One of the most enriching things about traveling to El Salvador last month was to experience liberation theology in practice. I was introduced to this theology like many seminary students–primarily through academic literature and lively class discussions. Some of my fellow classmates resonated with people like Elsa Tamez and Gustavo Gutierrez. I was in this category. Others were quick to scrutinize potential theological shortcomings. While these sorts of theoretical approaches definitely have their merits, I think it’s invaluable to see theology lived out. Theology must never be handled at a distance, no matter how comforting it may seem to find refuge behind a book. What exactly does it mean in the here-and-now that God is a God who suffers? What does justice for the oppressed mean for a war-torn country or cities filled with vast disparity? These kinds of questions will keep you up at night if you truly come to wrestle with them.
One of the most distinctive parts of liberation theology is its Christology. This part is something I have meditated on recently during this Lenten season. Christ is someone who suffers. Jesus was oppressed–from living in the context of Roman colonization to being crucified as a criminal. We read in John’s gospel of Jesus as a God who sheds tears at the death of a beloved friend. Philippians 2 tells us how the kenosis and self-sacrificial love of our Jesus flips the entire world upside down. Jesus suffers and this is a key foundation for doing theology with liberation in mind.
I witnessed this Christology put into practice in El Salvador. The pastors and leaders we met throughout throughout our trip understood Jesus as near to these places of suffering. I particularly remember visiting the Martyrs Museum at the University of Central America. Six Jesuit priests and two women were were assassinated at the university during the civil war by government forces. I do not think I will ever be able to forget the graphic photographs we saw during our visit. I remember immediately thinking that this killing was absolutely demonic. These priests were martyrs. One of the books found in a pool of blood following the assassination was Moltmann’s Crucified God. Seeing this stained book on display at the museum really impacted me. I cannot find the words to express how truly symbolic this display was. It seemed to express the lives of each one of these martyrs.
Things are tough in El Salvador, despite the end of the war. The people have been literally beaten and torn, opportunity is often systematically restricted, and the nation’s civil war included some of the most horrendous instances of violence. Through the passion of Christ, however, we see the heart of God. Yes we are bruised, but Jesus was bruised too. By realizing this we can see how God is closely connected with the poor and powerless.
I have a pastor friend who will frequently end his prayers in worship with this: “In the name of Jesus we pray, in his life, death, and resurrection. Amen.” I have adopted this practice in my ministry too. My friend has explained that as Christians, we are a people who are to embody the life of Christ. This is not limited to the triumphant Christ on Easter morning. We ought to also be deeply connected with the passion narrative–both the crucifixion and life of Christ as well. I believe this pastoral insight directly relates to the theology of liberation. Of course we confess the reality of Easter morning. God picks up the broken pieces and renews and restores creation. In the same breath, however, we must also be a Good Friday people. As we integrate the suffering Christ into our lives we realize the heart God has for the least of these. I think this is what liberation theology is all about.