An imperialist tyrant instructs his staff to ensure everyone travels to particular locations to be counted, thus causing serious problems for many people. One couple, a blue collar worker and his pregnant wife, are forced to travel to a distant town, during which time they are not earning any money. After a long and difficult journey, they find there is nowhere for them to stay. So they are forced to seek shelter in an outhouse where, surrounded by animals, the woman gives birth. Some agricultural workers come to see the family and share with them what little they have.
Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, which we celebrate in a month’s time, has many of the features associated with exploitative societies: a powerful despot, supported by the wealthiest sections of society, makes decisions that cause difficulties for those with fewest resources, forcing them into further poverty and even homelessness. No-one will provide this family with decent accommodation, so they are forced to shelter in a dirty and draughty place. The only help they get is from those who are also poor.
Right from his birth Christ was associated with the oppressed. The former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, in “Dancing on the Edge” (Canongate Press, 1997) argues that throughout his whole life Christ sought out the marginalised, who in turn flocked to him. Whether they be shepherds or the poor and homeless or foreigners (the Samaritans, the Magi) or sexual minorities or tax collectors or those with mental or physical health issues, he associated with them, and they followed him. His first disciples were manual workers: fishermen. Even in death he was with the marginalised: executed as a common criminal and, in Luke’s account, promising the thief he would be in heaven.
Contrast that with his attitude towards those in power (whether religious or civil), those who exploit others and those who accumulate wealth for their own personal use. In Matthew 19:16-23, a wealthy man prefers his wealth to following Jesus; in Luke 16: 19-31, a starving beggar watches the wealthy man’s excessive consumption, the beggar is saved, the rich man condemned; in Luke 21:1-4, Christ says the widow’s mite is of greater value than the donations of the wealthy; in Luke 12:16-21 we hear of the rich man who accumulates his wealth, but dies before he can use it.
One of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels is the account of Christ driving the moneylenders and rip-off sellers out of the Temple. Here, with the connivance of Temple leaders, devout Jews are exploited for monetary gain. The story reminds me of my one trip to Lourdes, where the road to the Basilica is packed with shops selling tack such as Sacred Heart ashtrays and Virgin Mary shot glasses.
In 1971, Peruvian Catholic priest Gustavo Gutierrez wrote the ground-breaking “A Theology of Liberation”. Based on his own experience ministering to those living in the slums of Lima, he argues that Jesus had come to liberate humanity, and in particular the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised and the despised. He sees liberation as having three dimensions: firstly, the elimination of the immediate causes of poverty and oppression; secondly, the emancipation of the oppressed from all “…those things that limit their capacity to develop themselves freely and in dignity”; thirdly, liberation from selfishness and a return to a positive relationship with God and humanity. Nelson Mandela in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” (1994) puts it succinctly when he writes: “The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”
Liberation Theology cuts through Church dogma going back to the words of Jesus, and not just his wonderful words about the importance of love and peace, but also those passages in the Gospels where he sows conflict. In Matthew 10:35 Jesus says: “It is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword”, later adding “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” These may seem shocking words, but their message is clear: loving my enemies doesn’t mean I have to let them oppress me. And in fighting for our freedom, we are also helping to free those who would enslave us.
This is not just some intellectual exercise. Its ideas have come out of and informed practice. In the latter third of the 20th century, Christians – including many priests – were heavily involved in liberation movements in Latin America and South Africa. These ranged from living and working in the slums and providing assistance to the poor to taking part in revolutionary movements to, in the case of Nicaragua, taking part in a revolutionary government.
For decades, the Catholic Church attempted to stop the growth of Liberation Theology, and some of its leaders were disciplined. Despite this, its ideas have spread throughout the world, and influenced developments in black, feminist and queer theology. In “Religion is a Queer Thing” (Cassell, 1997), lesbian feminist theologian Elizabeth Stuart wrote: “…it was from the Catholic Church that I learnt that God was a God of liberation who takes the side of the poor and oppressed.”
Whether we subvert the oppressive ideologies of the main denominations by quietly asserting our right to take Communion and share in worship or whether we loudly demand to be treated as equals, or whether we provide a platform for those who are oppressed, we are practising liberation theology and are helping to liberate ourselves and others.