Jesus the Liberator

The OCR RS AS specification says that you need to know about liberation theologians' teachings about different types of sin, structural, social, personal and about their views about Jesus the Liberator.


Personal sin:

Sin is an action that goes against the law of God. The traditional concept of sin is that people are responsible for their own personal actions which go against God. Christianity teaches that a person who sin should confess their sin to God, repent (be sorry) and try to avoid repeating that sin in future. Within the Roman Catholic tradition individuals are expected to go to confession regularly and confess their sins to a priest who might give them a penance to do and pronounces absolution on behalf of God.

The traditional view of sin does not allow for any idea of corporate responsibility. An individual is responsible for their own sins.

Social sin:

However, there are other ways of understanding sin. Liberation theologians tend to focus on the idea of social sin. Attitudes like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and oppression of the poor could all be said to be examples of social sin. Social sin is the collective effect of many personal sins which cumulatively make up attitudes and behaviours that harm other people. Society as a whole has a responsibility for social sin.

Structural sin:

'The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity.'

'Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.'

Gustavo Gutierrez A Theology of Liberation

Structural sin occurs when social sin becomes encoded into unfair laws and structures within society.

  • For example, racism is a social sin but becomes a structural sin when turned into laws which created apartheid. 
  • In the Latin American context disregard for the poor would be an example of social sin. This becomes structural sin when it is reflected in the policies and laws tied up with land ownership.

Liberation theologians argued that Christianity should engage with structural and social sin and try to bring about change. At Medellin the Bishops agreed that what was needed for true liberation was 'new and reformed structures' and they said  'faced with the need for total change of Latin American structures, we believe that change has political reform as a prerequisite.'

This relates to the idea of showing a preferential option for the poor. Gutierrez thought that God himself showed a preferential option for the poor as if he did not side with the oppressed in an unjust world then he would be implicitly siding with the oppressors.

The bishops said that the Church had a duty 'to create a just social order' and they criticised those who did not work for change saying 'also responsible for injustice are those who remain passive for fear of the sacrifice and personal risk.'

Can sin really be social/structural?

The idea of corporate responsibility is one that is found in the Bible (in the Old Testament God frequently held the Israelites as a whole responsible for the sins of some of their number). This may seem unfair, but one could argue that those who do nothing to combat oppression are implicitly involved in contributing to it by allowing it to continue. In this way liberation theologians thought that the Church itself had been guilty of contributing to oppression by not using their power and influence to oppose it.

Pope John Paul II said no:

However, statements from the Vatican have expressed concern about the idea of social sin and structural sin which they think undermine the idea of personal responsibility for our action.

In 1984 Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter (Reconciliatio et Paenetentia) in which he made clear that Church views sin in terms of personal sin. He acknowledged that certain situations are very unfair and said that these go against the will of God but he cautioned against blaming the situation rather than the individuals.

'Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community.'

' is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals' sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people.'

' speak even analogically of social sins must not cause us to underestimate the responsibility of the individuals involved. '

'...Whenever the church speaks of situations of sin or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.'

'.... The real responsibility, then lies with individuals.' 

John Paul II Reconciliatio et Paenetentia (read more of the relevant section here)

The reason why social and structural accounts of sin might undermine personal responsibility is because and individual's action is interpreted as being driven by the the sinful environment that they live. This can be illustrated as follows:

  • For example, the idea of blaming apartheid and racism for the treatment of Nelson Mandela would remove the moral responsibility for the individuals involved in his trial. 
  • In the Latin American context blaming the latifundia system and the general attitudes towards the poor would seem to absolve individual land-owners of their moral responsibility for their actions. To blame the deaths of Romero and the Jesuit priests in El Salvador on the attitudes of the time and the military dictatorship would seemingly 'let off' the individual soldiers involved in their deaths.

Pope John Paul II was also concerned with the ideological (i.e. Marxist) basis for the idea of structural sin. Marx' historical materialism saw individual action as a product of the economic conditions of the time and believed that structural change was needed to liberate people.

Liberation theologians say yes:

However, liberation theologians like Boff were convinced that it was correct to describe the structures of society could themselves as sinful.

