“Blessed are the poor” in Luke, for example), his ministry and crucifixion ultimately were for the whole world, which makes any theology principally bound to one economic group limited at best. A woman, for example, wasted expensive nard on his feet, instead of giving it to the poor as Judas suggested.
Many of liberation theology’s assumptions are fueled by rebutting European theological giants, as these giants made too many assumptions about God because of their wealth and their whiteness. Their experience of God, from a liberation theologian’s point-of-view, will in fact create God in the image of the white man, saying next to nothing about the experiences of those the white man abused and enslaved. This negative attitude towards the historically white, European, and academic theological teachings opened a Pandora’s Box to theological diversity.
I call this diversity a Pandora’s Box not because diversity in and of itself is a bad thing; it is clearly something to be cherished in creation. Rather, with this theological diversity came a fissure, a schism every bit as severe as the Reformation, maybe even worse. The basic driving assumption of liberation theology is this: my theology needs to speak to my situation. So if I am black, I need a theology that represents the experiences of black people.
But the list doesn’t end with black Americans, who do have legitimate complaints about the way their souls were ignored during times of enslavement. Feminists have their own brand of liberation theology, as do queers (this is the PC term), Hispanics, black women (Womanist Theology), Native Americans, South Koreans, and the list is virtually never-ending. At times, these divisions even clash with one another, as white feminists who supported Womanist theology were once accused of overreaching and extending an unwelcome hand: “We don’t need your help, thank you very much.”
I hope it’s clear that this theological “diversity” is ultimately untenable in the Church, a paradox of real, not esoteric consequences. If theology is truly “God talk”, and God and his actions are truly universal, how can a theology be tailor-made to ethnic, racial, gender and sexual preference groups? It can’t, and this is the fundamental intellectual failure of liberation theology. In trying to speak for dozens if not hundreds of different groups, each group has become as guilty as the white Europeans: they also made God in their own image.
Further, liberation theology has rightly been accused of having close ties to a Marxist philosophy, focusing not on the transcendent aspects of the Christian faith, but the faulty belief that we can create the kingdom of God on earth. Even Barack Obama, in a dramatic oversight, said as much here. And in this speech, given at least twice at two different college commencements, one very recently, he said this: “Because our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation. And because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.” This is rather unabashed Marxism, tying personal salvation to the collective good. This is the core of what liberation theology has become, or perhaps has always been.
If Obama doesn’t win in November, the primary reason could be his ideology, which is deeply rooted in liberation theology. It wasn’t just the clout that attracted him to Trinity Church, it was the theology, which he found to be comfortable, especially given his political leanings.