What Is Liberation Theology? (First in a series published on Fridays)

Jesus as pictured by Nicaraguan peasant artists. Undeniably human. His most faithful disciples, women. His executioners, the U.S-supported Nicaraguan National Guard.

What is liberation theology? In a single sentence: liberation theology is reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed like the women in the painting above. More accurately, it is reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of those among the poor who are committed to their own liberation. Liberation theology comes from a place of commitment to social change.

Change, liberation from what? In a word, from colonialism and from the neo-colonialism represented today by contemporary forces of corporate globalization whose leading champion is the United States of America. As we all know, those forces have half the world living on $2 a day or less. They’ve concentrated the world’s wealth in the hands of a sliver of 1% of the world’s population. Three men own as much wealth as the 48 poorest nations. Two hundred and twenty-five people own as much as today’s 3 billion living on $2 a day. According to the U.N., an annual 4% tax on those 225 would provide enough resources to feed, clothe, cure and educate the entire Third World. To the wealthy (often supported by Christians who present themselves a pro-life), such taxation is unthinkable. As a result, 30,000 children die of absolutely preventable starvation each day. In the eyes of liberation theology’s protagonists, that’s sinful and runs entirely contrary to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

And what were those teachings? (This is the heart of liberation theology.) They were first of all those of a man recognized by the impoverished as someone like themselves. He looked like them — not like me or other white people. If we are to believe forensic history experts (see posting of April 26th below), he resembled the poor majority we see everywhere in our globalized world. He probably stood about 5’1’’ and weighed about 110 pounds. His skin was brown. He was a laborer, not a scholar. His hands were calloused.

Jesus also exhibited the characteristics that good Christians among us often find repulsive and ungodly. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother. According to Matthew’s account, he was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. The good people of his day called him a drunkard and the companion of prostitutes. They expelled him from his synagogue because he didn’t seem to care about the most important of the 10 commandments – the Sabbath law. The religious authorities said he was a heretic and possessed by the devil. The occupying Roman authorities identified him as a terrorist. They arrested him. And he ended up a victim of torture and of capital punishment carried out by crucifixion which was a means of execution the Romans reserved for insurgents. He was not the kind of person Christians usually admire. He was far too liberal to merit their approval.

In fact, the gospels give the impression that Jesus spent his public life roaming from one party, one banquet to another. At one point, he is said to have enlivened a wedding feast by producing more than 175 gallons of wine for partiers who had been drinking plentifully for days. And he was always finding excuses to break the law. In fact, he made a point of violating Sabbath restrictions whenever doing so might help someone who in most cases might have equally been helped any other day of the week. He was clearly a feminist. Many of his disciples were women. He spoke with them in isolated places. He actually forgave a woman caught in adultery, while implicitly criticizing the hypocrisy of patriarchal law which punished women for adultery and not men. And Jesus refused to recognize his contemporaries’ taboos around segregations. He crossed boundaries not only dividing men from women, but Jew from gentile, lepers from non-lepers, and rich from poor. . . .    Jesus actually touched and ate with lepers and others considered contaminated and unclean. He couldn’t have been more liberal. In a sense he was an anarchist. He honored no law that failed to represent the loving thing to do. His attitude towards the law is best summarized in his pronouncement about the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was instituted for human beings,” he said, “human beings weren’t made for the Sabbath.” This was pure humanism placing human beings above even God’s holiest law. Again, it was anarchistic.

Jesus’ teachings were politically liberal too. They centered on social justice. As such they infuriated his opponents but were wildly inspiring to the poor and oppressed. His proclamation was not about himself, but about what he called “The Kingdom of God.” That was the highly charged political image he used to refer to what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that kingdom everything would be turned upside-down. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would be poor; the poor would be rich. Subsequent reflection by followers of Jesus in the Book of Revelation teased all of that out and drew the conclusion that with the dawning of God’s kingdom, the Roman Empire would be destroyed and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth entirely unlike empire. There (as indicated in the Acts of the Apostles) wealth would be distributed from each according to his ability to each according to his need. There would be room for everyone. If that sounds like communism, it’s because, as the Mexican exegete Jose Miranda points out, the idea of communism originated with Christians, not with Marx and Engels.

Once again, most of this is not the kind of thing  Christians are usually thought of as endorsing. But that’s the vision of God, Jesus, and his message that liberation theology presents. And it’s all supported by the research of 90% of contemporary biblical scholars, even those who know little or nothing of liberation theology.

Questions for Reflection:

1. What questions do you have about liberation theology as defined in this post?

2. Why do you suppose the U.S. government was so alarmed by the rise of liberation theology in the 1960s?

3. Would the U.S. government have been similarly alarmed by Jesus himself? Why? Why not?

4. Are you upset by the idea of liberation theology as described above? Why?

Next Friday: “St. Paul: Christianity’s First Liberation Theologian”

Occupy the Church: a strange dream

I had a strange dream last night. Just before retiring, I had read Maureen Dowd’s New York Times (NYT) piece on the Vatican’s hysterical attack on U.S. nuns (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/dowd-bishops-play-church-queens-as-pawns.html?hp). According to Pope Ratzinger and His Holy Office of the Inquisition (now renamed “The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” – or something like that) the good sisters are spending too much time on social justice issues and the poor.  They’re not giving enough attention to the crucial issues that so concerned Jesus — contraception, abortion, and same sex marriage.

Dowd was having none of that.  And her editorial was right on target. But it was the responses below the on-line version of the column that I found even more compelling. Comment after comment not only supported the nuns, but expressed outrage at a church that covered up and minimized the importance of male pedophilia, while attacking its hard-working, self-sacrificial women for following the example of Jesus himself. New York’s Cardinal Dolan attempted explanation by pointing out that only a “tiny minority” of priests has been involved in raping young boys. Technically he was right, I guess. One responder to the Dowd article said the figure is “only” 5-8% of priests worldwide.

With that comforting reassurance in mind, I closed my eyes. My dream soon unfolded.

There I was in my local church in Kentucky. I was sitting in my usual place in the third row on the lectern side of the aisle. Our pastor was preaching about abortion again, and I suspect my thoughts had wandered off. . .

But then I was suddenly snapped-to when just across the way from me, Mary Kelly (a former Sister of St. Joseph) stood up. Her husband, Ken, himself a resigned priest from the archdiocese of Chicago was standing beside her.

In a firm but gentle and clear voice, Mary called out: “Excuse me, Fr. Philip.” She was interrupting the priest!

Flashbulbs erupted in the church. Three strangers who appeared to be newspaper people had run down the aisle and were taking pictures of Mary and of our startled pastor.  

Mary repeated, “Excuse me, Fr. Philip.” Behind her about 20 voices echoed, “Excuse me, Fr. Philip.” When the people who had just spoken stood up, I realized something “organized” was about to happen. Even a quick glance showed me that the ones who had repeated Mary’s words all belonged to our parish’s Peace and Social Justice Committee. Its members were using the “mic-check” technique perfected by the Occupy Movement. This will be good, I thought. It’s like they want to occupy the church.

“With all due respect, Father Philip,” Mary continued.

Behind her 20 voices repeated, “With all due respect, Father Philip.”

“We cannot go on with business as usual (We cannot go on with business as usual)

Or ignore the mistreatment of women (Or ignore the mistreatment of women)

By the Catholic Church (By the Catholic Church)

As shown by the Vatican’s recent attack (As shown by the Vatican’s recent attack)

On American nuns (On American nuns).

I stand here to announce (I stand here to announce)

In the name of (In the name of)

Our parish Peace and Social Justice Committee (Our parish Peace and Social Justice Committee)

That we are suspending (That we are suspending)

Our membership in and support of this Church (Our membership in and support of this Church)

Until this problem is resolved (Until this problem is resolved).

Until apologies are issued (Until apologies are issued).

And reforms are made (And reforms are made).

In the meantime (In the meantime)

We will meet each Sunday (We will meet each Sunday)

In designated parishioners’ homes (In designated parishioners’ homes)

To celebrate the Eucharist there (To celebrate the Eucharist there).

We invite any of our fellow parishioners (We invite any of our fellow parishioners)

Who feel called to join us (Who feel called to join us)

To do so (To do so).

Please inform the bishop of our decision (Please inform the bishop of our decision).

We are leaving now (We are leaving now).”

With that, Ken unfolded a 3’ by 3’ newsprint sign that read “Justice for American Nuns!” He held it above his head and walked solemnly to the front of the church. There were more camera flashings. Soon Ken was joined by the 20 others lining themselves up across the front of the sanctuary. Fr. Philip looked embarrassed and confused.

Someone shouted from the congregation, “This is crazy! Sit down and shut up!”

“Hear, hear!” someone else added. There were murmurings all around.

Still, a few others from the pews joined Ken and the 20. The signs the demonstrators held made the pastor invisible.

One poster asked “Who Needs Reprimanding: Pedophiles or Our Sisters?

Another fairly shouted, “We’re gone till the Pope Apologizes: REPENT, Herr Ratzinger!”

More camera flashes.

Presently the 20 Peace and Social Justice Committee members and those who had joined them were processing – up the right side of the church, down the middle aisle and up the left side. They taped their posters to the narthex windows and walls. Soon they were gone.

Finally I awoke and thought “Hmm. . . Why not?”

International Labor Day Posting: Thank God for the Jobs Crisis!

Mike Tower recently wrote an article Op-ed News about the devastating effect of technology on the job market. We’re in deep sh*t, he wrote, since the large scale introduction of what used to be called “cybernetics.” Technology has eliminated jobs across the board on an alarming scale – from secretarial positions to auto workers. The resulting crisis is compounded by our culture’s deep denial of the basic problem. Even worse, our civic “leaders” at every level refuse even to name technology as playing anything but a positive role in the corporate global economy. What should we be urging them to do? Mike asked.

My first response is simply an expression of gratitude to the author. It’s about time that someone resurrects this problem which clearly is central to the current “jobs crisis” everyone professes to be so concerned about.  I say “resurrects” because I’m old enough to remember the ‘60s and ‘70s when so many pundits described the coming glories of the “cybernetic age.” Then computers would at last liberate us, they promised, from the drudgery of 9-5 jobs. Back then the worry was, “What would we do with all that leisure time?

However, as Mike Tower correctly implies, “all that leisure time” has proven frustratingly elusive. In its stead, most of us are working harder than ever as our employing firms “downsize.” Alternatively, we’re pounding the pavement looking for non-existent jobs to replace those that have been “outsourced” to Asia somewhere.

My second response to the Tower article is that the situation described there is both worse than the author portrays – and more hopeful.  It’s worse because as Jeremy Rifkin pointed out years ago in The End of Work, the destruction of jobs by technology long preceded the advent of computers. Think of the mechanization and industrialization of farming which, infinitely exacerbated by free trade agreements, have displaced small farmers worldwide.

  Additionally, so many of the “jobs” available to the more recently surplused labor force are not simply low-paying to a humiliating degree. In the end, they are nothing more than busy work – not only completely unnecessary, but positively destructive. Readers will know what I mean: weapons manufacture, the military itself, the advertising industry, “call centers,” insurance companies, fast food, and (above all!) Wall Street jobs connected with financial speculation. None of these occupations are truly productive. And naming them as I have represents only the tip of the iceberg.

Still other jobs can easily be eliminated by technology. Think of what happened to Encyclopedia Britannica that didn’t see Wikipedia coming. Think of the music industry recently involuntarily “downsized” by file sharing. And what about newspapers, currently in crisis because of the advent websites like Op-ed News and Information Clearing House? Similarly “distance learning” is having its own impact on higher education as bricks and mortar campuses find themselves sun-setting whether or not their trustees can yet see that train wreck on its way.

Even the oil industry is sun setting. Imagine what that means for an entire economy and lifestyle absolutely dependent on oil.  Here I’m not just referring to “Peak Oil Consumption” or to “Peak Oil” itself.  Again according to Rifkin (this time in The Empathic Civilization) the new technology will soon turn every building into a energy power plant. Surplus energy will be stored in hydrogen cells. And the energy produced will be shared person-to-person across a “smart grid”. The model here is file-sharing and the way it transfers information today. Think of the jobs that will be eliminated as a result – including those required by the energy wars that will be rendered superfluous.

This is not a pipe dream. The European Union has already committed to the model Rifkin describes. We are kept from discussing it only because our “drill, baby, drill” politicians have their heads so firmly stuck in the tar sands. Consequently, the U.S. economy is being left in the dust.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t productive work crying out to be done. The U.S. infrastructure is crumbling at an alarming rate. And then there’s that field of alternative energies I just mentioned. Green technologies in general and public transportation are obvious needs. The number of potential jobs connected with them is substantial. But there are not nearly enough green jobs to replace the ones that have been eliminated by technology and those that should be discarded because they are environmentally destructive and morally unsustainable.

So what should be done about all of this? Here is the hopeful part. Rifkin showed the way years ago. So did Juliette Shor (The Overworked American).  J.W. Smith (Economic Democracy: the Political Struggle of the Twenty-First Century) was even more articulate about the path ahead: SHARE THE WORK. None of us has to work that hard unless we want to. Thanks to the new technology, we could work four-hour days or three-day weeks, or for only six months a year, or every other year and still make a living wage.  We could retire at 40. And this is possible world-wide.

And how to pay for all of this? For starters, cut back the military budget 60%. That alone would make available more than a billion dollars every day just in the U.S. Tax the rich and the corporations – those who make up the “1%” that has ripped off the U.S. working class on an unprecedented scale over the last 30 years and more. (Remember the 91% top-level tax bracket that was in place here following World War II. We could reinstate that!) Share the wealth. Boldly restructure the economy. Embrace the new technology’s promise along with the life of leisure that it offers.

Recently, I’ve been working in Costa Rica. While there, I spent time at Manuel Antonio beach and watched ordinary people lying in the sun, wind surfing, swimming , picnicking with their families, flying kites, reading, playing futbol and beach volleyball. Life in general could be like that I thought – more time for rest and relaxation, for eating, playing, spending time with family and friends, for making love, for meditation and prayer.

It is all now within our grasp. We just have to recognize that and get the subject on the political agenda.

Chomsky on U.S. War vs. Liberation Theology

My first public post on this blog site (the video immediately below) begins my series on Liberation Theology (LT) — certainly a “thing that matters” in our post-modern world. In fact, I consider LT the most important theological development  of the last 1500 years. More than that, I see it as the most significant intellectual and activist movement in the last 150 years (or roughly since the publication of The Communist Manifesto). After all, it was a type of liberation theology that fueled the Civil Rights Movement. And today, an Islamic form of LT energizes the Arab Spring. Moreover, we have in the White House the first President to have been formed spiritually in a liberation theology congregation (that  of Jeremiah Wright). The video below presents the comments of Noam Chomsky on the U.S. campaign against LT during the 1980s, when U.S. leadership panicked at the form it took in Central America.  Years ago The New Yorker Magazine called Chomsky perhaps the leading intellectual of our era. Here he speaks specifically of the U.S. interventions in Central America during the 1980s as a war against LT. Elsewhere Chomsky termed those conflicts “the first religious war of the 21st century.” Please click on the YouTube film clip below. Then post your comments and questions in the space provided. Also include any suggestions for making this blog site better. My series on Liberation Theology will start next Friday (May 4th). In the meantime, there will be posts on other topics.

“Forensic Jesus”

This is what forensic archeologists say the Jesus of history probably looked like. He was a working man who stood about 5’1″ and weighed about 110 pounds. His skin was dark; his hands were calloused. His message was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God — what the world would be like if God rather than Caesar were king. This web site is dedicated to exploring the relevance of that Jesus to our post-modern times.

Cape Town Notes

I’m here in Cape Town, South Africa, and have been for the last three and a half months, accompanying my wife, Peggy, who’s completing her sabbatical in this one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We’re living in Llandudno, just outside of Cape Town in a flat we’re renting from friends we met sixteen years ago during a sabbatical year in Zimbabwe. We’re a five-minute walk from the beach which is just spectacular.

View from our deck

For the past month, we’ve been traveling this “cradle of human civilization” along the gorgeous “Garden Route” and beautiful “Wine Route” that attract so many visitors each year. With our daughter Maggie, her husband (Kerry), their two delightful children [Eva (3) and Oscar (1)], and the family’s au pair (Carla) we’ve explored Cape Town, its museums, gardens, and encircling mountains. We’ve also been on safari encountering in the process lions, elephants, wart hogs, hartebeests, impalas, ostriches, black rhinos, giraffes, water buffalo, and zebra.

Setting out to search for lions.

Our son, Brendan, also visited us for a week with his girlfriend, Erin.

Erin and Brendan

Brendan and I played a couple of South Africa’s picturesque golf courses surrounded as they are by endless vineyards and looming mountains.

Brendan teeing off. Mike watching and wishing he could hit the ball like that.

Some of the rock formations here in the southern Cape are remarkable. As Dean Perini points out in his Pathways of the Sun, many of them have been “enhanced” by the Koi-Koi and San people indigenous to this area. The enhancements (for instance, sharpening features in rocks which resemble human faces) serve the same purpose as the completely human fabrications in places like Tikal, Stone Henge, and (perhaps) Easter Island.  They position the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to keep track of equinoxes and solstices. All of those heavenly bodies and seasons influence our bodies (70% water) as surely as they do the ocean tides and the seasons. So it was important to the Koi-Koi and San to mark the precise moments of the annual celestial events for purposes of celebrations, rituals, and feasts.

We’re privileged here in Llandudno to bask in the presence of the great “Mother Rock,” which like so many other mountains, rocks, sacred wells and springs in this area exudes extraordinary cleansing energy. Peggy and I often make our evening meditation before this Rock, and on occasion in a nearby sacred cave.

Sacred Cave
Mother Rock

Yes, the human story began here 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. In the presence of ocean, sacred caves, and holy rocks, we’re attempting to reconnect with the roots of it all and with the animals and ancient peoples who in their harmony with nature’s processes seem much wiser than we post-moderns are proving to be. What a privilege it is to be in Africa.