Marx led me to the people, and in the people, I found Jesus. — Paulo Freire, paraphrased
*** Note: this post is my response to a discussion in my Theology of the City class, in which I was asked to reply from a Biblical perspective to the particular issue of the immigration crisis, specifically that of young children approaching our borders and being turned away. The title of the original post is “Salvation for all, or only a few?” It is my hope in posting this that one might gain insight to the beautiful simplicity of liberation theology and how we as Christians can flesh it out in our world today. ***
The thing I love most about liberation theology is that it starts with the experience of the poor and oppressed. It begins with them. Liberation theology is something that arises organically from their stories, their lives. It is not something that is acted upon them. It is something they have a say in, a role in. They are not victims. They get to play a part in their own liberation, and as Freire would say, in doing so, they free their oppressors as well (2013, p. 44). What I love about it is that this mindset returns dignity to the poor and oppressed. Their poverty, oppression, and circumstances may have tried to snatch that dignity and sense of value, of worth, away, but in liberation theology, we as Christians have the beautiful opportunity to give it back to its rightful owner. Instead of dehumanizing them, it humanizes instead. It makes me think of when Jesus met the woman at the well, a story we read in John 4:4-26. It would be easy to label the woman, strip her of her humanity: Adultress. Samaritan. Outsider. But Jesus speaks to her at a basic human level; he engages in dialogue with her, and in doing so, she is led to truth and, even more so, liberation.
There are several key concepts in the realm of liberation theology that are important to note here, as I will be touching on them throughout this post. First, Brown gives us on pp. 26-33 four recurring themes: compromiso; hope; a notion of God-in-their-midst, or an awareness of his presence; and God’s preferential option for the poor. I would also add that the “view from below” (Brown, 1993, p. 44) is crucial when defining the basic tenets of liberation theology. The view from below ideology holds that the world is not as we see it, as we see situations from a place of privilege and ‘being on top.’ But the true view, the one that is real, accurate, and the actual experience of most people worldwide, is one from below. All these concepts weave together to form a foundation of sorts for liberation theology, helping us to remember that God is with the poor, he is for the poor, he is working on their behalf, and he is inviting us to join him.
We can apply these themes practically in the light of the immigrant crisis, specifically that of migrant children, that we are focusing on this week. I am going to begin at the end of the list, with the concept of the view from below, and then work my way to the start of the list. To see the situation with a view from below, one must attempt to assume the worldview of a child attempting to enter the United States. You are taking an incredible risk, which can only mean that whatever you are fleeing from is terrible and dangerous enough that you cannot remain in your home country any longer. Most migrants are attempting to cross the border so that they may escape crushing poverty, violence, sickness, food shortages, inadequate medical care, and other such injustices. To a child, from this view from the below, this is all you know. When we, the privileged, see that, we are faced with a glaring truth: the world is not as it should be, and change must be sought.
Coupled with the theme of seeing the world from below is that of God’s preferential option for the poor. Again, this concept does not hold that God prefers the poor exclusively. The Bible teaches he loves all his children, not just some, and wants salvation and wholeness and freedom for all, not only a few. However, since the world is not as it should be–as discussed in the previous paragaraph–the basic truth is that there are some in the world who have and many in the world who have not. God has a special care for the have-nots, and is “as concerned about the state of their stomachs as about the state of their souls” (Brown, 1993, p 33). God’s concern is for the migrant children attempting to enter the United States; he prefers them.
Not only is God on their side, but God is also in their midst, another basic tenet of liberation theology. This is more than viewing God as a visitor, one who is simply tagging along in their experience. No, God actually identifies with these children; that is what it means to be present in their situations. He is hungry and poor, just as they are. He feels insecure, unsafe, just as they do. He is sick and weary, just as they are. It is right there, in Matthew 25:31-46, the very words of Jesus. He calls himself hungry and thirsty, a stranger, a prisoner. God-in-their-midst in the light of migrant children means that God is experiencing that which they are experiencing. Let us not forget that as we talk about this immigration crisis.
For if the world is not as it should be, and God is not only concerned about this but actually experiencing it, there is a message of hope to be proclaimed! Again, assume the worldview of one of these children, fleeing your homeland. Your situation is bleak. You have likely had to endure things no child should ever have to be faced with. Yet you are on your way to a better place; it is this hope of a better tomorrow, a brighter future, that has brought you such a long distance to the border of the United States. Again, God is with you in this journey, and you have realized it is not his will for you to stay in poverty and oppression. You have understood that “God wills life and love and fullness for all and not just a few” (Brown, 1993, p. 28). For those of us who are watching this crisis from the sidelines–especially those of us who are Christian–may we remember that hope is what these children are after, and hope is what we are mandated to offer through Jesus Christ.
That brings me to my final point, a key concept that must be addressed when discussing liberation theology: that of compromiso. Brown notes that this word is often misunderstood in English because of its similarity to “compromise” (1993, p. 26). Here, compromiso is meant to denote commitment, standing up for one’s cause, putting one’s money where his mouth is. As Brown says, it is “being so clear about what is really important that thought and action cannot be separated” (1993, p. 26). In other words, compromiso not only sees what is wrong but then goes a step further to take a stand against it.
Even further, those acting of compromiso are heavily burdened and deeply concerned for children especially (Brown, 1993, p. 27). That means the salvation liberation theology offers is meant for these kids–these very children who are attempting to cross the United States border. These children did not ask to be born into poverty, oppression, hunger, or need, and if we have systems or opportunities within our borders to help alleviate these symptoms, then compromiso urges us to welcome the immigrant in.
As Christians, we are tasked with finding out what God is doing in the world and then joining him in the activity in which he is already working (Blackaby, Blackaby, & King, 2008, p. 3). Liberation theologians, while examining the current immigration crisis, would hold that God is doing a work specifically in the cases of children approaching our borders. American Christians, then, have the opportunity to respond in a way that is welcoming, engaging, nurturing, but also freeing. We must choose to see the view from below which provides a reference point for understanding the causes for the influx of refuge and asylum seekers. We must remember God’s special concern for immigrant children and remember that he is in their midst. We must remember his teachings to care for the poor, welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, just as we would do for him. We must offer hope–not just hope for eternity, but also a tangible hope, hope of a warm meal, a place to sleep, shelter and the like. Finally, we must speak up and stand up against an unjust world and unjust systems that put these children in this situation in the first place. It is in doing this that we will see his kingdom come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). It is in doing so that we will see salvation not just of souls but of bodies and hearts and minds. Jesus, after all, offers salvation for each one of us, not just a few, and all includes the children knocking at our borders, begging to be let in.
Blackaby, H., Blackaby, R., & King, C. (2008). Experiencing God: Knowing and doing the will of God. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
Brown, R.M. (1993). Liberation theology: An introductory guide. Lousville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Freire, P. (2013). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.