Richard Rohr on Compassionate Action


The term “liberation theology” has a negative connotation in the minds of some people. It sounds like something heretical, leftist, or Marxist, and certainly not “Biblical.” In fact, it is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition and marks its very beginning. It is amazing that so much of Christianity has been able to avoid the absolutely obvious for so long. It probably reveals that the ego has been in charge, not the soul.

We see the beginnings of liberation theology as early as 1,200 years before Christ with the Exodus experience of the Jewish people. Something divine happened that allowed an enslaved group of Semitic people in Egypt to experience many levels of liberation from slavery to a “promised land.” The Exodus became the standing Biblical metaphor for both an external journey and an inner journey. If the inner journey does not match and mirror the outer journey, we have no true liberation at all. Most groups choose just one side or the other; very few choose both. That is what liberation theology is honest enough to point out.


Moses is the historical character at the heart of the experience of any “exodus” and the spirituality that goes with that experience (Exodus 3:1-15 ). This is the primal historical template and pattern given us at the beginning of the Bible. This is what God is forever doing.

A murderer on the run, Moses has a “burning bush” experience out in the wild. It has nothing to do with formalized religion. It’s a nature experience and also follows an experience of human failure, which first religious moments often are. The voice he hears from the bush immediately tells him to confront the Pharaoh and tell him to let his slaves go!

So first you have the religious experience, symbolized by the burning bush—and that God experience immediately has social, economic, and political implications! That is what liberation theology is saying—“contemplation” and action, spirituality and the social order, religion and politics are forever connected and can not and must not be separated. This creative tension is the story line of much of the rest of the Bible.


Very early in the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a split between the Exodus tradition, which I believe is the mainline tradition of full liberation, and the parallel tradition that soon develops in Leviticus and Numbers, which is called the “priestly” tradition. If you read these two books, they have none of the drama of Exodus, but reflect what happens when the priests take over and try to organize and control the inner experience and avoid the outer implications.

About eight centuries before Christ we finally meet the spiritual geniuses—the Jewish prophets—who try to link the two traditions: inner God experience and outer work for justice and truth. We continue to have halfhearted divisions—in the form of Right or Left, liberal or conservative, establishment or disestablishment, contemplative or activist—down to our time. They really do need one another, but in most of history, as in Judaism, the priestly tradition has clearly been in control. The prophets are always marginalized. We always need the prophets to balance out the priests, but they are not just pushed off to the side, but usually killed, according to Jesus (Matthew 23:29-31). Which is exactly what happens to Jesus himself, with the full cooperation of the priestly class. How can we miss this message?


The terms “Right” and “Left” came from the Estates General in France. It’s interesting that we now use them as our basic political terms. On the left sat the ordinary people, on the right sat the nobility and the clergy! (What were the clergy doing over there?!) I think you see the pattern, despite Jesus’ clear and consistent identification with the outsiders and the poor.

In most of history you will invariably have these two movements, because we didn’t have the phenomenon of the middle class until very recently. The vast majority of people in all of human history have been poor, as it was in Jesus’ time. Yet the people who wrote books and controlled the institutions have almost always been on the Right. Much of history has been read and interpreted from the side of the “winners,” or the Right, except for the unique revelation called the Bible, which is an alternative history from the side of the enslaved, the dominated, the oppressed, and the poor, leading up to the totally scapegoated Jesus himself. He tries to put inside and outside together, but is killed by those entrapped and privileged on the inside.


When you truly know things in a spiritual way, the indicator is that you also know that you do not know! Truly holy people are always humble and forever beginners. If you are not humble, one knows you have not experienced the Holy One which utterly humbles you. In any religion, if you don’t see humility, you know it’s not on the right course.

The prophets are always calling Israel to such humility. They represent the self-critical and honest part of religion. Without such a prophetic element, religion is almost always self-serving and idolatrous. True prophets, however, please nobody, neither Left nor Right—which of themselves are mere ideologies, and two places for the ego to hide. According to Jesus, the “whole world will hate you” if you follow him (Matthew 10:22). When you are truly prophetic, both the Left and the Right will invariably mistrust and attack you. The Gospel position is much larger than either of these ideologies, and is often a lonely position.


We see in the Gospels that it’s the lame, the poor, the blind, the prostitutes, the drunkards, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outsiders, and the foreigners who tend to follow Jesus. It is those on the inside and the top who crucify him (elders, chief priests, teachers of the Law, and Roman occupiers). Shouldn’t that tell us something really important about perspective? Every viewpoint is a view from a point, and we need to critique our own perspective and privilege if we are to see truth.

Many fail to appreciate liberation theology because of 1,700 years of interpreting the Scriptures from the perspective of the secure clergy class, rather than from the perspective of those on the bottom or the outside. After Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire (313 AD), we largely stopped reading the Bible from the side of the poor and the oppressed. We read it from the side of the comfortable and, I am sorry to say, from the priesthood, instead of from people hungry for justice and truth. Now you know why Jesus said, “I did not come for the healthy but for the sick” (Mark 2:17).


It seems to me that it is a minority that ever gets the true and full Gospel. We just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the exact right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, “worship me!”, but he often says, “follow me” (e.g., Matthew 4:19).

Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, inclusive, and loving. We made it, however, into a formal established religion, in order to avoid the demanding lifestyle itself. One could then be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain at the highest levels of the church, and still easily believe that Jesus is “my personal Lord and Savior.” The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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