Archives For Liberation Theology

Can the oppressed nonetheless also be unrighteous?

Are the poor blessed by virtue of being poor, possessing an inherent righteousness, or do they not also need atonement made?

Can a victim of systemic sin still be a sinner in need of forgiveness? And speaking of victims, what about victimizers? If God’s preferential option is for the former, can the latter be justified?

I’m wondering about these questions because in the Gospel lection for this coming Sunday, Jesus pitches his (premeditated) Temple tantrum, whipping the money-changers, driving the livestock out of the sanctuary, and drop-kicking the cash registers. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ violent protest takes place the week of his Passion, but in John’s Gospel, the text for Sunday, the Temple tantrum comes right after the first of his signs, the wedding at Cana.

That the Jewish Leaders respond to Jesus behaving badly only by asking by what authority he has said and done this but do not call for his arrest implies that they likewise recognize the problem at hand. Because Roman coinage bore the image of Caesar and was stamped with a profession of faith to Caesar’s Lordship, it was unclean and out of bounds for Jewish ritual use. Moreover because it’s inconvenient to travel very far with your prized 4-H bull, Jewish pilgrims who came to the Jerusalem Temple for festival days often needed to purchase sacrificial animals after they arrived. So, in the text, the sheep and doves are being sold on the Temple grounds because neither would fit in a pilgrim’s wallet or duffle bag, and the money-changers have their tables set up there too because there’s little point in sacrificing an animal to make atonement for your sin if you’re going to buy that animal with cash that itself breaks the first and most foundational of commandments.

What Jesus diagnoses as a “den of thieves” began as an understandable and well-intentioned system. But, if you’ve been trapped in a movie theater, airport, or baseball stadium, then you can easily imagine how this process devolved into price-gouging poor pilgrims, extorting the faithful for ever greater sums.

That Jesus’ Temple tantrum is premeditated (he wove the whip from ropes) underscores how Jesus intended it as a performed parable. Rather than spontaneous anger, the Temple tantrum is a prophetic demonstration against an unjust and exploitive economic system.

Sure enough, this is how the John 2 text will get preached in many pulpits this coming Sunday. Jesus’ meme-starting moment in the Temple will be used as an example to exhort Christians to go and do likewise, pitching their own Temple tantrums to rage against modern day money-changers.

The righteous anger of the students in Parkland, Florida, for example, is an easy parallel to draw to Jesus’ own fury in his Father’s House and I’d bet a bull and 2 sheep that many preachers will go there. And to connect those dots from the pages of John’s Gospel to the newspaper pages isn’t wrong per se; it’s insufficient, for to employ this passage for imperatives exhorting social justice is to narrow the frame of the text.

As Pope Benedict writes, to ‘cast Jesus [merely] as a reformer in this passage of the cleansing of the Temple fails to do justice to the witness of the passage.’

To read the cleansing of the Temple as a prophetic act of social justice that compels our own similar acts misses what Jesus says in response to the leaders’ questions about his authority- and it misses how his answer differs from the Synoptics’ rendering of this response. In John, Jesus responds to their questions about his authority by saying “Destroy this Temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” In the Synoptic Gospels, by contrast, this statement is put on the lips of Jesus’ accusers. What’s more, his accusers edit the statement, saying Jesus said: “I will destroy this Temple and in three days I will build another…” In the latter, Jesus is the agent of destruction but in the former, in John’s Gospel, we are the agents of destruction.

Which means:

Jesus is the Temple

And the sign of his authority is his Cross and Resurrection

Jesus identifying himself as the Temple where atonement is made echoes how the Book of Hebrews understands Christ’s own flesh as the Temple veil that mediates the holiness of God and the sin of humanity and Christ’s cross as the mercy seat upon which the propitiation of blood is sprinkled, once and for all.

In answering with himself as the Temple, Jesus points out that the system of Temple sacrifice wasn’t only problematic for those who made an exploitive mockery of it, it was problematic- maybe more so- for those who were sincere about it because it could not atone for your sins, once for all.

As common as it is for preachers to interpret Jesus’ Temple tantrum as the impetus for what we do against exploitive systems of injustice, scripture itself- notably, the Book of Hebrews- uses this passage not in terms of what we must do for God but what God has done in Christ for us.

That Jesus is the Temple, his flesh its veil, and his cross its mercy seat shows that the problem humanity faces is more systemic than the problems about which we prefer to preach

The New Testament, indeed all of the Bible, points to a far deeper and far graver source of human misery than injustice and oppression. It’s popular to the point of cliche to insist that God stands on the side of the marginalized and dispossessed and while that’s certainly true, it’s insufficient for, according to scripture, the marginalized and oppressed with whom God stands are also sinners in need of forgiveness and mercy.

To put it another way:

Liberation is not Salvation.

The emphasis upon social justice in the Church, whose premise is that what defines God’s redemptive activity is liberation from oppression, displaces the centrality that belongs to Jesus Christ alone as Savior of the world. What defines God’s redemptive activity is not liberation from oppression but from the Powers of Sin and Death, for the sign of God’s redemptive activity, so says Jesus, is Cross and Resurrection.

Liberation from oppression, standing up against social injustice, solidarity with the marginalized- those are all faithful frames and postures but they are not sufficient for what scripture names by ‘salvation’ because the oppressed still require atonement for their sins.

