Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 31, 1990, p. 993, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Christians need to realize that the liberation struggle and a responsible love ethic must come together in our way of living.
Often when I address affluent church audiences on the subject of liberation theology I am asked: When oppressed people get liberated, what then? Further honing of the question yields this: What kind of ethic will they (oppressed people) develop to prohibit them from becoming oppressors? And doesn’t the liberation struggle destroy law and order? I remind these audiences that it is unproductive to speculate about people’s behavior in relation to an event that has not happened. I tell them the issue is not about second guessing the future conduct of oppressed people. The issue is about justice now!
However, I too ponder these questions. My reflection upon the oppressed-becoming-oppressor question usually finds consolation in part of the story of the newly liberated slaves recorded in Leviticus 19. I focus upon these ancient biblical people because for generations they have been models for oppressed people of how God acts in the world. God tells Moses, the liberation leader, "Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, You shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy." No doubt these ex-slaves understood what God meant by commanding them to be holy. After all, they had been liberated by God, had left the land of their bondage and now had the freedom to make laws compatible with whatever pattern of community life they themselves structured.
Being holy meant establishing a "peoplehood," human relationships based on principles of justice, impartiality, righteousness, honesty, wholesome human communications, lack of vindictiveness, and love (Lev. 19:15-18) This same sense of holiness is reinforced by another deliverer of oppressed people: Jesus. In response to a question from the Pharisees he says, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ‘This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40)
I tell myself that this ethical prescription for the ancient ex-slave community and for the Christian community is the ideal for any human community attempting to enhance the quality of relationships. And I hope that contemporary oppressed Christian communities take this prescription seriously when they become liberated.
But I try not to be naïve. This business of ex-slaves responding to others (especially former oppressors) as neighbors and with love sounds good. But contemporary people who fear that the oppressed will get unoppressed, take over the power and become oppressors in order to hold on to their new power can point to some historical examples. Part of American history is the story of poor, oppressed Europeans annihilating the native inhabitants. Then these formerly oppressed, poor Europeans built their economy by inaugurating, on American soil, one of the worst forms of slavery the world has known. History offers many reminders that power in the hands of anyone can be misused.
My reflection on liberation does not end with a consideration of whether the oppressed, once liberated, will become oppressors. My concern is whether our society is based upon ethical principles that foster justice, impartiality and honesty. History and the Bible show us that when societies are not based on these principles, liberation struggles break out and law and order are disturbed. Such was the case in North America in the 18th century when the colonists, oppressed by the taxation imposed by their British overlord, dumped tons of tea into the sea, a liberation event now cited with pride. The civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s was also a liberation occasion, disturbing the law and peace and creating voting, educational and employment rights for black Americans. It is after a fierce liberation struggle that the message of Leviticus 19 is cited.
The point is that liberation struggle is always generated as a reaction to unjust laws and oppressive practices. Freedom can be realized only in opposition to these laws and practices. Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments are full of examples of God helping to liberate people from bondage. In a sense, then, it is a Christian heritage to disturb the peace. If Christians abide by the mandates in their heritage, they can never advocate peace just for the sake of peace when injustices are present. Liberating people from oppressive law and order must be high on the priority list.
When I tell affluent church audiences about a theology with these priorities, I sense their fear of losing power and their resentment of a theology that speaks of God’s relation to the world in political as well as religious terms. They refuse to see that God’s liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt was political as well as religious. Jesus’ message in the Gospels involved the political act of trying to transform a tradition -- defying the law and picking corn to eat on the sabbath because "humans were not made for the sabbath. Rather the sabbath was made for humans."
Reflecting on "After Liberation, What?" leads me to hope that Christians will realize that the liberation struggle and a responsible love ethic must come together in our way of living. For one day the salvation of our religion may depend upon how widely and well we demonstrate to the world the unity of liberation and love.