Liberation and the Suck of Selves

The Centerquote

Having just reviewed a Pocket History of Theology (Roger E. Olson and Adam C. English, The IVP Pocket Reference Series) one of the last stops is the 20th century rash of Liberation theologies which all work out of crisis, fight very real oppression and look to bring forms of liberation to various peoples in a variety of situations who are at risk. As with many theologies there is much to laud here and much to learn from Womanist, Feminist, LGBT, Minjung, Black and Hispanic Liberation theologies to name a few. If taken from a sociological perspective one might also add other groups like 12-Step programs with their liberative agendas and theologies (for all you have to do is give a casual shake and they will let you know their views on God quite readily) as well.

But as always I have questions that move beyond the immediate.

My first question is a simple one: Are we essentially talking about freedom from or freedom to? This is crucial.

As silly as an example as you may find it I personally found AA uncompelling. For me, freedom to simply not drink was not going to be enough if it meant enslavement to three meetings a day and being utterly debilitated by a mental disorder (undiagnosed at the time). No, for me true liberation meant a freedom to live a life utterly unconcerned with alcohol at all – a freedom to devote my life and consciousness to everything out there in the world – not some myopic obsession with ‘not doing something” daily. When I found my freedom from joined to my freedom to –  I was truly liberated.

In the same way I wonder if these new theologies of liberation are liberations from or liberations to.  Do they have a goal beyond themselves to lead to real freedom of action or are they aimed at just delivering people to some static baseline?

I can skip ahead and tell you that a Christocentric (Theocentric) gospel has transformation – or metanoia – as its goal. So it is decidedly freedom from sin and death and freedom towards transformation into the “image of Christ” (2 Cor. 3:18)

As I survey the literature of liberation I hear much of the same talk: that those liberated must also make sure the oppressors are liberated too. Again I ask – liberated to do what?

Are not those who are thus “liberated” always somehow defined by their respective oppressors and how that has led to self-definition? Is this not like the alcoholic who, twenty years after his or her last drink, is still defining themselves primarily with the self-narrative of alcohol? How free is that? is that freedom to? And is it in fact even freedom from?

I come from a 2,000 year old cross-cultural pan-historical tradition that exults “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” (literal translation of 2 Cor. 5:17). This is no vain claim for those who have experienced it – or will.

This was the liberation theology of the 1st Century – a time every bit as dark and oppressed as ours under the heavy boot of Rome.

A Post-Christian World

But what do you do in a world where the the Church has effectively over-shot the runway (and I do place the responsibility at the feet of Mother Church – East and West, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – Liberal and Fundagelical). With rare exception we have all adopted anthropocentric theologies, treated Jesus as commemorative (rather than as active King and Lord), minimized the Holy Spirit (unless for parlor tricks) and transposed our “daddy Issues” from our own wretched fathers onto God the Father.

the churchn

There is just so much willfulness there I don’t even know where to begin. That is all on us.

And as Jesus promised, we have reaped what we have sown: a Post-Christian world.

And still we don’t get it.

In his long essay From Autobiography to Fellowship, Anselm Kyongsuk Min writes:

No group can claim exclusive particularity for its own context … Any retrieval of an ethnic past must confront the universalizing context of the present into which all groups are compelled to enter. In such a context no particular group can liberate itself by its own power or claim universality for its own perspective. All are compelled by the pressures of the globalizing world to enter into a political solidarity of others in order to create conditions of common life that would both enhance the identity of each group in its particularity of tradition and culture and promote solidarity of such groups in their interdependence with one another as human beings with a common dignity and destiny.

So in a sense, globalization insists on a grouping together of these “Theologies of Liberation;” but one which he argues no single group can hope to “liberate itself by its own power or claim universality for its own perspective.” Prof. Min view is entirely anthropocentric and seeks to form a power base to rival the inherent powers.

Life “in Christ” is not just a freedom from but a freedom to liberation that involves creative work, mission, and meaningful action in the world (where thief cannot steal, moth cannot destroy and rust cannot downgrade).

I am not suggesting that a pragmatic freedom from agenda (that is liberative and against oppression of any people) is not worth doing or is in any way antithetical to Gospel. It is not. What I am suggesting is that it is not a suitable replacement or even place-holder for a true Theology of Liberation that is truly biblical or even, for that matter, theological in any true sense.

It would be better to call what Professor Min is suggesting, and in fact, what many “Liberation Theologies” seem to come down to when you really ask “what is this really?” something like Spiritual Anthropology – or some such. Certainly you are bringing God into the equation (or at times and places) but the gravitational pull and defining rim of self-concern is all US.

