Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology?

[I realized, as I struggled to come to grips with a post on North American Liberation Theology that I started working on in January, that I was trying to say too much at one time. Some bloggers write really long posts. One fellow I read sometimes calls them “uber-posts.” I don’t think lengthy posts fit the blogging format; at least, for me they don’t. And so I’m breaking the long post down into several pieces.

By the way, I was just looking over the list of old posts, and noticed that this blog saw first light on Sept. 3, 2011. I didn’t realize it had been three years. Thanks to the many who have read these essays over that time.]

There is something odd about the notion of North American Liberation Theology.

Let’s start with the obvious. Mexico is part of North America. Am I trying to say anything about Mexico? No; for this purpose, I’m considering Mexico as part of Latin America, along with Central and South America. I don’t know exactly where the lines are drawn, but I think of Mexico as Third World.

I want to  address the First World, particularly the USA and Canada, which are marked by advanced industrialism, an extreme concentration of wealth, an imperialistic outlook, and an amazing standard of living.

In short, we seem to have it all. Why would we need a liberation theology? From what do we need to be liberated?

Please consider the fact that our standard of living is such that all but the most desperately poor live as well as, or better than, the middle class of Asia, Africa, and South America. (Yes, really. We live in a society in which 95% of the people  have a roof over their heads, sanitary drinking water at the turn of a tap, electricity, air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter that you don’t have to walk miles to gather firewood to enjoy, a steady supply of food at affordable prices, ready access to medical care even if it’s only the nearest ER, a car or reliable public transportation, good clothing at cheap prices and the ability to buy $100 tennis shoes, and one or more color TVs in each home. That’s doing pretty darn well.)

All true. All important. All things that most people everywhere want. What’s the problem?

This pretty picture takes no notice of the deep divisions of class, race and gender that engulf us, all of us, all the time, no matter how well off we are materially, and on no matter which side of any of those divisions you personally may fall.

And then there’s consumerism. Let’s talk about that first.

Consumerism, as Wikipedia defines it so well, is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Of itself, this need not be so bad. We all need some things, and we all want some things. This is universal, excepting monks and other ascetics. However, consumerism has been driven to a feverish state by the knowing application of methods which amount to mass hypnosis. The use of music, color, motion, and sex in advertising, for instance, is consciously designed to get people to lust after things they don’t need, and don’t really want all that much. I’m neither kidding nor exaggerating when I refer to hypnosis. As a master hypnotist, I assure you that the techniques are identical and I wish, as a therapist, that I was that good.

Consumerism, to put it in another way, is the ideology that takes materialism to its logical extent. It assures us that if we just have the right things then we will be happy, loved, powerful, laid. Most of us know, at some level, that this is a lie. There are all those sayings that float around that indicate that consumerism has not totally won our hearts and minds. “You have nothing if you don’t have your health.” “The best things in life are free.” “Nothing is more important than family.” “What a terrible accident. At least no one was hurt. Things can be replaced.”

Yes, we all know those things. Until the doors open on Black Friday and people are crushed by the throng trying to get to the goods. To give only one example. In many small ways, I find myself loving things more than they should be, and having to actively work against this tendency. If you are honest, the same is probably true of you, too.

Consumerism is alienating, and yes, I know Marx introduced us to this concept. (As I’ve said for years, his descriptions are pretty accurate; it’s his prescriptions that go so dreadfully awry.) Our ability as human beings to be, to feel, and to do need not be mediated by the presence of things. Beyond the bare necessities, it’s all gravy. Nothing wrong with a little gravy, of course. But just as the drug addict’s body reacts to the absence of dope as though it’s survival is threatened, in the consumerist society our emotions are re-calibrated to the same distortion: “I’ll simply die if I can’t have ….” Take a cell phone away from a teenager and watch the fireworks. Or an adult for that matter.  A few weeks ago I left the house without my cellphone and actually felt uneasy, until I processed the feeling and came to grips with the fact that, for most of my life, I did just fine without a cell phone in my pocket.

This alienation runs so deep and has become so commonplace that it almost seems petty to point it out. What’s all this nonsense about cell  phones? Sure, they’re convenient and we are used to having them, but what does that have to do with alienation? Just one symptom of the disease, that’s what. Here’s another, to my mind much more profoundly disturbing: In the not-so-distant past, enjoying music meant being in the presence of the musicians. For most people, this meant that people they actually knew who had learned an instrument would play for the enjoyment of family and friends. For some, in cities, it also meant orchestras and the like, but still in their presence. Since Edison made recording practical, that has changed. In many ways, this is a good thing. We can all enjoy the music of the finest musicians of the age, at any time, in any place. Tragically, for many of us this has replaced sitting on the front porch with Uncle Jed on the fiddle and mama on the guitar. Real human beings, interacting in a real human way, as humans have done since time out of mind. The same thing can be said of art, and architecture, and many other things.

Ivan Illich goes into great detail about this process of alienation in his books, such as “Deschooling Society” and “Medical Nemesis.” In these books, he points out that activities like learning and healing, formerly engaged in by people in general, had been professionalized in a process he calls radical monopoly. When only people with an education license can teach, and only people with a medical license can heal, you have a radical monopoly. Functions which were the province of everyone, and which deepened human interrelatedness, were put off-limits to most of us. Jessica Mitford pointed out how the same thing happened to the unfathomably human process of death and dying, in “The American Way of Death.”

Illich presents, as a counterpoint, the idea of conviviality. He defines tools as something you use to get things done, whether it is an implement you hold in your hand or an institution you attend. A convivial tool brings people together rather than separating them, and it allows them to express their own creativity instead of making them the slave of the machine or the institution.

As you can see, this runs counter to the trend in modern society, in which even someone who paints your nails has to have a license.

Call it a First World problem and I won’t disagree. But we need to be liberated from consumerism and the alienation it fosters. Even though it’s a problem of Plenty rather than Scarcity, which seems like a good problem to have, understanding how consumerism operates indicates that it is a mind-numbing, soul-sucking problem. And we are in its clutches.

The system of production on which the world currently depends, demands that we be consumers. This is why so much effort goes into creating these artificial “needs.” If we don’t spend money on all the seductive glitter, profits are lost, jobs are lost, the stock market plummets, and all that follows. To avoid this, the economic system gives us choices between commodities while doing everything in its power to eliminate the choice of whether to be a consumer or not. Bird in a gilded cage? Yes. It’s still a cage.

There are other ways in which we are also alienated and I’ll address those in future posts. As mentioned above: race, gender, class.

And imperialism. Don’t forget imperialism.

This is going to be a long series. No wonder I couldn’t get started, thinking it all had to go in one post.

11 thoughts on “Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology?

  1. I have my doubts that people see the problems with consumerism. Most of us are like the proverbial frog who sits in a pot of slowly warming water until he is boiled alive. People are protesting for climate control while consuming as much as those who aren’t protesting. We need a way to focus our attention for more than a day at a time on the problem of using more of our share of the planet’s resources. Maybe an app that puts money not spent on something to a charity or cause of our choosing or more motivating paying off our mortgages and automatically rings up how much interest we saved over the rest of our lives by doing so. Freecycle is a great way to buy things you do need. I hope to read your next blog in this series to see where you are going.

  2. Friends do have a message that would be helpful for the world. We don’t have all the answers, but by asking the questions, others will respond and share their wisdom. Consumerism is an issue, but so few even consider it. When Friends stay isolated and don’t speak to the outside world, or only do so in a confrontational way (demonstrations), we are not helping. It is good to not push religion on those who don’t want it, but there is such a thing as hiding one’s light under a basket also.

    Personally, I have found cell phones very helpful and have allowed me to have much better interactions with people. Same for email. Facebook has allowed me to re-connect with people I lost a long time ago, though with time these relationships have withered due to lack of attention. Maybe the younger generation won’t lose as many friends.

  3. Dear Bruce,

    Sorry but do need to pick up on why you define “Mexico” as “Third World” I.e. Not industrialised Capitalist (first world e.g. US, Canada, UK, Germany, Argentina) or not Industrialised – Socialist/Communist (second world e.g. China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and maybe Others).

    A liberation theology of sorts and movement for social justice/change for the so-called first-worlders has already been started in several parts of the world…in the occupy movements. However, the question for me is these individual groupings are very dependent on who is actively taking part and if there is a spiritual element to individual groups.

    From my limited time amongst Friends, and especially within the Conservative And Christ-centred unprogrammed traditions of liberal Friends (not sure about Evangelical or Non-theist or pastoral) there is also the liberation theology of dying to the self and letting the risen Christ in to come to teach us himself. Being spiritually liberated and being shown the Lords Table was my liberation.

    As we move from just repairing this secular world, and move into preparing for and being transformed by the living Christ do we not liberate ourselves and become suddenly more aware (not politically) of our roles, callings and impacts on Shalom, Gospel Order?

    For me these include not needing lots of things, and I do not regret / feel disadvantaged by not having them (some days however I feel the temptations and buy / do stuff I don’t need).’ I.e. I sin and move away from God my creator.

    As you rightly mention, there are what I call other “fallen powers” at work, that encourage exclusion, division based on sexual identity, gender, skin colour, cultural identity and I am minded of Jesus and his parables / stories Luke 14:1-24, and the implication of Luke 15:1-2.

    1. The Occupy movement is not Liberation Theology. For most, it’s not religious or spiritual at all. And that’s just for starters. To give one more brief example, you could be a Social Gospel follower, and be right at home in Occupy, but while the Social Gospel has some in common with Liberation Theology, they are not the same in crucial ways.

      I don’t think I want to delve into detail on why Mexico is 3rd World. I’m addressing primarily Norteamericano Anglos, and that’s enough on that.

      The “dying to the self” element which you mention: it’s an interesting comparison, but it’s not Liberation Theology. This term has a specific meaming, and can’t or ought not be twisted around to include other theologies. Just because you can conceive of something as liberating doesn’t mean it is part of Liberation Theology.

