From ‘Liberation’ to ‘Exile’: A New Image for Church Mission

by Ephraim Radner

Ephraim Radner, an Episcopal priest who has been involved in urban mission in Cleveland, is now in a doctoral program in theology at Yale University.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 18, 1989, pp. 931-934. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Church people are not effectively engaged with social ills or with the poor. It is rare to come across teachings in the church dealing with the practical tasks of reforming communities.

For many socially responsible seminarians in the late 1970s, liberation theology was the only show in town, the only show in a culture that seemed unwilling even to consider the social challenges of the gospel. Those of us who were uneasy with the simplistic and politically rote conclusions to which liberation theology gave rise had no other examples to follow. Tired North American denominations offered no parallel to the martyrs and confessors of the church in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Perhaps the notion of liberation itself is becoming tired these days, although you wouldn’t know it from our church presses or seminaries. Liberation is an almost normative lens through which whole churches are asked to see their mission. The themes is sounded again and again in books, articles, Bible studies, meditations and ethical exhortations.

Yet here we are, in the same state as at least a decade ago. Statistics indicate that major denominations—including traditional black churches—have increasingly exclusive memberships, defined along economic, class and ethnic lines. Churches in inner cities and poor rural areas are closing, while those that remain are often composed of commuting members with little interest in the church’s neighbors. The nation’s poor are increasingly unchurched, excluded from or without access to Christian communities.

Why haven’t things changed? In part because although liberation rhetoric has increased in the form of statements, resolutions, protests, pickets and boycotts, church-people are not effectively engaged with social ills or with the poor. Articles and teaching sessions are devoted to social scandals like the increase in hunger, poverty, homelessness and illiteracy in the U.S. Likewise, issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy, aid and grotesque military appropriations are frequently critiqued on behalf of a foreseen new social order that will be founded on liberationist principles. But it is rare to come across material dealing with the practical tasks of reforming communities.

For instance, a recent editorial in The Other Side—a Christian magazine known for its commitment to social justice—made a plea of almost baroque passion for the abolition of prisons. The argument was made according to a classic liberationist reading of the scriptural mandate. Absolutely nothing, however, was said about our violent culture which precipitates the need for prisons. Nothing could be said, for within a liberationist understanding of God’s will there is little room for considering how, short of overturning society at large, Christians should respond to particular social problems. This is rhetorical posturing on a grand scale. In fact, a liberationist outlook obscures rather than clarifies the practical imperatives of Christian ministry within the U.S.

We can address issues like crime and habitual drug use only if we are willing to address the social universe that fosters a complex set of behaviors and expectations. To alter significantly the shape of such a universe is to engage in what can be called a process of "totalistic" transformation, for attitudes and motivations are a crucial part of what needs to be addressed in any attempt at change. Private groups that attempt to provide transitional or new low-income housing to the homeless, for example, are recognizing the need to transform both internal and external environments. They are beginning to offer services above and beyond shelter: training in household management, daily monitoring of lifestyle habits like drug use, directed job-searches, organized support groups and pep-sessions and sanctions on miscreant behavior. Usually such programs have in mind a relatively uncomplicated image of a "responsible" home-dweller or employed person, but in any case they uphold an image of social life according to which people are being formed, and which governs the application of certain formative methods.

These efforts represent only a tiny, voluntary, private attempt at dealing with enormous issues of personal and group change. Yet we are beginning to recognize the necessity of such totalistic transformation—and of changing behavior according to some recognized authority. We are also beginning to yearn for such renewal in our social policy.

However, these insights put socially active Christians and their churches in a dilemma. The liberationist would see the church’s vocation as one of delivering people from the contexts that foster crime and drug use. But breaking the bonds that create such contexts demands a totalistic social intervention that, carried out in the political sphere, verges on the totalitarian. We are seeing proposals to draft young people (read poor young people) into a military style of national service. Linking educational achievement with the right to drive and other rights is already a legislated practice in some places. Evicting from public housing not only individuals accused (not convicted) of drug-dealing and use but also families is becoming accepted policy. Forced relocation and dispersal of poor families into new neighborhoods is being considered in some cities. Enforced contraception for, female teenagers has been suggested on the pages of prestigious newspapers. Massive arrests and police "sweeps" are now regular occurrences in some urban areas where drug-dealing and gang violence are endemic. Due process in the criminal-justice system is crumbling in the face of the need (and call) for a swift and decisive response to crime.

In a country where the state’s incursions into the family sphere is vigorously resisted, a call for a liberating reordering of social structures by the church would realistically demand a Christian alignment with policies many might consider "protofascistic." (This is already taking place with the Christian right in this country, wherever it has sought to pursue a theocratic vision.)

Such an alignment is inconceivable to most progressive Christians. Though some might espouse an overthrow of the American social system, commitment to civil liberties is so ingrained that few could accept the kind of coercive steps necessary to implement totalistic renewal on whatever political basis. This is particularly the case as issues of poverty become increasingly entwined with drugs and violent crime, which in any case demand immediate coercive interaction by some sanctioned authority. Thus liberationist spokespeople are left to issue prophetic calls necessarily devoid of the practical guidelines their commitment to political change would entail.

