Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: Liberation Theology

Gringo Liberation Theology: Temporarily On Hold 

It’s too important to be  doing Liberation now. Events are taking place here in Babylon that demand our attention, our action, our hearts, minds and souls. Still have to make a living, too. 

I hope to post some material here from time to time, but lately my energies have been engaged in struggling against incipient fascism, as represented this time around by Babyhands and his gaggle of moguls. 

I never got to the post about how South American Liberation Theology is built on the communities of the base, the poor, humble and disenfranchised millions who gather together to love God and each other enough to stand up against the power of the billionaire class. Well, we’re going to have to make it up as we go along, because it can’t be done alone. I reckon that’s a good way to do it. 

Keep the faith, sisters and brothers. Love each other and the whole world,  because it’s going to take all the love we got to save the people and the planet from the onslaught of greed,  hate and ignorance that is being unleashed. We can do this.  

Gringo Liberation Theology: A Course Correction

A slight but important course correction to the series formerly called North American Liberation Theology:

It struck me the other day that, although I’ve addressed the issue of diversity a couple of times in these posts, the title was misleading. “North Americans” are a broad mixture of race and ethnicity. North Americans can be Afro-American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Creole, Middle Eastern, etc.

I wanted to create a dialog specifically for members of the dominant culture in North America. I want us to realize that, despite our privilege, we have a very real stake in being part of a movement for justice and freedom across lines such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or creed. I wanted those of us who are people of faith to have our participation in this movement firmly grounded in that faith.

Using the term “North American” may have made sense in some way. That way would be looking outwards, from within the dominant culture. To do this well, I have to recognize when I’m doing that and try to change. I want to be one with my brothers and sisters across all those lines. I want out of these barriers. That’s one of the reasons we in the dominant culture need to adopt a liberation mentality, to free ourselves from those gilded cages while allying with others who are liberating themselves from the chains the dominant culture has imposed.

So as a step in this direction, and with tongue in cheek, I’ve renamed North American Liberation Theology “Gringo Liberation Theology.” Makes it a little more clear who I’m trying to reach. I went back and changed parts of the earlier essays. Tell me what you think.

Gringo Liberation Theology: Race and Gender

I have struggled for the whole time I’ve been working on these Liberation Theology essays to make statements about race and gender. These are essential to an understanding of what Liberation Theology means, not just in North America, but anywhere. I  can’t do my subject justice without addressing them.  But there are real problems as far as me,  personally, trying to do so.

I have a couple of co-workers who are Afro American men. They asked me one day not to use the term “boys.” For a bit of context, it’s fairly common in my social circle for men to refer to each other as boys. For instance, the adult leaders in my Scout troop often use the word with each other. “Okay, boys, time to get supper cooking.” “Any of you boys heard a weather report?” It’s an integrated troop, so we’re not just talking about white men here. So I didn’t think anything of it, until these two co-workers asked me not to. They said “We know you don’t mean anything by it, but we don’t like it.”

The operative sentence there? “I didn’t think anything of it.”  Exactly. It didn’t occur to me how this could have a very different meaning to black men. I wonder now what else I’m doing or saying, without intending disrespect, that is equally wrong.

(Yes, I stopped using the phrase. I would not wish to convey anything but respect or affection for these two, or by extension, to people of color in general. Nice of them to acknowledge that I meant no harm, but in the end, what good are good intentions? Road to hell, right?)

That story goes to highlight the difficulty I have had with addressing this issue. I can’t pretend to be an expert, when I don’t even see my own faults.

I’m a white male. Being white, it’s none of my business to tell people of color how to view their own liberation. Being male, it’s none of my business to tell women how to view their liberation. It’s none of my business to tell either how to progress in that direction.

But the situation isn’t a complete stalemate. White people can have an impact on racism, and men can have an impact on sexism.

There was a time in 1964 when hundreds of brave white college students, both male and female, went to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer. Side by side with black activists, they spread over the state to promote voter registration. Three of these activists – one black, two white – paid the ultimate price. Many more were subjected to various assaults and indignities.

What could be done then can be done now. Whites can stand with blacks, Hispanics, or people of color in general. It may not be as obvious now as it was in 1964 what to do. Many of the most pressing goals of the civil rights movement of that day have now been realized. But racial equality has not arrived. There is much to be done.

It would make a vast difference in how white people relate to racism if they would realize two things.

First, a lot of whites don’t understand the reality of white privilege. They look at their own lives, and see that they aren’t part of the One Percent, so where’s all this privilege people are talking about?

A fish doesn’t know it’s wet, and most whites have no idea how much privilege they have. Just one example: Joe Whiteguy is walking down the street with a couple of friends, and he’s never had the experience of people reacting to him and his pals with automatic fear or suspicion. He’s just minding his own business and not even thinking about it. But if you and your buddies are all black, people react differently. Since Joe’s never been in their shoes, he doesn’t know what a privilege it is to be unnoticed.

