Monday, September 19, 2011

God's Good News for the Poor

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church is meeting 15-20 September in Quito, Ecuador. Many of the sessions have involved giving on-the-ground introductions to liberation theology, "a Christian movement in political theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions" (Wikipedia).

In the 16 September update from the Episcopal News Service, a curious sentence crept in:

All three speakers spoke of how the principles of liberation theology, which is God’s good news for the poor, can speak to our various church contexts.

Granted, this is part of a press release, prepared by members of the HoB likely at the end of a long day of work. In that context, I would be surprised if I could string together a coherent set of sentences, much less something polished enough to publish with ENS.

However, given that caveat, this still strikes me as a rather odd way to put it. The sentence seems to be saying that liberation theology itself, which only began in any formal way in the 1950's, is itself God's good news for the poor! Can that be right?

Alternatively, we could read it to say that the "principles of liberation theology" are God's good news for the poor. I imagine this is a little better, because the principles of liberation theology, as the next sentence put it, are involved with "authentic biblical witness today." However, even this sounds strange, since even though liberation theology's principal theologian Gustavo Gutierrez articulated God's "preferential option for the poor," he still emphasized praxis over doctrine, which sounds rather like emphasizing practice over principles or at least raising practice to the level of principles.

Liberation theology by itself cannot be God's good news for the poor. If that were true, then the poor received no good news from God before the 1950's. The principles of liberation theology aren't either. At its best, those principles are generalities taken from Scripture. They can be great, but they cannot be God's good news for the poor because the Bible by itself is not that either.

But by grace the Bible does show us the way. It points to God's good news for the poor and that good news is not a set of principles, no matter how faithful, but a Person who lived, died, and was raised again, stripping the authorities and rulers of their oppressive power and calling a people to witness to this reign in the here and now in part by taking the side of the weak against the strong. We do ourselves a disservice when we equate this or that theological movement with God's good news for the poor, whether we do it intentionally or not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and he is the one who fights for us, who pours himself out on the cross for all of us, especially the weak, marginal, and oppressed, and raises us up with him into newness of life.

I suspect, if asked, those three speakers on the 16th would agree substantially with these thoughts. I think we would agree that it would have been better had all three spoken of how the Person of liberation theology, who is God's good news for the poor, could speak to our various church contexts today. He can, and is, we pray, through the speakers' ministry to our bishops in Quito. May the Lord bless them all richly.

[Photo by Dimitri Castrique]

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