The Liberation of Theology

The Liberation of Theology

Journalist of progressive faith communities and activist for peace Joyce Hollyday shares these words in her book on spiritual formation and social witness, Then Shall Your Light Rise:

 During my fifteen years in Washington, I helped give out food on Saturday mornings at the Sojourners Neighborhood Center. People still refer to the area at the center’s location as the Fourteenth Street “riot corridor,” three decades after violence swept the city following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It still bears the scars: vacant lots and abandoned buildings, broken glass and shattered hopes.

Every Saturday, up to three hundred families came through the food line for a bag of groceries. Before opening the line, those of us serving the food clasped hands and bowed our heads. Mary Glover, an older neighborhood resident who had lived there for decades, offered a prayer. It was the same prayer every week, but it never seemed redundant. (Olson: I bet some of you know at least some of these words.) I will carry it with me always:

We thank you, Lord, for our lying down last night and our rising up this morning. We thank you that the walls of our room were not the walls of our grave, that our bed was not our cooling board nor our bedclothes our winding-sheet. We thank you for the feet that are coming through this line for food today and that hands that are giving it out. We know, Lord, that you’re coming through this line today, so help us to treat you right. Yes, Lord, help us to treat you right.

I had a conversation with a member of our church a while back, a person who suggested that calling our after-church conversations on the second Sunday of the month a theological conversation was not welcoming for people who didn’t believe in God. I listen hard to this kind of feedback, because I know that we as a church our proud of openness and welcome, and when there is language that we use that makes people feel excluded, we need to be careful. (Not that we can ever be “all things to all people,” nor that we will ever be readily welcoming to everyone!) But to lose the word “theology” because someone doesn’t believe in theos, God, is something about which we might show care.

Theology is a collection of thoughts that help a people make sense of their lives. A classical definition says theology is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” (Anselm of Canterbury, Benedictine monk and founder of scholasticism, 11th century CE) Theology as a system traditional asks some basic questions: What is this universe? (cosmology) Who is humanity in this cosmos? (anthropology) What is good/Who is God and why is there evil? (theology and theodicy) How does the good/God interact with humanity; and specifically, Who is Jesus? (christology) What is the enduring good/Who is the Spirit and what is the church? (pneumatology and ecclesiology) How are we saved? (soteriology) What will be the end of all this? (eschatology). Theology is the broad and systematic approach to addressing these questions about life and death and the understanding we have, the meaning we make, to the question of what does it mean to be alive.

My basic theological assertion is that being alive means being about the process of promoting freedom. Being alive is about the work of liberation. Any theology that does not promote this essential task is, to me, a theology that must itself be liberated.

I am reminded of others who have called for the liberation of theology. The towering 20th Century neo-orthodox Protestant theologian Karl Barth asserts as much when, after the Second World War, he promoted “the humanity of God” as a corrective to his own earlier diastatic philosophy. Barth had decades earlier resisted the progressive notion of a common theology that could be shared almost indistinguishedly among highly educated, highly cultured, upper middle class people who promoted a polite and civic-minded ethos. These people in power, Barth thought, needed to know that real power was vested in a God that did not go to the best schools, run the finest factories or have lunch at the Maryland club. The real God was not like us. That the purpose of being the church was to proclaim a faith that was not like our democratic and progressive ideals, but was based on the God of the Bible that could not be contained by our expectations, but that rather asserted a way that was entirely different from our comfortable and casual and polite way of being. Not a synthetic philosophy that saw God in reasonable discourse and deduction, Barth called for a diastatic philosophy, a different state theology, an understanding of how different, how distinct, how distant God is from our own understanding.

But this philosophy of a powerful God ruling from a distance did not give the Protestant church of Europe the power to stand up to Fascism, and after the Second World War Barth spoke of the God’s humanity. “[God] want’s in [God’s] freedom not to be without [hu]man[ity], but with [us] and in the same freedom not against [us] but for [us], and that apart from or even counter to what [we] deserve[]. [God] wants, in fact, to be [our] partner, [our] almighty and compassionate Savior.” In the later Latin American tradition of the theology of liberation, we call this God’s desire for solidarity.

Personally, I have long been drawn to these liberationist notions of Latin America. You may know that as a young adult developing my own worldview, I had many interactions with people who challenged the basic perspective of our government toward Latin America. I knew older activists who had been life-long internationalists as undergraduates had been part of the founding of the US Anti-Imperialist Movement. I knew idealists who had gone with the Venceremos Brigade in the 1960s to harvest sugar cane in Cuba. I sang at meetings of the Smedley Butler Brigade of Veterans for Peace as they struggled against our foreign policy in Guatemala. I helped raise funds to send friends to revolutionary Nicaragua. And when I was able to visit El Salvador as an election observer for the United Nations, I spent several days visiting the chapel at the University of Central America, a chapel dedicated to the martyr archbishop Oscar Romero, who has long inspired me by his courage. To have a bishop who fully identifies with the poor and against the actions of the ruling families of his country was an eye-opener to me—and, of course, a threat to the powers that be.

Liberation theology that says that we exist in complicated systems—economic and cultural, gendered and classist—which collect the evils of human beings into unconscious behaviors of oppression. Liberation theology says that “faith seeking understanding” in a culture of extreme poverty is to understand the systems by knowing the lived lives of the poor. God expresses solidarity with humanity not by God’s distance and difference, but by identification and relationship.

