Perspectives on John: A Liberation Theology

Perspectives
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A Bad Night’s Sleep

Our current mattress is only about two months old at this point and when I lie down at night, it takes hardly any time for me to fall asleep. The foam feels like it just wraps itself around me until I am in this perfectly formed space that my body fits into. In recent years, I have gotten over my insomnia and been able to fall asleep quickly but with the new mattress, I can hardly remember lying down some nights before I drift off. But that wasn’t the case, to begin with.

The mattress we had previously was one my wife and I had purchased about seven or eight years before. It was when we bought it, the most comfortable mattress I had ever slept on, a soft little hideaway to rest in at night. But over time something strange began to happen and I noticed certain places where the mattress had an indention. The indention was comfortable for the most part; in fact, it was perfect since I made it. One of the things the indention did, however, was to mold too well to my body, making it too easy for me lie comfortably but in a position that, as it turned out, was not good for my body. When we went other places I usually slept well but sometimes I would notice a strange crick in my neck or an ache in my back when I woke up. Eventually, though, I knew I would be home in my nice comfortable bed.

Entropy or the second law of thermodynamics tells us that all things eventually fall apart and the mattress was no exception. It did not exactly fall apart but it did get to the place that we decided a new mattress was in order. So, we ordered a new mattress and bed frame and retired the other one to a guest room.

The new mattress was made of multi-layered foam and when it finally took shape after having been compressed for packing, it was an absolutely – uncomfortable. For the first week I slept on the mattress, I woke every day with a sore place in my lower back and a crick in my neck. I thought it was my pillows or maybe I had pulled a muscle moving something around the house or at the office. I tried to sort through every possibility and I finally came to an answer: I was used to the old mattress. My body had contoured itself to the shape of our old mattress and was still trying to figure out how to sleep on this new mattress. After a week, I got used to having some back support I had not had (and apparently needed) and found that the new mattress was just perfect.

What is Liberation Theology?

Liberation theology was the new mattress that was born out of the chaos of social change that was the late sixties. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, situations of social, political, and economic oppression and injustice gave birth to the development of various theological perspectives in both North and South America.[i] This particular time and place found a willing audience and eventually a voice in the black, Latin American, and feminist communities, reacting to the social change and unrest of their time. This was the birth of liberation theology.

Liberation theology is a theology of those who have been oppressed and downtrodden, a perspective on God and the gospel born “from the point of view of marginality”[ii]. It is a way of interpreting the Bible from the concrete circumstances (political, economic, and social) of the marginalized life.[iii] The theologies define the issues of racism (black theology), sexism and structural patriarchy or male-dominated society (feminist theology), and poverty and economic oppression (Latin American theology) as the primary social sins born of political and social systems held in control by a dominant few.[iv] Liberation theology has been a political engagement and through its history activism and movements of resistance, an opposition to dominance, disempowerment, and violence practiced by marginalized groups that have been invaded, conquered, colonized, dispersed, or displaced, and subordinated.[v] These expressions of theology focus on social change that gives voice to the gospel for those who cannot speak for themselves because of their oppression. Many liberation theologians feel that God has a special preference for the oppressed and believe that the marginalized have a special insight into God’s will for any given situation, therefore salvation is historical and social and not individual; it is a part of a community experience like the Exodus of the Jews.[vi]

In his classic work A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone wrote, “Theology is always done for particular times and places and addressed to a specific audience.”[vii] All of these schools of thought see the need for contextualization (theology in a particular time and place) in each circumstance. Because of this perspective, liberation theologians generally reject a universal theology or way of interpreting God. Major theologians of the various movement such as James Cone, Rosemary Ruether, and Gustavo Gutiérrez all advocate that the time and place of theology calls for not only a theological response but an active participation in the liberation of the oppressed, leading to social activism, political activism, and in some cases, particularly in Latin America, revolutionary engagement.

For those who have taken the time to engage it, liberation theology often makes them uncomfortable. But like the backache that lets you know you are sleeping in an awkward position or need a new mattress, the discomfort exists to let us see that something is wrong. While we often ignore pain thinking it will go away or take medication to dull the acute sharpness of it, the pain should cause us to ask, “why am I uncomfortable?” instead of “how do I get rid of this?” Even in the potential discomfort of reading liberation theology for those outside these marginalized groups, there is something to be learned about how we can live out the Great Commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. There is also something we can learn about the political and social systems that drive the dominant culture, a better perspective on who ‘big brother’ really is and what his true agenda is.

