This post is by Mary Veeneman, professor of theology at North Park University.
In the speech he gave the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. said these words:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days
ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to
the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live
a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that
now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the
mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may
not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a
people, will get to the promised land!”
When I teach students about liberation theology, I always play them a video clip of this part of Dr. King’s final speech. I always explain to my students that there are debates about whether Dr. King’s theology fits under the rubric of Black theology and that is not a debate into which I want to enter here. This part of King’s speech is a great example of liberation theology, though, because King so clearly alludes to the Exodus account. In doing this, he identifies the oppression of African Americans in the United States with the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt and this is a classic move in liberation theology.
Among a number of others, one characteristic of liberation theology is a reading of the Exodus account that sees the events of that account played out in the contemporary setting. In light of that understanding of the Exodus account, liberation theologians argue that the salvation brought by Christ is not simply a spiritual salvation, but is also supposed to be a salvation from oppression on the ground.
J. Kameron Carter seems to be asking questions about similar theological moves in chapter seven of Race: A Theological Account
. In writing about Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Carter states, “On [Douglass'] autiobiographic reading of things, the Pasch [Passover/Easter] proves to be not an alternative political and social arrangement, but the cultural allegory, the sacred myth even, of the American political order” (305).
Carter writes that in the course of Douglass’ Narrative, “the Easter story…structures the American sacred mythos. This structure has provided the terms and meaning of identity” (305). Not only does the Easter “mythos” function in this way, according to Carter, but theology has played a supporting role.
The Easter story has been used, according to Carter, to support the status quo of white racial power. At the same time, Douglass has taken the story of the resurrection and applied it to his own situation. It is at this point that he arrives at the problem, writing, “Douglass’ error is that he has mimed the style of religious thought that he is actually trying to resist….He does this precisely by putting on display what happens when theological discourse functions as nothing more than the symbolic or religious superstructure of the materially or so-called real order of things” (307). Carter further wants to be clear that it is quite possible to do this even in the context of articulating the historic Christian faith. When Christian theology is used in this way, he argues, it does not actually tell us anything real about salvation.
In some ways, this sounds like a common critique of liberation theology from more conservative thinkers whether Protestant or Catholic. Often these critiques will talk about the idea that this earth isn’t ultimately our home and that we should look for the salvation that comes from Christ and saves us from eternal death that that we should not look for any kind of liberation or salvation in the here and now. Often this comes in the context of an assumption whether explicit or implicit that the here and now is not important.
I want to be clear in my own statements: the “spiritual” salvation that these critics will talk about is, of course, of utmost importance. A focus on one’s physical conditions with no attention paid to spiritual conditions will in the end miss the point of a significant portion of New Testament writings. At the same time, to only talk about the spiritual conditions of various people and pay no attention to their physical conditions ultimately misses the reality that Jesus seemed to deeply care about the here and now of the people he encountered.
Going back to Carter’s critique … he is making a deeper point than are the above-mentioned critics of liberation theology. What he seems to be saying is that when we map biblical texts onto our own situations without any consideration of life beyond our own context, all we end up with is “purely human religious knowledge that is Gnostically accessed though some cultural calculus or discursive technique of power.” When that happens, we have lost the true import of the New Testament altogether.
The question I want to leave for you is this: How do we avoid reading the Bible in a way that only leaves us with human religious knowledge, but also does not lead us into the error of the critics of liberation theology that see no connection between the gospel and our own immediate context?