In fact, what Prof. Min is arguing for is an admission that there are so many competing voices  and “centers of attentions” in a global situation that the true force is being lost.

I certainly think he is correct.

The CenterInfoTheologically, or more specifically – biblically, the New Testament documents like John’s Gospel and Paul’s letter to the Colossians present a Christ whose cosmic dimensionality is staggering. Not only has God “pitched His tent and dwelt among us full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), but according to St. Paul, all of Creation was made “by, through and for” Christ (Colossians 1:16) and “all things hold together (v.17). In contrast to the proto-Gnostic “pleroma” (the entire created order from the physical to the spiritual).

It is in light of this – and not just redemption (that is far too easy to dismiss) that we rightly place Christ as the Center of universal concern.  A Christocentric world-view relieves us of the burden and unreality of every limited anthropocentric world-view or theology. It also happens to have the advantage of being a theology based in an actual living deity (having an orbit that is reality-based in the ontology of God).

Life “in Christ” is not just a freedom from but a freedom to liberation that involves creative work, mission, and meaningful action in the world (where thief cannot steal, moth cannot destroy and rust cannot downgrade).

The world that Jesus did His ministry in was under every bit as much oppression, slavery, usury, religious corruption and sexual perversity as ours – yet His ministry of liberation was not to fight power with another form of power. It did not seek to build a consensus to match Rome’s power or even unmask it. It would seem Rome ws to be toppled a whole other way – via spiritual revolution.

Jesus made disciples instead and preached stories about the Kingdom of God that required a change of being in the hearers, not an overthrow of Rome.

The Gospel of Us

As I read Professor Min’s expert analysis of the geo-political landscape and how to approach it through a conglomerate of aligned groups it suddenly appeared exactly like the sort of self-management the Evangelicals are attempting to perform in their church structures throughout America – commercializing Gospel.  They are just as convinced this is helping to free people and move them into “better lives” free from alcohol, drugs, porn or food addictions.


Freedom from” is better than the “Suck of Self” (a vortex) but you are still stuck “in the blue” without the “freedom to…”

In all these cases the agenda is for the “betterment” of people and a freedom from (be it oppression from some outside force, or be it from some addiction plaguing them like food, drugs, sex or alcohol) – in all cases “betterment and freedom from” but never transformation and freedom to…

So is the Gospel of Jesus a “betterment” Gospel of freedom from that just helps us improve our lives; and are these “liberation theologies”  just meant to bring us all to equilibrium in this place of anthropocentric Self-dom?

I want to make it clear – once again – that I am in fullest support of any movement or group which is against oppressing human beings or diminishing the imago dei (“image of God”  which every human being demonstrates by simply existing) in them.* It is beyond the scope of this small reflection to go into details but it should be noted that at the very heart of group or ethnic oppression (scapegoating) and the evil and violence which always accompany it is the very same motive of attempting to create human meaning apart from God with human beings as the “Center”.

You won’t put a fire out with kerosene.

In utter contrast, the Gospel of Jesus is about putting to death of the “Old Self” and raising up new men and women via  metanoia  –  transformed selves who are becoming like Christ Who is – Himself the Living Center with new freedoms not just from things but freedoms to act in new ways.

In the same letter to the Corinthians I have been regularly quoting from Paul writes:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;  we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.   For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.   So death works in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:7-12, italics mine.)

Paul spoke of “carrying about in the body of the dying Jesus.” Elsewhere he speaks of walking with the “death sentence” upon himself.

In our death-denying culture that may seem morose but I assure you Paul was anything but. He has a freedom to… in any given situation.

I have experienced this freedom and it is a place where you are no longer ruled or informed by fear.

If you want to find that kind of freedom you will not find it in any theology that is just an anthropology pf self-concern and a freedom from. What you need is a true Theology based in Christ’s living person pointed at freedoms to…

Christopher MacDonald

October 2017, Berkeley, Ca.


* Despite my disappointment in the long-range goals of any anthropocentric theology I nonetheless prefer a highly imperfect “Liberation Theology” that seeks to give a voice to the oppressed and disenfranchised to the Church’s being co-opted by the dominant powers that be. To be sure, my preference is a truly counter-cultural Christocentric theology that is in harmony with the scriptures; but being something of a pragmatist and caring deeply for actual people I will gratefully take the best of what is available. I simply refuse to rubber stamp everything is “great” when it clearly is not.

Am I happy with my own personal theology? Yes I am. Van it be improved upon? Most assuredly – and the sooner the better. That is all I am suggesting here – in general – for the Church I dearly love.


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