An application

As we read the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, there are features that could be viewed through the lens of liberation theology and give voice to that perspective. As we look into the story again, we find Nicodemus, a man of power and station, meeting Jesus in the middle of the night. A question: why the middle of the night? From a liberation perspective, Nicodemus is a person that represents the groups that make up the system of power and privilege among the Jewish people. Pharisees were the teachers of the religious and cultural law, a strict sect of people whose adherence to certain traditions and teachings were so rigid and detailed that it seemed almost impossible for anyone to live up to their expectations. As the ones who set and enforced these socio-religious norms, they were part of a structure that held authority over the lives of Jews, especially in the regions outside Jerusalem proper. That said, to openly come to Jesus and acknowledge him as a teacher or rabbi in broad daylight would be to diminish some of his own power and authority and give power or legitimacy to Jesus. So, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, hides his curiosity from the community, coming to Jesus at night.

Nicodemus begins the conversation by engaging Jesus as an equal or even a superior, calling him rabbi, a term used to denote a teacher of the law and therefore someone in authority. Some might argue that this is done in a genuine way to let Jesus know that Nicodemus takes the ministry and message of Jesus seriously. Others could argue that this was sarcasm, done with the intention of buttering Jesus up. We cannot say for certain since sarcasm is not normally obvious in a written story unless the writer makes it explicit. Nicodemus says that “we”, meaning himself and others who may be curious or may be among the Pharisees, “know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one else could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” The statement is probing, looking for either confirmation or denial, seeking an affirmation in some way to define Jesus, his person, and ministry.

Jesus, however, sees the man for what he is, either a misguided, misunderstanding cleric or a manipulative politician looking for information. Either way, Jesus seeks to do what Jesus was sent to do: liberate this man from his circumstances. It is here in the discussion on being born anew in order to see/understand God’s kingdom, that Jesus says we need both a physical and spiritual birth to be whole and Nicodemus looking confused and asking, “How are these things possible?”

Throughout this passage, a liberation theologian might find a treasure trove of nuggets to mine but in the interest of time, we will get to a major theme and that is liberation through the Son. Remember, liberation is not just in the spiritual realm but in the physical world as well. In verses ten through seventeen, the writer of John expounds on the Son of Man being lifted up as the snake in the wilderness was a sign of healing and restoration that has long been a part of Jewish culture. The writer then points to the crucifixion event by having Jesus say,

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One (Son of Man) be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.”[viii]

For the liberation theologian, a person finds their healing and restoration, their true freedom not only in the spiritual freedom that is found in believing in Jesus but in understanding that believing in means something beyond an intellectual assent. It means that those who are true believers seek to go from feeling to fact, looking to bring a social and political state of freedom and restoration to those in this world, in this life, as part of the physical Kingdom of God on earth. It would be read as an invitation, a calling, an imperative to see that the everyone truly means everyone and all will have a seat at the table of grace, all will be included in the body, all will serve in whatever capacity they have been called to do so. No one will be looked down on or denied the chance to serve based on things like race, gender, sexuality, social standing, and economic standing. All means all and if it does not mean all it is not right and will not right until all means all.

For some these words are challenging, for others, a relief. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves this question, if the gospel is for everyone, why isn’t/hasn’t everyone been made to feel welcome? Why do we only recognize those who are most like us as acceptable? Why do we fear or even abhor those who are simply ‘not like us’? The better question is why, before they accepted or even knew they wanted what he had to offer, did Jesus go to those on the margins – the lame, the blind, the unacceptable, the socially cast out – why did he go to them first? Why don’t we?

References

Clay, E. (2010). A Black theology of liberation or legitimation?: a postcolonial response to Cone’s Black theology and Black power at forty. Black Theology, 8(3), 307-326.

Cone, J. H. (2017). A Black Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Hamm, T. D. (Ed.). (2010). Quaker Writings: An Anthology, 1650-1920. New York: Penguin Books.

Holeka, M. (2014). Reading the Bible in various streams of liberation theology: Latin American theology, South African Black theology and Indian Dalit theology. Communio viatorum, 56(2), 169-196.

Olson, R. E. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press.


[i] (Olson, 1999, p. 602)

[ii] (Holeka, 2014, p. 169)

[iii] ibid

[iv] (Olson, 1999, p. 603)

[v] (Clay, 2010, p. 309)

[vi] (Olson, 1999, p. 604)

[vii] (Cone, 2017, p. xxiv)

[viii] John 3:14-18

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