Preaching and Liberation

February 20th, 2022
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While not every sermon in the African American context falls under the banner of liberation preaching, the tradition of liberation preaching has a long history in the Black church. While the preaching moment may never explicitly mention the word liberation, it is clear that the political, emotional, and socioeconomic plight of Black Americans is an important part of preaching in the Black church. In defining “liberation preaching,” I dive deeper into its link with Black preaching. I connect “liberation preaching” to black and brown church traditions because such preaching forms a foundation for black and brown people’s struggle for equality.  Liberation theology and preaching is rooted in the ministry of Jesus and has been carried on in the Black Church tradition, as well as in Latin America. It is how Jesus teaches preaching ought to be. 

Black preaching is aa celebratory event shared by preacher and congregation alike—even if the congregation is online. The preaching moment is where God’s people—gathered in person or online—expect an encounter with God. Celebration happens while showing how the gospel addresses the hardships in their lives. Celebration naturally comes at hearing the promises of liberation and restoration for socially marginalized people.

If preaching is to truly transform its hearers’ lives, then it must be more than a celebrative act. Preaching often becomes the primary source of Christian education and formation, because fewer people study the Bible, church history, or theology. Preaching that celebrates the good news of Jesus but fails to challenge and teach the responsibilities of discipleship is not enough. There should be a point of contact between theology and faith, mind and heart. In other words, faith cannot be separated from theology nor can relevant theology be separated from faith. 

Many preachers, especially those in black and brown communities, speak to people who struggle from day to day merely to make ends meet. If preaching does not seek to transform lives and address these circumstances, the question should be asked, Is it relevant? The pain and suffering that so many feel in this life results from an uneven social playing field. Those who are on the low end of this slanted playing field are looking for something that can elevate them to level ground. When brought together, liberation theology and preaching can serve as an elevating catalyst for spiritual renewal and social change.

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Liberation theology seeks to understand God’s interaction in the world from the perspective of those who are oppressed in one way or another. Those who are stepped on because of their class, race, gender, age, and other various identifiers deserve to know where God is during their unfair treatment. Those in positions of privilege can easily interpret scripture (sometimes subconsciously) from their interests, ambitions, and standards, which do not always serve the concerns of those on society’s margins.[1] Accordingly, if the oppressed want a theology that speaks to them, they must allow their circumstances to become the basis for a new hermeneutic. The majority of the Bible was “written by those who, in their own social situation, are the powerless and oppressed, if it is their perspective on the activity of God that is given us by scripture, then surely a more accurate interpretation of the Biblical word can be gained by those who currently stand in a parallel place in our own societies than by those who are powerful.”[2] The biblical authors’ social positions are especially relevant to liberation theology, when you consider Israel’s slavery in Egypt and the exile in Babylon.  Moreover, even some of the early church leaders wrote from the perspective of those who faced harassment and subjugation, most notably the apostle Paul. Liberation theology seeks to address sociopolitical issues facing oppressed communities using the Bible as the source for understanding God’s role in the face of societal adversities. 

In the Black church tradition  a rhetorical question is often asked, “Is there a word from the Lord?” Liberation is at the heart of this question because it is another way of asking, “What does the Lord have to say about what I’m going through?” During financial woes and the stress and strain of life, is there a word that can give me hope? Black preaching is often filled with hope, encouraging listeners to continue moving forward in the face of stormy days. In essence, the preached word should help people to believe that, regardless of their situation, there is good news.  

An important aspect of liberation preaching is knowing the recipients of the preached word .  What is relevant to one congregation may be irrelevant to another. Moreover, different congregations embody different operative theologies, and the preacher must have some familiarity with those to whom she or he is preaching. A congregation full of wealthy parishioners may not want to hear a sermon denouncing the dog-eat-dog mentality of a capitalistic society. However, that very message may provide hope and empowerment to a congregation of lower income parishioners on the other side of town. Connotation in preaching matters, and our preaching must take into consideration the social and political contexts of the hearers when we choose our words and phrasing. To be an effective liberation preacher, one must be aware of the social situations and perceptions of the intended hearers. 

Each preacher must also be critically self-aware of their perception of society and how it affects their understanding of scripture. No sermon has ever been preached that was not slanted toward the preacher’s particular worldview or ideology. For example, I preach and understand scripture from the point of view of a seminary-trained, middle-class Black American who grew up in the Midwest, and desperately wants to affect social, political, and economic change for those on the margins of society. As human beings we are unable to detach our experiences and beliefs to present a completely unbiased understanding of scripture. It is important to recognize one’s point of view, and in doing so, expand that perspective by reading and listening to voices outside one’s own perspective—especially when that perspective is from the dominant culture’s vantage point. This expansion helps one understand that no one holds a monopoly on theology and biblical interpretation. There is no such thing as culturally unbiased preaching, and liberation preaching at its core recognizes this fact.

In addition to being aware of one’s perceptions of theology and biblical interpretations, it is important to be a participant in the struggle for freedom. How can one preach liberation if they do not know the obstacles, challenges, and victories involved in the struggle? Jesus is the perfect example of this reality: not only did he preach about the release of the captives but his ministry focused on releasing people from all sorts of bondage. When one is involved in liberation, their preaching becomes more powerful because what is said connects with their actual experience. Historically, black society holds the preacher in a prominent place because the preacher is both spiritual advisor and social activist.  

It is imperative that liberation preaching proclaims Jesus as liberator both individually and socially.[3] When one understands Jesus as the ultimate liberator, opposing oppression in every form, then applying that understanding to current situations becomes fundamental. If we know Jesus to be one who fights injustice and sets hurting people free from their social circumstances, then it seems only natural that his followers would preach a similar liberation. When Jesus set people free from their illnesses, he changed the social and political landscape of first-century Palestine. The coming kingdom to be proclaimed should be a kingdom free of social, political, economic, emotional, and spiritual oppression of every kind.

Because Black preaching centers on the struggle for social change, preaching can be the place where hopes, fears, frustrations, and joys are poured out in a great emotional outpouring. This outpouring comes because Black folk have been held down for so long, and when something more happens in our lives it just adds on to the already mounting burdens. Conversely, when something good happens in our lives, that emotional outpouring becomes a great joy with the sense that something good has finally happened to us. Preaching is perhaps the quintessential venue for this experience. Black preaching is often emotional because it is a celebration of life, hope, justice, and freedom. In the midst of racism and financial disparity the Black American pulpit is the one place where Black folk can experience their somebody-ness. In our preaching, there is bound to be an outburst of emotions celebrating freedom through Christ Jesus.


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, Liberation Preaching: The Pulpit and the Oppressed (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1980), 13.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] James H. Harris, Preaching Liberation (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1995), 59.

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