There is one quote (among many) that I heard over the last few years that has changed the way I see and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” -Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara
Hélder Câmara was a Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop who was instrumental in the development of liberation theology in the 1950-1960s. Glenn Beck calls liberation theology Marxism disguised as religion, one where you always see yourself as a victim and someone as your oppressor. Liberation theology has many of definitions, but according to Rev. James Martin (a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest):
“Liberation theology is a Gospel-based critique of the status quo through the eyes of the poor. Contrary to what Beck implies, the liberation theologian doesn’t see himself or herself as victim; rather proponents call us to see how the poor are marginalized by society, work among them, advocate on their behalf, and help them advocate for themselves…..[I]t sees the figure of Jesus Christ as the “liberator,” who frees people from bondage and slavery of all kinds. So, as he does in the Gospels, Christ not only frees us from sin and illness, Christ also desires to free our fellow human beings from the social structures that keep them impoverished. This is this kind of “liberation” being espoused. Liberation theologians meditate deeply on Gospel stories that show Christ upending the social structures of the day, in order to bring more—uh oh—social justice into the world.”
For example, the other day a preacher (@BroderickGreer on Twitter) taught a Bible story through a lens of liberation theology:
In liberation theology the Good Samaritan helps the man on the side of the road and also asks “why?” in the face of suffering and seeks to change systemic issues that are causing the suffering. This approach concerns itself with issues of social justice. Thirteen years ago at Sunstone R. Dennis Potter, a philosophy professor at UVU, presented his paper on Liberation Theology in the Book of Mormon (focused on Nephi 4 and King Benjamin’s address). Blair Hodges has written about social justice teachings in Jacob. Last year Gina Colvin posted a fascinating podcast with Janan Graham and Fatimah Salleh discussing black liberation theology and Mormonism. Each one of these was a new way for me to see how our scripture and beliefs quite easily support social justice. If you haven’t guessed, this isn’t a mainstream modern Mormon view.
A few weeks ago in my BYUI history professor taught us two different approaches of eschatology (beliefs about the end of the world). The first group, pre-millennialists, believe that the world is getting morally worse and worse, that it will continue unchecked because of its fallen state, and then Jesus will return and brings all of the living saints up to heaven. They tend to be outspoken about behavior they consider to be particularly sinful: abortion, lgbt+ issues, pre-marital sex, etc. Pre-millennialists tend to see evil as an individual problem of free agency. Post-millennialists believe that we create the Kingdom of God on the earth first; that through our actions and advocacy we bring to pass the millennium (an extended time of peace and righteousness) on our own. Our professor told us that throughout our own Mormon history we’ve had leaders and teachings that espouse both views, but that lately our teachings have been much more pre-millenial than ever. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard my whole life I’d assumed we’d always been that way; but I suppose every place the early saints settled they attempted to live a post-millennial vision and create Zion on earth. Recently in pop culture I heard what sounded like a post-millennial critique of pre-millenialism.
The actor Jesse Williams made news for his acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards. He addressed many issues of civil rights and social injustice in society today. In one part he said, “Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter but, you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.” For the oppressed, they see God’s hand in the work of freeing the slave, of breaking the chains of oppression in this life. I admit I can’t study the civil rights movement without thinking the same thing.
The introduction of these ideas of liberation theology have turned me into a liberal Mormon. I now believe that living the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires me to advocate on behalf of the oppressed and afflicted – I view correcting injustice as God’s work. Yes, God will enact justice in the hereafter, but he also wants us to work toward it in this life. Can you imagine the callousness of early Christians in the American continent if they continued to believe in salvation and justice in the next life for slaves without being prompted to break those chains in this one? I’m studying the Nashville Sit-ins right now and I’m appalled at how many white Christian people just didn’t care about the lack of freedom and the suffering of their fellow Americans during the Jim Crow era. How can we claim to love someone and want to save their soul without ever caring to save their bodies?
When were you first introduced to ideas of liberation theology and what do you think? Did it change any of your beliefs? Do you lean more towards pre- or post-millennialism? What do you think about how the two ideas interact? Why do you think in early Mormon history we leaned more post-millennial and now lean more pre-millennial?