"Liberation Theology and Salvation"
An essay donated by Georgia Stewart
Liberation Theology and Salvation
The idea that salvation is available solely within the Christian community
stemmed from the Church Fathers in the fourth century when Christianity
"became the religion of the Roman state." (Gutierrez 1974:228)
This assertion became so deeply rooted that the Church is still proclaimed
today as the single source of salvation along with the assumption that its
main purpose is redemption from sin.
I will show that liberation theology, which began in Latin America in,
officially 1968, assumes a new method of working out salvation that is
really the old way of the first century Christians (Rom. 11:32). This way
of understanding salvation or liberation includes from physical conditions
and social exclusion as well as the spiritual aspect and focuses on the
poor. God through the saving action of Jesus Christ, who died for the
whole of humankind, freely gives universal salvation according to this
theology. Not only all humanity but also the whole person including
his/her physical well being is paramount within it. How can a starving
person place his/her spiritual health first?
Creation, history and eschatology lead to this conclusion and I will
elaborate on these more fully.
The Whole Person:
A generally accepted claim about salvation in Christianity is that its
purpose is to save people from sin:
"Sacred Scripture uses the word "salvation" mainly in the sense of
liberation of the human race or individual man from sin and its
consequences." (Catholic Encyclopaedia)
John McIntryre explains that he cannot find any N.T evidence that
affirms Christ died as a punishment in our place for our sins. (McIntyre
"For example, I can not find New Testament statements that outrightly affirm that the death of Christ was a punishment visited
upon Jesus rather than upon the mass of sinful mankind. (McIntyre
Some Christians would dispute this on the grounds of 2 Corinthians. 5.21: 1 Peter
2.24 and Romans 3.21-6 for example.
He mentions a reconciliation theory which dismisses the idea of an angry
God demanding sacrifice but causes a "change of heart" a turning from sin
through Jesus as our example (1 Pet 2.21)
...It does so as part of the whole reconciling activity of God in
Jesus Christ, which is designed precisely to make good the
alienation between God and mankind created by human sin.
Scripture focuses piercingly on oppression and injustice, teaching that
God wants to be reconciled with all people and fully liberate them,
although in its evangelisation the Christian community usually only
focuses on salvation of the soul by the forgiveness of sins.
Liberation theology differs in its approach and practice in that it is more
than simply from sin that a person's needs saving; the whole person's
needs are met in salvation: the root sense of the word is health.
"...to fight against poverty and for the integral liberation of all
persons and the whole person-that is what liberation theology
means." (Boff 1987:8)
The Boff brothers, Leonardo and Clodovis claim that the gospel is mainly
aimed at those with sub-standard living conditions, the oppressed and
marginalized peoples. They call them "nonpersons" and they do somehow
seem to be invisible because they do not enjoy equality with those better
off and sometimes do not even possess basic human rights. Firstly they
need saving from unjust living conditions and all of the elements that
oppress them. Their spiritual salvation will be a part of the process of
liberation in that within praxis the opening up of scripture is available.
Gerald West explains how he communicates his understanding of how to
study the Bible to the poor, enabling them to find their own answers
relating to their situations as oppose to having it interpreted for them as is
usually the case in the Christian community.
"... members of that community use and reinterpret the symbol of
the kingdom of God to make meaning of and communicate their
reality of poverty and oppression, of suffering and hope. (Rowland
This involves the whole person including his/her situation because most
of the Bible is about oppressed, enslaved or marginalized people. For
example West helped 'poor African women' by teaching them to interpret
Mark 5.21-6.1 to see that women were imperative to the story: "The plot
depends on her presence ... the woman with the flow of blood ... is
foregrounded even though she seeks to be self-effacing." (Rowland
1999:143) In this way theology enables people to claim scripture for
themselves and shows that it relates to the whole person's situation and
practical needs so the Christian community should acknowledge this as
part of salvation (Isaiah. 58.6,7)
Charles Villa-Vicentio explains how the Israelites and the early
Christians worked out what was important in life by their comprehension
of God's ways:
Both these societies were driven by an understanding of a God who
takes sides with the poor and destitute ... whose basic needs are not
satisfied. (Rowland 1999:166)
If God were only interested in the sinful state of a person's soul as many
Christians suppose, and salvation only catered for this, then why would
these two important peoples, the chosen people of God and the early
followers of Christ, demonstrate within scripture that God is deeply
concerned with people's well-being (Acts 2 & 4) and eager to save us
from all that obstructs it?
