A LIBERATION THEOLOGY FOR THE “FIRST WORLD”
A major roadblock to a serious discussion of liberation theologies in dominant culture is the assertion that they are essentially Marxist in nature. This accusation has been proffered by not only “First World” governments, but by the Western churches including the Roman Catholic Church. Since explicating the philosophies of Marx is not the point of this paper, it will have to suffice to address the barest of arguments. First, the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, is somewhat irrational in its fear of Marxism. Marx was, first and foremost, a philosopher – albeit one who believed in praxis. The philosophy of Marx does not line up particularly well with what the West understands as Marxist politics, namely Communism as practiced in the 20th century:
Marx was undoubtedly a reductionist … when tak[ing] a body of work of this nature and further reduce[ing] it to suit particular needs, the resulting popularized snippets of philosophy that remain may only be understandable in terms of strictly black or white, right or wrong, pro or con. It is beneficial to resist the urge to particularize Marx’s words, and to look at them under a wide-angle lens instead – to consider elements of his philosophy as broad strokes painted on the canvas of an existing culture – and then to determine the usefulness of his ideas on current society. It is of value to avoid trying to categorize his thoughts as purely descriptive or prescriptive. Both apply, as does a third – Marx may have been prognosticative as well.
Marx never fully developed a vision of the communist society, other than the vague notion of one in which all shared in the wealth with all the workers. He certainly did not anticipate a situation where a communist, authoritarian, privileged, class replaced the capitalist ‘bourgeoisie’. In the same respect, the writings of Adam Smith, the originator of the fullest philosophical system of capitalism, did not anticipate that capitalists would seek onerous advantage over other people. Prof. Eric Gidal, in summarizing Smith’s philosophy, wrote:
As each person had a right to the product of their work, they also had a right to keep or trade it as they saw fit … through capitalism and free trade, each transaction benefits each participant, while no one trades value for non-value, and no one demands what belongs to another, because people can sympathize with others.
Second, it should be fully understandable that a philosophy developed from the point of view of the working poor and a theology built from the perspective of the impoverished will share many points in common, with some aspects of the first even informing the second. Third, the poor of the “2/3 World” includes massive numbers of underemployed, unemployed and unemployable people. These, in the time of Marx, represented an underclass of society that was not considered significant by either capitalist or communist philosophy. Hence, the latter, being a movement on behalf of the working poor, is not quite compatible with the situation in the “2/3 World”, anyway. Lastly, the fact that some liberation theologians are communistic politically should be no more cause for concern than the fact that some U.S. theologians are Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal.
Examining the value of liberation theologies for the “First World” in light of another specifically Western theological approach, the Church Growth movement, may prove interesting. Bill Easum, Senior Managing Partner of Easum, Bandy and Associates, is one of the most highly respected church growth consultants in North America. His popularity spans the conservative-liberal spectrum. In his Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers he outlines four qualities that are essential to Christian leadership moving into the 21st Century – Faith, Vision, Mentoring and Realism.
“Faith … trust and confidence comes from our experience with God’s active presence in this world through Jesus Christ.” Faith is a quality not in short supply in the “2/3 World”, unlike much of the West. Most indigenous populations do not conceive of life apart from faith – lacking is the tendency to compartmentalize faith away from life so evident in the rationalist West. Part of what makes each liberation theology contextual is the extent to which local traditions, pre-Christian beliefs and understandings of community are incorporated into Christian understanding. Apart from those particulars, however, is an underlying concentration on faith as expressed by Jesus that is common to most liberation theologies. While the Western churches place the heaviest emphasis on soteriology (salvation) and ecclesiology (theology of church), relying heavily on Paul, liberationists concentrate more on Christology (life, lessons, actions, death and resurrection of Christ – especially crucifixion) and Eschatology (Kingdom or Reign of God).
Rather than trying to discern what the Reign looks like solely from what Jesus said, Latin American Liberation Theology incorporates analyzing what the Kingdom meant for Jesus with his roots firmly in Jewish culture, analyzing the praxis of Jesus, and studying to whom Jesus addressed the message of the Reign of God. Jewish thought held that God had always been active in history, reigning with acts of power in order to establish or modify the order of things. Jesus stressed his reverence for Jewish scripture and understood his ministry as a continuation of the theme of the biblical prophets who preached hope for those who needed liberation. Jesus was, above all, active in his solidarity with the poor and oppressed. While apathy and passivity characterize much of the West’s church life, liberation theology’s focus on agency and activity could instill new life.
“Vision … pathos, liberates people to be what God created them to be, not what a few people want them to be.” The vision of the Western church is cloudy and short-sighted – limited to specific geographic areas and demographic qualities – nationalistic and color-blind. The vision seems to have become, more and more, focused inwardly based on its own needs and wants. It is also intertwined with economic and political interests that limit concern for anything different than the dominant culture – unless, of course, it can be useful and assimilated into it. Contrast this with the vision expressed by Fernando Segovia:
“I have spoken of a spectrum, and it is the middle range of this spectrum that I find most attractive: neither wholesale assimilation to Anglo-Americanism nor full-scale smelting into Americanism, but a situation of flexible, ongoing, and far-reaching cultural exchange, involving both old and new identities and worlds – a situation in which the principles of otherness and mixture remain operative throughout.”
