Those of us doing the online Manna and Mercy course at the moment have been reminded that the Bible was not written into an empty void, but rather to contest an already existing and prevalent theology. This existing theology endorsed a hierarchy of human worth as God’s natural order. Starting at the top with the king. The only proof needed that the king was God’s favoured one was that he was the king. (The king demands you just ignore the circular argument of the last sentence.) The king alone had God’s ear as well as a military on tap, to pour out state-sponsored and spirit-sanctioned violence (a proxy for God’s wrath) on any and all who dared question the structured hierarchy of society – after all (so the theology proclaimed) it is God’s ordained ordering of the world and must not be challenged or changed. Those in power generously supported the seminaries that promoted this theology and therefore not surprisingly it dominated the religious market … and still does … be it in different ways.
The Bible on the other hand, introduces a God who has ears for the oppressed. A God who sides with slaves in their struggle for redemption*, demanding that the king let them go. A God who chooses the so-called “least” as partners, forever whispering to them: “you were born to be free … you were born to be free”. Called and convicted by God to freedom, they begin their long walk to salvation*. Bravely and imaginatively continuing to walk despite oceans of impossibility that lay before them. And oppressed people throughout history continue to respond to the whisperings of this liberating God while singing of God’s ordained ordering of the world as one of justice and equity for all.
Salvation used to mean ‘life before death’, and for that reason the Pharaohs of the world feared it, because it meant giving up their undue privilege and power. Then they co-opted the word … literally kicking the promise of life down the road into the next life. Now that it means, ‘life after death’ the Pharaohs smile and say ‘Amen’ and then remind us to read Romans 13:1-7 before we go to sleep at night so that we can wake up obedient to them in the morning.
This week’s psalm boldly declares:
“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed…” Psalm 9:9.
For this reason, James H. Cone correctly states:
It is my contention that Christianity is essentially a religion of liberation. The function of theology is that of analyzing the meaning of that liberation for the oppressed so they can know that their struggle for political, social, and economic justice is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.
In view of the biblical emphasis on liberation, it seems not only appropriate but necessary to define the Christian community as the community of the oppressed which joins Jesus Christ in his fight for the liberation of humankind. The task of theology, then, is to explicate the meaning of God’s liberating activity so that those who labor under enslaving powers will see that the forces of liberation are the very activity of God. Christian theology is never just a rational study of the being of God. Rather it is a study of God’s liberating activity in the world, God’s activity on behalf of the oppressed.
Theology can never be neutral or fail to take sides on issues related to the plight of the oppressed. For this reason it can never engage in conversation about the nature of God without confronting those elements of human existence which threaten anyone’s existence as a person. Whatever theology says about God and the world must arise out of its sole reason for existence as a discipline: to assist the oppressed in their liberation. Its language is always language about human liberation, proclaiming the end of bondage and interpreting the religious dimensions of revolutionary struggle.
~James Cone: A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition.
A question to guide our biblical and societal interpretations is simply: “Who benefits?” Who benefits from this interpretation? From this narrative? From this proposed action? Those in power or those oppressed by power? If it is not benefiting the oppressed, then it is not of God, for let us not forget that whatever we do to the oppressed we do to Jesus.
*NOTE: Before the words redemption and salvation became “religious” words, they were political words for freedom.