'...unjust structures or oppressors are objectively an evil. For this reason, they are "sin" in the material structural sense. These unjust structures are, to society, what lust is to the individual: they carry and even drag one into evil.'

Leonardo Boff, On Social Sin

Gutierrez made it clear that structural sin needed to be addressed and society needed to be transformed.

'Charity is today a 'political charity.'. . . it means the transformation of a society structured to benefit a few who appropriate to themselves the value of the work of others. This transformation ought to be directed toward a radical change in the foundation of society'

Gustavo Gutierrez A Theology of Liberation

Theories about sin relate to the role of Jesus because if Jesus came to liberate people from sin (and the bishops at Medellin reaffirmed that God 'sends his Son in the flesh, so that he might come to liberate everyone from the slavery to which sin has subjected them'), then Jesus must liberate people from all types of sin.

Jesus the Liberator:

Given that sin has personal, social and structural elements to it it is important that 'liberation from sin' includes methods of dealing with each type of sin.

Gustavo Gutierrez said that people needed:

  • Political/social liberation to free them from the laws that entrap them. This would be liberation from structural sin. This would be achieved through praxis and engagement with political/economic issues.
  • Human liberation/emancipation to restore their dignity and release them from the bonds of social sin. This would be achieved through conscientisation and a preferential option for the poor.
  • Liberation from selfishness and sin to restore relationships with God and others. This would include a more traditional understanding of freeing people from their own personal sins.

The traditional view:

'For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

Romans 6:23

The traditional view is that Jesus liberates people from personal sin by freeing people from the consequences of sin. The Bible tells us that 'the wages of sin is death' and traditional Christian salvation theology explains that Jesus' death on the cross paid the price of human sin and enabled humans to go to heaven instead of hell. In addition, many Christians believe that the risen Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit as counsel (guide) helps to liberate Christians from their sinful human nature and enable them to live as new people guided by faith rather than by sinful inclinations.

Thus Jesus is liberator, but liberation is largely spiritual and occurs primarily in the afterlife

Liberation theologians challenge that view. Gutierrez argues that although we have come to accept the traditional view unthinkingly, this view of Jesus obscures the real person.

'We take it for granted that Jesus was not interested in political life: his mission was purely religious. Indeed we have witnessed . . . the 'iconization' of the life of Jesus: 'This is a Jesus of hieratic, stereotyped gestures, all representing theological themes. In this way, the life of Jesus is no longer a human life, submerged in history, but a theological life -- an icon.'

Gutierrez A Theology of Liberation

Jesus the social revolutionary:

Liberation theologians might also use a hermeneutic of suspicion to ask why certain aspects of Jesus' ministry have been overlooked or deliberately ignored by traditional theology. Is it perhaps that emphasising the radical nature of Jesus and the rebellious elements of his message would be unwise for a Church closely associated with those who had political power?

Liberation theologians do not reject this understanding of salvation. However, they believe that other, more political, elements of Jesus' ministry have been left out.


They argue that Jesus challenged the social conventions of his day. He challenged strict interpretations of the Jewish law which 'trapped' people by providing them with standards that they could not possibly live up to. He discribed the religious elite (the pharisees) as hypocrites. He told the rich to give up their wealth and give to the poor whilst at the same time upholding Samaritans and children as examples to be emulated. He preached reversal. 

At the time Jesus lived many people believed that wealth was a sign of God's blessing - thus rich people were good. Disease was viewed as a sign of God's displeasure and implied the person had sinned. Thus by criticising the rich and healing those with disease Jesus was challenging the social order of his day.

Jesus' preaching was reflected in his action. He chose followers from the lower ranks of society (fishermen), he associated with those of ill-repute and outcasts. He healed people of sickness thus 'liberating' them from the things that physically constrained them and stopped them living life to the full.

Thus Jesus was not necessarily the mild-mannered pacifist that people imagine when they think of Jesus. For liberation theologians, Jesus was someone who acted decisively on behalf of the disadvantaged (those who were the underside of history) and he told his followers to do the same.

Specific examples:

Texts of particular importance include Jesus' what is sometimes called Jesus' 'mission statement' found in Luke 4 in which Jesus reads from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21

Liberation theologians would point out that Jesus stressed today (i.e. in this world now) this will be fulfilled. Jesus brings 'good news' to the poor and has come to free the oppressed.

