Richard J. Mouw: Pentecostalism, liberation theology and biblical leadership

Mural depicting Archbishop Oscar Romero

Mural of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, one of the best-known proponents of liberation theology. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while offering Mass. This year, Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr.
Alison McKellar via Wikimedia Commons

Christian leadership is possible only when leaders are in turn led by God, writes the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. That is something that even liberation theologians and Pentecostals can agree upon.

Over the years, various guidelines have evolved for those of us who engage regularly in ecumenical or interfaith dialogue. One of my favorites is this one: “Don’t put your best case against the other party’s worst case. Discuss either ‘best and best’ or ‘worst and worst.’”

In a Protestant-Catholic discussion, for example, it is not fair to compare Martin Luther’s writings with small-town Italian “folk” Catholicism. Or, from the other direction, it is not fair to show how a specific Vatican II document is vastly superior to some TV preacher’s pronouncements on the “prosperity gospel.”

I was reminded of this principle recently when I read a book by an evangelical theologian who twice referred to “an unnamed Latin American theologian” who purportedly said of recent religious developments in Latin America, “Liberation theology opted for the poor and the poor opted for Pentecostalism.”

To be sure, there is some truth in that claim. But I don’t like the way it is used to pit spiritual vitality against political-economic activism. It seems to pose a false choice between social activism and a vibrant spiritual life. Instead of trying to position liberation theology and Pentecostalism as inherently opposed to one another, fruitful interfaith dialogue would draw upon and learn from the best in each.

It’s not as though I haven’t been attracted to much of what has been associated with “liberation theology.” A few decades ago, I even paid quite a bit of attention to “Christian-Marxist dialogue,” although I was never tempted to incorporate any substantive Marxist ideas into my own theology.

Even so, I have to admit that I learned much from what is widely acknowledged to be the basic liberationist text, “A Theology of Liberation,” by Gustavo Gutierrez. I especially like the way Gutierrez insists in his book that the social activism associated with liberation movements must draw heavily on “a spirituality of liberation.”

Gutierrez makes it clear that he is aware of the dangers of selectively drawing on Christian resources in order to promote our pre-established social goals. As a corrective, he contends that our spirituality must be “filled with a living sense of gratuitousness. Communion with the Lord and with all humans is more than anything else a gift.”

Consequently, when we pray, he says, we must enter into God’s presence with no agenda, with no list of causes that we insist on promoting. Prayer, he says, is a “‘leisure’ action” -- “‘wasted’ time [that] reminds us that the Lord is beyond the categories of useful and useless. God is not of this world.” In our prayerful communion with God, we look forward to goals that God has set, ones that can be fully realized only when the reign of God arrives at the end time.

I like that notion of “wasting time” with the Lord, of seeking “leisure” before the face of God. Indeed, that strikes me as the kind of thing that is at the heart of a healthy Pentecostalism.

That kind of deep spiritual grounding is also crucial for healthy leadership, as the biblical narrative makes clear. In a profound sense, the Bible begins and ends with positive depictions of human beings engaged in God-honoring leadership.

One of the first things that God says to the human pair in the first chapter of the Bible is, “Have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). God created human beings to lead, to manage the affairs of the creation that God had declared to be good.

And the last thing we read about God’s eternal plan for humankind is that God still wants humans to lead. In the Bible’s final chapter, the Seer, John of Patmos, brings his revelation of the future to a close with a grand vision of the Holy City. In his last observation about the city, he notes that human beings “will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).

Although the Bible is bracketed with these uplifting and powerful depictions of leadership, much of what comes in between is a narrative of failed leadership. In response to the serpent’s challenge in Genesis 3, we humans decide to be “as gods.” We want to sit on the throne without paying attention to the prescriptions of the God who shaped us to engage in leadership in the world he lovingly created.

The biblical narrative offers much to explore about how leaders mess up. But what it comes down to is this: sinful leadership places a high premium on being in control, on running our own shows.

In Christ, leadership patterns get restored to God’s original design. Christian leadership is based on the absolutely essential teaching that we human beings can lead faithfully only if we are in turn led by God; we can exercise proper leadership only if we submit to God’s will for our lives.

That is an insight that Gustavo Gutierrez shares with Pentecostals. It might be an important step forward for leadership in Latin America if the best of Pentecostalism and the best of liberation theology engaged with one another in healthy ways.