Lenses of Liberation and Love

Edited by Charlie Snyder

Photo Courtesy of Anastasia Vityukova

By Anderson Hultgren

Published September 1st 2020

            “Well, life’s not fair,” my mother would often tell me. Didn’t she see that my siblings received toys when I didn’t? As an adolescent, my standard of justice and fairness was set by an equality of opportunity. Truth be told, in my limited scope of fairness I often ignored the moments when I alone received toys, and I did not know how unimportant my toys were. However, we live in a world where many do not receive equality, fairness, or justice. Some are born into elite social circles while others are punished with exclusion. Many peoples are oppressed for their identities, races, and cultures.

            I understand this is a hot-button issue. The reason justice is such a divisive issue is because those who have spotted injustices have attempted to right those wrongs through political and economic means.[1] The subject is often presented in such a way that one is forced to choose between two options: Either (1) impose socialistic-sacrifices on everyone or (2) propagate and allow injustice.[2] At least, that’s how the argument is often presented, bringing an immediate pressure to take a side and stand against the other.

            Before we move forward, I suggest that we pause for a moment, breathe, and look to God’s word. When we look to His word we are sanctified, challenged, and transformed.[3] While I am no expert on political or economic theory, I am trained in Biblical Theology, and the Bible has much to say about justice. In this article, I will refrain from taking a political side while attempting to point out how justice, righteousness, and love are interlinked. 

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.”
-Isaiah 1:16-17 ESV

            Above is God’s call to justice—the call of repentance. For context, Israel had mixed allegiances between God and the pursuit of idols. Their idolatry was caused and maintained by the trappings of “human pomp, politics, and power (Isa. 1:21-23; 2:12-17).”[4] Inevitably, such prideful exclusivity caused the weak and impoverished to suffer,[5] and their suffering was escalated by financial and social manipulation of the legal system.[6]

            It is all too clear that our United States of America has stumbled[7] upon similar trappings. The age old phrase, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”[8] is an apt description of our current oppressive socioeconomic-climate. While the phrase is not a rule, it accurately describes  many instances of oppression.[9] As we all know, the more expensive lawyer tends to win in our justice system. 
            Theologians have attempted to tackle justice and its nature before. Approaches such as Liberation Theology[10] perceive everything through an “axis of the oppressor and oppressed.”[11] According to this framework, oppression occurs when the prosperous exclusively hold organizations, insights, and education—further dividing the powerful and the powerless. Oppression is a system, created both intentionally and unintentionally, that ends up stifling a group of people. 
            Scripture tells us that our God is “a God of justice” (Is. 30:18b ESV), even proclaiming Himself as the Judge (Is. 33:22). Our hymns have accurately described Him, “Fairest Lord Jesus! Ruler of all nature! O thou of God and man the Son.”[12] In the end, God will destroy all that destroys. Our divine Judge will bring justice and judgment and make all things right.[13] As a result, contrary to my mother, life is fair; it just isn’t fair yet. 
            In both the original Greek and Hebrew, the biblical words for justice include a personal and a communal aspect.[14] We tend to separate them through  two words: justice and righteousness. While we often view righteousness as an individual pursuit, we are equally commanded to pursue communal righteousness—what we often call justice. Some have gone far enough to proclaim that there is no difference between justice and righteousness.[15] Either way, to leave justice for the future is to abandon Christian righteousness.
            So we turn to God again. Where God is just He is also patient, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9b ESV). He is our merciful Father, waiting to embrace His prodigal children.[16] He is our Brother, stretching out His hands to His followers.[17] Despite our failings, He will "never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb. 13:5 ESV). 
            These faithful embraces are our hope and example to follow.[18] We learn to embrace similarly by welcoming “one another as Christ has welcomed you" (Rom. 15:7 ESV). We welcome with love, remembering that "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8 ESV). Christ’s death exemplifies the sacrificial (or self-giving) element of pursuing justice.[19] Our welcome should embrace the sinner while forgiving the sin.[20] 
            Many want to liberate through oppressive and sinful tactics, yet God’s word offers the more powerful tactic of loving God and neighbor (Mk. 12:31). These two loves are the very foundation of righteousness and justice.[21] As Jesus said, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt. 22:40 ESV). 
            The first, loving God, allows access[22] to the Truth,[23] and the Truth will set us free (Jn. 8:32). That freedom is from the chains that injustice and unrighteousness inflict. We can find the Truth only through a relationship with God. Every thought or perception fails in comparison to God’s truth. Simply put, God’s standard of truth informs us if our distinctions, traditions, and identifications are accurate. 
            God’s standard of truth allows us to properly love our neighbor. When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29b ESV), He responded with the parable of The Good Samaritan. The famous Samaritan was not of the same region, religion, or culture of the Jewish listeners.[24] Likewise, our neighbor is not limited to those we know, love, and trust but extends to those on the street, those in the grocery store, and those unlike ourselves.[25] 
            The common likeness the Bible identifies is the “likeness of God.”[26] Some have called it common humanity. These biblical commonalities and likenesses are tools to help build each other up.[27] Yet even if the other does not benefit us we must be self-giving like our Savior Jesus Christ. It was Jesus who spoke, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13 ESV).
            The Bible teaches that love comes from God, and it also identifies that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:7-8 ESV). The apostle Paul reminds us that, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13 ESV). Not only are we to love our neighbor (Mk. 12:31), but we are to love our enemies (Lk. 6:27). 
            Love is always primary; even when before an oppressor.[28] True love is a power  that oppressive power cannot combat. Oppressive power uses tools of fear[29] (Is. 51:14), but 1 John tells us that love does not contain fear and that love casts out all fear (1 Jn. 4:18 ESV). Love denies fear’s demands and pushes one to embrace the other.
            As we conclude our pause, I wish to give the source of much of this article. In Dr. Miroslav Volf’s fine book Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, he summarized, 