But the church is not without avenues for faithful response to issues like drug use and crime. Within the tradition of church-state separation in the U.S., totalistic renewal has been the voluntary province of the churches. (In much the same way, religious groups acted as agents of voluntary totalistic reform within the multicultural world of the Roman Empire.) Reaching out and incorporating new members and inculcating in them behaviors and expectations congruent with the vision of the Christian community has been the main activity of the churches’ mission across the centuries. It has been the means for the transformation of many socially marginal groups in the U.S., from poor rural whites in Methodist and Assemblies of God churches to rural and dislocated urban blacks in Baptist and Church of God in Christ churches. These highly self-conscious groups have deliberately, and on the basis of well-articulated evangelical mandates, provided the means for motivational and educational upbuilding. In so doing, they have also been the vehicles for upward mobility, although this has rarely been an explicit goal.

This traditional mission of totalistic renewal has been forgotten in recent years as the character of our churches has reflected a secular culture of economic consumerism. Only the "sects," like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have maintained both the vision and the motivation to seek people outside the economic and educational mainstream of the nation and transform the contours of their social realities within a community of faith.

These groups (along with non-Christian sects like the various Black Muslim groups) have been vilified by the political right for being anti-American and for refusing to accept patriotic values or for resisting participation in the political process. (Similar charges were leveled, until the last generation, against the larger fundamentalist evangelical bodies, whatever their economic status.) They have also been scorned from the left for their seemingly uncritical espousal of economic self-improvement that may or may not be connected to the capitalist system but certainly has done little to challenge it in the political sphere.

Such a balance of distaste might well hint at the coherence and integrity of sectarian Christianity in the U.S., at least as it concerns such churches’ ability to incorporate socially marginal groups into a community that provides the basis and the tools for purposeful and materially sufficient existence. They show themselves to be separate communities, capable of totalistic renewal.

In contrast, liberationism fails to liberate today because of a general inability to understand the church as a community apart from secular society—a separate community with both the clearly defined means and the vocation to evangelize and form new members from among those whom the society at large has abandoned. It makes little sense for churches to work at becoming liberating agents when they refuse to become communities that are themselves inclusive of the people they seek to serve.

Liberation, with its theocratic embrace of the whole of our society’s political structure, has failed as a theme by which to define our church’s mission in this country precisely because it denies the sectarian nature of reform built into this nation’s polity. It is rather the growth and expansion of religious communities, separate but within the larger society, that will engender vehicles for noncoercive deliverance. In this regard, the image of "exile" is far more fruitful than "liberation" in helping the church to understand its ministry.

In most cases, liberationist theologies have taken root in situations that call for freedom from existing government and economic structures. In the U.S., issues of hunger are most frequently linked to lack of money, not arable land, and lack of money is linked either to un- or underemployment or entitlements. Addressing these issues does not necessarily require a complete political restructuring. A religious culture seeking an effective, faithful response to these issues would not pursue freedom from existing government and economic structures, but would manipulate them in order to strengthen an alternative community, a community formed by a coherent set of values that are at odds with the surrounding culture. This response forms an identity of "exile," not liberation. Ironically, the notion of exile is poorly understood by Americans, even though immigration and assimilation are the basis of our vigorous commonwealth. In other parts of the world, exile is both a legal construct and a way of life.

Traditionally the Christian church has internalized its own experience of exile within an alien culture and adopted a spirituality suffused with exilic qualities. For Christians exile has been not only a condition forced upon a small group of people but a state into which everyone was called by God for their human maturation—a place of formation, where attitudes and motivations were molded by a community without earthly roots.

The Puritans struggled uneasily with the concepts of exodus and exile. It was not until evangelical Christianity flourished in the 19th century that a truly exilic perspective was explicitly linked to missionary outreach and proved capable of expanding the community of churches to include socially marginal groups. The exilic Christian community has always seen itself as a vessel of deliverance—a vessel, not an agent.

The image of exile returns North American churches to one of the central strands of New Testament ecclesiology. Rather than calling for the theocratic transformation of an entire society, much of the New Testament calls people out of an existing society into a theocratic alternative that is to continue in the midst of the larger society until the inbreaking of God’s own action. Rather than positing a dualism of political structures, as within an exodus framework, the New Testament posits a dualism between communities of values within a single society.

The First Letter of Peter perhaps best exemplifies such an exilic ecclesiology, although certainly Paul’s letters and Jesus’ life point to similar visions of the church’s mission. Exilic language, explicitly used in the opening of I Peter to describe the Christian community, revolves around a number of constants. God’s elective love buttresses the more practical elements of the church’s posture. The reality of living within a culture fundamentally at odds with the shape of God’s love creates a yearning for what God has not yet brought to pass.

The shape of such distinctiveness has too often been ignored as a subject of inquiry; it has certainly been avoided as an object toward which to be converted. Since in large measure Christian distinction involves the use of resources like money and time, as well as vehicles of primary regard like Scripture, prayer and extrafamilial commitments, promoting such identity involves a hard confrontation with the values of our secular environment. This in turn points the church to the way of the cross as the social character of exile. Few churches in the U.S. have been willing to push such a foundational self-understanding.

American Christians are part of a political system that depends on their participation. Churches of an exilic character, however, are not merely participants; they are alternative, tolerated communities. By maintaining the integrity of the Christian community in the face of the dominant culture, churches can rediscover the means to embrace new members from the margins of their culture, forming a commonwealth in exile, a distinct and enticing place of renewal.

Exile is a move to that realm where divine liberation can begin to take on meaning, because it springs from the longing of a separated people. If the churches cannot groan, God shall never hear. That is the secret of the exodus, and the moment to which we are called to return. That it takes place long before the parting of the waters is perhaps one reason for our reluctance. But the return into exile is also the movement by which our Lord delineated deliverance. As such, it can hardly be a cause for fear.