I haven’t posted here in quite a while. There are some excuses for this. Due to the Covid pestilence I have delayed needed cataract surgery. I realize that eye strain has been causing me to avoid reading like I used to. And my writing here has leaned on my reading. Also my life has changed in that my mother’s death in late 2019 has given me some new responsibilities so that I am not as freely retired as I was before that.
But there is another reason. I am not sure how to explain it. For a long time I have been a dedicated servant of my church, but also somewhat alienated from it for both practical and theological reasons. Finally, I have moved on from the Mainline Protestant denomination I was a minister in to a more conservative and evangelical church.
This might surprise some who have read this blog and know that I am dynamic rather than literal in my understanding of biblical inspiration and tend to think outside the box about the critical-historical issues. My situation is that I am orthodox in that I would have no problem reciting the whole Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers once, but that I don’t believe in the central evangelical affirmation about the error free nature of the Bible in regard to science and history.
For a long time I put up with the wokeness of my denomination (although I was more and more irked by its increasing hostility to Israel) because I could take refuge in the autonomy of the local church where the gospel was still preached. But when I was on a search committee for the pastor a few years ago, I saw that almost all the candidates now are into Liberation theology and critical theory.
I recently read something that gave me some clarity about where the lines fall now. Ibrim X. Kendi, a figure in antiracist education, said this in a conversation at a Manhattan church, distinguishing between Liberation theology and what he calls “Savior theology”:
“Liberation theology — in other words, Jesus was a revolutionary. And the job of the Christian is to revolutionize society, that the job of the Christian is to liberate society from the powers on Earth that are oppressing humanity.
Everybody understand that?
So that’s liberation theology in a nutshell. Savior theology is a different type of theology.
The job of the Christian is to go out and save these individuals who are behaviorally deficient. In other words, we’re to bring them into the church, these individuals who are doing all of these evil, sinful things, and heal them and save them. And then once we’ve saved them, we’ve done our jobs.
And to me, antiracists fundamentally reject savior theology, that goes right in line with racist ideas and racist theology, which they say, you know what, black people, other racial groups, the reason why they are struggling on Earth is because of what they’re behaviorally doing wrong.
And it is my job as the pastor to sort of save these wayward black people, or wayward poor people, or wayward queer people.
That type of theology breeds bigotry. And so, to me, the type of theology, of liberation theology breeds a common humanity, a common humanity against the structures of power that oppress us all.”
Here is a longer live clip to help you put this in context.
So I just fundamentally disagree with Liberation theology. I do not think it is the gospel. I think it misconstrues Jesus, who was not a revolutionary in the political sense. I think it tends to falsely divide the world into an oppressor class and a victim class.
As long ago as the 1970s I made these points to James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology, when he came to lecture at my seminary.
Cone understood the crucifixion of Jesus as a lynching. I thought this was a useful way to approach it when speaking to blacks and other people who were subject to murderous treatment (the plains Indians or holocaust survivors). However, the gospels contrast Jesus to Barabbas and the insurrectionists crucified along side Jesus. So even in the context of the crucifixion, Jesus was not a Zealot or revolutionary.
I think that the notion of Jesus as savior comes much closer to the historical Jesus and the theologies of the New Testament.
Kendi is partly right and partly wrong in his characterization of “Savior theology”. I see the point about some evangelicals putting too much emphasis on cultural ideas of sin. So sin gets equated with listening to the wrong kind of music, having tattoos and piercings, drinking beer, dressing in a certain way, or cohabitation without benefit of clergy. I would note that there are even more trivial sins on the puritan left, where political incorrectness and microaggressions offend.
Many people recognize that they are held down by “behavioral deficiencies”. So addiction, consumer debt, anger management, and such are real concerns. Witness all the recovery support groups.
But Kendi may have a point that evangelicals tend to focus on behavioral sin, sometimes in an unhealthy and snobbish way.
I have long been very much aware that the correct translation of a word about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer is “debts” rather than trespasses. Even if you had never sinned through your behavior, you would still have an unpayable debt to God for the blessings of creation and life. Jesus often told parables about debt. I don’t believe this was to comment on economics. Rather, Jesus saw unpayable debt as a fitting metaphor for our standing before God.
So, if I was going to label my theology I would not label it as “savior theology”. I would call it blessing theology. Jesus came to bless us, cancel out our unpayable debt, and give us a hope in the face of death.
However, this is much closer to seeing Jesus as savior than it is to seeing Jesus as a liberator against an oppressor class that it is okay to rise up against and kill.
My old church had become obsessed with identity politics. At the national level and in the seminaries it had embraced critical race theory. It required pastors to periodically receive “antiracist” training where ideas like Kendi’s were pushed. It supported Palestinians against Israel and pushed boycotting and divesting from Israel. It was dismissive of anti-abortion concerns. And it promoted a lot of politically correct and woke silliness. Some of this was just irritating. But all together it was finally a deal breaker.
I should make clear that my break with the Mainline had little to do with the sexuality debate. I would not have left over that issue. That is one problem that truly is systemic. For decades we have rejected the human project of “being fruitful and multiplying” where childbearing is co-creation with God. Children suffer from this. They have become burdens rather than blessings.
Increased homosexuality is only one way lack of concern with procreation manifests. I hope that in the long run expansion into space brings back the need to “fill the earths” and the link between family and sexuality gets restored. In the meantime, I am not inclined to hold individuals responsible.
Now I am in a church where the worship is very compatible with my theology of blessing. Sometimes in the preaching and teaching there is some proof-texting and naive assumptions about the historical and scientific in the Bible. I am happy to just worship without pushing my messianic-gentile, or historical-critical agendas.
But Kendi’s critique of “savior theology” is a critique of a straw man, at least in relation to this church. The church is much more racially and culturally inclusive than most mainline churches. Its concern for justice includes racial reconciliation, but also unwed mothers who don’t want to abort and male victims of human trafficking. In other words, some of its justice concerns are not politically correct.
Anyway, my wife and I are happier and feel that we have freed ourselves and arrived at a place where we are divinely welcome.