As expected, scholar and activist Monica Coleman responded to your questions for “Ask a Liberation Theologian” with insight and grace.
An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. Coleman is currently Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in southern California. She is also Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.
As a survivor of rape, Coleman became committed to speaking out against sexual violence in 1996. She founded and coordinated “The Dinah Project,” an organized church response to sexual violence, at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, TN. Her most recent book is Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression-a 40-Day Devotional. She is the author of Making a Way Out of No Way: a Womanist Theology, co-editor of Creating Women’s Theologies: A Movement Engaging Process Thought, and editor of the forthcoming Ain’t I a Womanist Too?: Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought. Monica blogs on the intersection of faith and depression at Beautiful Mind Blog and writes a biweekly column, “Women, In Flesh and Spirit” at Patheos.
I wanted to feature liberation theology because I hear people reference it now and then, but I really don’t know much about it, and I suspect I’m not alone. I also suspect it’s one of those fields of theology that is often misunderstood, particularly at the popular level. Many thanks to Monica for helping us understand it better.
From Benjamin: I grew up in pretty conservative evangelical circles, where liberation theology was generally ignored (or, if mentioned, might have been described as just another version of the "social gospel"). How would you summarize the message of liberation theology to someone from an evangelical background? Is there common ground evangelicals might share with liberation theology?
Liberation theology focuses on the ministry of Jesus as recorded in the Bible – the gospels in particular. Liberation theology looks to the words of Jesus in Luke 4 where he describes his call to ministry (echoing the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah) and at the ways that he included many of the outcast (women, Samaritans, tax collectors, etc.) in his ministry and parable. From that, liberation theology concludes that God cares about the oppressed. From what I understand, evangelicals also value the biblical witness to the ministry of Jesus and bringing people closer to relationship with God.
From Brian: Liberation Theology is often criticized as reframing the gospel as a social/political agenda at the expense of the message of forgiveness of sins through Jesus. I suppose the same thing could be said about the religious right. How do you feel Liberation Theology competes with or compliments different understandings of the gospel?
There are some liberation theologians who consider reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor (“forgiveness of sins”) to be part of a vision of liberation. Two examples off the top of my head are J. Doetis Roberts and Johnny B. Hill.
But to answer your larger question, I would say that all theology is political. In part because Christianity did not begin in a political vacuum and we don’t live in a political vacuum even now. Some understandings of the gospel focus on the work of God through Jesus for individuals. They may also focus on the life that Jesus promises in another life; i.e. heaven. Liberation theology, on the other hand, cares about the work of God through Jesus for communities and focuses on how Jesus describes a transformation of the world in which we live. These are two very different theologies based on the same books in the Bible.
From Rachel: When you google "Liberation Theology," the second article to come up after Wikipedia is an article about liberation theology by TV personality Glenn Beck, who describes liberation theology as a "perversion of God." We heard a lot of this type of language in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright video that surfaced just before the 2008 presidential election. I'm wondering how theologians like you felt about that sudden exposure and the way liberation theology has been discussed in the media. Do you feel like liberation theology has a PR problem, or has it always been misunderstood, especially by the privileged? Why do you think that video struck such a nerve, and what might the reaction to it reveal about common misconceptions about liberation theology among the American public?
I think that all theology outside of the religious right has a PR problem in the U.S. Glenn Beck’s comments about liberation theology – in conjunction with the clips from Jeremiah Wright’s sermons – brought liberation theology to the attention of mainstream media. I’m actually glad about it because it gave liberation theologians an opportunity to share about liberation theology in a more public way. I spoke about it on Air Talk on NPR at the time. You can listen to it here.
I think the video struck a nerve because more recently patriotism has been identified as having an unquestioning loyalty to the government. This is especially true since we have been involved in wars. Thus many people felt that a critique of the government was unpatriotic and problematic. I also think that a majority culture can easily ignore the sentiments and circumstances of those in a minority position; whereas those in a minority position are well-versed in the dominant culture. Thus the majority culture (“the privileged”) felt surprised that people in a minority position (in this case, some African Americans) had a different perspective on life, country and religion. Jesus critiqued the government of his time – the Roman occupation of lands that were holy and sacred to his Jewish community. For liberation theologians, speaking out on behalf of the disempowered is Christ-like.
From Josh: I've always heard of Liberation Theology in the context of its strong affiliation with the various Socialist movements in Latin America in the 1900s. Almost a reverse-prosperity-Gospel that emphasizes the goodness of the poor over against the wealthy, which sounds to my capitalist sensibilities like class warfare rather than the Gospel. Because of this, I've always associated the theology with the political ideology. Can you differentiate or help explain what Liberation Theology might look like in the context of our society in America? How does Liberation Theology extend beyond the capitalist/socialist struggle that was occurring in Latin America in a specific era?
Liberation theology in Latin America and black theology in the United States were being born at around the same time somewhat independently. Other liberation theologies include feminist theology, disability theology, womanist theology, ecological theology, gay and lesbian theology (to name a few). Most of these are not associated with a critique of capitalism. Theologies that look at the experiences of those who are oppressed or silenced are often liberation theologies. They all critique systems of domination. Liberation theology is always contextual though – it will speak to a certain time and place and circumstance. You might enjoy Sallie McFague’s book Life Abundant where she describes what she calls “a liberation theology for white North American Christians.” She addresses how our theologies may respond to issues of global climate change.
From Suzannah: Would you explain the differences between womanist and feminist liberation theology? How have white feminists excluded black women and what can we do to be more inclusive/intersectional?
Historically womanist theology is distinguished from feminist theology for speaking to the experiences of black women and their experiences at the intersection of race, class and gender. Since its origins, many white feminists have taken seriously the critiques of race and class initially raised by womanist theologians. There are also some non-black women who associate with womanist theology – such as Lee Skye, an aboriginal Australian woman – and many women of color who identify with feminist theology – sometimes while also identifying as womanist, mujerista (Latina), Asian American, etc. I think many white feminists do theology that is sensitive to and inclusive of race, class, orientation, ability, etc. in addition to gender. I think that white feminist theology that seeks to examine class and race privilege well addresses critiques of womanists and other women-of-color feminists.
From Travis: Monica, you've appeared several times on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast to talk about process theology (and I've enjoyed hearing you speak every time). How does process theology relate to liberation theology?
I am a process theologian and a liberation theologian. For me, I believe that God is calling us towards a vision that includes beauty, truth, adventure, art and justice. Thus, God interact with the world, changing the world and being changed by the world, but calling us to work to create a world that is ever more liberative. I don’t describe God has being on the side of the oppressed, but rather on the side against oppression – wherever it is found – and advocating justice – wherever it can be found. But the timing of this question is ironic because process theologian John Cobb just wrote about how process and liberation theology intersect here.
From Saskia: My question has to do with your work on sexual violence and the church. A survivor myself, I am acutely aware of this issue in a way my non-survivor friends aren't. How do I start the conversation on this in a church environment that doesn't seem very receptive to it?
I think that there are many ways to introduce the issue of sexual violence in a church environment that is not very receptive to it. Here are a couple: attend a “Take Back the Night” event with a teen group or women’s group. Talk about “dating violence” with a teen, college or young adult group. Or bring in someone who can talk about this. See if there are any social workers or therapists in your church – perhaps they have ideas or expertise with other local environments. There are also small ways like posting information on a bulletin board or inside the women’s bathroom during April – Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I mention others in my book, The Dinah Project.
Several readers expressed interest in entry-level book recommendations on liberation theology for newcomers to the topic. Suggestions?
(You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” and many more—here.)