Differentiation – culturally and individually – appreciation for difference, not just tolerance, but an open-armed embrace to those different than ourselves that could just initiate a process of reconciliation. Which of these visions compare favorably to the images cast by Jesus of Nazareth?
“Mentors/Midwives … [have] ethics in leadership committed to making others successful … thrive on setting people free.” Advantage/disadvantage, more for less/less for more, dominate/ subordinate – these dichotomies somehow seem to fall short of those marks. Dominant culture’s control is local, regional, national and international – it is almost impossible to find a setting in which there is equality, consistent empowering leadership, a willingness to listen before talking, mutuality and a desire to learn as well as teach. Liberation theologians, and their respective audiences, have benefited immensely from each others’ work and insight, and actively seek to dialogue:
“While the Latin Americans began by seeking to export their liberation insights, almost as a solution to the world’s problems, contact with African and Asian theologies soon caused them to acknowledge the importance of the dimensions of culture and religious plurality.”
Mainline Christianity, floundering in uncertainty, expects to hear the liberating message of its own freedom from inside – in language and concepts conceived and born within dominant culture. Insight from outside is viewed with jaded disregard in veiled fear. Seeking its own freedom in liberationists’ terms would require acknowledging dominant culture’s complicity, its dependence on the web of life, and the validity of the claims of the people of whom it has taken advantage.
Realists – “face reality as it is, not as they wish it were … understand that self-deception can cost them their vision.” Dominant culture controls the majority of the information flying around the world, with the top six conglomerates being U.S. or European based TNCs controlling more than half of the respective domestic markets. Dominant cultures are constantly fed news and entertainment generated by dominant cultures. The “2/3 World” sees these same images, stories and entertainment, while at the same time being fully aware of the contrasts with their local contexts. Who then has a broader understanding of reality – the “First World” that sees only what it generates, or the “2/3 World” that gets to compare itself with “First World reality”? If dominant culture cannot see the reality of the world, then how can it judge the value of progress? “Progress has to be supplemented by the idea of catastrophe. The fact that ‘things go on as they are’ is the catastrophe.” Freedom requires a clear view of reality, even if it is painful. The concept of han from Korean Minjung theology refers to the “proud bitterness of the oppressed” that God also experiences – the recognition of reality in theological reflection. God’s experience of han prompts truth-telling stories and God’s agency in the world, through those who respond in justice and mercy. Absent reality – without han – can there be any truly God-centered worship that helps people find real meaning in their lives?
The mainline church in the “First World” is in crisis and is trying desperately to re-imagine and re-invent itself to be restored to its former glory – using the same theologies and the same techniques and the same blurred vision from the same dominant cultural precepts that created the problem. Subjugated peoples the world over are trying to re-emerge and resurrect themselves from dehumanization, by faithfully, imaginatively and courageously reclaiming and contextualizing the biblical witness into a new praxis, absent the same patterns that have bound the “First World” church in chains. Is resurrection possible? Our faith demands it – and, it depends on it. The dialogue between these two extremes is waiting – waiting for the opportunity to bring freedom to God’s people. The “2/3 World” theologians are prepared and seated at the table – ready to teach and to learn. The context is established. Global vision is here. Dialogue, however, takes two participants – both willing to listen with ears eagerly pricked to learn – both willing to speak from the place of God’s abundant love. As yet, the second chair is empty.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm; has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:50-53, NRSV, adapted
 Little, p.7-8.
 Gidal, Prof. Eric, Instructor, “Adam Smith’s Views of Capitalism”, Society of the Spectacle class web page, University of Iowa home page, <http://twist.lib.uiowa.edu/spectacle/Class%20Hypertext/class_hypertext.htm> accessed 12/9/02.
 William M. Easum, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers – Ministry Anytime, Anywhere, by Anyone, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 71-96.
 Easum, p.77
 Sobrino, 1978: 43.
 Easum, p.80
 Fernando F. Segovia, “Melting and Dreaming in America – Visions and Revisions”, A Dream Unfinished, edited by Eleazar S. Fernandez & Fernando F. Segovia, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001) p. 262.
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 100.
 Easum, p.83
 John Parratt, “Introduction”, in his An Introduction to Third World Theologies, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2004), p. 11
 Easum, p.86
 Luise Schottroff, “The Sayings Source Q”, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, editor, Searching the Scriptures – A Feminist Commentary, (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1994), p. 519.
 Edmong Tang, “East Asia”, John Parratt, editor, An Introduction to Third World Theologies, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2004), p. 98