Christ came to teach us what the “common good” really is. His preaching was policy, then, and politics, in the best sense, the original sense. In fact, he centered his teaching on a politics: that of the Reign of God.
If people hope to have a better society, a new world, they shall have to do more than simply keep up a line of patter about “living as brothers and sisters and building a world of communion.” We are going to have to struggle. We are going to have to exert some effort if we hope to change society’s distorted organization. This is the only way in which we shall “take away the sin of the world.” And the only means will be political activity. The change will come from the bottom up. It is the little ones who are going to effectuate it. The great and mighty have no wish for change….It has been ever thus, all through the history of humanity.
The gospel message is radically incompatible with an unjust society.
Liberation theology begins with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. To do liberation theology is to do it with and from the perspective of those whom society considers as nobodies. Incarnating theological thought among those who are dispossessed roots liberation theology in the material as opposed to simply the metaphysical. Within the Eurocentric context, the primary religious question concerns the existence of God. Among most liberationists, the struggle is not with God’s existence per se, but with God’s character. Who is this God whom we say exists? What is the character of God? Whoever God is, God imparts and sustains life while opposing death. Wherever lives are threatened with poverty and oppression, God is presente—present. The God of the Gospels is offended by the dehumanizing conditions in which the marginalized find themselves.
Through Jesus, this God knows what it means to suffer under religious and politically unjust structures. Because Jesus—in the ultimate act of solidarity with all who continue to be persecuted today—carries the wounds upon his feet, hands, and side, God knows what it means to exist in solidarity with all who are being crucified on the crosses of sexism, racism, ethnic discrimination, classism, and heterosexism. Those who suffer under oppression have a God who understands their suffering. Because Jesus suffered oppression on the cross, a divine commitment to stand against injustices exists, a stance believers are called to emulte. In short, to know God is to do justice. To stand by while oppression occurs is to profess nonbelief, regardless of any confession given privately or publicly.
In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”
Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper.
But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion — all about feeling God in nature, and so on — is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.
Not all men are born to be saints, but I believe we are all born with a voice within that we tend to ignore until it becomes so indistinct we barely know it’s there.