The context of this post is the following: Last week, Dr. Christena Cleveland wrote a post reflecting on something I’d said at a conference last month. In short, I said that those of us in the room had a “better version of the gospel” than the regnant view in the West. Dr. Cleveland misheard me, thinking I said we have the “best version.” Nevertheless, she was critical of my statement, arguing that to assert that one’s version of the gospel is “better” or “best” necessarily excludes a diversity of voices.
Dr. Cleveland’s post hinted at an accusation of racism, which I vehemently denied, albeit in a manner that was overly defensive. Nevertheless, I continue to disagree with her assertion that preferring one version of the gospel over another — and proudly proclaiming that — is necessarily exclusionary. That’s an argument that is simply impossible to defend, unless one is prepared to embrace the completely syncretized relativism that has overwhelmed much of liberal Protestantism in America. I, for one, am not prepared to do that.
So, I am taking a couple posts to write about the two themes that I think are central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, insofar as I understand it, today, and from where I sit. Whether this version that I espouse is, indeed, “better,” and whether it is “exclusionary,” I will leave it for you to judge. See the prologue to this post here.
Part One: Context
As readers know, my favorite theologian is Jürgen Moltmann. One of the reasons that I so love Moltmann is that he is keenly aware of his social location. Here’s what I mean:
Moltmann’s first major book, Theology of Hope, took the theological world by storm when it was first published in 1967. Here was a German theologian, on the preeminent theological faculty of Tübingen, who had grown up a German humanist and fought with the Germans in World War II who was, it seemed, embracing the themes of the nascent liberation theology. His was an deeply eschatological theology, to be sure, but the hope about which he wrote was as real and material as the liberation theologians of Central and South America.
By the time his next major book, The Crucified God, was released in 1973, the 47-year-old Moltmann was being flown around the world to speak at conferences with other liberation theologians. It was heady stuff. His third major book, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, came out just two years later, but things had begun to change in his mind. He closed off that trajectory of his theological career with that trilogy and began work on a six-book cycle. Here’s what he wrote about that change in 1990:
Always using the same method leads to rigidity on the part of the author and to weariness in the reader. It also became clear to me between 1975 and 1980 that I personally could not authentically frame a “theology in context” and a “theology in movement” (liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology), for I am not living in the Third World, am not oppressed, and am not a woman. In those years, I tried as best I could to let the voices of silenced men and women be heard in the world too — the world in which I myself live. I initiated translations and provided them with commendatory prefaces. I wrote essays supporting liberation theology and feminist theology, African theology and Korean Minjung theology. But all this did not blind me to the fact that my life and my context are not theirs. So for my own work, I entered into a certain self-critical disengagement and began to write my “systematic contributions to theology.”
Part Two: Liberation
Key to my understanding of this primary theme of the gospel is Jesus’ inaugural sermon, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It seems very clear that, in Luke’s telling, Jesus is setting the course for his ministry as that of emancipatory proclamation and action. That’s what Jesus is about: telling people that they are free of the things that bind them, and actually freeing them of the things that bind them. Luke’s Gospel — more than any other — goes on to explicate this theme of liberation both in the teachings of Jesus, and of his interactions with others, including his healing miracles.
Throughout the history of the church, people have found liberation in the message of the gospel. Some of that is proclamatory liberation: people are reminded that they are not actually bound by the things that they think bind them. To proclaim “release to the captives,” does not mean to free prisoners from prison. I’ve preached several times in Minnesota’s largest prison, and to proclaim the liberating gospel to those prisoners is to tell them — remind them, actually — that the walls and bars and concertina wire and guards cannot keep them from experiencing freedom in Christ.
Sometimes, however, the gospel is material liberation: we work to free people from those things that are actually oppressing them. That might be oppressive poverty, an abusive relationship, or an addiction to gambling, pornography, or drugs. We work to make our government more fair, or we travel overseas to feed people, to be witnesses for peace, and to be sure that women can vote unhindered. Each of these is an act of material liberation, consonant with the liberating gospel.
Part Three: Marrying Context and Liberation
My life isn’t that dissimilar to Jürgen Moltmann’s — the relative ease and wealth of a white, Western, male scholar. I would be hard-pressed to come up with anything that is materially oppressing me. Nevertheless, the liberative power of the gospel needs to be something I both proclaim and activate.
While in seminary, I read Gutierrez and Cone; during my PhD, hooks and Friere. Like Moltmann and others, I have struggled with how to implement these radical visions, which I find so much more compelling than most theologies, into my own life. I was helped a great deal in that when a friend in seminary gave me a book for graduation: The Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul. Ellul, too, calls upon Christians to be a radical presence in the world. But the most helpful part of that book for me is that he makes clear that each of us should use the avenues of power given to us to affect the liberation of others. Indeed, to abdicate those avenues of power is itself a sin.
Whether or not I’m doing that, I suppose, is a judgment best left to God.