Primer for progressive pilgrims

What is Liberation Theology?

By Tony Campolo, April 30, 2008; 12:16 AM ET

With all the upset over Jeremiah Wright and his so-called Liberation Theology, many have been asking what Liberation Theology is all about. Well, it is not very complicated! It is the simple belief that in the struggles of poor and oppressed people against their powerful and rich oppressors, God sides with the oppressed against the oppressors.

Those who adhere to Liberation Theology point out that all through the Bible we find that God always champions the cause of those who are poor and beaten down as they struggle for dignity, freedom and economic justice. When the children of Israel cry out for help as they suffer the agonies of their enslavement under Pharaoh, God hears their cry and joins them in their fight for freedom. God sides with the Jews as they seek deliverance from Egyptian domination.

Later on, when the Israelites are settled in the Holy Land, there emerge rich and powerful Jews who live lives of affluence without regard for the sufferings of the poor. In response to their indifference, God raises up prophets to decry the plight of the poor and call the rich to repent. The prophets of ancient Israel challenged, in the name of God, what was happening to those who were victimized in an unjustly stratified society.

When we come to the New Testament, we find that Jesus also comes as a liberator. Mary, the mother of Jesus, responds to the annunciation that she will give birth to the Messiah by claiming that it will one day be said of her soon-to-be-born son:

…He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent away empty.—Luke 1:51-53

Jesus himself, in his initial sermon, declares that He has come to bring “good news for the poor” and to “preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:18-19).

The social implications of this biblical theme of liberation have been taken up by a variety of oppressed groups over the past fifty years. Christian feminists have claimed that Jesus came to liberate women from oppression—especially as oppression of women manifests itself in certain Islamic countries, as well as in the male domination encouraged by some forms of Christianity.

Gays who are Christians also have made Jesus their liberator as they have fought for dignity and acceptance in what they believe to be a homophobic society.

And of course, Jeremiah Wright has declared for the African-American community that, in their struggle to overcome the oppression they have had to endure at the hands of what he believes is a racist society, the God revealed in scripture will fight for them.

There will be those who will claim that Liberation Theology is nothing more than a baptized version of a Marxist revolutionary ideology. There is good reason for this because some prominent Latin American theologians have integrated Marxism with a theology of liberation and offered it up as justification for the violent overthrow of what they considered to be evil dictatorships. But it must be noted that most forms of Liberation Theology have nothing to do with Marxism and violent revolutions.

Certainly, Jeremiah Wright is advocating neither Marxism nor violent revolution. What Rev. Wright does say is that, as the African-American community endeavors to establish itself as a people who are both equal with whites and deserving of the dignity that God wills for all human beings, they have God on their side.

Rev. Wright’s words may seem harsh and his style may be strident, but that just may be the way that those of us in the white establishment react. For his African-American brothers and sisters, there may be a different reaction. Many of them will hear him as an angry prophet in the tradition of ancient Israel.

To we white folks, Jeremiah Wright sounds threatening. But we might ask ourselves if we deserve to be threatened.

Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University, is the founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that develops schools and social programs in various third world countries and in cities across North America. He is the author of 35 books, his latest three being, “Letters to a Young Evangelical,” “The God of Intimacy and Action” and his most recently release is “Red Letter Christians, A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics.” or or

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1 comment

    • Mike Nunn on April 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I think that about the only time I really got angry with Obama was when he threw the good Rev. Wright under the bus. I liked the Rev. – not because of his religious beliefs but because he had the right social attitude.

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