From time to time those who seek to make the 1960s social revolution the “new normal” advance ludicrous claims for the unreflective. This recently happened in a New York Times piece by Mark Oppenheimer on May 25. Oppenheimer made the claim that the religious version of sixties radicalism, liberation theology, is the true and original doctrine of Jesus Christ. Quoting Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary theologian Shannon Craigo-Snell, Oppenheimer reported that “Liberation theology, at its most simple, is the Sunday School Jesus who healed the sick or took care of the poor people … It’s what your Sunday school teacher taught you if you grew up in a church. It isn’t something people should be afraid of, unless they’re invested in poor people not getting fed or sick people not getting healed.”
This is the basic claim of the religious left, also made by the early twentieth century Social Gospel, that Jesus’ teaching has been misunderstood by traditional Christianity, perhaps even by the apostle Paul, who mistook Jesus’ gospel of salvation from suffering as a gospel of salvation from the wrath of God, and the consequent need to be saved, and then sanctified. People don’t need salvation from the wrath of God, liberationists think, they need personal and social liberation. What distinguishes liberation theology among ideas of this type is its Marxist basis. Rather than seeing the gospel as just “doing good,” or “helping the poor,” liberation theology attempts to identify oppressors and oppressed, views the world through the lens of the claimed oppression, and struggles for a complete social change to liberate the victims.
That this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ should be very evident in the Bible. There is no reason to think Jesus saw his message as a radical break with the faith of ancient Israel. The Old Testament’s concern for the poor was in the context of a nonpartisan idea of justice: “you shall not be partial to a poor man in his dispute … you shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute” (Ex. 23:3, 6). After this, the Old Testament Law and Prophets were indeed exceptionally concerned for the needy, prescribing a tiered sacrificial system for the poor in Israel (Lev. 5:7, 11; 12:8; 14:21-22, 30), gleaning of fields by the poor (Lev. 19:9), the return of pledges (Ex. 22:26-27), nonalienation of inherited land (Lev. 25:13-15), and advancing repeated references to the oppression of the poor (in which authorities were condemned for deviating from the revealed standard of justice). Consistent with this, Jesus’ teaching and miracles involved meeting human needs. Jesus indeed condemned the Pharisees, but for their hypocrisy, not their ideals (Matt. 23:1-3). Jesus accepted the Pharisees’ ideals, which were based on the holiness expounded in the Old Testament, and he clearly accepted an understanding of personal sin as making people culpable, indeed damnably culpable, before God. In fact, in declaring the human heart a source of evil thoughts and words, Jesus very reasonably advanced a doctrine of original sin (Matt. 15:18-19; Mk. 7:21-23; Lk. 6:45).
Unlike the Old Testament, which presents a legal code, the New Testament advances no set order for society. The Kingdom of God, which we do not now fully know, will come fully at the end of the age; until then it can only be partially realized in the church, and perhaps in the wider society as Christians, by reason and moral suasion, seek to realize the Bible’s moral precepts there. But as to the things in the contemporary world that we might call “policy,” the Bible does not offer prescriptions. We can only look at the Bible’s general moral precepts, try to understand what experience in our day has taught us, and draw conclusions as Jesus taught us, with good and bad fruits testifying to good and bad sources (Matt. 7:15-20). And indeed experience of recent generations has taught us that the self-denial and personal responsibility of the Christian past, not autonomous individuals and societies as a primary commitment to liberation would imply, leads to justice and prosperity.
It is ironic that having quoted the claim of one theologian that liberation theology is “the Sunday School Jesus,” Oppenheimer then advances the claim of another liberation theologian, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who (correctly) denies that liberation theology is biblical. It is the victim’s “experience and our struggle for survival, not the Bible, which are the source of our theology and the starting point for how we should interpret, appropriate, and use the Bible,” she is quoted as saying. So liberation theology starts outside the Bible and proceeds to use the Bible for its own purposes. The starting point is Marxist claim that ending suffering supersedes all other considerations (such as truth and reality). The correct starting point for biblical theology is God’s holiness, and human sin and redemption. Any salvation from suffering can only occur within that context. Liberation theology, like the Social Gospel before it, uses biblical words with non-biblical meanings, but is perhaps more directly influenced by Marxist thinking. The destructive effect of both on Christianity (which is about obedience to God, sin, and salvation), and America (which is based on individual responsibility) is apparent in both movements. Both are anti-Christian and anti-American.