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The Liberation Tradition

Monday, January 16, 2017


The Liberation Tradition
Monday, January 16, 2017

I would like to assert that the theme of liberation is the largest frame in which to understand spirituality. The term liberation theology has a negative connotation for some people. It sounds like something heretical, leftist, or Marxist, and certainly not biblical. In real fact, it is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition and marks the tradition’s very beginning. It is amazing that much of Christianity has been able to avoid the obvious for so long, probably because many of us read history from the top down and seldom from the bottom up, which is the recurring perspective of both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures.

We see the beginnings of the liberation theme as early as twelve hundred years before Jesus with the enslavement and exodus of the Jewish people. Something divine happened that allowed an oppressed group of Semitic people in Egypt to experience many levels of gradual liberation. This story became the basic template and metaphor for the entire Bible. The Exodus was both an inner journey and an outer journey. If our inner journey does not match and lead to an outer journey, we have no true freedom or “salvation.” That is what liberation theology is honest enough to point out.

Moses is the historical character at the heart of the Exodus event and of the spirituality that grew from that experience (Exodus 3:1-15). Perhaps we forget that he is a murderer on the run; lonely and fearful, he experiences God through “a bush that burns but is not consumed.” Notice that this theophany has nothing to do with formal religion or moral or ritual requirements. His nature-based experience follows upon failure and suffering (necessary disillusionment), which major religious experiences so often do. The voice Moses hears from the burning bush immediately calls him to confront the pharaoh and tell him to let his people go! The voice does not tell Moses to build a temple or to go to one.

Here we see a primary inner experience that immediately has social, economic, and political implications! Liberation theology shows that spirituality and action are connected from the very beginning and can never be separated. Some people set out to act first, and their inner experience is given to them on the journey itself. Others have an inner experience that then leads them into action. It does not matter on which side you begin, but eventually action and spirituality must meet and feed one another. When prayer is authentic, it will always lead to actions of mercy; when actions of mercy are attempted at any depth, they will always drive you to prayer.

Very early in the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a split between the Exodus tradition—which I believe is the mainline and original tradition of full liberation—and the priestly tradition that develops in Leviticus and Numbers. The priestly mentality invariably tries to organize, control, and perpetuate the initial experience—always around their personally conducted rituals, I might add. We priests take over and leave far too many people without the foundational experience. This is common second-hand religion.

About eight centuries before Jesus, we finally begin to meet the spiritual geniuses—the Jewish prophets—who desperately tried to again bring together the inner God-experience and outer work for justice and truth. This connection is desperately needed and yet resented and avoided to this day. In most of history, the priestly tradition has been in control and has defined religion. It is precisely the ritualism and priest craft of Leviticus and Numbers that the prophets rail against (see Isaiah 1:10ff, Amos 5:21ff). We always and forever need the prophets or else most religion worships itself instead of God. The pattern is persistent.

Gateway to Silence:
Give us wisdom. Give us love.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Yes, And . . . : Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), 34-36.

Image Credit: The Way of the Prophet (detail), silhouette image art work by Mike Van, concept by Vivienne Close.
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