The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama’s former minister, continues to be a factor in the ongoing presidential campaign. His recent media blitz has put his theology and social views on the front burner. I find it interesting to hear his views characterized as representative of Black Liberation Theology.
I first encountered Liberation Theology in seminary. It was only then emerging out of Central and South America and finding its way into middle class North America. It was strange having studied so many European theologians to suddenly hear names like Gutierrez, Freire, Boff, Miguez, Bigo, Miranda and so on.
Our professors told us that Liberation Theology was an important movement and we should do our best to understand it. Not embrace it necessarily, but understand its arguments. That seemed reasonable to me and I devoted myself, as best I could, to reading the literature being churned out by liberation theologians, and about them.
Unfortunately, I was not prepared academically to penetrate the primary literature. For one thing, almost all of the initial writings were in Spanish and Portuguese. Additionally, the work of liberation theological reflection relies heavily on the disciplines of sociology.
Because of this, Liberation Theology has been accused of being a form of Marxism, but that is incorrect. Liberation scholars use Marxist sociological methods, but not Marxist ideology. And they do not limit themselves to only Marxist techniques. Consequently, without a foundation in sociological method, it was very difficult to understand.
Eventually some secondary literature became available and the movement became more accessible. Some of the most helpful explanations came from the pen of Robert McAfee Brown. His book Theology in a New Key, and later Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide, helped to make this complicated theology available even to those without theological training.
So what is Liberation Theology? Basically, Liberation Theology uses scriptural reflection to help oppressed people seek creative spiritual practices to free them from what oppresses them. There were those within the liberation movement who advocated violent revolution as a way of throwing off oppressive regimes. For the most part, however, attention was given to the teaching of Jesus. Freedom from oppression can and should take a non-violent path.
Liberation scholars, such as Gustavo Gutierrez, argued that the Bible was written primarily for poor and oppressed people. As a result, the message of Scripture is more readily understood by people who exist on the economic and political margins of society.
Of course, people not living on the margins may also understand the Bible in this way. Brown and others have argued that even the affluent are subject to forms of oppression ”greed, materialism, prejudice and so on. The message of Scripture offers liberation from whatever holds the human spirit in bondage.
Eventually liberation thinking found its way to other groups. There are liberation theologies for African-Americans, women and homosexuals. These groups have used Liberation Theology in an effort to address a sense of oppression experienced in their varied communities.
As for Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his preaching is but one example of how Liberation Theology functions within a given community. And the response to his message from those outside his community demonstrates how scandalous a message of liberation can be for those who do not share a particular experience of oppression.
Our teachers were right. This is a significant theological movement and we would do well to understand it. And wouldn’t it be great if there is a message of liberation for all of us ”from whatever binds the human spirit.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).