Reverend Don Wagner describes his engagement with liberation theology in his memoir titled Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land. His story chronicles his five-decade journey as an activist leader engaged in liberation theology in the U.S. and in Israel-Palestine.
Liberation theology continues to be a growing influence in Israel-Palestine and beyond.
Key Tenets of Liberation Theology
Liberation theology is grounded by two major tenets of Christianity. The first is the commandment for Christians to love their neighbors, as described in the book of Mark:
“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
– Mark 12:28-31, New International Version
The second is the Christian duty to address social injustice:
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
– Psalm 82:3-4, New International Version
Gustavo Gutiérrez, the originator of liberation theology, argued that Christians must not only be dedicated to charity, but also to causes of social justice: “I am not refusing the necessity, even today, of immediate help to the poor, but I say it is not enough. Today the call is to try to change the social structure and to change some mental categories—to be clearer about mental categories, [I mean] the feeling of superiority, for example, to some cultures. This is a mental category and we need to change this.”
Rev. Wagner’s Activism & Palestinian Liberation Theology
Wagner’s story begins as a young boy focused on being a loyal son and patriot. Throughout his life, he became increasingly aware of war and racism. He became involved in the U.S. civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, and in the 1970s he began to question his support for Israel.
He supported Israel’s victory in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. However, in 1974, he heard Palestinian Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod of Northwestern University describe his family’s experience being forced out of their home by Zionist soldiers in 1948.
Wagner wrote: “It was the first time I heard a clear . . . and compelling Palestinian narrative. Why had I not heard about these grave injustices?”
Liberation Theology in Israel-Palestine
Wagner began researching about the humanitarian crisis in Israel-Palestine and spent decades traveling to the region and sharing his knowledge with American churches. While in Palestine, he befriended Reverend Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest at St. George’s Cathedral.
Ateek had been leading post-worship discussions that put the Bible in conversation with local issues of social justice. Ateek’s discussions were instrumental in forming Palestinian liberation theology, and he soon founded the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.
Sabeel (which means “the way” in Arabic) works as a grassroots international peace movement initiated by Palestinian Christians. he organization promotes theological, moral, and legal principles for peace and justice. Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) serves as Sabeel’s American counterpart, which facilitates guided trips to the Holy Land, as well as digital pilgrimages and other educational opportunities.
Journalist Steve France wrote for Mondoweiss about Wagner’s close friendship with Ateek: “Wagner became close friends with Ateek and a major force in Friends of Sabeel North America. The affinity was no surprise: Ateek was developing a new branch of liberation theology akin to the ones that had liberated Wagner, as a young man, from his family’s God-and-country outlook on war, race, poverty, and materialism.”
Toward Liberation for All
From Latin America to the United States and to Palestine, liberation theology has spread and become a global, Christian force for peace. Jewish scholars and theologians are also considering how Christianity’s liberation theology relates to Judaism.
Marc H. Ellis’ 2011 book Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation (Baylor University Press), with a foreword by Desmond Tutu and Gustavo Gutiérrez, makes connections between liberation theology and the Holocaust to find common ground with oppressed Christians.
Jelithin, the Jewish Liberation Theology Institute was founded to empower Jewish people around the world who are committed to social justice and human rights in Palestine and are “looking for ways to express this commitment Jewishly.”