“The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgement about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any ‘truth’ about others and any construction of their ‘justice.’”[30] 

            Now our pause has been lifted, and with our new perspective we can return to dealing with justice. It is my hope that, when looking to justice, oppression, and righteousness, the lens of loving God and neighbor was gained. Exclusion will inevitably bring destruction, sin, and death.[31] Viewing people through loving embrace counters such fruits by allowing us to taste fruits of divine embrace, human flourishing, and justice. With lenses aligned to God’s righteousness—love of God and neighbor—we can address the political and economic injustices before us.

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] FBI, "2017 Crime in the United States." Federal Bureau of Investigation (2017), Online. Accessed Aug 16th, 2020: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/topic-pages/persons-arrested; Rarely do we ponder poverty or the oppressed. Our justice system largely prevails against property crimes, drug use, DUIs, and traffic violations. US justice has aimed to serve and protect but with worldly standards, while Biblical justice uses God’s standard of truth to attend to sin and the consequential oppression. 

            [2] John M. Frame, “Liberation Theology” The Gospel Coalition (2015). Online. Accessed Aug. 18, 2020: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/liberation-theology/

            [3] Rom. 12; Cor. 3:18

            [4] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 7.

            [5] See Is. 10:1-4; Mal. 3:5; Oswalt, Isaiah, 258. 

            [6] Oswalt, Isaiah, 259

            [7] Note: Though stumbled implies accident, much of systematic oppression was planned socially, politically, and theologically. The best writing I have found on the subject is: Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (United States: Yale University Press, 2010).

            [8] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry: Ed. with Introduction and Notes by Albert S. Cook .... United States: Ginn, 1890.

            [9] Note: Certainly a larger investment can multiply greater than a lesser investment, giving the rich an unequally-proportionate level of success. 

            [10] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities (San Fransisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1986), 137; Liberation Theologians should be praised for addressing the oppressed groups that Christians have often ignored and, sometimes, even oppressed. Liberationists hold a wide variety of views on the standard of oppression. Some held strongly to biblical truths where others denied the Bible entirely, proclaiming, “These texts and all oppressive texts have lost their power over our lives. We no longer need to apologize for them or try to interpret them as words of truth, but we cast out their oppressive message.” To reject God’s word is to reject God Himself, and becomes something entirely nonchristian. I only communicate these diverse approaches in hopes that you will not be swept into a storm of confusion when asking the question, “Is Liberation Theology good?” The answer to that question is simply, “Sometimes.” 

