LIBERATION: Freeing Love (pp. 111-120)

Life proves to be unsatisfactory for many people. They wish it had coherence and made sense, but they find it disordered and disrupted. They wonder whether there are valid answers to the fundamental questions of existence, and they fail to realize their own potential. Secularism cannot help them, because it views life as a chance product of evolution with no destination in mind.

The unsatisfactoriness of life gives religion a point of contact and an opportunity to speak of ways to restore meaning and hope. For Hindus, human misery is due to the conditions of a previous existence - one may hope for a better reincarnation next time. The Muslim, knowing that everything happens according to Allah's plan, must submit to God's will in every circumstance. Animistic tribes know that misfortune is due to a neglected duty, and they resort to witch doctors to learn what action should be taken to remedy the situation. Each religion offers its adherents an explanation of the disorder and its own prescription for a remedy.

Salvation is a broad concept in the Bible. A central theme, it covers everything from physical healing to the forgiveness of sins, from victory in battle to a new creation. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). God wants to deliver us from every evil that threatens our existence.

Being so broad in its scope salvation can be approached from several angles. Evangelicals place the emphasis on the vertical relationship to God, and think of justification by faith. Liberation theologians focus on salvation more in the socio-political sphere, viewing it as good news to the poor and deliverance from oppression. Many other meanings of the word are possible. [On the breadth of the term see Michael Green, The Meaning of Salvation (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), On the variety of its meanings see David F. Wells, The Search for Salvation (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1978).]

Temporally salvation can refer to something in the past (conversion), a process in the present (growth) and an event in the future (God's kingdom). Salvation also encompasses concerns of both body and soul, individual and society, the material and the spiritual. It is inclusive of conversion, social concerns, healing, deliverance and even the regeneration of the universe. Salvation is about everything that is involved in the coming blessing of God's kingdom. Plainly, a holistic definition is required.

Salvation includes the healing of broken relationships - with God, with others, and with nature. It includes the healing of persons, justice for the oppressed and stewardship of the natural world. It operates on many levels - spiritual, psychological, physical, economic, social and political. No aspect of the creation lies outside God's desire to bring restoration and wholeness. The church is therefore called to participate in God's saving activity on behalf of this world through its actions and prayers, to strive for justice and liberation for the oppressed in every sense and to keep hope alive in people for the culmination of salvation at the end of time.

Salvation as Freedom

Paul likes to use the term freedom to explain what salvation means. "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). Reconciled to God by faith, believers are free of bondage and free to be all they were meant to be. They are justified by faith, sanctified in love and called to a life of hope. [Karl Barth treats salvation in this way in Church Dogmatics, pt. 4.]

Salvation as freedom begins with justification, God's acceptance of us despite our sins. The broken relationship is restored, and we are placed on the path to new life. We are freed from the necessity to justify ourselves, since we are accepted freely by grace. So however ordinary we think we are and whatever people say about us, we are all somebodies, not nobodies, because God accepts us. We have dignity and worth because we are loved by God. With this new beginning, the basis of our self-esteem, we can begin to live by grace through faith as we were created to do. Free from both presumption and sloth, we can learn to trust the benevolence of God again.

This freedom unfolds in the process of growth we call sanctification. This term refers to our being progressively transformed into Christ's image and likeness, which means living in the manner of self-giving, other-regarding love. As Paul says, "Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family" (Romans 8:29). Believers are being conformed to the image of Christ through the power of the Spirit and God's sanctifying grace working in us.

Growth is needed in many areas. For example, we need to grow as hearers of God's Word and to mature in prayer. We need to be freed from the power of sin over us and to live in solidarity with our fellows. We need to abound in thankfulness to God and to live in mutually helpful relations with others. We are summoned to love and assist others, even our enemies, and to be among the first to promote justice, mutuality and friendship in society.

There is a third dimension besides justification and sanctification : discipleship. It is our vocation or calling to be God's witnesses to the coming kingdom and to be partners in the mending of creation. The Spirit is empowering us to engage in the struggle for renewal, to hope and to hunger for God's kingdom as we wait restlessly for it.

Paul says, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). The point is that salvation empowers our life and liberates us from all kinds of bondage. For example, it frees us from our anxiety, including the need to justify ourselves; it sets us free to struggle against evil both within and around us; it frees us from the ideologies that blind us to the evil that is working in our world. Because we are secure in God, we are set free to serve and free to risk.

Jesus preached good news to the poor and liberty to captives (Luke 4:18). Paul states, "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" (Romans 8:2). The Bible declares that God is liberating people who are in countless ways oppressed by sin and misery. We are filled with hope because we know that even the creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21).

