The Gospel in Two Broad Strokes: Liberation

The Gospel in Two Broad Strokes: Liberation May 22, 2013

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.”

Moltmann’s subsequent theology is no less liberatory in its message, but it does take a different tack toward the subject.

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.

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  • CurtisMSP

    One cannot proclaim liberation without first acknowledging and proclaiming captivity. That is the heart of the gospel — the acknowledgement, rather than the avoidance, of the reality of captivity, bondage, and suffering in the human condition.

  • Okay, I’m hung up on “the completely syncretized relativism that has overwhelmed much of liberal Protestantism in America”. Could you explain that a little?

  • Tony,

    I don’t agree with everything you write and appreciate you owning your defensiveness, but I have to say that I agree with the notion that there is a better interpretation of the Book so many claim as a compass.

    Any theology that claims that the gospel of Jesus Christ supports marginalization of ANY person or group, or can be understood through cherry-picked leagalism, is simply not a theology connected to Jesus the Christ. One of the ailments of progressive Christianity is an unwillingness to stand where we stand and call sin a sin. What the Pipers, Robertsons et al are spewing is sinful, is heresy and blasphemous. Claiming anything less is to be complicit with such teaching.

    If we are unable to claim and proclaim the truth as we know it with conviction (but maybe not so much cocky certitude as our sisters and brothers at the other end of the spectrum ), without a lot of mamby-pamby “I’m ok, you’re ok” or “all truths are equivalent”, then why would anyone believe that WE believe what the hell we are saying?

    I can claim something with conviction and still leave room for dialogue and I am comfortable as a progressive Christian standing where I stand, with my center firmly planted in Christ the liberator while leaving my boundaries permeable to continue learning in what ways I participate in the oppression of others or the planet.


    • Zach Lind

      Perfectly said! Thanks Kimberly!

  • Adriene Buffington

    I appreciate the work you do, I think that studying and writing about theology IS important and prophetic, and you do it well. (I have read a few of your books and occasionally your blog.) Today’s post was good! (I really DO plan to read some Moltmann.)
    And I agree with what I think you meant by your ‘better theology’ remark – because I get that what you’ve been working hard to do is de-throne the PSA theology that dominates the conversation (and leads to domination in praxis).
    But may I suggest something? This kerfuffle was really about a perception that the voices of non-white, non-Americans are not welcome in the articulation of ‘better theology’. . . So is there a way for you to use the position of influence that you have to ‘give power’ to a person who doesn’t have what you’ve got? (voice, audience, etc.) Could you introduce and ‘hand the microphone’ to someone who is also doing ‘better theology’, but people aren’t hearing?

    In other words, step 1 is to articulate what you mean by ‘better theology,’ (which you’re doing) Step 2 would be to help someone else proclaim the liberating gospel- someone from a position that HAS experienced oppression.

    • Adriene, I think that if you knew more of my work behind the scenes — hosting conferences, securing book deals for young authors, sitting on dissertation committees, etc. — you might see that I’ve been hard at work at Step 2 for many years. I say this not to be immodest, but to say that Moltmann’s quote has been inspirational for me for a long time.

      • Adriene Buffington

        I’m glad to know that. I’m happy and not really surprised, because I know you’re not just a thinker, but a doer as well.
        Can one assume that you’re being intentional about seeking out non- white, non-American people? Could you perhaps introduce us to a few? Someone you listen to and learn from . . .

        • Zach Lind

          Hey Tony,

          Could you point us to any left-handed theologians? Or theologians who’s favorite band is Rush? FWIW, I already know of a bunch of those but I’m just testing you to make sure you’re being intentional about diversity.

        • Yes, you can assume that. Assuming you missed the last Christianity21 conference, I encourage you to attend the next one — in Denver in January — to hear some of those voices.

          • Adriene Buffington

            My first thought was ‘Denver in January would be coooold!’ (I have become a weather wimp after 30-some years in Arizona.)
            Second thought was to google it, and I can’t find anything about upcoming Christianity21, although past one sounds interesting. Have you started publicizing it yet?

