Roots of Liberation
Reflection from Richard Rohr, Sunday, June 24, 2018
One of the great themes of the Bible, beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures and continued by Jesus and Paul, is “the preferential option for the poor.” I call it “the bias toward the bottom.” The Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery, and YHWH’s complete identification with them, is the pattern of our universal spiritual journey to liberation.
Moses, himself a man at “the bottom” (a murderer on the run, caring for his father-in-law’s sheep), first encounters God in an ordinary bush that “burns” without being consumed (Exodus 3:2). Moses’ experience is both external and interior, earth-based and transcendent: “Take off your shoes, this is holy ground,” he hears (3:5). Awestruck and fully present, Moses is able to perceive God’s surprising call: “I have heard the groaning of my people in Egypt. You, Moses, are to go confront the Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go” (3:9-10).
Here we have the perfect integration of action and contemplation. First, the contemplative experience comes—the burning bush. Immediately it has social, economic, and political implications. There is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a different way. You see things differently, and you have the security to be free from your usual loyalties: privilege, position, group, and economy. Yet this transformation has costly consequences. Moses had to leave Pharaoh’s palace to ask new questions and become the liberator of his people.
The Exodus story is the root of all liberation theology, which Jesus then teaches and fully exemplifies (see Luke 4:18-19). It is obvious that he is primarily a healer of the poor and powerless. Liberation theology focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called “structural sin” and “institutional evil”).  It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own naughty behaviors, which many people identify as the only meaning of sin. In our individualistic society, structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large companies, churches, and governments get away with and are even applauded for killing (war), greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. The capital sins are rewarded at the corporate level but shamed at the individual level. This is our conflicted Christian morality!
Instead of legitimating the status quo, liberation theology tries to read history and the Bible not from the side of the powerful, but from the side of the pain. Its beginning point is not sin management, but “Where is the suffering?”
The world tends to define poverty and riches simply in terms of economics. But poverty has many faces—weakness, dependence, and many forms of humiliation. Essentially, poverty is a lack of means to accomplish what one desires or needs, be it lack of money, relationships, influence, power, intellectual ability, physical strength, freedom, or dignity.
God hears the cry of the poor. And we, created in God’s image and likeness, must do the same to be like God.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom) in CAC Foundation Set (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2007), CD and MP3 download; and
Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1998), 126.
Image Credit: Oil Slick in the Timor Sea, September 2009 (detail), NASA Earth Conservatory, US Government.