Monday, June 25, 2007

A Southern Baptist Looks at Liberation Theology

Pastor Benjamin Cole of Parkview Baptist in Arlington, Texas is a Southern Baptist minister who thinks Evangelicals have much to learn from liberation theology. His blog post on liberation theology is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights.

Southern Baptists are perhaps inordinately fearful and thoroughly ignorant of Liberation theologies. Whether the Black liberationism of James Cone, or the Roman Catholic liberationism of Gustavo Gutierrez, or the Feminist liberation of Rosemary Reuther, or the Gay liberation of Marcella Althius-Reid, or the Jewish liberationism of Marc Ellis, Evangelicals as a whole, and Southern Baptists in particular avoid investigating and assessing the contributions and dangers of Liberation Theology, much to our own peril.

During my entire course of study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and briefly at Southwestern, I know of no serious engagement with Liberation Theology. There was the passing reference in Systematic Theology, and an occasional mention in Church History, but when it came to actual study, we were all woefully uninformed. When it was mentioned, Liberation Theology was characterized as an aberrant Marxist political agenda unworthy of serious consideration.

In fact, I think that Southern Baptists have been denied a rewarding opportunity to explore themes of social justice and hermeneutical emphases highlighted by men like Gutierrez, Cone, Ellis, and others. Embracing the study of Liberation Theology does not require embracing the central tenets thereof, but the anti-intellectualism of our fundamentalist fathers inhibits any honest reading of the primary theological influence found in the Southern Hemisphere, and a minor, yet very real influence in the Northern.

Essentially, Liberation Theology is guided by a concern for the poor and oppressed. Liberation theologians take seriously the words of Jesus, who told his disciples that the blessed poor were those for whom the gospel was intended. Whether our exorbitant materialism or our latent classism and racism have kept us from seeing this major New Testament emphasis, I do not know.

Liberation theology is concerned with revolution, both political and ecclesial. The powers of governmental and magisterial authorities have been allowed to flourish on the backs of the worker. The widening gulf of economic disparity has closed our eyes to the epidemic poverty, and people for whom Christ died are shuffled aside in our efforts to reach the “target groups” of our evangelistic strategies.

Read it all. The highlight of the post is on Cole's own exposure to liberation theology through Marc Ellis--a professor with whom he often fought. Here is a sample:
I owe my initial substantive exposure to Liberation Theology to my Baylor professor, Marc Ellis, a man listed among the most dangerous intellectuals in the American academy by David Horowitz. At first, Ellis and I had a strained relationship. He is an agnostic Jew with strong Democratic leanings and complete disdain for aggressive proselytization. I was an insufferable proponent for the need for Evangelical parity in the American academy, with a holdover belief that Baylor was a stronghold of theological and political liberalism.

. . .

I will never forget the day Ellis assigned me to a small group with two students, one of whom was a Roman Catholic and the other a lesbian. In what seemed like the introduction to a joke – three students walk into a bar, etc. – we engaged one another in collegial conversation about the ethical and moral questions raised by Christian higher education. For once, on a Baptist university campus, I felt like the minority.

I think that was Ellis’ point: to force Christians to sense some degree of oppression, harassment, and ridicule that other religious and irreligious groups feel on the campus of a Christian university. You don’t get that in a seminary education, and it is understandable that a confessional institution would limit such free exchange of ideas.

Nevertheless, I think some of Southern Baptist insensitivity to the perspectives of Latino immigrants in border states, legal or otherwise, impoverished Blacks along the Mississippi Delta, ethnic Jews in New York, Chinese Buddhists in San Francisco, and even the Gay and Lesbian sense of legal discrimination, owes to the fact that most of our preachers are never exposed to the cultural varieties available in a graduate program of non-Southern Baptist commitments. Of course, Southern Baptists will not graft many of these perspectives into our own, but we are fooling ourselves if we think our churches are better served by cultural isolation that inhibits meaningful dialogue with these groups.

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