Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic.” —Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI
Liberation theology sprang up in the late 60s and went into decline in the late 80s when the Iron Curtain fell. It still lingers on in Black Theology and Feminist Theology, however. Liberation theology claims to be Christian. It claims to be a way of doing theology and living out the gospel in practical terms. On the surface, its emphasis is social justice and human dignity. It insists that God champions the marginalized, the needy, and the despised. It boldly affirms that, “God is on the side of the poor.” It tells us that the goal of the Church, and the goal of every man of good conscience, ought to be a world free from racial discrimination, economic inequality, and political imperialism.
Liberation theology locates sin, not in individuals, not in the heart of man, but in the collective, in society and its social structures. The remedy for this sin then isn’t the spiritual conversion of the individual, but a violent alteration of oppressive economic and political structures. (The liberation theologians have more than a passing acquaintance with the works of Karl Marx.)
For liberation theology, God does not save man. Man saves himself through political means, but those means must be quick and decisive. Charitable aid from without and progressive reform from within are inadequate: they are too little, too late, and are a slap in the face of human dignity. Liberation must be immediate. Anything else is a betrayal of justice and complicity with the corrupt system. And so the State must intervene. That is, either foreign governments must apply political pressure on the offending government until it makes radical changes or abdicates its authority, or insurgents must capture the existing political structure and thoroughly rework it. In most cases, violence, revolution, and terrorism will not only be necessary, but will even be a “righteous” part of the process. In the end, the political and social order will be overthrown, and equality will be established among all social and economic classes. Of course, we are talking about socialism. For liberation theology, socialism is the necessary foundation for a just and free society. As to the practical details… as usual, those are somewhat vague.
Liberation theologians and their evangelical admirers often see the Exodus as a paradigm for the way that liberation ought to happen. They see God intervening violently in history to liberate a poor, oppressed people, and in this they find a summary of the gospel message. Hollywood has told the Exodus story a number of times, though never with much accuracy. Here is a summary of the actual history:
Israel and his family descended into Egypt to sojourn there during a time of great famine (Gen. 45—50). There they multiplied and prospered (Ex. 1:7). And there their descendants learned to worship false gods (Josh. 24:14). In time, God gave the children of Israel over to oppression and bondage. A new pharaoh enslaved them, and then he or a successor tried to destroy them (Ex. 1:8-22). The children of Israel labored in brick and mortar. When they cried out in misery, God raised up Moses as a deliverer (Ex. 2—7).
Moses, once a prince of Egypt, stood before Pharaoh and demanded the release of Israel. Pharaoh would hear nothing of it. He hardened his heart against God’s command. What followed was utter destruction as God sent plague after plague against Egypt (Ex. 7—12). The horror and devastation involved was something that Hollywood special effects and computer animation can only hint at.
When God was done, Pharaoh relented and released Israel. But almost immediately he changed his mind and set out with his army to recapture his former slaves. When Israel escaped Egypt through a miraculously divided Red Sea, Pharaoh chose to pursue. And, Hollywood to the contrary, he was overthrown in the sea (Ex. 15:19; Ps. 135:9).
Now, to see whether or not the liberation theologians have any claims on the Exodus, we need to look more closely at God’s motivations and the practical results of His war against Egypt.
God’s Covenant Promise
There were many slaves in the world when God raised up Moses. The world was full of poor and oppressed peoples. But God singled out Israel for deliverance. Why?
Because “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex. 2:24). God had promised Abraham the land of Canaan and sealed that promise with a covenant oath (Gen. 15). God had sworn by His own life that He would bring his descendants back to the Promised Land after a time of exile and oppression. But those promises all swirled around the Seed, the Messiah, in whom all nations would be blessed (Gen. 22:15-18; cf. Gal. 3:16). Those covenant promises moved God to redeem Israel to be His own: “And I will take you to me for a people, and will be to you a God” (Ex. 6:1-8). In short, God did not deliver an oppressed people, an enslaved people. He delivered His people. A people that were His by covenant.
Liberated for Service
When Moses stood before Pharaoh, he did not simply demand the liberation of Israel. His demand was very specific: “Let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God…” (Ex. 5:3; cf. 3:18). Earlier, in His conversation with Moses, God had put it this way: “And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: and I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me…” (Ex. 4:23).
