Review of Open for Liberation: an activist reads the Bible – by Tim Gee (Christian Alternative, 2022)
Tim Gee believes the Bible is chiefly a narrative of liberation for the oppressed. In Open for Liberation, he claims Jesus led an anti-colonial movement of the dispossessed which affirmed women’s leadership, racial equality and sexual diversity.
Gee is an activist who has worked with Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid. He is a Quaker and has a very different theological lens than many ‘Bible-believing’ Christians.
The book is well written, accessible and concise. Its strength is its bold case for the Bible as relevant in the struggles for justice in the world today. In a memorable phrase, Gee describes the Bible as ‘a toolbox for peace and liberation’ that just needs to opened and engaged with:
‘If enough people studied and acted on Jesus’ words, then the foundations of unjust power would start looking very sandy indeed.’
The author’s ambition to connect the Bible to social and political activism is both admirable and urgently necessary. And he rightly highlights Jesus’ radical affirmation of women, those with disabilities, the working class and those from racial minorities.
This is a book which could potentially connect with those who dismiss the Bible as conservative, patriarchal, superstitious nonsense.
But sadly, Open for Liberation has significant weaknesses. The blurb on the back claims that ‘Tim Gee restores the radical spirit of Jesus’ but actually too often this book presents a painfully politically-correct Jesus.
In his re-telling of the biblical narrative, Gee largely eliminates the supernatural, or even the transcendent. Satan’s temptations are recast as merely Jesus’ internal reflection, his preaching and healing become ‘community organising’, the Sermon on the Mount a ‘progressive public meeting’, Palm Sunday a demo (where ‘Hosanna’ actually means ‘liberate us’) and Jesus’ arrest is as a ‘prisoner of conscience’ due to his Human Rights activism.
In addition, a naïve, binary view of the world runs through the book which simplistically splits people into oppressors and oppressed. This is in contrast to liberation theologians such as Oscar Romero who spoke of how sin afflicts all people – both rich and poor.
The book quotes 1 John 3:18 (my favourite Bible verse) which says ‘Let us not love in word or tongue but in deed and in truth.’
But Gee edits it to simply ‘Let us not love in word or tongue, but in deed.’ The reference to truth is removed.
Such editing robs this verse of its authenticity and its radicalism. It removes the biblical demand to root our human actions in divine truth. This reduces Christian activism to acts of human kindness.
We live in age of increasing culture wars between conservative and liberal perspectives. Like the author, I also believe we need to liberate the Bible from overly individualistic and conservative interpretations.
But Gee’s liberal reductionism goes too far and strips the gospel of its transcendence. It leads to a message which is relevant to the issues of today but which has little power to inspire or transform.
What makes Christianity truly radical and exciting is when it offers a distinctive path which does not conform to established tribal patterns: when it breaks out of the silos of both conservative and liberal acceptability.
The best activist theology (Martin Luther King is one of the best examples) reflects the Bible’s concern for structural and personal evil, and a holistic gospel of cross and kingdom. This is what truly makes the Bible a toolbox for peace and liberation.