Liberation theology comes from the realization that salvation includes more than saving individual souls for eternal life after death (though it does include that). A study of the word “salvation” and related concepts in the Old Testament reveals that salvation usually has a concrete setting in this life. An individual prays for salvation from enemies or from sickness and praises God when the rescue comes. The nation prays for salvation from enemies or for a return from exile.
The exodus or escape of a group of slaves from Egypt is the central historical event of the Old Testament. It is the founding event of the nation of Israel and Israel’s covenant with God. The story begin when God hears the cries of the oppressed and intervenes in history to save them from bondage. Then God forms them into a community of people with a special relationship to himself and to each other.
The theme of liberation continues in the ministry of Jesus, who announced his ministry by quoting these words from the prophet Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind,
To release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Salvation in the New Testament includes the forgiveness of personal sins for a new relationship with God and with one’s fellow pilgrims on earth through Jesus Christ. It includes the hope of full deliverance in the future from all forms of bondage, sickness, suffering, and selfishness. It also includes at least occasionally signs of that future deliverance–sometimes prayers for healing, prosperity, and freedom are answered in this life. Salvation in the New Testament also includes the indwelling presence of Christ in the life of believers through the Holy Spirit. The presence of Christ enables a follower of Christ to continue his ministry of compassion, justice, and liberation.
Liberation theology takes many forms. Some are clearly wrong, depending on the failed economic theory of socialism and hoping to transform society through violent revolution. But liberation theology does not have to be like that, and many forms are not.
Black liberation theology assumes that the experiences of black people gives them a unique vantage point for understanding the message of the Bible. White people have more in common with Pharaoh and Caesar, black people have more in common with the liberated Hebrew slaves and the poor people who followed Jesus.
Black liberation theology in North America is heavily indebted to the ministry of Martin Luther King, who proved that change can come through nonviolent action coupled with prayer and faith.
Black liberation theology teaches that all people are sinful and need repentance, forgiveness, and the presence of the Spirit to overcome the effects of sin. It also realizes that sin takes different forms in different people. In Pharaoh and his followers sin manifests itself in a stubborn refusal to hear the cries of the oppressed and to submit to the message of judgment. In the victims of Pharaoh’s oppression, sin often takes the form of a failure of courage, a lack of faith, an identification with the oppressors rather than heeding God’s message of liberation.
In addition to the reconciling message of Jesus as proclaimed by Dr. King, liberation theologians and preachers also listen to the words (and sometimes mimic the fiery rhetoric) of the biblical prophets like Amos and Jeremiah, or even James the Just, who grew up in the same house with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and sliver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemend and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.