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An Observation on Liberation Theology and Judgment

January 28, 2011 2 comments

Liberation theologians in general and Jon Sobrino in particular do not hesitate to use harsh condemnation when they see forces which oppose the rights and welfare of the poor and vulnerable. These people and structures are part of the “anti-Kingdom,” opposing the God of life by supporting idols of death (capitalism, national security, etc.). Sobrino’s writings always have a prophetic ring: the civilization of wealth is killing the poor and we must fight to uncover the truth and oppose this injustice with everything we can. Yet, it is important to note how Sobrino’s conceives of his project. He distinguishes between personal, social, historical, and transcendent salvation. In the book No Salvation outside the Poor, he says (and I think this is consistent with the majority of his writings), “here we will concentrate on the historical-social salvation of a gravely ill society” (57). This passage is key to understanding why his use of “salvation” in the rest of the text is indeed partial but not reductionistic.

What I want to point out here is the the way in which prophetic judgment on those who oppress the poor (and thus crucify Christ) functions. Just as much as salvation, judgment seems to remain on the historical-social level. We have many prophetic warnings about how the rich and powerful are actively opposing the will of God and God’s Kingdom. There is a striving for liberation that demands such condemnation. Nevertheless, it is striking how modern this move is in how it limits such warnings. This is clear when we read Bartolomé de Las Casas. In Las Casas we have anticipations of many impulses within liberation theology from someone deeply rooted in the biblical text and genuinely open to the suffering of the oppressed. Yet his warning go much further. One passage will suffice: interpreting Matthew 25 by recalling a question from Augustine he says, “If someone is damned to hellfire by Christ saying to him or her, ‘I was naked and you did not clothe me,’ to what hellfire will they be damned to whom He says, ‘I was clothed and you stripped me” (quoted in Gutiérrez, Las Casas 64). This passage is typical of Las Casas’ prophetic critique of the Spaniards and the socio-economic order they created. No wonder they didn’t like him! Here we have an intimate connection between the social-historical and the personal-transcendent, which brings out there seriousness of the social-historical all the more. I do not know where the line is between scare tactics and proclaiming the truth of what is really going on, but I find something utterly biblical, compelling, and unsettling in Las Casas’ words. The prophetic denunciation of people and and nations which oppress the poor goes all the way down – in oppressing the poor we reject God. As with most of us today I am no fan of fire-and-brimstone preaching (I’ll take Balthasar’s talk of universal hope any day), but if were going to have it I’ll take Las Casas.

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