The dispossessed do not posses an inherent righteousness.

As my teacher George Hunsinger notes, referring to Karl Barth‘s work:

“The New Testament message, as I understand it, is that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we are helpless to save ourselves, and that our only hope lies in God’s gracious intervention for us in Jesus Christ. There is only one work of salvation. It has been accomplished by Christ. It is identical with his person…

Victim-oriented theologies, such as we find among the liberationists, fail to do justice to this central truth. The fundamental human plight is that of sinners before God not of victims before oppressors.”


Here’s the second part to our conversation with Dr. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez.

Back in the day, Ruben taught me Barth for the first time. Now, we’re both black sheep, closet Reformation guys in Catholic and Wesleyan folds respectively. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez is professor of theology at St. Louis University and is the author of the powerful new book Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence.
In this installment, Ruben talks particularly about racism in both the academy and in the student body.

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

Back in the day, Ruben taught Jason Barth, Luther, and Calvin for the first time. Now, they’re both black sheep, closet Reformation guys in Catholic and Wesleyan folds respectively. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez teaches theology at St. Louis University and is the author of the powerful new book Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence.
In the 2-part conversation, Jason and Ruben talk about racism, liberation theology, the limits of post-liberalism, and martyrdom as a necessary possibility to any definition of Christian ‘witness.’
Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

Disclaimer: This is not a ‘political’ post, sorry to disappoint.


One of the articles making its way around the blogosphere is John Blake’s recent post, The Gospel According to Obama, on CNN’s Belief Blog.

When I was a student in college, I unintentionally attended a black church one Sunday morning. Still new to the faith, I wasn’t sophisticated in deciphering church names, denominational markers etc.

I had no idea the church I stepped into was going to be a black church. I had no idea until that Sunday that the way the faith was expressed and understood in churches like that was so very different from what I knew.  And I had no idea until that Sunday to what extent my own Christianity had been conditioned by my white, middle-class, suburban life.

That Sunday in college, and worship services and relationships that followed into seminary, lead me to think Blake’s article, while not crap, is wrong.

Blake takes up the now familiar, tired storyline about how many white, evangelical Christians do not view the President as a Christian, when Christianity is in fact the religion espoused by the President. Blake steers clear of the now familiar, tired statistics which describe the disturbing number of Americans who believe the President is a Muslim or a crypto-Muslim (why that would necessarily disqualify him for office is another, seldom asked question).

Instead Blake takes the ‘the President is Other’ storyline in a different direction. Blake, marshaling the inconclusive- and not a little opportunistic- opinions of Diana Butler Bass and Jim Wallis, argues that the reason white evangelicals don’t understand the President as a Christian is because they don’t understand his Christianity.

True so far, I think.

Blake, Bass and Wallis argue that evangelicals don’t understand the President’s Christianity because his is a ‘Social Justice’ Christianity, which focuses on the biblical mandate to care and advocate for the poor.

This is where they go wrong, I believe.

There’s no doubt the President’s political perspective overlaps with the Social Justice tradition on many tangible points; however, Blake, Bass and Wallis conveniently- but also mind-blowingly (and ultimately, offensively)- gloss over the fact that the Social Justice movement was from its inception and remains, in its muted strength, a movement of white, affluent Christians while the President- newsflash- is black.

In so thorough a piece, Blake somehow leaves out the fact that the Black Church in America has its own very particular, historically rooted understanding of the Christian story and its this-worldly implications for the poor.

The gaping hole Blake leaves in his article where the Black Church should be leaves one to wonder if he- or Bass and Wallis- actually know any African American Christians. That’s hyperbole. I’m sure they do. Still, for white liberal Christians, like Wallis and Bass, to leave out the distinctive witness of the Black Church and see in a black President’s faith only their own reflection is its own kind of racism.

White evangelicals don’t misunderstand the President because he’s a Social Justice Christian; they misunderstand him because he’s a black Christian. 

 Or maybe, I think the logic holds (and applies equally to Wallis and Bass), they misunderstand him because he’s black.

Which, more so than any political point, may reveal out a more serious omission. To paraphrase Paul, we can’t all be a part of the Body of Christ and live like we have no use for the other.

This is how Scot McKnight pushes back on Blake’s article:

“I find it exasperating that once again the commentators and locators of Obama’s faith are lilly-white Americans: Jim Wallis and Diana Butler Bass. Both of whom, intelligent as they are, want to locate Obama’s faith in the social justice tradition….But there’s a major issue. White elites are the ones who articulated the Social Gospel, most famously Walter Rauschenbusch but not limited to him. That Social Gospel was fixed deeply in the psyche and ministries of much of the mainline denominations so much that one can say culture and church meshed to where difference is not always detectable. Mainline faith in the USA is the religion of the privileged. The Social Gospel is a kind of white social justice Christianity.

 African American “social gospel” types are not simply the Social Gospel type. Why did we not have an interview with someone like Brian Blount, a clear, forceful African American liberation theologian? Or James Cone? It is my view that “Social Gospel” does not do justice to President Obama’s faith.

 A theology done from the oppressed and for the oppressed is not the same as a theology done from the position of power and privilege. President Obama’s faith is an African American liberation kind of social gospel. There’s a difference and it is worth the nuance.

Here’s the link to the rest of Scot’s post.