Liberation for the Oppressed

The category of liberation is biblical and makes sense among people of our time. All over the world people are asking to be free of want, tyranny and oppression. The poor see that part of the world has risen out of poverty, and they want to participate in this process. In response, liberation theology has come into prominence. It calls on theology to be more than rational, more than mystical. Like the Epistle of James in the Bible, it calls on faith to do works. Theology ought to take a stand within historical struggles for justice. It ought to preach good news to the poor and not ignore their plight. It ought to speak about social justice and not justify the given order by its silence. We need a theology that arises from the experience of the oppressed as they read the Bible. This will add to our appreciation of Scripture's meaning and challenge us at many points.

Such theology may focus on racial, economic or gender issues. Black theology, for example, relates to the black experience - to issues of slavery, apartheid and racism. It calls black people to freedom, dignity and justice in the world. It hopes to impart hope and a sense of identity.

Such a theology has its dangers. It is easy to fall into ethnocentrism and reverse racism. It is easy for opportunists to use it for their own selfish purposes. The gospel must never be used to bolster a worldly cause, however noble. It is wrong in the name of liberation to demand special advantages for one race by disadvantaging others. We should remember that God transcends the political situation and judges all things.

Nevertheless, God does care about the suffering of black people, and theology is right to speak of human liberation. [Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone, editors, Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979 (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979).] Peace between tribes and races is an urgent problem facing the world today. Racism can be white, black, yellow or red. But no group of any color is called to be permanently disadvantaged.

Latin American liberation theology focuses on the plight of poor people, rather than on black peoples or women. It pays less attention to issues of gender and race but interprets the gospel as good news to the poor addressing the situation of suffering. This theology is done in the context of poverty, using the language of revolution and radical social change. It speaks of God's preferential advocacy for the poor, claiming that God is on the side of the weak and powerless. Though it places its emphasis on salvation in this world, it does not necessarily deny other dimensions of salvation. It wants to say that salvation is both spiritual and material, for both body and soul. The mission of the church, therefore, is to contribute to the transformation of social conditions. [Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973).]

Liberation theology has been successful in calling our attention to these issues, but seems to have achieved little to actually improve the conditions of the poor. In calling for socialist, and even Marxist reforms over the years, liberation theologians have found themselves on the side of a socialism that does not work

Nevertheless, liberation theology can make a contribution by calling attention to the plight of the poor and by aligning itself with a "neoliberal" strategy. That could be good for the poor and would ensure a future for liberation theology. [Amy L. Sherman, Preferential Option: A Christian and Neoliberal Strategy for Latin America's Poor (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992).]

The Old Testament prophets said that to know God requires one to seek justice and correct oppression (Proverbs 21:3, Isaiah 58:6-7, 59:4, Micah 6:8). The Bible is greatly taken up with issues of justice in society. God desires justice to prevail in earthly societies, however imperfectly. Theology cannot be separated from this issue. Religion is not just a personal matter. Justice is central to the social teachings of the Bible, because we are called to reflect the fellowship of the Trinity, however dimly. We must be moved by the divine discontent about the condition of society as it is prior to the advent. To know and follow God requires us to pursue justice for all people, to struggle against racism, against every form of domination, in peacemaking (which may not mean pacifism) and in attempts to better the conditions of the poor.

God and Women

Feminist theology relates God and salvation to the experience of women. It is faith seeking understanding in relation to a history of women being regarded as inferior because of their sex. It asks why power is always in the hands of men and why the feminine seems to be treated as only secondarily human. Feminist theology challenges the domination of men over women and promotes the full humanity of women. Whatever diminishes or denies this cannot be from God. We must regard women as fully human and not in any way subordinate. The aim of this theology is not to reduce men, and have women dominate them, or to deny important differences between men and women in their complementarity. Rather, the call is for a new partnership between men and women in which neither sex dominates the other or is the norm for the other. Feminist theology seeks a new relationship among human beings which expresses a mutuality of men and women taking dominion over the earth together. It is as much about the liberation of men as of women - the one sex cannot be liberated without the other.

With the support of fresh Biblical exegesis, feminist theology presses for equal rights for women in church and society and opposes what it calls patriarchy. It fights for the dignity and worth of women and objects to men's treating women as if they were inferior and invisible. It wrestles with questions of differences between men and women, the opposing of male privilege, and the staking out the special contributions that women can make.

Feminist theology is also very concerned about the naming of God and seeks to recover feminine images of God in the Bible itself. The fact that the church tends not to make use of the scriptural feminine images for God indicates that some change is called for. [Paul R. Smith, Is It OK to Call God "Mother"? (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993).]