The Church is forced to take account of the practical needs of the poor
minorities; it should not prioritize liberation from sin over liberation of
the whole person.
Gustavo Gutierrez claims that salvation began in creation, according to
the perspective of liberation, when seen in the light of the Exodus.
"This line of interpretation is suggested by the outstanding fact of
the Exodus; because of it, creation is regarded as the first salvific
act and salvation as a new creation. (Gutierrez 1974:172)
The Exodus reveals that God created us to be at liberty; we have the
freedom to choose to work towards the salvation of all existence, "The
human work, the transformation of nature, continues creation..."
He explains that from the moment of creation humankind was intended to
participate in salvation; the Israelites had to be active during the Exodus
for God's plan to be accomplished (Ex. 12.34-39). Today we must be
active and not passive reciprocators of salvation: to be actors in God's
movement throughout history to draw creation to him.
When held up to Gutierrez' claim that creation was the first salvific act
the notion entertained by some Christians that salvation is purely from sin
does not stand up if salvation was present in creation before the first sin.
Salvation within creation was offered as the potential for freedom in God,
including freedom from sin, which is not simply removed by it but has to
be fought. Bastiaan Wielengal shows how active participation is being
responsible for salvation within creation:
"Liberation theology..will have the task of showing that the threat
of eco-catastrophes means a greater historical responsibility for
humankind than ever before." (Rowland 1999:60)
He encompasses diverse peoples in this activity, including non-Christians
and eco-feminists for example, who have their own particular insights to
contribute. Liberation theology is a listening theology.
Villa-Vicentio highlights the dilemma of "threats to the environment:"
This is a reality that has deep cultural roots, requiring that the
theological borderline between dominion and domination (Genesis
1.28) be investigated. (Rowland 1999:166)
Gutierrez has investigated the meaning of the phrase and his answer is
simple and clear: the book of Job (Job 37:13) clarifies the phrase
'dominate the earth' to show that' ... it is not the human being, rather the
gratuitous love of God, which is at the heart and meaning of all creation.'
To me the key word here is gratuitous because nothing is ours by any
right of our own; dominion over creation is a gift and not one that we
may selfishly use without damage being done. Gutierrez speaks of the
right to beauty and to life; if God freely gives these things, what right has
someone else to spoil or remove them?
To be in a salvific relationship with God, it is important to be careful
caretakers of the planet and to see that the earth's bounty is distributed
equally so that no one suffers or dies for lack of provision. God gave life;
he liberated the universe from chaos, and when bondage or chaos enters
the life of any person in any form, be it oppression, starvation or slavery
he liberates usually through the mediation of people.
An inherent paradigm is that one of the means by which God created, the
mediation theodicy, which is life being passed from person to person, is
related to salvation from the time of creation being mediated through
Boff writes about `hermeneutical mediation' in that the poor relate to
Scripture because of the similar situations found there.
"The liberation theologian goes to the scriptures bearing the whole
weight of the problems, sorrows, and hopes of the poor, seeking
light and inspiration from the divine word." (Boff 1987:132)
Throughout history beginning at creation, God has mediated his salvation
through people, through the birth and life cycle, and the written word mediating
experiences and solutions, and this is the task of liberation theology, to
mediate liberation. "Liberative hermeneutics seeks to
discover and activate the transforming energy of biblical texts." (Boff
1987:22) The writers of the Bible stories are still mediating salvation to
those of us in similar situations today.
Salvation is not only a single moment in the life of an individual when
they can say they were saved as many Christians traditionally claim; it is
for the whole person, all people and is ongoing. We are daily liberated or
saved from situations and should be daily mediating salvation to others.