As Chris Boeskel said, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Second, white folks should know that equality for all benefits everyone. It’s not just that the surgeon who saves your life might be a highly skilled black woman or man; that’s almost too easy, although it’s true. The real impact of this is in daily life. If black children get good educations, everyone gets a good education. If black families have affordable housing, everyone has affordable housing. If black people are valued at the workplace, everyone is valued at the workplace. If black people don’t have to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police, no one has to be afraid of being shot in cold blood by the police. And so on.

Likewise, while women have advanced since The Feminist Mystique was published (also in 1964), there is still inequality in pay and opportunity. There is still sexual harassment and assault. There are still struggles over maternity leave, child care, and reproductive rights.

I don’t think that one guy, alone, writing an essay like this, can say definitively what all whites or all men should do. Each of us has to find that place where we take our stand in solidarity with the struggles of others.

About all I can say is that whites need to be allies with people of color in overcoming racism, and men need to be allies with women against sexism. Generally speaking, we need to follow their lead. This doesn’t mean that we must be puppets and there is no room for our own conscience or our own will.  It isn’t liberation if anyone has to give up their own personhood for another.  But, equally truly, it isn’t theology if we don’t make sacrifices for each other’s liberation.

In addition to standing with people of color and with women, we need to confront men and white people when they speak or act in sexist or racist ways. Our witness against these forms of oppression means nothing if we don’t fight against them. Further, we are in a better position to know how the racist and sexist mind works, because we know what we had to overcome in our own hearts to take this stand. Plus, there is the power of example. If a black person resists racism, it can be seen by white bigots as self-serving.

This is not just sociologically or politically motivated. The preferential option for the poor is not because they have less money but because they are exploited and oppressed. The same goes for people of color and for women. If God loves mercy and justice, he wants it for all.

Beyond that, I would like for whites and men to see what people of color and women have said about liberation.  James ConeCornel West, and, yes, Malcolm X are good starting points for black liberation theology. Rosemary Radford Reuther and Serene Jones are good starting points for feminist theology. So much better to hear what these men and women have said for themselves than for me to try to summarize or translate it.

Somewhere, I think it needs to be said that what unites us all, what is fundamental to the struggles of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., is class. Problems of race and gender will not, cannot be solved without economic justice. The powers that be manipulate these distinctions to divide us, to take our attention off the ways in which they exploit us and make us afraid of each other.

I’m not saying that racism and sexism are less important than classism. I am saying that class is the shared factor that bonds men with women; it bonds black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and aboriginal with each other. Class doesn’t transcend these distinctions, it’s the common link. I will have more to say about class in another post in this series.

Gringo Liberation Theology II: Doing Liberation Theology in North America

Quite a few people made comments on the last post (Why Do We Need a Gringo Liberation Theology? ). Some of those comments were here, some came to me via email, some were  posted elsewhere on the Web. There were some common themes. One of them was along the lines of “Consumerism isn’t much of a motivation to get people to change.” Others were along the lines of “Here’s what liberation theologians in South America are doing.”

I’m fine with both of those responses. I’m fine with most any response that shows that people are thinking. And they made me think, too.

So, while I’m working on the next post in the series, I want to address process rather than content.

First, this is a series. Each of these posts should stand alone in some sense, carrying at least one morsel worth chewing over. Yet none of them is sufficient. If there’s something that you think hasn’t been covered but ought to be, you have a couple of options. One is to wait and see if it is dealt with later in the series. There’s a lot to say and it can’t be said all at once. The other is to say what you think is missing, as I may have missed it. Or else you think about it differently than I do, and that will somehow inform and modify what I intended to say.

The second thing, as alluded to in the title of this post, Liberation Theology is what you do as much as what you say. Our Latin American brothers and sisters talk about praxis, that intersection between thinking and doing, a sort of OODA LOOP of applied spirituality. I realize that I’m trying to express something in words, just as Gutierrez and Bonino and others have done in Latin America, or James Cone and Cornel West have done among Afro-Americans in the USA, or as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether have done among feminists. Trying to communicate sensibly in words is worthwhile, though difficult. However, Liberation Theology is a way of acting or being in the world. I’ve tried to convey some sense of what I’ve done in the context of my community in various places throughout this blog. Those clues which point to what I’ve done are a necessary part of understanding what I’m trying to say. Some who have asked questions may find answers in other posts which don’t have a Liberation Theology label on them.

Third, Gringo Liberation Theology isn’t going to look like Latin American Liberation Theology, or Black Liberation Theology, or Feminist Liberation Theology. Those of us for whom these posts are intended will have to work out for ourselves what community in the context of the liberating Gospel means for us, to give one instance. Blindly imitating other forms is inauthentic. I don’t mind stumbling around in the dark, while we try to find our way. It’s instructive and worthwhile to look at our sisters’ and brothers’ successes and mistakes. We will still have to make our own mistakes and celebrate our own successes.

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.

Welcome, Paco!

The world has paid a lot of attention to the election of a new pope. The election of Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the name Pope Francis, has caused a lot of interest around the world, and not just among Catholics.

Readers of this blog will know of my longstanding involvement with liberation theology. As explained in greater depth elsewhere, liberation theology had its genesis in Latin America. It is based on the theme that runs throughout the Bible, most prominently in the Gospels, that God’s love is most fully expressed in his desire, spoken by Jesus, “to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.” The phrase which, for me, sums up the heart of liberation theology is “the preferential option for the poor.”

