Q&A with Ryan Ward, author of And There Was No Poor Among Them May 03 2023
We recently spoke with Ryan D. Ward, author of And There Was No Poor Among Them: Liberation, Salvation, and the Meaning of the Restoration, available May 16, 2023.
For those who have never heard of liberation theology, how would you define it?
Liberation theology, in brief, is a branch of Christian theology that considers the liberation of the oppressed. It deals specifically with how the good news of the gospel can be realized in situations of oppression, poverty, and marginalization. As such, in liberation theology, God’s dealings with humanity and Jesus’s life and ministry are viewed through the lens of the hope of the oppressed for liberation, and liberation theologians view God’s work in the world as being preferentially relevant to liberating the poor. This theology has been worked out in real-world situations of political oppression. It began in Latin America during the 60s and 70s as a response to the brutal dictatorships of this period and has been adapted to many other contexts of oppression.
How were you first introduced to liberation theology, and is there anything in particular that sparked your interest in it?
Several years ago I felt impressed to study Jesus’s Atonement. I read everything I could find about it both within Latter-day Saint scholarship and broader Christian perspectives. This study eventually led me to reading extensively about the life and ministry of Jesus in its historical context. One of the books I read referenced Gustavo Gutierrez, who many consider the father of liberation theology, and I read his book A Theology of Liberation. It absolutely blew my mind, and I read dozens of liberation theology books over the next couple years. For me, it felt like much of what I had been struggling to understand suddenly made sense, and liberation theology has given me a powerful new lens through which to view my faith and discipleship. So I didn’t seek it out, I guess you could say it found me. I would also say I think I was led to it.
In Chapter 3 you explore how during the period between (what Latter-day Saints generally refer to as) the Great Apostasy and the Restoration, the general Christian understanding of salvation transformed from a primarily social and communal effort into something almost entirely concerned with individuals and the afterlife. What are some key aspects of the Restoration that you see as returning Saints to a more communal understanding of salvation that focuses on the here and now?
I think the baptismal covenant in Mosiah 18:8-10 indicates that there is something very fundamental about this mortal human existence. The covenant to mourn, bear burdens, and offer comfort focuses discipleship on entering into a community of shared suffering with one another. For me, the fact that this is the first covenant we make as Latter-day Saints is a powerful witness that God’s purposes for this life have much more to do than proving our worth to return to live with God. Second, the idea of sealing the entire human family together via temple ordinances provides a beautiful symbol of the kind of community we should be striving to establish here on earth. Third, the idea of Zion as the ideal toward which we strive is that of a covenant community set apart by virtue of its economic and spiritual structure. The defining feature of Zion is that the people are of one heart and one mind and that there is no poor among them. This is not a description of the afterlife, it is a temporal, mortal reality. Finally, there is doctrinal support for the idea that this earth will become the Celestial Kingdom. What has not been worked out is how that is to happen. I suggest that reference to different degrees of glory indicates different degrees of living in covenant relationship with one another. The highest degree of such relationship is a Zion existence. Eternal life is defined officially by the Church as “the quality of life that our Eternal Father lives.” There is nothing in this definition that locates this type of existence exclusively, or even primarily, in the afterlife.
Why might some Latter-day Saints be hesitant to consider or embrace this understanding of salvation? What would you say to them to alleviate that hesitation?
The main reason is that the concept of salvation as pertaining strictly to the afterlife is deeply ingrained in our Christian tradition. Another reason is that our religious tradition claims exclusive authority to administer what we term the “ordinances of salvation” in temples. They are believed to be prerequisites that enable progression in the next life. Our kindred dead are waiting for these and cannot progress without them. These ideas make it very difficult to consider salvation as pertaining to the here and now. There is, however, a lot of scriptural evidence, in the Bible as well as within Restoration scripture, that salvation pertains to this life as well. I hope my book presents some of this evidence in a way that allows people to feel comfortable with beginning to expand their view of salvation to also include lifting the poor, oppressed, and marginalized in this life. In fact, a main argument in the book is that we have a covenant obligation to do so. I think that if we truly view others as sisters and brothers and fellow children of God, we cannot help but reach out to those around us who are less fortunate. For me, turning outward is a manifestation of an inward conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What other aspects of liberation theology would you like to see explored through a Restoration lens?
I think this is really exciting and there are so many possibilities. I’ll briefly mention two. Paul’s metaphor of the saints as the “body of Christ” is one that has not been extensively explored within the context of Restoration thought. I think it provides a profound area of potential exploration. How are we the body of Christ? What does that mean in terms of our individual and collective action to alleviate suffering in the world? How is the mission and mandate of the Church related to the way it acts as the body of Christ in the world? Relatedly, what do our ordinances and covenants, particularly the law of consecration as received in the temple endowment, teach us about our covenant obligations to humanity? How can these ordinances and covenants bind us to one another and to God, and how can this give us access to power needed to manifest God’s salvation to the world? These questions are only the beginning of an exploration of liberation theology through a Restoration lens. I think our unique tradition can make some significant contributions to liberation theology, and I hope that Latter-day Saints embrace this way of thinking more expansively about our faith.