All Humanity's Salvation:
Pope Paul V1 warned against the danger of neglecting one's fellow man
due to an overtly spiritualized concept of salvation: "The Christian who
neglects his temporal duties towards his neighbor and towards God,
jeopardizing his eternal salvation.." He criticizes shirking action "..on
the pretext of otherworldly spirituality in order that Marxism (which
influenced liberation theology) would not 'seem attractive' or more
effective than Christianity and 'promote' 'violent reaction'." (Rowland
1999:180) Though he makes all the right noises, even saying that the
Holy Spirit speaks through people and movements, his priority seems to
be the defense of the Church against the threat of Marxism, and
according to Peter Hebblethwaite he passes the task of listening to the
Base Christian Community with simply a few guidelines. (Rowland
1999:181) There is a vast difference between duty to one's neighbor in
order that the Church will be seen to be doing its job and securing its own
salvation, and love and respect for him/her that begets an awareness of
his/her needs in order to help liberate them.
Gutierrez takes the relationship with the poor to a deeper level by
asserting that the poor are not only to be helped and listened to but more
importantly learnt from; there is a subtle difference between listening and learning.
"For the poor challenge the church at all times, summoning it to
conversion ... many of the poor incarnate in their lives ... values of
solidarity, service, simplicity.." (Gutierrez 1974:38)
The Pope said there is a widening gap between rich and poor (Rowland
1999:180) yet his Church has vast wealth while within its hierarchy the
poor remain `below' instead of being saved from poverty. The Gentiles
were excluded from the inner sanctuary of the Israelites Temple and
could only enter the outer courts where there would be bloody meat for
sacrifice, stench and flies. I suspect this could be similar to Paul V1's
promoting the option for the poor (siding with oppressed peoples)
because of an agenda while neglecting direct personal communication
and perhaps keeping them on the peripheral as the Jews did with the
Gentiles. Do our communities keep the minorities on the peripheral of our
Gutierrez criticizes a negative Christian perspective of different peoples
and wishes "... to reconcile faith and world..." (Gutierrez 1974:172)
Only in embracing all peoples do we encompass the purview of salvation
that extends to all of creation. He thinks that unjust situations are a barrier
to God's working out his salvation in history and that struggle
"enlightened by faith" (Gutierrez 1974:173) will open up new
understanding for all dimensions of life.
Villa-Vicencio explains that we can meet with God in the poor
communities, and this points away from a personal perspective of
salvation where we do the occasional good deed to ease the conscience as
oppose to participating in the liberation of others; for example by helping
them to help themselves. Evangelists sometimes say, "Put money into this
collection box and God will bless you!" God blesses me anyway and will
any of the money aid the poor?
According to Villa-Vicencio's statement below, if we want a living
relationship with God that goes deeper than a simply personal one, we
must walk side by side with the marginalized ones in our societies to
closely see him at work. "It is communal rather than individualistic in
character in response to God's gracious activity within the world..."
Steve Chalke challenges the Church about being exclusive; "Are we
liberators of excluded people or simply another dimension of their
oppression?" (Chalke 2003:94)
A friend says she refuses to ask her Church for help with her heroin
addict friend because "They are too la de da!"
Gutierrez so looks forward to a liberated and reconciled world that he
proclaims that the kingdom of peace foretold by Isaiah (Isa. 32.17) will
begin in this temporal realm: "..the coming of the Kingdom ... necessarily and inevitably historical, temporal, earthly,
social, and material realities..' (Gutierrez 1974:166) He explains that
"The complete encounter with the Lord" will take place in history though
at the same time ending it. He quotes Isaiah's building of houses (Isa.
65.21-22) (Gutierrez 1974:166). Though I commend his hopeful attitude
that full salvation will occur in this temporal realm I think his over-
enthusiasm is a trifle idyllic. Paul writes that at the parousia we will
"..meet the Lord in the air..." (1 Thess. 4.17) and Jesus said the poor
will always be with us (Jn. 12:8)
I think that there are people who simply will not conform to God's saving
plan for the world while there are still the human failings of greed, envy
and anger over land disputes etc., and I expect these to remain in the
world. I prefer the Boff's inspiring yet more realistic proposal of working
towards the kingdom's fulfillment, as Gutierrez does, but nevertheless not
predicting its arrival too soon on this earth because we cannot know these
things until they are revealed.
They explain that the kingdom will come when people hoping for `the
absolute utopia of communion with God in a totally redeemed creation.'
have made themselves ready but that it will not be the same heaven and
Paul writes "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face
to face." (1 Cor. 13.12) In the Greek dimly can mean riddle or enigma so
when Isaiah speaks of houses they may not be of bricks but of the
kingdom in heaven.
Carlos Corretto sees the kingdom as completely new and writes that the
only thing left will be all that is good in people, especially love and "tears
shed in the cause of the just."
"I am making a new heaven and earth ... and it is as if he were
saying: I am making another universe because the old things have
passed away." (Corretto 1975:28)
An alternative is that it is fully here now, which is why we have salvation
now. That when every eye sees Jesus (Rev. 1.7) it will be individually
when we die which would explain why the writer of Revelation says
"...the time is near" (Rev. 1.3). Jesus says the kingdom cannot be seen
and is among us. (Lk. 17.20-21)
Chalke writes that the kingdom is now and includes a "return from exile"
or salvation "for all peoples." (Chalke 2003:30)
I presume that we are being saved for a transformed reality, one in which
there will be no injustice and oppression. Within it we can certainly
assume will be those who have fought for the cause of the weak and I
have a hope that the whole of humanity will be included.
To work toward the kingdom by fighting injustice is to prepare
humankind; to build a lasting relationship with God and each other on
earth and to bring about freedom from oppression now in expectation of
the freedom of the kingdom to come.
Liberation theology acknowledges the need to work towards God's
salvation for all here on earth instead of simply waiting for the end. In
Christianity much of the speculation about eschatology/end times seems
to be about how or when this will occur: "The issue of whether true
believers will see the end causes division in evangelical circles."
(Wikipedia) While Christians squabble about the details of the manner of
the coming of the kingdom others are striving for liberation here and now
in readiness for it.
Whether Gutierrez is right or not about the kingdom being established in
bricks his main concern is to prioritize the liberation/salvation of all
people and this is his ultimate hope; for peace on earth, not when or
where he will get to see Christ, he writes: "I emphasize that the work of
building the earth is not a preceding stage, not a stepping stone, but
already the work of salvation." (Rowland 1999:116)
I do not think we need concern ourselves about the time or manner of the
kingdom's coming as long as we prepare our hearts for it (Matt. 25.1-13)
From liberation theology's perspective creation, history and the eschaton
are one saving movement of God and to fight dividing injustice is to be
one in God's complete salvation for the cosmos in anticipation of the new
one to come.
To conclude: the Christian community can learn from liberation theology
the importance of focusing on all people's practical situations, placing
those in dire need first as Jesus did.
Salvation encompasses the whole of a person's life and is more than
simply a moment when he/she is converted. It is ongoing and is mediated
through creation, history and people by God's saving grace.
Liberation theology shows that listening to the poor is imperative, that we
can learn from them and seeing as salvation is for the whole of humanity
all people should be treated as equals.
The method of liberation theology is to work towards the kingdom of
heaven's salvation, freedom and justice for all and this is the torch that
burns at its heart, leading to God's kingdom.
L. Boff, & C. Boff, "Introducing Liberation Theology," Tunbridge
Wells: Burns & Oats/Search Press Ltd., (1987).
S. Chalke, "The Lost Meaning of Jesus," UK: Zondervan, (2003).
C. Corretto, "In Search of the Beyond," London: Darton, Longman
& Todd, (1975).
G. Gutierrez, "A Theology of Liberation," London: SCM, (1974).
W.J. Harrelson, (Ed). "The New Interpreters Study Bible," Nashville:
Abington Press. (2003).
J. McIntyre, "The Shape of Soteriology," Edinburgh: T & T Clark. (1992).
C. Rowland, (Ed.), "The Cambridge Companion to Liberation
Theology," Cambridge: CUP, (1999).[