The Theology of Liberation is a Liberation of Theology. It moves our focus away from speculation about distant Gods, away from the re-stating of Biblical truth, away, even, from those philosophies that see not an anthropomorphic God but rather a distant divine force, an impersonal moral law. The liberation of theology frees us to know our deepest truths in the lived encounter—not the speculative poor of the Welfare Queens, but the authentic poor of the Wal-Mart worker who asked me on Thursday night if he could be excused from speaking to our Candlelight Processional to Raise the Minimum Wage because he was tired, because he wanted to have dinner with his children. The liberation of theology gets us out of our heads only and into the hands which reach out to welcome and which pick up the task, the shoulders that can be leaned on for support and to allow tears, the feet which are willing to walk the walk of the others. “Spend a mile in my moccasins,” the Indian invites, and our theologies will be liberated.

Such a call for a new look at religion is not unusual in this church. Indeed, out of respect for both the Bible and the human intellect, it was from this very pulpit that a rational and reasonable faith was proclaimed. We honor the Bible not by worshipping the book, but by doing the book. “Religion is not worshipping what the prophets of old did,” William S. Alberts argues, “but doing what the prophets of old worshipped.” They worshipped courage. They worshipped truth. They worshipped unity. They worshipped justice.

In our day, the struggle for human rights is the struggle for liberation. When we demonstrate in Annapolis, we don’t demonstrate for some abstract rule, some distant people, especially for some lower and unfortunate people. We demonstrate out of a sense of connection, moving toward, being in relationship with. Rev. Dr. Harry Seawright addressed our candlelit assembly on Thursday. As an employer, he runs several companies that employ over fifty people. When you add the employees of his church and the five small businesses that his church runs, he employs over a hundred people. Rev. Seawright sees himself in community with his workers—his life is wound up in theirs, his success in their success. This notion of solidarity contrasts with the attitude of some big box employers who say they can’t possibly raise the minimum wage. This attitude pits employees against stockholders as if they are diastatically distinct, not synthetically one. The liberation from that kind of thinking can lead to a richer identification among the human family.

Saru Jayaraman tells of the work of Restaurant Opportunities Center United.  The restaurant union HERE welcomed her efforts with workers who lost their jobs in the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center on September 11. Dozens of workers—mostly lowly paid cleaners and prep workers in the kitchen of the celebrity restaurant Windows on the World—dozens were killed, burned alive when they encountered a locked access to the roof. Dozens leapt over 100 stories to their deaths. But hundreds were laid off and promised jobs in a new restaurant being opened by the owner of Windows on the World.

When the owner reneged on his promise, when the owner declared that not a single Windows worker had the capacity to work at his new restaurant, Saru and the workers organized an embarrassing demonstration at the gala opening of the new restaurant. Those who stood with one another expressed the ethical stance of solidarity—not standing distant from, not being distinct from, but standing with, identifying with, organizing with.

Saru Jayaraman was raised at First UU Church of San Diego, CA, and her work among restaurant workers and her book Beyond the Kitchen Door are promoted by our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Our Service Committee seeks to connect our eating in restaurants with the Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating that we generated and adopted at General Assembly in the last four years.

The Statement of Conscience reads in part, “Our [Unitarian Universalist] Principles call for recognition of and respect for the other. As we search freely and responsibly for truth, meaning, and spiritual wholeness, we will make a variety of individual choices about food . . . [and apply] our Principles to our food choices. What and how we eat has broad implications for our planet and society. Our values, Principles, and integrity call us to seek compassion, health, and sustainability in the production of food we raise or purchase.”

Tens of thousands of UUs have embarked on a journey the UUA calls “ethical eating” and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, or UUSC, calls “choosing compassionate consumption.” Both processes invite us not into common answers but into common engagement. As UUs we will arrive at varying answers and approaches. The point is to take seriously our responsibility to examine the spiritual, ethical, and environmental questions involved in our interdependent lives.

Karl Barth said that

through the humanity of God, a quite definite theme is given to theological culture in particular. Yes, along with pyramid-building, pre- and post-Kantian philosophy, classical poetry, socialism and theoretical and practical nuclear physics, there is also a theological culture! Since God in [God’s] deity is human, this culture must occupy itself neither with God in [God’s] self nor with [hu]man[ity] in [it]self, but with the [hu]man encountering God and the God-encountering [hu]man, and with their dialogue and history, in which their communion takes place and finds its fulfillment.

Communion finding fulfillment. Faith seeking understanding. Universalist minister Clarence Russell Skinner wrote a hundred years ago, our current comprehension “is not a tombstone marking the resting place of truth, but is rather a milestone on the long arduous journey to the truth.” Journeying together, to find fulfillment together, to seek understanding together. This is the content of our work, and this is the foundation of our promise.

Our promise will be lived into one candle at a time, one changing of the human heart at a time, one UUSC membership at a time . . . and as the new culture of liberation is created, we will be set free to be free, that quintessential aspect of God—God is free, God is the freedom that we long for, God is the act of setting people free.

Mary Glover said it in her prayer. “We know, Lord, that you’re coming through this line today, so help us to treat you right. Yes, Lord, help us to treat you right.” Our theology may be liberated enough not to see the Lord coming through the line, but another human being—a sister, a brother, a friend—but our liberal and liberating faith asks us “to treat [each person] right.” Treat each person right. May it be. May it ever be. Blessed be. Ashe, ashe. Salaam. Shalom. Amen.

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