God did not randomly deliver the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage so they could do as they pleased. He delivered them so they could worship and serve Him. He became their Redeemer so that they might become His servants. As Bob Dylan put it, “You gotta serve somebody.”
A War Against Egypt’s Gods
The issue then, was more than socio-economic, more than political. Israel had chosen false gods in Egypt, and behind those gods were demonic powers. The plagues on Egypt were a war against Egypt’s gods. “And against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Ex. 12:12). Yahweh turned the Nile into blood: He multiplied frogs; He turned the fertile land into lice; He blotted out the sun. Osiris, Haqet, Isis, and Ra were gonna get whacked. So was the man-god, Pharaoh. So were the demons who empowered Pharaoh’s magicians. Yahweh overthrew them all. He showed Himself to be the only true God, the sovereign Lord of history (Ex. 15:1-19; 18:11; Josh. 2:9-11).
The Destruction of Egypt
God brought the judgment. So the violence came from Him and not His people. He destroyed Egypt’s crops, cattle, and army. He killed their ruler and his heir. He killed at least one male (the first born) in every household. He confiscated the Egyptians’ treasures as payments for Israel’s years of bondage. He made Israel relatively rich, as well as made Egypt desperately poor, and left the nation wide open to invasion. But He didn’t install His people as the new socialist lords of Egypt. He brought Israel out of Egypt, and they weren’t supposed to look back.
The Blood of the Lamb
In connection with the last plague, the death of the firstborn, God instituted the Passover (Ex. 12). God required His people to kill a lamb and splash its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their homes. They were to eat its meat, roasted and with bitter herbs, as a communion meal with God their Redeemer. Those whose homes were covered by the blood would be safe from the destroyer. Those who refused the blood would suffer judgment. The first born of the house would die.
God’s redemption required a substitutionary death and required faith in a gospel of blood atonement. Those who did not believe, who trusted in race or works, would suffer the same judgment as their Egyptian oppressors. On the other hand, any Egyptian who put himself under the blood would save himself and his household. Apparently, many non-Israelites did believe, as we are told that a great “mixed multitude” left Egypt with Israel (Ex. 12:38). The gospel of the Exodus was for Hebrews and Gentiles alike.
“They Shall Not Enter Into My Rest”
The story of the Exodus does not end at the Red Sea. The children of Israel went to Mt. Sinai and there received the Law of God (Ex. 15—20). They then journeyed on to the Promised Land, but when they saw the great walled cities and the giants who held them, they rebelled and refused to take up the war God had set before them (Num. 13-14). God barred them, and the whole generation that came out of Egypt, from ever entering the Promised Land. Their release from physical bondage had not reached to their hearts. They were still slaves to sin and self by nature and so not fit to fight the battles of the Lord. Because of this, the promised land of sacred liberty lay forever beyond their grasp.
The Nature of Liberty
Jesus said that whoever commits sin is the servant or slave of sin (John 8:34). He taught that bondage to sin is the ultimate slavery. Until men are rescued from that spiritual bondage, no substantial or long-term liberation on any other level can succeed. Everything governed by sin descend into selfishness, oppression, hatred, and violence. Neither good intentions nor slick propaganda can alter that reality. Those who call for liberation apart from the blood of Christ are inviting us all to a man-made hell. In this world “freedom” always becomes slavery.
The Exodus story is a paradigm or model for liberation. In the Exodus, God redeemed His covenant people from bondage to false gods and the human tyrant who ruled in their name. He brought His people through the baptismal waters of the Red Sea, fed them with spiritual food and drink. He brought them to Sinai, gave them His laws, came down in glory and hung out in their midst. He led them on to conquer the inheritance He had promised. Certainly this is a foreshadowing of the gospel of grace, of redemption in Jesus Christ. One thing is certain… the Exodus story has nothing to do with liberation theology and socialist tyranny.
For further reading:
Harold S. Martin, “Fallacies of Liberation Theology,” Brethren Revival Fellowship. January/February, 1980 Volume 15, No. 1, <http://www.brfwitness.org/?p=377>.
Kyle-Anne Shiver, “Obama’s Politics of Collective Redemption,” American Thinker, March 3, 2011, <http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/02/obamas_politics_of_collective.html>.
David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985).
Gary North, Liberating Planet Earth (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987).