Liberation theology rooted in Exodus

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

One of the great themes of the Bible, which begins in the Hebrew Scriptures and is continued with Jesus and Paul, is a genuine concern for the poor; today we call it social justice.

We can see its beginnings some 1200 years before Christ with an enslaved people in Egypt. Through their history God chose to engage with them in a long-standing conversation. The Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery, through twists and turns, finally brought them to the land we now call Israel, a land they still believe is theirs by divine promise. 

Think of Moses, himself a man at the bottom. He chose to share the sufferings of God’s people in preference to a privileged life and became a murderer on the run because he defended one of his own.

His next great turning point was his first encounter of God in a burning bush, which like so many such encounters, happened when we are alone and isolated. This experience is immediately followed by a call to a very costly path, social concern for his own oppressed people when God said, ‘I have heard the groaning of my people in Egypt. You, Moses, are to go confront the Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.’ 

There, at the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a classic example of interaction followed by action; the transformative experience that takes place through the burning bush is immediately followed by social, economic, historical, and political implications. How did the church ever lose sight of this?

We cannot have an authentic ‘God experience’ that does not situate us in the world in a very different way. If we have an encounter with the true ‘Presence’ we see things differently, and there arises the promise of freedom from the comfort of our straitjacket of loyalty to the system that gives us our security, our status, indeed our very identity. Such an experience can have costly consequences, for Moses it called him to leave the palace to ask new questions and become liberator of his people.

The Exodus story is the root of all liberation theology that Jesus taught and exemplified; he was healer of the poor and the powerless. Liberation theology focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression, but it goes beyond freeing individuals from their own particular socially unacceptable behaviour, which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our culture. What we can call ‘structural sin’ is often accepted as good andnecessary on the corporate or national and international level.

Multi-national organisations, governments and even organised religion get away with and are even applauded for killing (war), greed, vanity, pride, and ambition while individuals are condemned and punished for the same sins. 

Liberation theology, instead of legitimating the self-serving status quo, reads the Bible not from the side of the powerful, but sees it from the side of pain. That’s difficult, embedded as we are in ‘the world’, about which John said, ‘Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything wesee, and pride in our achievements and possessions.’