Marjory Zoet Bankson: What Does Liberation Look Like?

What Does Liberation Look Like?

Text: Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.


When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

On Friday night, many Seekers went to the Potters House, where the Bokomoso group was performing Roy’s play about AIDS in South Africa. As I listened thru the earpiece of the Gospel lesson for this week, I could hear “good news to the poor” and “release for the captives.” I sensed that Jesus was present in the message of hope and liberation which some of the youth portrayed along with the real dangers of illness and despair that these young people live with every day. I was moved to tears by their singing of South Africa’s new anthem of freedom. Truly, we were in the presence of human liberation happening at that moment.


One young man spoke about his opportunity for travel to America and further education that Bokomoso had given him, and I wondered what liberation would look like for him in five years. Ten years? We tend to focus on long-term systemic change that seem terribly slow in coming, but maybe liberation happens in one “present moment” after another. I left with those questions churning in my mind.


The Gospel lesson gives us a single snapshot of Jesus in his hometown church, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, and announcing to his old friends and neighbors that the scripture “had been fulfilled.” What audacity! What certainty! I might have been one of those whispering in the back, “Isn’t that Joe and Mary’s boy? What is he saying about fulfilling scripture? Who does he think he is?”


After 2,000 years, we know there are still poor people in despair, captives in bondage to all sorts of things, blind and oppressed people everywhere who would not have the faintest idea what the Jubilee Year of the Lord could possibly be about. Was Jesus then a liar? Was he a lunatic? On the other hand, did Luke mean for us to understand this scripture on human liberation in another way? Does it happen in every generation? Does it happen moment by moment? Does it happen within our souls and outwardly, in the human community? What then does liberation look like?

Yesterday a dozen people gathered here in the dining room for a workshop on “Dying Well.”


I was thinking about liberation there too, because the bondage of fear and uncertainty seems so tightly wound around the subject of death in our day. Our culture implies that real men do not die and real women do not decay. We have idealized youth, idolized sports-heroes and itemized life expectancy down to the last actuarial table. We have separated ageless images from the natural rhythm of aging and the grace hidden in our mortality.


For Jesus, liberation was direct, immediate and physical. When Jesus talked about liberating captives and bringing sight to the blind, he was not talking about some ethereal hereafter. He was talking about physical bodies, human life, the strain of loving each other. I was reminded of Bud Wilkinson’s memorial out at Dayspring, when Jim Dickerson told us how someone had come to Bud’s bedside talking about Jesus waiting with open arms “on the other side.” Bud opened one eye and said softly, “I like it better here.”


So did Jesus. He ate, drank, wept, loved and told stories about the Realm of God so vivid that people knew HE KNEW of what he was talking. Jesus could say that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled because knew that liberation IN HIMSELF. He had faced his demons and come home from the desert filled with assurance of God’s love, God’s blessing, God’s presence.


Jesus had just come back from 40 days in the desert, where Luke and the other Gospel writers tell us that he was tempted to use his spiritual powers for himself

  • to feed his own hunger by turning stones into bread;
  • to feed his own power needs by acknowledging Satan as ruler of this world;
  • and to tempt God by denying his own mortality.


The Spirit led Jesus into the desert and when he returned, Luke says he was “filled with the Spirit.” In other words, Jesus internalized the Spirit by facing those temptations and turning his face toward the needs of the world. Liberation does mean more than moments of feeling loved and free of oppression.


If we are to be followers of Jesus, I think we can expect the same kind of rhythm of call and response, followed by desert time…and temptations. First, we will have to come to some understanding of our own powers  like the Bokomoso youth are doing right now. Then we will have those powers tempered by experience, turning outward, using our energies for the liberation of all, in great and small theaters.


I want to speak of that tempering process, because I believe it happens repeatedly. At each stage of life, the temptation is to turn inward and spend our energies on comfort and convenience. We expand, trust, give freely…and come to the end of a cycle of call. Then we face another desert, another wilderness full of temptations and diversions. We turn inward, close down, forget that God is calling us to stay soft and vulnerable, open to the unknown future. Ego trumps mystery. Liberation gets stalled or frozen. We need models and midwives to keep the cycle going.