  • One distinctive with Moltmann is his emphasis that liberation has to happen for both the oppressor and the oppressed. Most approaches to this emphasize the liberation of the oppressed is the only real topic, with the liberation of the oppressor happening as they are confronted with the reality of oppression. However, this does not actually affect real liberation. The oppression is still featured, and the oppressor is left in their guilt or their responsibility.

    Thus, Moltmann–a German soldier in WW2–is in his context exploring the path of holistic liberation. What is there to hope for the oppressor if they are to let go the structures of oppression. It can’t be, as so often has happened in history, that the structures remain the same, with a switching back and forth of who wields the power. Putting the oppressed in power within the same structures doesn’t change anything. The oppressed become the new oppressors, and oftentimes in this quest for power, they become oppressors over other oppressed.

    The whole system has to be subverted, which involves a process of letting go power by those in power and an openness for free participation to those who are oppressed.

    One NT model of this is Saul of Tarsus, who saw himself as an oppressor in need of salvation, but the salvation he was given did not result in his becoming an anti-zealot but rather in refocusing his whole mission towards the fullness of life of Christ for all.

    What is the promise of life for the oppressed and the oppressor? They both need liberation, and its the oppressing and oppression that points away from such a life. Both need hope, and both need to experience the promises of God that break down the false narratives and false identities that are engendered by structures of oppression. But, again, with Moltmann, you can’t stop simply on the topics of oppression, telling one side to give everything up and the other side to take everything up. You have to show both what they gain by moving out of the structures of oppressing, and what they gain is enlivened, transformative community.

    When either side pushes against that, they’re pushing against lasting holistic liberation, even if their rhetoric has the flavor of immediate remedial liberation.

    • davehuth

      Patrick, thank you this is a rich summary and means a lot to me.

  • davehuth

    Tony, this idea: “Each of us should use the avenues of power given to us to affect the liberation of others” Is one of the most personally meaningful things I’ve read on your blog.

    I hear resonance in it with some things said in the online Open Conversation some of your readers (and critiquers!) participated in last night. Thank you for bringing these thoughts of Moltmann and others to us. I can really get behind efforts in which people collaborate and pool resources (from all places, voices, traditions, and locations) to make that happen.

    If Emergent is passing through a transition these days to become a movement of action, I hope to learn from and support the contributions of many people interested in proclamatory and material liberation. I’m not precisely sure what such projects of liberation might be, but I’m eager to figure that out. Thanks for this post.

  • S_i_m_o_n

    Tony, what do you actually say to the prisoners? Because I would imagine that what is oppressing them, or at least some of them, would be their guilt.

  • Daniel Walters

    Off-topic, but your RSS feed isn’t working. The last post which shows up on my feed was on May 17…

    • I know. I’m working on it with Patheos.

    • It’s fixed now, Daniel. Thanks for your patience.

  • mhelbert

    “each of us should use the avenues of power given to us to affect the liberation of others.”
    This is really the hard part. To allow our hearts and minds to move into some active participation with those who have been marginalized by, well, us. And, to do that in a way that does not smack of White Savior Complex. I think that many of our sisters and brothers get that ‘vibe’ from anyone who is privileged.

    Tony, I appreciate you and your work. Like Kimberly, I don’t always agree, but I am always challenged to stretch. And, for an old guy that can be painful sometimes.

  • Michael Jordan

    Hi Tony–I appreciate this post. I am drawn to it in many ways. Still, I resist understanding the Gospel primarily in this way because of the issues at the heart of this wknd’s kerfluffle. In grad school, I took a class with a liberation theologian, the recently deceased Otto Maduro, a wonderful and kind man. He was candid about describing himself and liberation theology as a “failed movement”–yet at the same time one he still deeply believed in. He was fond of repeating the old maxim, “The Catholic Church chose the poor, but the poor chose Pentecostalism.” At that time, he was researching Pentecostalism in the lives of Latino immigrants in Newark, NJ–getting out in the community, riding in church vans with pastors and parishioners, attending services just to listen and learn.

