It is no wonder that the public-at-large can by confused (if not downright cynical) about all those who make noise about being Christian, even expropriating their definition as “evangelical Christians.” I think I can offer a clarifying note: Christians are those who embrace Jesus Christ and evidence that relationship in the way they think and behave. Such thinking and behaving is the result of the Spirit of Jesus Christ indwelling—yes, the same Spirit of God that dwelt in Jesus Christ is a dynamic new creation power at work in those who embrace him by faith. This is testified to by all the New Testament writers.

Which brings us to this clarifying assertion in New Testament writings: “By their fruits shall you know them” (Matthew 7:15-20). Or, “Faith without works is dead” James 2:14-26). Thinking and behaving, according to Jesus and the new humanity he came to inaugurate. He told his followers that by their works others would know that God was at work in him. Ah! But this is not tame stuff. Jesus’ teaching challenge the dominant order, and it value systems. It challenges the economic and political, and cultural definitions of success and power. Consequently, when one is captive to such cultural practices and definitions, defines himself/herself as a “Christian/evangelical” he or she has lost credibility right up front.

Our indigenous Latin American brothers, as they became free from the colonial economic and political dominance of European and North American influences, and by the Spirit of God began to craft a theology indigenous to their own culture and social circumstances, began to see how much Jesus’ life and teachings were focused on the poor and marginalized of society—and that is where most of the indigenous church in Latin America existed. So, emerged an understanding of “God’s preferential option for the poor.” (One has only to look at Jesus teachings and practices from beginning to end to see how true this is.)

This became known as “liberation theology” and became a powerful influence and self-conscious conviction for much of both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity among the Latin Americans. … But, it did not go down well with conservatives in the church in North America. Liberation theology was too much like socialism, and challenged their conservative economic and political values. They seemed not to have ever looked carefully at the thinking and praxis of Jesus and his apostles. Of the Sermon on the Plain which forthrightly begins: “Blessed are you poor. Woe to you rich.”

The gospel is far too radical too wild and free for timid conservative folk. As was said about the lion (the Christ figure) Aslan by Mrs. Beaver, in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: “Aslan is not a tame lion. He’s good, but he’s not safe.” Liberation theology is far more in harmony with the teachings of Jesus, than are all too many who (mis)describe themselves as ‘evangelicals’ in our current North American scene—so much so that I can no longer identify myself as an evangelical. It is the poor and helpless, the hungry and homeless, the sick and imprisoned that get to Jesus’ heart.

I hasten to add: this does not mean that Jesus is not also touched with the broken hearts, and homeless spirits of the prosperous. But, with the Latin Americans, his preferential option is with the helpless poor.

Chew on that for a while. Re-read the gospel accounts in this light. Jesus concludes his teaching by clearly stating that inasmuch as we have ministered to these, we have ministered to him. “Come ye blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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