Another important text which demonstrates Jesus' criticism of those with power and his opposition to structures that trap people is Matthew 23 in which Jesus cricitised the pharisees (religious leaders). He said:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.


 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Matthew 23:1-4 & 13 (read whole chapter here)

Later in Matthew's gospel the parable of the sheep and the goats (also called the judgement of nations) says that those who get into heaven will be those who have helped others. By helping others they have effectively done these things for Jesus so that 

'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Matthew 25:35-36

Of course helping others need not necessarily be revolutionary. However, liberation theologians would argue that when structural sin exists the best way to feed the hungry is to remove the things that cause people to be hungry in the first place.

The principle of reversal is also found in Jesus' teachings. In Matthew 19 Jesus told the rich young man that in order to get into heaven he had to give up all his riches and give them to the poor. At the end of the chapter Jesus said:

'But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.'

Matthew 19:30


Note: this links with other areas of LT. It could be part of the hermeneutic (judging) mediation. You could use it to demonstrate how LT use the Bible. Emphasising Jesus' liberating message could form part of conscientisation. Look for these links and use them in your essays.

Liberation theologians believe that Jesus liberated people from social and structural sin as well as personal sin. Consequently, the bible provides theological justification for engaging with structural sin. As a social reformer the historical Jesus engaged with the structures of his day. Liberation theologians would also believe that the risen Christ continues to act on behalf of the oppressed. Thus those who struggle against oppression are accompanied by Christ as they do so. For Sobrino, the resurrection is a message of hope that love will triumph in the end. He wrote:

'The Resurrection of Jesus is...a symbol of hope...I don't see how you can show love...without being in solidarity with the victims of this world. And if you are in solidarity with the victims, I don't see how you can avoid the cross. The theology of the cross is the theology of love in our real world.'

Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy

Academic debates: Was Jesus actually a zealot?

Gutierrez linked Jesus with the zealots who were a Jewish political group who opposed Roman occupation. The question of to what extent Jesus was actually a revolutionary is one that has interested academics. On the one hand there is some evidence that he could even have been a zealot. 

  • His disciples were carrying swords when he was arrested.
  • Judas Iscariot was one of his disciples and it has been claimed that Iscariot 'knife man' was slang for zealot.
  • He was crucified with the title 'King of the Jews' perhaps suggesting that he intended to overthrow the Romans and be the leader of Israel.

However, there is also counter evidence

  • He advised people to pay their taxes
  • He said 'my kingdom is not of this world'
  • He voluntarily allowed himself to be arrested.

It is probable that we will never be able to know for sure!


There are two main issues at stake here:

  1. Should theology concern itself with social and structural sin or should the emphasis continue to be placed on personal sin?
  2. Is it legitimate to regard Jesus as a social reformer/political revolutionary and does such an approach undermine more traditional salvation theology?

What type of sin should the Church be concerned with?

In response to the first issue, liberation theologians would argue that social sin and structural sin cause considerable problems in the world and contribute to the suffering of many people. Christians should be motivated by love to work for justice and in order for justice to be achieved unequal systems need to be abolished. (i.e. engaging with social sin is a necessary condition of creating a fairer society).

John Paul II's response was that although unfair situations are against God's will and should be opposed, the real problem is still individual action. Terms like structural sin are unhelpful because they undermine personal responsibility.

A related issue is the fact that if structural sin has a legal/political element then it presumably has a legal/political solution. To what extent should the Church get involved in politics? Should the Church be focusing on the afterlife (which is arguably more important than this life as it goes on for longer!)? Can Christians use violence to oppose oppression?

Who was Jesus?

The question of whether or not Jesus was a social revolutionary relates to the question of whether we can know anything about the historical Jesus. Scholars are divided both on the issue of whether we can know anything about Jesus and those that think we can know what he was like do not always agree on the details of what he said or did.

Consider whether you think a more political reading of Jesus is damaging to Christianity. Is it reductionist to talk about Jesus bringing social change on earth? Is is possible for him to be both social revolutionary and traditional saviour? 

Ultimately, are liberation theologians teachings on sin and on Jesus authentically Christian or misguided and damaging?