A Balanced Liberation: Including the Privileged

Liberation is a challenging topic for me as a middle-class white male. I almost feel like it would be a disservice for me to speak into liberation theologies from my position of social power, and I never want to give the impression that I can empathize (or truly understand) the depth of emotion and need within oppressed cultures.

On the other hand, one of the indicators of growing strength within civil rights movements is when individuals within the group of oppressors stand side-by-side with the oppressed in resistance. So as a member of the privileged in American society, I want to stand up alongside the underprivileged, supporting (but not directing) their movements.

In one of my classes last term, we read James Evans’s book We Have Been Believers, a short, systematic perspective on African American liberation theology. I was struck in that reading by how consistently the Hebrew Scriptures focus on the cycle of Hebrew captivity, exile/subjugation, and then deliverance. The repetition of this narrative seems to have been a defining characteristic of the Jewish heritage; in my previous experience of evangelical theology, though, the power of this narrative has been almost entirely lost.

The liberation stories of Hebrew Scripture are powerful in that they describe God’s care for freeing people from bonds of oppression. Orthodox Christianity has often re-framed this concept of liberation as being a deliverance from spiritual oppression — bondage to sin and the shortcomings of human nature — the stories themselves speak to deliverance from physical and social oppression. This appropriation of deliverance narratives in historical Western theology probably began with the simple intention of relating them to the worldview and experience of the white adherents of that (white) Westernized theology, but such a full-forced embrace of that adjusted interpretation had the harmful effect of censuring its original, truer application.

Indeed, for white theologians to have embraced the original narrative of physical and social liberation, they would have been forced to confront their own complicity in systemic oppression — just as I, as a middle-class white male in the twenty-first century, must confront the ways in which I participate in perpetuating the status of people of color and women as second-class citizens today.

There is a danger, though, in taking a pendulum swing in the other direction and embracing full-on the liberative theology found in Exodus. As societies change, the oppressed too-easily become the oppressors (the Exodus story itself bears this out as the Israelites enter into the Promised Land and proceed to pillage and burn its way through the peoples inhabiting the area). When that happens, the temptation of a liberation-only paradigm is to continue to see oneself as the oppressed, as the perpetual victim, because the theological framework cannot support any other understanding of being. The heart of the gospel, though, does not rest upon one’s position in society — it speaks truth into social status, conveying meaning in whatever place we occupy. It speaks of hope in the midst of oppression and it speaks of humility and servanthood in the seat of power.