It took me a long time in my religious life to get to a point where I realized that the Gospel is about way more than life with God after death.
The Gospel (or, “Good News”) was always–to me–a message about how Jesus can save me from my sins and ensure that when I die I get the bliss of heaven instead of the boils of hell.
I’ve come a long way since those days, and I have the work of Liberation Theology to thank for that. Needless to say, the “Good News” is a whole lot good’r than I ever imagined.
At Sojourn this past month I’ve been talking about what I’ve learned from Liberation Theology, including a few Sundays ago when I shared what Latin American Liberation Theologians have taught us about the Good News.
Namely, that the plight of the poor is of central import to the heart of God.
You can call this Divine Partiality: God is partial toward those who suffer.
There is a type of suffering that happens when those WITHOUT power are experiencing conditions in their life that lead to hunger, thirst, sickness, unemployment and underemployment, as a result of systems put in place by those WITH power.
This type of suffering is not okay.
If God is a loving and benevolent being who’s hope is that humans would experience a whole and joy filled life, then this type of suffering works in direct opposition to that hope.
God wants to move humanity toward peace, wholeness, and goodness.
Suffering–as a result of the force of poverty–opposes that movement.
Therefore, In the words of the preeminent Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez,
“Poverty is never good but an evil to be opposed.”
The Bible is not short of verses that almost glorify suffering. It is often painted as an experience that puts the sufferer closer to Jesus, or on the path toward growth or holiness.
There is, in other words, a type of suffering that (at least, according to the Bible) does place someone in the flow of moving towards greater peace, wholeness, and goodness.
But that type of suffering is different from the first type of suffering I mentioned above.
Jon Sobrino, in his book Christ the Liberator, explains that there is a world of difference between suffering that is imposed on others, and suffering that is willingly assumed for the sake of assisting others to gain release from their bondage.
There is a type of suffering that comes as a result of others imposing something upon you, and then there is a type of suffering that comes as a result of you living in a certain way, or making particular choices.
Some people suffer because other people (specifically other people that have more power) impose upon them conditions or expectations that lead to a type of suffering.
And then other people suffer because they orient their lives in such a way that brings out the claws in others.
There is a type of suffering that happens because people are being exploited, oppressed, marginalized, ignored… and THAT type of suffering is not okay. That type of suffering is meant to be opposed, eliminated.
And then there is a type of suffering that happens because people are essentially placing themselves in harms way as a result of living out their convictions. In their pursuit of justice and peace they encounter persecution and violence, and that type of suffering is something, according the Biblical authors at least, that has the potential to yield positive effects in our lives.
To say that “poverty is evil” is not, mind you, to say that those in poverty are evil. God no.
It is to say that the forces that put 1/2 of all humans on earth (over 3 BILLION people) in a context where they live in poverty (less than $2.50/day) are evil forces.
But that is not to say that 3 Billion people in the world who live in poverty are therefore not experiencing a happy, whole, good life. Anyone who has spent time in places of extreme poverty has witnessed the miraculous joy that can still exist in such conditions. But any joy within poverty happens in spite of it, not because of it.
Most systems in our world are designed to get the rich richer and the poor poorer. That sort of inequality is anti-Kingdom.
That sort of world is about as unChristlike as it gets.
The Good News ought be actual news that is good for those who suffer. For those on the margins. For the oppressed and the powerless and the poor.
From the perspective of the Bible, the News is considered “good,” in part, because God has a special ear tuned to the frequency of the cries of the oppressed. If you are suffering because someone else is using, abusing, or exploiting you, then perhaps some measure of comfort can be found in knowing that your cries reach the ears of the Creator in a special way. You get bumped to the front of the line, if you will.
What Jesus was/is about, however, is a tangible manifestation of that Divine Partiality. It is not enough just for God to be partial to the poor, because God needs bodies to implement God’s heart. So the Gospel, the Good News, is “good” because Jesus announced that in and through his work the Spirit of God was/is moving to “to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
To those on the margins, there is good news: God is on your side, Jesus started a movement to empower and liberate you, and the Spirit is hard at work in bringing such justice to fruition.
We are called/invited/mandated to be partakers in the work of liberation.
Otherwise the Good News isn’t really all that good.