We must listen to the testimony of women who remind us of things forgotten and injustices long ignored. The Bible gives us the permission to name God in feminine ways. Feminine images may not be central, but they are surely present. God is One who gives us birth (Deuteronomy 32:18). God is like a female eagle bearing her young on her pinions (Deuteronomy 32:11). God is compared to a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14). God can no more forget us than a mother can forget her nursing child (Isaiah 49:15). God comforts Israel as a mother carries her child on the hip (Isaiah 66:12-13).

Greek Orthodox traditions have been more at home with female symbolism than have the Latin churches. Clement of Alexandria spoke of God as his father and his mother. He speaks of God giving us milk from breasts. Both Anselm and Julian of Norwich speak of the maternal aspects of God and Christ. Feminine symbolism is not foreign to Christianity, and the loss of the feminine has impoverished our understanding. We need the contribution of women's spirituality and women's experience in the understanding of God.

Thinking Liberally

Liberal theology also has a theology of liberation. As the name liberal implies, it is concerned about human freedom, specifically freedom from the bondage of tradition. Liberals want to be free to think for themselves and come up with new and better ideas. Why be in bondage to the past, if the ideas do not suit? Good tradition is one thing, ignorant prejudice another. We must be free to relearn and rethink. We must recognize our human limitations and not forget that ultimate meanings are mysterious, not easily grasped. Theology ought to be creative, constructive and imaginative work

This book is liberal in one sense -in critiquing traditions that do not do justice to what the Bible says and do not illuminate life today. But it is liberal in an evangelical way, in that its liberty is exercised in subjection to Holy Scripture. [Delwin Brown and Clark H. Pinnock, Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical-Liberal Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), pt. 1 on theological method.]

More Than Acquittal

Liberation is more than freedom from guilt (as in the roman law court forensic model), more than Christ's merit imputed to us in a legal transaction. [One could have wished that Millard Erickson had not defined salvation so narrowly in this way in Christian Theology, p. 905] Justification itself is more than acquittal, having an eschatological, not merely forensic, meaning. It links us to God's putting things right in the future for us and for a wider humanity. The goal is victory over all hostile powers and the coming of the kingdom. When we believe in Jesus and are justified, we are incorporated into a new humanity that God has justified. Our justification is not a legal fiction that leaves our lives unchanged. It is also a matter of being caught in the flow of divine action that aims to bring righteousness to the world and transformation to us. [Peter Toon, Justification and Sanctification (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1983).]

"Christ" has become just a name for most people, the surname of Jesus of Nazareth, but it was originally a title with meaning. It identified Jesus as the anointed one, the Messiah who would come and change the world. The gospel of Christ is therefore a messianic proclamation that aims at both the reconciliation of sinners and the transformation of the world. Jesus is the Messiah who will redeem all aspects of the broken creation. This explains why he ministered to the oppressed, the sick and the poor. His goal is to heal all that is broken. To follow Christ is to become a disciple and engage in work just like his. The goal of salvation is not just an otherworldly hope. It means to impact this world and introduces a process of healing into the whole universe.

The idea of liberation is found in other religions and ideologies. Personal liberation was always important in the East. In monistic philosophies, disciplines are prescribed for men and women to free them from the weary round of transmigration. Taoism offers freedom from the rules and helps people flow with the natural order of things. In Buddhism freedom is defined as losing desire. In Zen satori is the result of a mental discipline that frees the mind from inherited ways of thinking.

Christian liberation is not by self-effort but by the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is both aptness and peril in using the term liberation for salvation. In recent years, many lost causes have been called and have called themselves liberation movements. Their proponents have sought to link their causes with Christian theology to make them respectable. Many have been deceived, and liberation has been given a bad name. Nevertheless, salvation is the liberating of people in history and thus is consonant with political theologies that uphold democracy and freedom, gender theologies that celebrate male and female dignity and difference, theologies that speak to those who struggle with homosexuality.

The Jewish Passover pointed to liberation from slavery. Mary's Magnificat was a song about liberation. Jesus was not only speaking of spiritual blessings when he quoted Isaiah:

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. (Lk 4:18)

As we sing her song we are beginning to grasp that freedom through Jesus is more than just the forgiveness of sin.

