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.
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.
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 occurs when social sin becomes encoded into unfair laws and structures within society.
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.'
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.'
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.
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.
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:
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.
However, liberation theologians like Boff were convinced that it was correct to describe the structures of society could themselves as sinful.
Gutierrez made it clear that structural sin needed to be addressed and society needed to be transformed.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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:
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:
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.
However, there is also counter evidence
It is probable that we will never be able to know for sure!
There are two main issues at stake here:
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?
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?