These days the word “liberation” is ubiquitous. In cities across the country, it is shouted by protestors, scrawled on their homemade signs and printed on their tee shirts. “Liberate” and “liberation” appear prominently in social media posts and in news media interviews as Americans voice their opinions, anger and frustration in response to federal, state and local directives that extend shelter in place requirements and keep businesses and churches closed amid a global pandemic.
However ubiquitous, the term is also being misused and abused, at least from the perspective of Christian faith.
Liberation is a sacred idea. Throughout the Bible, God is depicted as the God of freedom: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” (Leviticus 11:45) is but one of many references to the God of liberation found in the Hebrew scriptures. In the Second Testament, Jesus declared at the outset of his ministry that his mission would be one of liberation:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).
These sacred ideals of freedom and liberation stand in sharp contrast to what we are witnessing in people who are willing not only to risk their own health but the health and lives of others in blatant disregard for needed precautions. Growing numbers of Americans, incited by right-wing politicians and propagandists, are demanding the reopening of businesses and houses of worship despite the risks.
This is not to discount the concerns of persons who are unemployed or underemployed, who are on the brink of financial catastrophe and who fear for their families.
But much of what is occurring is not liberation. It is the worst kind of cynicism and self-centeredness. It is reckless and dangerous. It is abusive to an overwhelmed healthcare system and to the courageous and exhausted medical personnel who have taken extraordinary measures to save lives while placing their own health at risk.
“Yes, people everywhere are suffering. The poor are suffering all the more.”
True liberation is about freedom from abuse, oppression and marginalization. Yes, people everywhere are suffering. The poor are suffering all the more. God, the liberator, hears their cries. But do we? Some are now seeing, perhaps for the first time, that our society is thickly contoured by sedimented injustice laid down over generations: grandfather clauses, segregation, educational inequalities, poverty that leads to population density, food deserts that require frequent and difficult travel, jobs once considered menial now declared essential, woefully inadequate testing for the coronavirus combined with the reality of no work/no pay.
Millions of American workers are now furloughed and unemployed. People are frustrated and afraid. Staying home without work or an income – or any confidence that government will come through with assistance that is timely and fair – is, to say the least, extremely hard. The juxtaposition of people protesting because they want to get a haircut or a manicure while thousands wait in long lines for food for themselves and their families highlights the painful reality of the tremendous disparity in this country.
People waving Confederate flags and promoting open-carry laws by wielding assault rifles and wearing ammunition belts draped across their chests are not freedom fighters. Those who exploit the crisis of a global pandemic for their own political purposes or personal gain are not liberators. The misuse of the ideal of liberation is insidious, racist and cruel. In contrast, liberation movements have been about equality, especially for people of color. Freedom fighters and riders and marchers of the past have worked for the betterment of the entire community, for justice, equality and liberation for all.
We must not allow the perversion of true liberation that ignores the common good, endangers others and insults the sacrifices of those who have worked for freedom in the past to go unchallenged.
This is a matter of compassion. Whether or not we know their names and their backgrounds, we must care about people in vulnerable populations who are struggling to survive physically and financially. We must care about the elderly in nursing homes and other care facilities who are at risk. We must care about every person who falls ill. We are called by God to have compassion toward those who now endure sickness and death alone and their families and friends who are unable even to sit beside them.
This is also a matter of justice. We must advocate on behalf of those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, especially the poor, the unhoused, the marginalized and the powerless. Many of our neighbors are experiencing racial prejudice – especially Asians, Asian-Americans and immigrants. We must stand against scapegoating, prejudice and xenophobia.
“Some are now seeing, perhaps for the first time, that our society is thickly contoured by sedimented injustice laid down over generations.”
Freedom is the work of God. It is the work of justice that we, God’s people, are called to do. We must voice our vigorous opposition to government and religious leaders who are abusing the ideals of liberation. We must confront and speak out against attitudes, actions and policies that expose millions to illness and death and callously place profit above people. We must oppose those who degrade and undermine science; those at all levels of government who fail to cooperate to provide access to medical equipment and supplies; those leaders who hollow out government agencies and rob the public of desperately needed expertise and experience; those who blame and scapegoat, targeting especially minorities, immigrants and refugees; those who suspend civil rights; and those who strip away hard-won and sensible environmental protections.
Author and poet Sonya Renee Taylor has written recently:
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
In this crisis, the God of liberation calls us to stitch a new garment of freedom, justice and compassion on behalf of all God’s creation.
Read more BNG news and opinion related to the coronavirus pandemic: