From Liberation Theology, Part 2

This is Part 2 of our tour through Liberation Theology.  Many pieces of the material will come from Liberation Theology:  A Documentary History, but for this Part, we will be hearing from two other books as well, Theology for a Nomad Church (also known as Practical Theology of Liberation in its British publication) by Hugo Assmann and Jesus the Liberator by Jon Sobrino.

(For Part 1, please click here.)

Let’s begin.

On the Starting Place of Modern Theology

The starting-point is by no means a local Latin American phenomenon, and the task for theology is not one of local importance only.  Of course it has to look at this particular situation, but it must do more than that:  if the state of domination and dependence in which two-thirds of humanity live, with an annual toll of thirty million dead from starvation and malnutrition, does not become the starting-point for any Christian theology today, even in the affluent and powerful countries, then theology cannot begin to relate meaningfully to the real situation.  Its questions will lack reality and not relate to real men and women.  As one speaker at the Buenos Aires Seminar observed, ‘We have to save theology from its cynicism.’ When one looks at the real problems of the world today, much theological writing can only be called cynical” (Assmann, 54).

Assmann, who was an early contributor to Liberation Theology, says something that reminds me of the work of Jurgen Moltmann.  It was Moltmann who famously observed that all modern theology would have to take account of Auschwitz.  Here, however, I feel that Assmann has taken that notion of theology having to deal with the world’s great evils and added a very important evil in our world, massive poverty, to the discussion.  Theology has to, in some way, take account of and address the crushing poverty of our world.  Today, we recognize that poverty still exists deeply in the two-thirds world; also though, we know that there are deep pockets of poverty in the first world as well.  Poverty is recognized as being closer to home than ever before, as is outlined well in a recent sociological text $2.00 a Day.  If Theology does not take account of this great social evil, it risks becoming irrelevant and cynical.  Modern theology, even in affluent churches and areas, must address poverty or risk losing its own soul.  Though Assmann wrote this text almost fifty years ago, it still holds true today; these words remain prophetic.

Theologian, Renegade, and Prophet, Hugo Assmann
Theologian, Renegade, and Prophet, Hugo Assmann

The Church of the Poor

In the church of the poor, finally, Christ becomes present, and this church is his body in history.  It is not his body automatically, but insofar as it offers Christ the liberating hope and action and the suffering that can make him present as risen and as crucified.  Christology isolates this central fact, not arbitrarily or through pure text analysis, of Paul or Matthew 25, but because theologians find themselves confronted, like Bartolome de las Casas, with an atrocious suffering that forces them back to Matthew 25 and, at a more abstract level, to the Pauline texts” (Sobrino, 30).

This quote, from Jesus the Liberator, brought me back to the Assmann text when I read it.

For Sobrino, the poor are almost-sacramental in that, through them, we can have Christ communicated.  While I worry that this may verge on making the poor convenient for us, I think that I understand what Sobrino is getting at in this passage.  People experiencing poverty are of special concern to God; therefore, in order to better know and understand this God, one must draw close to the poor in friendship and solidarity.

Yet, as Sobrino also points out, the poor are not almost-sacramental by themselves, it is God’s work that makes it so.  It is insofar as we can see Jesus’s liberating hope and action that we have such a sacramental experience.  This could be a good point in that it does not lead us to suspect that any sort of person is or can be perfect, as though some individual other than Jesus Christ himself is the mirror image of God; that would be a heavy load to drop on any person and would be doubly unfair for someone who has to spend all day working through his or her experience of poverty.

Another movement that I appreciate in Sobrino’s work is that he is always harking back to the crucifixion and resurrection.  He seems to use these terms as descriptions for the way that God so often works; he does not mean it literally and slavishly, I think, but instead intends it as a general comment about how it looks when God is at work.  Failure turns out to be victory so often.  The last place that we sometimes look for God can end up being the place where God is about to revolutionize things.  In other words, I think that, when Sobrino uses crucifixion and resurrection as imagery, he is drawing very close to what we traditionally think of as the Theology of the Cross.  Finally, and most-related to the Assmann quote above, Sobrino talks about how the situation of people experiencing poverty forces theologians to deal with the situation of the poor, to take notice and account of it.  Often, in our world, there is the assumption that people experiencing poverty have nothing or little to offer to us, yet as this quote demonstrates, it might be that people experiencing poverty have a great deal to add to our image and understanding of God; people who deal with poverty force us to confront and deal with the reality of the social evil of poverty in our world.  Though again, this does not mean that we only get to know people experiencing poverty so that we can round out our own picture of God, as though the pieces of God’s picture were pokemon and we had to collect them all.  Instead, we are to befriend people experiencing poverty insofar as we are able because it is of importance to God and we ourselves, as fellow human beings who, like people experiencing poverty, are created to be in the image of God.

Practicing in the Spirit of Christ

This final quote comes from Leonardo Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator, which, I should note, was written before Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator, from which came the first quote in this post.

(The quotes from Liberation Theology:  A Documentary History are in chronological order from post to post, as the book itself is written in that way.  My own additions to these posts, from other books, will not fall in any particular chronological order, though I do hope, when more of my studies have been accomplished, to create a Liberation Theology Publication Timeline, especially seeing as how I myself have had such a hard time figuring out all of the first major players in the movement, such as Assmann.  A rough but accurate timeline could go a long way in making other people’s studies easier.)

Orthodoxy, that is correct thinking about Christ, occupied primacy over orthopraxis, correct acting in the light of Christ.  It was also for this reason that, although the church preached Christ the liberator, it generally was not the church that liberated or supported liberation movements.  Not rarely has the church left active, participating Christians as complete orphans.  This has resulted in recent years in the continuous exodus from the church of the best minds and most active forces.  We know nevertheless that for Christ and for the primitive church the essential did not consist in the reduction of the message of Christ to systematic categories of intellectual comprehension but in creating new habits of acting and living in the world” (pp. 161-162)

Boff, a prolific and profound theologian, lays out, very clearly, a major challenge that the church has faced.  How does the church become concrete?  How does it invest itself in practice?  Often, I ask myself how it is that we can recognize teaching about Christ through action.  It can be hard, for instance, to demonstrate, in lived reality, to someone the Chalcedonian Definition of Christ.  On the other hand, as Boff’s quote assumes, Christ can be seen in actions that are clearly understood.  Boff seems to point out here that such actions are liberating ones.  Thus, to do something that liberates, however small or large, is to teach about Christ.  Practice can communicate belief.  Right practice can communicate right belief, which is easier said than done, as we all know.  We in North America now know, as did Boff in the early 1970’s, that many have left the church because their experience was not one of action, of praxis or practice.  We too have now experienced a similar exodus of some of the best minds and most active people.  Now, in North America, with all of the talk about mission that happens in every denomination from Baptist to Lutheran, we too know “the essential [does] not consist in the reduction of the message of Christ to systematic categories of intellectual comprehension [which is all abstract] but in creating new habits of acting and living in the world [which are developed over time and which are concrete].”  As a penultimate, or next-to-last, thought, Bridges Out of Poverty, which helps people to translate and move across lines of socio-economic class, teaches us that, for many in poverty, concrete lessons are highly valued.  In order to best be with these brothers and sisters then, we need to embrace the concrete as we are able.  Finally, I think that we ourselves cannot be the savior Jesus Christ in full reality, but we can, in our better moments, teach and learn about him through orthopraxis methods.

For now, we will leave off and continue our tour through Liberation Theology in another post.  Thank you for being along on the journey.

For Part 3, please click here.

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