      I hope this will become more apparent as the series progresses.

      1. Completely agree Bruce, the occupy movement in itself is neither theological, religious or even spiritual. However, does it not start by identifying and naming the alienating hierarchal powers as a sin and working from basis communities i.e. bottom-up. Many I know have talked about the ills of consumerism and the need for a simpler lifestyle.

        I am no theologian, nor a part of basis Christian community (except whilst on team with Christian Peacemaker Teams). My understanding of liberation theology, is the practical application of faith in the naming of, and transformation of the oppressive structures by the poor and oppressed, i.e. they are the channels of this liberation from sin. As a white university educated heterosexual male, I can either work where possible as an (spiritual) ally, or do nothing and remain part of the sinful oppression.

        In “dying to oneself,” is this not the spiritually opening up and recognising sin for what it is, and being moved by the spirit to transform (live simply)? Maybe I was being a little theologically loose, and you were right to mention it.

        Maybe I should add, I do have a lot to do with Catholic Worker Communities and work 1-3 months per year with Christian Peacemaker Teams which I believe are grounded in Liberation Theology. I also happen to know a lot of my CPT colleagues are active in Catholic Worker and Occupy. Many Christian fFriends (Quakers and other denominations) have been involved with specific occupy movements adding a distinctive spiritual aspect to their local movement.

        I look forward to your other postings, and naturally open to being enlightened in where you see the crucial differences.

      2. I had a hard time deciding whether to approve this comment or not because there is so much error in it, and I just don’t have time to go into enough detail about why I think this is sos.

        My default mode is to approve comments no matter what I think about them, because I’m not running an echo chamber here. So I passed it along this morning.

        I do want respond to some of your remarks though.

        First, the Occupy movement as a whole did not identify anything as sin, and many of its participants — the majority, if I understand correctly — would be put off by that characterization. You are certainly free to interpret it that way, and not without reason. But to say that “the Occupy movement did such and such” rather than “this is my interpretation of the movement” is intellectually dishonest. Philosophy and theology are called disciplines for a reason. It takes intellectual discipline to make them work.

        The Catholic Worker sure has features that are strongly resonant with Liberation Theology. Peter Maurin called his philosophy “personalism.” I think we should stick with that, out of respect to him, rather than trying to shoe-horn it into Liberation Theology, which it is not.

        The Christian Peacemaker teams are not base communities, although they are wonderful in and of themselves. Again, let them stand on their own, without trying to shoehorn them into something else.

        I hope this doesn’t sound harsh. I don’t have the time tonight to make it warm and fuzzy, so I’m shooting from the hip here. I wouldn’t want to discourage you in any way from doing what you do, in such a clearly sincere manner. I’d just like to ask you to tighten up a little, and not play quite so fast and loose with what can be meaningful, useful distinctions.

    2. Whoops, second paragraph should have read.

      Is there not already a liberation theology of sorts and movement for social justice/change for the so-called first-worlders already started in several parts of the world…in the occupy movements? However, the issue for me is these individual occupy groupings are very dependent on who is actively taking part and if there is any spiritual element to individual groups.

  4. I agree that many of the principles of liberation theology need to become more mainstream in contemporary theology. It is mainly the fault of consumerism and pastors placating rich membership that pastors ignore the clear teachings of Jesus on money and the poor. Unfortunately Liberation Theology carries a lot of conceptual baggage that makes many Christians immediately suspicious of its ideas. As much as liberation theology has to say as soon as you begin to discussion with the term “liberation theology” you have already lost most of the audience who is in need of the message.

    1. “As much as liberation theology has to say as soon as you begin to discussion with the term “liberation theology” you have already lost most of the audience who is in need of the message.”

      Yeah, I get that a lot. I’m not sure it’s true. Depends on how you define who in the audience “needs” the message. As in my experience of speaking in Meeting for Worship, I just have to be faithful to what is given to me to share. Who hears it and what they make of it? None of my business, really. I’m not being flippant. That’s the way it is.

  5. I like the direction you’re going with this! I think for most of your readers who don’t have a detailed grasp of liberation theology, you might post a brief overview, or link to someone else who’s already done this. (Here’s a blog post from a number of years where I talk a bit about Gutierrez and Quakers: http://quakeroatslive.blogspot.com/2006/03/liberation-theology-unity-not.html.)

    In a future post, will you be talking about Paulo Friere and his understanding of conscientization of the oppressor as well as the oppressed, and the humanizing experience that occurs for both in the process of liberation? I think this would go a long way to address some of your own questions and understanding of the need for a first-world liberation theology.

    I think Quakers definitely have a word to share on liberation theology. It’s a bit hard for us to speak as a monolith in terms of any realm of theology, especially one so couched in Christ-language, if we’re talking about Quakers as a whole. For it to truly be termed “liberation theology,” it needs to contain Christ language, although for some it could possibly be defined in terms of a human Jesus who is a moral example for the rest of us. (This is not, in my personal opinion, the best form of liberation theology, but it might be one that was more comfortable for some Quakers.)

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