            [11] Frame, “Liberation Theology.”  

            [12] Schlesische Volkslieder, "Fairest Lord Jesus" (1842), Accessed Aug. 21, 2020: https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/175

            [13] Ps. 145:20; 1 Cor. 3:17; The New Testament warns us that the wrath of God is coming (Rom. 1:18; 2:5); that judgement and justice are coming (2 Cor. 5:10; 14:10; Rev. 20; Mt. 12:36).

            [14] See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). 

            [15] See Philpott, Daniel. Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation (UK: Oxford University Press, 2015).

            [16] Luke 15:11-32; 2 Cor. 1:3

            [17] Mt. 12:46-50

            [18] 2 Tim. 2:12; 2 Thes. 3:3; Anderson Hultgren, “Theology of Comfort: Comfort of the Biblical and the Secular” (essay, Moody Bible Institute, 2020), 46, “Eschatological prophecy is the present consequence of God's actions in the future. Likened to present actions consequating from present to future God's actions can also consequate from future to present. This reverse-temporal aspect is due to God's perfect faithfulness, specifically why hope is a current comfort.” For God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new." (Rev. 21:4-5a ESV).

            [19] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2019), 13.

            [20] See Miraslov Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

            [21] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 338-339. 

            [22] Rom. 5:1;  The ESV translates προσαγωγὴν as 'access,' but it can be translated as 'introduced,' as the NASB translated. See, Steven J. Lawson, “Justification Benefits, Part II - Romans 5:2” (Sermon, One Passion Ministries, Dallas, TX, December 6 2017); Douglas K. Moo. “The Letter to the Romans.” The New International Commentary of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 328.

            [23] Jn. 14:6

            [24] Lk. 10:25–37

            [25] Anderson Hultgren, “Theology of Comfort,” 72-73. “‘I like that person’ and ‘I don't like that person, they're weird.’ The phrases use the word like to describe the emotional reaction to a likeness with the person. We like things that we are like. There is a causal interplay between the two. Kant theorized that likeness is directly in relation to association, ‘We dislike him if we do not find in him the good qualities we look for; we cannot associate with him, nor can he be our friend; but apart from that, we bear him no ill-will … if he would stay away.’ A common likeness is often found through processes of similar thinking, values, or even outer appearance—the list is seemingly endless. Thus, Aesop's moral, ‘There can be little liking where there is no likeness.’ However, humanity was made in the likeness of God. The biblical approach to likeness is through the likeness in which humanity was created. The Bible addresses the other Christian and the other in the world ... To see the other through the likeness of God will usher compassion onto the other.” 

            [26]  Gen. 1:26-27, 5:1-3; Jas. 3:9

            [27] Gen. 2:18, 1 Cor. 12:1; Rom. 14-15:1

            [28] The distinction between an oppressive person and an oppressive system is vital. We are not called to love systems but to love people. We are not called to forgive systems but reform and correct them. 


For more on the subject see: Miroslav Volf, “AGAINST A PRETENTIOUS CHURCH: A REJOINDER TO BELL’S RESPONSE” Modern Theology 19:2 (Apr 2003), 284. ISSN 1468-0025 (Online), “...in cases of systemic injustice, perpetrators themselves are not full-blown actors but to a large extent “functions” of the system (and therefore in need not only of forgiveness but also of deliverance). Should the victims forgive the system? That would be absurd. The system must be simply changed.”

            [29] Fear, defined through: Past experiences being distorted in present circumstances. 

            [30] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 19. 

            [31] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 39, "Finally, the fruit of alienation, unfaithfulness, and oppression is destruction--the rampant self seeks to destroy everything it cannot control (10:7-14). This is sin, a pattern of behavior that has its source in a proud refusal to admit dependency. (See esp. ch. 1.)"

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