11 December 2003

Newbigin on liberation theology

Some years ago one of my colleagues got me interested in the writings of the late Lesslie Newbigin, longtime missionary-bishop in India, whose return to his native England moved him to reflect on the secularizing trends in his own country during his lengthy absence. Among the topics on which Newbigin has written is included liberation theology, a type of professedly contextual theology claiming to be based on the ostensibly clearer understanding of the world found in oppressed peoples everywhere. Liberation theologians argue that Christianity teaches what they call a preferential option for the poor, namely, that where rich and poor are in conflict scripture sides with the latter. Although a number of Christian thinkers have perceptively written on this topic, I find Newbigin especially good:

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 there are 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 one 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 (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p.150).

But there's more. It is not simply that liberation theology privileges another story over the biblical narrative; it fundamentally misunderstands the cross of Jesus Christ.

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 (p. 151).

Should we then eschew efforts to alleviate or end actual oppression where we find it? No. In fact, these are demanded by the gospel. But the gospel's own narrative takes precedence. It is this story that we, as redeemed sinners, are called to indwell. Salvation in Jesus Christ knows no class boundaries.

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