Saturday, September 17, 2011

Liberation Theology Revisited

It has been the custom of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops to meet twice a year. At each meeting, a significant component is dedicated to continuing education of some sort. At the meeting I am currently attending, in Quito, Ecuador (the Episcopal Church has several overseas dioceses, including two in Ecuador), the subject of the continuing education is Liberation Theology. We have so far dedicated two afternoons and one morning to it, and we're not finished yet.

Liberation Theology is a term that refers to a discernible school of thought that emanates from the work of several theologians, mostly Roman Catholic and mostly Latin American. It came of age in the 1970s and 80s, waxed for a while, and then waned significantly. It is no longer in fashion--in fact, it has a certain "retro" feel to it--but it is certainly not dormant. Biblically, it is grounded in the strand of Old Testament tradition that gives voice to a God who is thoroughly disgusted with any exploitation of the less powerful by the more powerful, with any injustice, with anyone who would be less than materially compassionate toward the poor. One sees it in the Exodus narrative (God rescues an oppressed Israel), the Psalms, and all over the Minor Prophets. If Liberation Theology were to be reduced to a slogan, it would be this: God has a preferential option for the poor.

In its heyday, Liberation Theology was suspect in many quarters on account of the company some of its advocates kept. It was associated with concrete sympathy toward movements of armed rebellion against entrenched political and economic structures, with land redistribution, socialism, and other leftist ideologies and activities. It was therefore criticized for being a mere theological smokescreen behind which to hide an essentially political movement, one that sat lightly toward traditional expressions of piety and worship. In effect, Liberation Theology seemed to be not much other than a new iteration of the Social Gospel movement from the 19th century, to be lacking any substantive eschatological dimension (i.e. its perspective is materialist, confined to this world and this world only).

The presenters we have heard here in Quito this week both confirm all the caricatures of Liberation Theology and at the same time raise some signals that are hopeful as regards the potential integration of its insights into more orthodox and mainstream Christian faith and practice. While some have momentarily indulged in anti-capitalist, anti-corporation rhetoric, they have all categorically disavowed any necessary link between Liberation Theology and either advocacy of or opposition to any particular political party, movement, or economic system. Apparently it's not impossible for a free market conservative to be a faithful Christian!

More helpfully, they have taken some care to locate Liberation Theology within the broad sweep of the Christian tradition, not only biblically, but sacramentally and liturgically. Wednesday's speaker (Don Compier from St Paul's School of Theology in Kansas City) made a serious effort to unpack the notion of incarnation as it is realized in the Eucharist (citing, especially, the work of Charles Gore). Having encountered the risen Christ in the sacrament, having been drawn into the intimate life of the Trinity, the faithful Christian disciple cannot not work for justice and extend Christ's presence in persona Christi in the midst of the poor and marginalized.

In the last question and answer session, I raised the issue of Liberation Theology's eschatological dimension, which seems to be largely absent, at least as it is packaged for general consumption. How does God's "end game" figure into the schema? What will "success", should it ever be achieved, look like? The panelists acknowledged that there is a utopian aspect to LT, which strikes me as very much in line with the vision of the Social Gospel; that is, God builds his Kingdom through progressive human effort, until, finally, injustice, violence, and poverty are extinct, signaling the fruition of the New Jerusalem. In more contemporary parlance, God has a "dream" of a world where justice, peace, and love are the ordering forces of society, and are no longer challenged. The Church's job is to participate in God's activity towards that end. This contrasts with a more traditional understanding that sees the fullness of the Kingdom of God flowing not from persistent human effort, but suddenly, apocalyptically, after a great crisis in which the powers of sin and death will first appear to have triumphed.

So I was heartened to hear our presenters use the language of "eschatological reserve." This notion, as I understand it, and as I would be wont to interpret it generously and irenically, takes seriously the reality that ministry to and among the poor and marginalized, in addition to providing obvious tangible benefits, it important semiotically--for its sign value. It is a sign to all that God has not abandoned them (whether or not he has a "preferential option" in their direction, which I think is a debatable idea), and that there will, in the eschaton, be a completely happy ending to their suffering.

Were I to have the opportunity, one question I would like to press with the proponents of LT, is how they integrate evangelization (of the sort that leads to repentance, faith, and baptism) and personal sanctification into their proclamation of "good news to the poor." Does our encounter with the incarnate and risen Jesus in the Eucharist merely inspire and empower us to "make the world a better place," or does it also motivate us to invite and include those whom we serve into that eucharistic fellowship? As I continue to ponder the ramifications of the rapid advance of the post-Christian era in western society, it strikes me that Liberation Theology may actually presume a Christendom paradigm, in which the Church advocates for the Christian poor in challenge to their Christian exploiters. In such a model, evangelization is not a paramount concern; the cast of characters in the drama are presumed to already be evangelized, to already be part of the community of the altare Dei. But what if this is no longer the case?

All this now having been said, I must confess that I did not hear anything fundamentally new in what has been presented to us. I am even hard pressed to see it as all that radical! It can arguably be recognized in what is already going on in my own rather conservative and traditional midwestern diocese, and in the parishes I have served. If the bishops of the Episcopal Church were supposed to have been gobsmacked by ideas that dramatically subvert the status quo in the ministries of their dioceses, I must have not been paying close enough attention.


Anonymous said...

If I may ask, did they offer a definition of justice? It seems that justice is something of the undefined - even inarticulate - promised land of materialist 'theology'. There is a rich heritage of Western thought on the meaning of justice, beginning with the ancients - Plato and Aristotle in particular, neither of whom are widely read today - and working itself up into the present. If Liberation Theology is the means to a more just society, what is the end (telos)? Not to show my Aristotelian bias, but should not the end at least shape the means? I cannot help but think that Liberation Theology has it backwards: a focus on the means, which it seeks to develop, without any consideration of the end. It thus yields a genuine utopianism in the worst sense, in which utopia is the happy place that is no place, existing time out of mind, and therefore without description. But being without description, it is also without language and therefore cannot be thought - meaning that the means cannot be shaped by the end, but only by the will of one who uses the empty signifier 'justice'. So what is the just society?

June Butler said...

Bishop Martins, your reflection on liberation theology is well worth reading. I wrote a long comment, but when I hit preview, my comment disappeared, and I don't have the heart to try to say it all again.

In brief, as I see it, liberation theology is only retro insofar as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and the long tradition of the church are retro. Christians have not always practiced the principles of liberation theology well, but they are surely nothing new.

Roman Catholic Abp. Óscar Romero expressed my view far better than I ever could in the following excerpt from one of his prayers:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own