    What I came to understand in that class–and in interactions with other students from the developing world–was that many of the world’s most powerless people found liberation theology lacking somehow. It didn’t clearly reflect their oppression as they felt it, and the solutions liberation theology offered didn’t feel like solutions to them. That *could* be because they just didn’t understand liberation theology; but it also *could* be because they did understand it and thought it reduced the Gospel to something they simply didn’t recognize, something which had power insufficient to speak to their felt needs.

    I don’t think you viewing this as a better–or even the best–gospel is inherently exclusionary. We all believe what we think is best, else we wouldn’t believe it. But when disproportionately poor, nonwhite, nonwestern voices say “This isn’t quite it,” then I think the burden is on liberation theologians to better account for that reality. Peace–not as cranky now that the baby’s getting sleep. 🙂

    • davehuth

      Mike, is your comment here intended to reflect your opinion that the gospel is not foundationally about liberation? Or are you pushing back against an academically-named “liberation theology” that is skewed by Western/White concerns (skewed away from concerns of rank and file oppressed persons). I ask honestly without agenda.

      • Michael Jordan

        I just mean I get why someone would push back against this idea. Of course I see the gospel as liberative in many ways–I am free to become who I truly am instead of who I am trained to be by a culture that is not interested in my flourishing (and in many cases actively resists my flourishing). Like it or not, though, because of the academic movement you name, the word liberation has baggage attached to it–and yes, rank and file Christians have largely rejected this movement’s suggestions of who is truly oppressor and who is truly oppressed. Those voices need to be heeded.

        • Well, you can choose to associate me with the liberation theologians because of my use of that word. However, I consider the word bigger than that use — just as I do the word “evangelical.” I tried to paint it as a broader concept in the post.

          • Michael Jordan

            I think you *do* paint it as a broader concept in the post–and again, I appreciate much of what you say. All I am saying is the use of the word may trigger a defensive response who believe that others who have used that word have done so to marginalize rather than engage them.

            • Agreed, that word is a trigger for many evangelicals. But it’s a great word, and I hereby reclaim it. “Emancipatory” is a little too cumbersome.

              • davehuth

                I like the nuance Monica Coleman draws out when she calls herself a “liberationist” who doesn’t track as closely with “liberation theology.” To the best of my recollection, she doesn’t like the way “liberation theology,” classically framed by academia, debates who God is on “the side of” (on the side of the poor, of the oppressed, etc.).

                Coleman prefers to say that God is “on the side of all” but working “against oppression” (as systems of oppression trap both oppressor and oppressed in different ways).

                It’s a subtle but important difference which could be why some people don’t resonate with “liberation theology,” even though the gospel for them remains “about liberation.”

                For this reason I think the way Tony’s has promoted the concept broadly is very helpful.

                • Also, see Moltmann’s spin on it in Patrick’s comment — he says that Jesus frees both the oppressed and the oppressor.

                  • davehuth

                    That’s a GREAT comment and I love the reminder That JM was a German soldier in WW2. This means so much to me.

  • Tony, you sound exactly like all the cult-leader fundamentalists I used to know in my childhood church–nailing their critics to the wall for not perfectly and accurately restating their words, refusing to acknowledge error of any kind and then blowing up when their detractors refuse to meet them at a pancake house. Oh, you poor, poor misunderstood, misheard martyr, you! It must be SO DIFFICULT and such a BANE on the GOSPEL for people to say things like: “your version of the Gospel has a superiority-complex.” Ooops. Forgive me, Dear Leader, for mis-stating you! What I meant to say was “Your version of the completely syncretized relativism sounds elitist.”


    Maybe the reason people don’t want to meet with you in person is because you are not a safe person. Check yourself, Tony Jones.

      • I commented to you directly, Tony. Care to answer me directly?

        • When a cult leader tries to defend himself, it tends to sound self-serving. Instead, I’ll let others weigh in on the merits of your thoughtful accusations.