Jesus died a young man after three years of radical relationship with God in full view of his disciples. He did not show us a long lifetime of faithfulness. He did not live through the cycles of call that Moses did, for example. For that, we will have to see Jesus in the lives of others.


Mary Cosby gave us a good example two weeks ago, sitting here in her wheelchair, reminding us that we are first of all God’s beloved ones! “How would our actions be different,” she said, “if we could live from that base of love and connection.” Indeed, what would our liberation look like?


Last Tuesday night, 25 Seekers crammed themselves into the World Room to explore non-violent communication. Our interest and the level of engagement impressed me. Clearly, we felt a need for some help in the way we interact with others. We understand the importance of language as a form of power and many of us want to move from unconscious harm, judgmental comments and oppressive behavior to more liberating forms of discourse.


The question, of course, is how to do it!

Technique is not enough. For me, it will take a new heart.


After two sessions, I am aware of how marginal I am feeling right now, without the cloak of position at Faith@Work and the wand of teaching in the School of Christian Living. I am aware of not believing in my value and worth as God’s beloved daughter…how often quickly I make silent judgments…do not believe there is a possibility of changing the way we are with each other. I am also learning how hard it is to identify my real feelings and name what I would like. I seem to be whining in my journal a lot these days! In other words, I am seeing how much I am functioning out of fear right now. I am in a wilderness, noticing the temptation to let my reactions crowd out my real needs. I do not even know what those are!


I do know that I cannot heal by myself! Like the temple ruler who came to Jesus for healing of his child, I can only say, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is not an “either or” thing! In these glib and politically charged times, I often have a hard time claiming to be a Christian… it has so many overtones that I cannot affirm with a straight face. Nevertheless, I can say that I am a student of Jesus. Sometimes I am even a disciple of Jesus, though I often shrink from his gimlet eye and cocked eyebrow: “And you?” he says, “What about you? Are you ready to be part of my liberation movement?”

I am learning that the liberation Jesus promised is a lifelong process of surrender…what Elizabeth O’Connor called “hulling the heart” in Cry Pain, Cry Hope. Hulling the heart is a strange image, like tearing the husk off an ear of corn or cracking open an outer shell and letting the wind separate wheat from chaff. What does liberation look like? It feels like someone “hulling my heart”— cracking it open, letting my vulnerability show…and grow. It feels raw, frightening, real.

I know that liberation happens more easily when I can step away from the daily habits that keep me trapped in the same responses, and offer myself fully in a new situation so that’s what we are doing.


Peter and I leave for another trip to Guatemala, where we will be shepherding a group from Kirkridge. We will be working with the same people from PAVA building a school in a different Maya village than the one we worked on with Faith@Work last summer. We will also be visiting the Potters House family ministry at the Guatemala City dump. Peter and I expect some “heart hulling” to happen on this trip. There we will be learners and laborers, offering what they need rather than what we consider to be our skills… and open to the simple human dignity of these villagers.


You probably know that Guatemala suffered from a brutal civil war until the peace accords were signed in 1996…just eight years ago! A whole generation of Maya men were killed or maimed, and yet these small villages are beginning to take hold again. Families are regenerating. Children are eager to help, trusting the future. We can be part of their liberation even as they will be part of ours.


To build a local school means that a village of mostly sharecroppers must have enough local leadership to raise money for a piece of land and provide labor while PAVA brings in cement and a skilled mason.


Last year, Seekers gave $3,000 and 50 work/days to PAVA for rebuilding the infrastructure of these Maya villages. We also gave $1500 and 10 work/days to Potter’s House for their ministry to children and families at the city dump. It is one way that we can share the financial wealth that we have…and receive the gift of spirit that is so obvious there. We hope this will be an ongoing relationship with PAVA and the Potter’s House similar to our three-year commitment of money to Tumalong in South Africa.


Liberation, as we have learned in Guatemala, flows in both directions. It is an example of nonviolent communication and peacemaking in the world. I trust that God will continue the work of hulling my heart, helping my unbelief, so I can be an instrument of peace and not war wherever I am. That, I think, is the core of Jesus’ invitation to all of us:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”


And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Do we have ears to hear? Eyes to see?

And hearts ready for hulling?

I hope so.




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