Christians need to think and speak of liberation. All too often God is thought of as suppressing rather than promoting freedom. He has been seen as a despot who models and sanctions oppressive regimes on earth, divine-right monarchies, clerical rule and patriarchal domination. Liberation theologies, despite their mistakes, have provided a healthy corrective to our too-limited focus on salvation as forgiveness and escape from hell. We need to bring personal piety, corporate worship and social action into a unified model of what God is doing in the world. The heart of creative love theism is that the triune God is love and has created us to share his love in freedom.

The Liberation of Love

Humans need to love and to be loved. We long for the intimacy of heart-to-heart conversation, but often find intimacy difficult to realize. We are fortunate if we have one or two friends with whom to share in depth. We are often not free to love as we would like. We are bound by childhood hurts, irrational fears, constraints of selfishness, legalism, pervasive social conditioning and structures of the world that inhibit our freedom to love and enjoy others.

At the heart of the need for liberation is a longing to be free - free to love, free to be with others, to listen to them and to cherish them. What we long for God also desires for us: to enjoy friendship, affection and community. [Jürgen Moltmann chooses freedom as the primary category for his doctrine of salvation in The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), chap. 5.]

The tragedy of slavery, oppression and prejudice is that people are not loving and conversing with one another. In Galatians 3:28 Paul mentions three issues of liberation in the early church involving ethnicity, social status and gender: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." [Richard N. Longenecker discusses them in New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984).] Liberation was needed, barriers had to be removed for love to flow between people of different races, social classes and genders. Paul is saying that we are free now to converse with people of other cultures, other social positions and the opposite sex.

Liberation means genuine communion. Ethnic, social, gender differences do not matter. We can engage in conversation with one another without letting the differences obstruct our relationship. When open communication happens between races, social classes and sexes, we experience a foretaste of heaven. Little children often seem free of the racial, class and gender barriers that imprison us, and we have longings for that kind of freedom ourselves, to become again like little children.

Provisional and Permanent Liberation

Realistically, achieving liberation is impossible by our own efforts. There is a wide hiatus between the longing to be free and the achieving of freedom. We need God to be at work in us "both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).

Any merely human plan of liberation gets twisted by selfishness. History reminds us how revolutions that begin with a longing for freedom become sabotaged when the corruptions of power set in. We make a distinction between the healthy longing for freedom at the heart of a movement of liberation and its outworking in practice. God is on the side of freedom and is opposed to oppression, prejudice and patriarchy. Therefore, we regard liberation movements initially in a favorable way. We try to include them in our understanding of what God is doing in the world. But at the same time, we insist that particular longings for freedom can only be satisfied in the bigger picture of God's liberation found in the gospel.

For Paul, freedom begins in the heart and is made possible by the Spirit. Liberation begins with the freedom to engage in conversation with the three persons of the Trinity and with the neighbor whom we encounter. Through the Spirit there is power to overcome a bondage of the will and to be free for intimate conversation, not only with God but also across barriers of class, race and gender. Spiritual reality is needed for all aspects of liberation, whether personal, social or political. Rather than the church opposing new movements of liberation, we believe that God is concerned about all the longings for liberation in our world.

A Patient Liberator

God is not only justifying us in a legal manner but is liberating us to become just and upright people. This justice includes the liberation of neighbors and strangers, foreigners and slaves, and all the oppressed of any race, class or gender.

We are all loved and forgiven because God's care for sinners is unconditional. The opportunity to be free among other free human beings, knowing that we are loved and forgiven before we even begin-this is good news indeed.

The beauty of it is that God is patient in his liberating of us. Paul expresses his gratitude to God in freeing him "even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence" (1 Timothy 1:13). He says that he received divine mercy because he had acted ignorantly in unbelief and that mercy overflowed into his life and changed him completely. God's search for us is most patient and merciful. One may say no to God a thousand times and still be forgiven and bathed in Easter life

Liberation belongs not just to individuals but to the creation as well (Romans 8:18-23). We long for the time of peace and festivity that is prefigured in the sabbath rest that concludes God's creative activity. Just as the story in Genesis moves toward the goal of sabbath rest, so the whole world is now being moved toward the goal of a perfectly realized and fully enjoyed fellowship with God. Liberation is both exodus and sabbath: it is freedom from every bondage and freedom to live in peaceful community with God and every other creature. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ in which he gave himself up to God sets us free to love and praise God. It places us on a path of pilgrimage to the heavenly city and in a community that is being made new.

The psalmist says that God has set our feet in a broad place (Psalm 31:8). God gives us living space which is far more generous than we could acquire on our own. Our sins crowd and compress us into narrow ruts and boring paths, but salvation places us in wide open fields. The Spirit leads us out of narrow places and opens our horizons, flooding us with life.

Chapter 11 .....