Jorge Bergoglio, although he is a South American, is not a liberation theologian. He has spoken out strongly against what he sees as a politicization of the gospel. He fears the Marxist overtones which can be heard ringing through the works of many liberation theologians.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, he has led a notably simple life. He has refused the trappings of office, taking buses instead of limousines, maintaining his home in an apartment rather than the grand edifices typically occupied by bishops and cardinals, and opposes exploitation and poverty. He has been clear about the negative impact of the International Monetary Fund on the poor. He has been quoted as saying “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

It is thought by many that his choice of the name Francis, although he is a Jesuit rather than a Franciscan, symbolizes his desire to lead the church in a more humble and selfless manner, as opposed to the imperial style associated with the papacy.

On the third hand, he opposes abortion and birth control. He is against same-sex marriage. I don’t know of his stance on feminism or on the ordination of women to the priesthood, but I’m sure more on those topics will be made clear as time passes.

How he handles the huge scandals with which the Roman church is struggling, chief among them the sexual exploitation of children by priests and the investigation of criminal mismanagement at the Vatican bank, will tell us a lot also.

For now, I want to share in the optimism. I don’t require that Francis be a perfect human being in every way and on every topic. If he can restore a sense of humility and simplicity to the largest Christian denomination, then he will have done a good work, not just for Catholics, but for the world at large.

Praxis: Faith and Practice

It is a tradition among Quaker Yearly Meetings to have a sort of constitution. They usually consist of two parts. The first, often in the form of a collection of quotes, describes the uniquely Quaker view of God, man, society, faith. The second portrays the agreements by which the Yearly Meeting conducts business and puts its decsions into actions. This book is called by most Yearly Meetings “Faith and Practice.”

Faith and Practice. Our Quaker tradition has always emphasized the interchange between the two. Our practice is informed by our living faith, the actual experience of being led by the Spirit as we have divined it within our Meetings. That faith is nurtured and developed in its turn by the experience of seeking to live up to it in the world. I say “we” to emphasize the communal basis of this faith and this practice. It is an ancient Quaker discipline to test one’s leadings for clearness among other seasoned Friends, and within the wider Friends fellowship.

The Theology of Liberation as it has grown in Latin America and elsewhere has these same traits, given certain important cultural differences. Practice is informed by faith; faith is informed by practice; theological reflection requires participation in both, and within a community of the faithful. This is called “praxis.” Not an academic exercise, but the give and take of prayer, inspiration, creativity, reflection, repeated within relationships with their brothers and sisters in faith. This circle of activity, from the inner to the outer and back again, is known as praxis.

Theology thus comes out of a living faith — out of the struggle to embody our faith in our choices and actions. This is the only authority for doing theology. Everything else is notional: talk which resembles gossip about theology, not the doing of theology itself.

This undertaking is not easy, and only humility makes possible any measure of success. Simplistic answers, formulaic responses, and self-righteous certainty all display an aggressive, domineering attitude that produces only more oppression. Insistence on the prominence of certain scriptural texts, rather than viewing each in the light of the whole of scripture, for instance, is a sure recipe for the disaster which we see, enacted by our fellow humans every day all over the world. It leads to the failure of love and the imperium of ego. The thrust toward certainty is so appealing, so seductive, so misleading. Faith is not about certainty; at least, not that kind. The certainty of faith lies in knowing that God is with us even when all is dark and confusion reigns. A God whose will is known in every detail is no God at all, but an idol to our own narrow predilections, obsessions, and fears.

Humility tells us,always and everywhere, that it is better to be loved than to be right. Beware of those who tell you it is because they love you that they are telling you what to think or feel, as they put you on the rack.

To find fulfillment, a theology of liberation must address the needs of the middle class as well as the poor. This is not to contradict the “preferential option for the poor” which has been the hallmark of liberation theology since its inception. On the contrary, the middle class must learn to adopt that stance for themselves, within their own lives, in order to have an authentic faith. Not by pretending to be poor, not by a Lady Bountiful approach to charity, but by learning how to stand in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the despised. the forgotten, the neglected.

The middle class should take joy in their opportunities for health, education, meaningful work, sufficient income, material comfort, relative freedom of choice and of behavior. The poor want these things for themselves, and by right should have them; to discount them would be to discount the reality of the struggles of the poor to achieve them.

From what, then, is the middle class to be liberated? From our complicity in the structures which which maintain oppression and privilege. From the smug self- absorption that supposes that everyone shares our values, preventing us from having real relationships with others. From greed. From our own aggressiveness. From prejudice of all sorts. From anxiety, the fear that no matter how much we have it is never enough. From feeling unloved and alone.

Liberation, though, is not just “freedom from.” It is also “freedom for”: for joy, for contentment, for love, for a sustainable prosperity. And there are the “freedom of’s”, natural to the citizens of a republic: of speech, of assembly, of religion, of the press, of being secure in our person and property. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

To enjoy any of these freedoms, we must work to see them extended to everyone. “An injury to one is an injury to all”, as the IWW preamble puts it.

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