          • When a cult leader sends his yes-people after his detractors instead of answering them directly he’s only saying: “Look how many people think I’m the BEST?” and thereby unwittingly establishes himself as a laughable buffoon, a narcissistic cult leader dedicated to nothing higher than his over bloated ego. Yes, oh, yes, Dear Leader. You are the best. OOPS. I mean, BETTER.

            • My detractors are welcome to affirm your judgments as well.

              But I think that most people will see that 1) you are trolling, and 2) your thread of comments here have nothing whatsoever to do with this post.

              • “I’ve been involved in a number of cults, both as a leader and a
                follower. You have more fun as a follower, but you make more money as a leader.”
                —Creed Bratton

            • Elizabethesther, apparently you are aware that Tony recently was involved in a discussion on this issue in which many gave him hard and pointed advice. I was not involved, but, in my opinion, the advice was friendly, deserved, and helpful.

              I am not a ‘yes man’; I have no position in this dialogue, but I don’t see how your comments are helpful. Disrespect, name calling, shouting, and caricature are ineffective ways to communicate disagreement.

    • Emily B

      What’s with the personal attack? I will never understand why some people use venom to call another person venomous. It doesn’t make sense.

      FWIW, I think most of us dislike being misunderstood and would try to explain ourselves more clearly if we had the proper avenue.

      • Everyone needs an Other. What’s interesting to me is how much the actual history of Emergent shows how little power and cult-like leadership is a goal. Its antithetical to not only the rhetoric but also the actual expressed path over the last decade. But the “your words have hints of the kinds of things I hear people I hate saying thus you’re exactly the same as them” is not a new or unique approach. It’s a rhetoric of violence that poses as victim or defender of Truth.

  • So I wrote a perhaps overly presumptuous post using your racism controversy as a springboard to talk about progressive white Christianity’s ambivalence about Pentecostalism which was the subtext that I took from your interactions that were interpreted as racially problematic, colonialist, and so forth. Maybe it’s not the question in your head and I’m superimposing my own sensibilities onto you, but I’ve found myself asking why does Pentecostalism sell so much better with the marginalized people I want to be in solidarity with than the liberation theology of Gutierrez, Sobrino, Cone, etc, that seems to address their circumstances so much better and speaks to my heart as someone who hates the Constantinian version of Christianity. In any case, I’ve had some encounters with Pentecostals in the last year that have changed my mind about them. You should check out Amos Yong if you haven’t already. He’s a Pentecostal theologian whose understanding of atonement, ecclesiology, the sacraments, ecumenism, etc is very compatible with liberation and emergent theology. The book I’m reading is Spirit Poured Out On All Flesh.

    • Morgan, I’ve heard Amos speak and read that book. Yes, he is fantastic, and he’s softened my stance toward Pentecostalism.

      I have all sorts of opinions about why liberation theology lost and prosperity theology won in Central and South America and Africa. But that’s another post for another day.

      • Adriene Buffington

        Does Pentecostalism necessarily lead to prosperity theology?

        Pentecostalism can be very inclusive, anyone can be ‘anointed’ regardless of education, class, gender, race, etc. – and that’s part of the appeal. When it is perverted into ‘prosperity theology’ it equates material ‘blessing’ with greater spirituality, which seems contrary to the original spirit (and Spirit) of the movement.

  • As a sometime critic (I wouldn’t say “frequent”), may I say I really like these two posts on liberation and reconciliation? I like the tone and the content. I’ve also had good things to say about other posts.

  • Gregg Stokes

    I really have enjoyed the last two posts. As a new commenter, I also am delighted to read the thoughts of people who have not drunk the Kool-aide. I think, in order to presume you can liberate one or be the one liberated, you must be known. And to know someone takes time, the one thing we never bake into our equations. Sure you can throw liberation at the wall and see what sticks, I suppose that has a place in this world, like monster truck shows and sermon series, but I think reconciliation and liberation are intimate acts. Moments of opportunity born out of the minutia of living life together. Can it happen in casual moments with strangers? Yes. But really?