In my youth I was fairly sympathetic with the aims of liberation theology, although I could never bring myself to accept this position in toto, as there was too much in the larger worldview that did not quite sit right with me. With liberation theologians I confess that God has called us to care for the poor and to free the oppressed from the chains of oppression. However, the boundary between oppressor and oppressed refuses to hold still and trying to pin it down proves repeatedly to be in vain.
Years ago I came across this wonderful passage from Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, which concisely and astutely puts into words the central difficulty with the various forms of liberation theology. The immediate context sees Newbigin responding to those who employ the hermeneutic of suspicion in their defence of the oppressed. To stave off this hermeneutic’s relativistic implications, they are forced to assert that, in contrast to the oppressors who are blinded by a class-based self-interest, the oppressed see things the way they really are. However, there are evident problems with this approach. I could not have stated them better than Newbigin does here:
In the first case belief in the epistemological privilege of the oppressed is prior to and independent of belief in the authority of Scripture. In many writings of liberation theology it is made clear that the analysis of the human situation in terms of the model of oppression is prior to the appeal to Scripture. It is accepted as axiomatic that the clue to understanding the human situation is found in this model: everywhere there are oppressors and oppressed. Justice requires that we stand by the oppressed. Therefore the testimony of Scripture is to be evaluated on this basis. What serves the cause of the oppressed is the real kernel of Scripture. Scripture functions only within this more fundamental scheme.
In this case on has to ask about the grounds for this belief. A student of human affairs would normally conclude that while oppression and injustice are undoubtedly an important part of the human scene, most people are in an ambivalent position, oppressors in some situations and oppressed in others; that it is not obvious from a survey of world history that God favors the oppressed; and that many other elements in human experience could be candidates for the position of controlling model. Indeed, if the appeal is not to revelation as found in Scripture, but to the knowledge of human affairs which is available to observation and reason, a good case could be made for asserting that the poor are simply those who have failed in the struggle for existence and – in the interests of the race – will be eliminated by those who demonstrate their fitness to survive.
In the second place, namely where the claim for the epistemological privilege of the poor is founded in Scripture, several comments suggest themselves. First, that while the Old Testament undoubtedly contains many passionate expressions of God’s concern for justice for the oppressed, it also contains warnings about the chaos which arises when there is no strong government, about the role of a just ruler in God’s merciful guiding of human affairs, and about the fact that the victims of today’s injustice frequently become tomorrow’s oppressors.
If we turn to the ministry of Jesus himself, it is of course clear that Jesus shocked the established authorities by being a friend to all – not only to the destitute and hungry, but also to those rich extortioners, the tax-collectors, whom all decent people ostracized; that the shocking thing was not that he sided with the poor against the rich but that he met everyone equally with the same unlimited mercy and the same unconditioned demand for total loyalty.
If we look at the end of his earthly ministry, at the cross, it is clear that Jesus was rejected by all – rich and poor, rulers and people – alike. Before the cross of Jesus there are no innocent parties. His cross is not for some and against others. It is the place where all are guilty and all are forgiven. The cross cannot be converted into the banner for a fight of some against others. And if we look to the beginning of his ministry, to those mysterious days in the desert when he was compelled to face the most searching temptation to take the wrong course, one could sum up the substance of the suggestions of the Evil One in the phrase I have already quoted: “Begin by attending to the aspirations of the people” (pp. 150-151).