Jesus as Liberation Theologist

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration decried “liberation theology” as Marxist and quietly approved when right-wing regimes murdered priests and nuns. But new scholarship reveals that “liberation theology” was carrying forward the real-life demands of Jesus for social justice, as Rev. Howard Bess explains.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Christian churches have created a theological understanding of Jesus that has made him the unique son of God, born of a virgin, died as a sacrifice for sin, and raised from the dead, the second person of the Trinitarian God. The volumes that have been written about this theological Jesus are almost endless.

However, in the past two centuries, scholars have been asking very different questions about the flesh-and-blood Jesus of history. At first those conducting the search were a trickle. Today they are a flood.

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

The first attempts could not find a Jesus of history in the narratives of the four gospels of the New Testament. Then, about 40 years ago, a new generation of scholars took a different approach. They looked at the history, culture, economics and religion of Galilee in the first century C.E. In that context, the teachings of Jesus took on new life and the Jesus of history emerged in a new way.

Sometimes called “the third quest for the historical Jesus,” this new surge of scholarship was different because it was interdisciplinary. It was led not by theologians but by historians, sociologists, economists and political scientists. Their work placed Jesus in the setting of an advanced agrarian society, an aristocratic empire and a peasant backwater.

The fruits of this scholarship forced a whole new reading of the New Testament. The most dramatic insight was that Jesus was a very public political figure who advocated for justice for rural peasants, artisans, people who were considered unclean and degraded, and a growing number of expendables. The teachings of Jesus thus ring out as a prophetic voice speaking from and to the needs of the very lowest level of Galilean society.

It is worthy of note that this latest wave of pertinent scholarship parallels the rise of “liberation theology” in the Third World. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Catholic priest who worked with the poor people of Lima, published Theology of Liberation in the early 1970s. It was Christian theology written from the perspective of the poorest of the poor, the position adopted by Jesus of Galilee.

A very important reality of the First Century in Galilee was the strong presence of the Zealots, a movement of Jews who despised Roman rule and advocated taking back Palestine from its Roman rulers by violent action. The Zealots were a minor force around Jerusalem, but not so in Galilee, which was one of their strongholds. Galilee was a mean and dangerous place.

The Zealots saw other groups of Jews who cooperated with Roman rulers as traitors to Israel. The Zealots, who all carried large knives under their cloaks, despised Pharisees and Sadducees as much as they did the Romans. Because of this violent radicalism, religious and political leaders from Jerusalem kept a careful eye on Galilee, making the relationship between Jerusalem and Galilee tenuous at best.

Simon Peter, a disciple of Jesus, is identified in the gospels as a Zealot and probably several of the other disciples were Zealots or Zealot sympathizers. In that context, Jesus is seen as a very different kind of leader. Committed to the reign (or kingdom) of God, his first call was to love God. His second was to love his neighbors.

Jesus was neither a knife-carrying Zealot nor an uncritical citizen living quietly under the heavy hand of Roman rulers, wealthy landowners and Temple legalists. Instead, the gospel records present Jesus as an Israelite prophet calling for a Year of Jubilee in which wealth would be redistributed and justice would be restored for all.  Besides being unconditionally committed to his God of love and compassion, Jesus was fully committed to bringing love and justice to everyone and especially to the poor and needy.

So, this third quest for the historical Jesus asks us to return to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and read them with new eyes. We are asked to read about a Jesus who was fully engaged in the social, economic and religious world of his day. We are asked to reread his parables, sayings and aphorisms. We are asked to read about a Jesus who was crucified by Roman rulers on a charge of insurrection.

This third quest is not claiming to have produced a precise picture of the human Jesus. Scholarship must continue and there is much still to learn. But we know enough now to rid ourselves of an obsession with getting to some ill-defined heaven. Instead, the challenge for Christians is to be fully engaged in a world that is crying out for love and justice.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.    

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8 comments on “Jesus as Liberation Theologist

  1. ALL this was long ago covered,”It’s easier for a poor person to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Paradise”.

  2. Mark Harris on said:

    Yes Htos1, but oh how we forget. I have even heard some argue that the quote about the eye of a needle was just a euphemism for a city gate, and not a literal eye of a needle. Those who want to distort the truth will always find a way. Just watch Fox News and you will see my point.

    • Archpriest John W. Morris on said:

      Here we go again. Over a century ago Albert Schweitzer wrote that those inolved in the so called quest for the “historical Jesus” look down a deep well and see a reflection of themselves. Once again a a group of “scholars” are recreating Christ in their image of what they want Him to be. It is nothing less than pure arrogance for anyone to believe that they have a superior knowledge of who Christ was than the Church has had for almost 2,000 years. What these people produce is not serious historical scholarship, but is simply a redefinition of the Christian religion to conform to their own idea of what it should be. It is tragic that such shoddy work is taken seriously

      • Douglas Asbury on said:

        You use the word “arrogance” to condemn these scholars because you disagree with their conclusions. Do you not believe the Church, which has been filled with flawed human beings since its beginning, cannot also be “arrogant” in its own construal of the historical Jesus and cannot have manipulated that image of Jesus in order to gain and maintain control over people for itself? The claim of purity of intention and execution of the Gospel of Christ has got to be the epitome of arrogance, and you, Archpriest, are a prime example of it.

  3. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The historical Jesus is a myth. The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is actually an ancient Essene prayer dating hundreds of years before the birth of of Jesus. Christianity was the sect that won political dominance over all other First Century interpreters claiming special knowledge about a Jewish messiah. By the Fourth Century the spoils of war went to the sect chosen emperor Constantine for political purposes. Whatever Creed and religious hierarchy developed from that authority, it was not based on a knowledge of Jesus. It is the continuing attempt to continue the political authority of a Church.

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      I don’t take your argument as valid simply because the Gospels put an Essene prayer in the mouth of Jesus. They often had him quote Hebrew scripture, as you must know. As for the creed, it is my understanding that the original was called the Roman Creed, which then was renamed the Apostles Creed which dates from the first century. Politics entered in the Nicean and Athanasian Creed sometime in the fourth century. Historical context for any old writing is important for understanding fully the message or moral intended by the writer, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. It certainly has been fun for me to read and wrestle with the Gospel story in my life.

      • marty weiss on said:

        The work of John Dominic Crossan, at odds with convention, explores the details of life in Jesus’ times. Though he was a Roman Catholic theologian/historian, his conclusions echo the ideas of Rev. Bess and not the doctrines of Rome.
        The spirit of Jesus’ author of the universe was “steadfast love”. Not only social justice but universal justice is the price of enduring life on this planet. Foresight, love and compassion are not optional. Our common humanity is our sole asset, not competitive but collaborative, in our struggle to survive. We need each other, we need all the diverse skills and talents, genius and diligence to facilitate enduring society. Jesus was not alone in perceiving the essential diversity requisite for life.
        All empires are built on slavery. All people are chosen. Viable solution of our problems and conflicts must be inclusive, not exclusive. We have finally achieved the perspective to grasp the common circumstance of all life on earth and it is our existential responsibility to tend the garden and dress it. Social justice is just the down payment on existential justice and viability. Jesus was murdered by entrenched and partial interests. We must not repeat that criminal transgression and endure another millennium of darkness, conflict and needless suffering which we and life on earth may not survive.

  4. This is how I’ve, always, viewed Jesus. Various people have put their own spin on Jesus, based on how it could benefit them, politically. Churches have added different creeds, requirements for taking communion, etc.