I Am Liberation Theologian and So Can You!

What is theology if not the study of the interaction between God (of some sort) and creation (however one defines that)? So why does the word “theology” seem so intimidating? Why do I tend to think of white male professors with scarves around their necks and glasses and stubbish beards… Wait. That’s me! Okay, but why do I – and probably most of us – have this unending feeling that theology is best left to tenured professors at Divinity Schools and that it’s this abstract, conceptual thing?

God, according to the popular notion of theology within Evangelical circles, is above and beyond us. Thus, according to the Barthians and much evangelicalism as preached, theology largely refines this idea. Y’know, cuz God doesn’t change and since God is removed from time, so is our need to reevaluate theology. Besides, most Christians only need to know a few things about God – and they start with the letters T.U.L.I. and P.

But I don’t follow that as a believer in an incarnational God who enfleshed as an oppressed man and died a rebel’s death. I believe that Jesus was murdered for trying to institute an alternative-Empire within an evil empire (Rome’s) and how that was upsetting to the Powers that Be, whether they be governors or religious/social leaders of his town.

So I don’t see God as static. No, that would mean that God is okay with oppression. And that is not how Jesus appears in the Gospels.

Now, I’m not doing anything new here. I’m not saying things that James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez and a host of other Liberation Theologians haven’t already said better and more in-depth than I am. Yet, I also see myself as a theologian. And I think that anyone who tries to live as a person of faith should see themselves as one as well.

Because theology isn’t separate from the body. It’s not separate from the person or from our experiences. It’s not separate from our world or our policies or our politics (though it SHOULD constantly critique the political structures. Yet for many, it’s almost entirely used to buffer a particular political party). It’s not any of these things because our scriptures and holy texts never were separate from their historical settings and we – as people of faith – cannot neither be.

And while I think there is (or just may be) a necessary place for theology to be at a disconnect from everyday reality and struggle, I believe the best theology is met out in the fields, in the workplaces, in the crossbows of the Empire. I believe the best theology is revealed in praxis – where we practice and dwell and consider and practice and get feedback and dwell and consider and analyze and implement.

And I believe the best theologians are those who theologize in the praxis. For Christians, the best theologians do not ignore but face the suffering. We stand in solidarity with a world full of suffering due to empire-building, capitalism, colonialism, racism, misogyny, tribalism – much of this inspired and codified by our very own religions.

The best theologians learn how to practice their theology in and for creation and stand with a God who stands on the side of the oppressed.

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Is God Neutral?

God has no favorites.

A variation of this is said throughout the Holy Scriptures, in the Mosaic Law, in Job, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Pauline letters, and by James and Peter – the last three being cornerstones of the Christian Church after Jesus himself. If you’re like me, you probably read “God has no favorites” as “God is neutral” and therefore whether one is poor or rich doesn’t matter in God’s judgment. Or maybe you heard a preacher talk about it with the implication that though things are bad for some, but we cannot really help. Things are going to remain the way things are until Jesus comes again.

But that doesn’t square with most of the bible, particularly passages where the Prophets, the Psalmists, Jesus and the Apostles talk about the way things are and the way things ought to be. Their risky and embodied words and actions enforce the message that being neutral in terms of power imbalance is to side with the status quo. And that doesn’t jibe with Mary’s Magnificat, the song she sang in considering the coming savior in her womb:

Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.

The common reading of James 2 – at least among Evangelicals – is that we should not show bias toward the poor or the rich, but treat them all the same regardless of position or status – but only in church! This is reading doesn’t consider the rest of the book’s treatment of the rich – those who were dragging Christians to court to rob them of all they had and who will someday fade away like the flowers. (In this context, it sounds like James was talking to a people enamored of Lifestyles of the Rich and Fatally Fabulous or MTV Cribs; people worshiping wealth. So, same sun, same moon.) If that is the case, then, why is that treatment of equality limited to the church service?

We’ve de-radicalized the bible by considering it to be a place out of time, detached from the current world, esoteric and floating above a place of reality. Church may be – but often isn’t – an image of the disembodied, extra-life we anticipate, what with its singing and talking to God and learning about God and often its topsy-turvy social orders*. But outside of church is the real world – unrelated to the world of heaven. We remain close to heaven by keeping our eyes from seeing bad stuff, from saying bad stuff, by praying to a disembodied God, by reading our disembodied bibles.

We omit “on earth as it is” from the Our Father/Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, may your will be done… in Heaven [after we die].”

It is in taking the bible to speak about the after-life in a disembodied sense that we understand God to be static and pro-status quo.

In ancient Greek culture, Greeks were lifted above non-Greeks, males over females, free citizens over enslaved (who Aristotle notes are not much better than beast, in case we’re wondering about the roots of Western Civilization). Second Temple Jewish leaders taught much the same around the time of Jesus and early into the Apostles: Jew OVER Gentile; Man OVER Woman; Free OVER Slave.

king of the subwayThis is the “natural” order, the stasis, the overlapping function of society. But it is not the way of the God that emptied self, stepped off the throne, became a peasant in a corner of occupied Imperial Rome, and then was executed as an insurrectionist. This God threw down kings starting with God’s own self. This Jesus lifts the lowly starting with the sight- and hearing-impaired and physically immobilized.

So, no, God is not neutral.

The status is not acceptable.

According to Galatians 3, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In recognizing that the normal order doesn’t work for Jesus, the writer is saying that the natural order doesn’t work for God or God’s people (all of humanity) and needs to be overhauled. The Kingdom of God overturns the normal order, raises every valley and lowers every hill, makes straight the road, levels the field. It willfully works to de-privilege the privileged; it privileges the unprivileged.

Jordan - Pink Sunset over Petra

Hills and valleys are purty, but they’re not very helpful and separate the hoarders from the peasants

So, it raises women while humbling men, raises people of color while humbling white people, raises people with disabilities while humbling able-bodied people, raises trans* people while humbling cys people, raises enslaved while humbling enslavers, raises the colonized while humbling the empire, raises the poor while humbling the wealthy, raises the uneducated while humbling the educated – patterns Jesus established himself before he was executed. Patterns he picked up from the Psalms and Prophets, from Moses and Amos and Isaiah and Micah. To do otherwise, to be neutral, is to favor the oppressors and the oppression.

Biblical justice raises and lowers so that all may see the glory of God – which is to say the image of God upon each human being. We are all human.

As I remind my daughter, we are all persons.

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*More so in poor churches that I’ve encountered where, for once, we could gather without putting on class airs. It’s not so much the case in middle class and professional class churches I’ve been a part of – even in ostensibly more rich ones.

Not Sacrifice and Suffering, but Mercy and Justice

North Park Professor and author Soong-Chan Rah has a brilliant observation about a distinction between White, middle class churches and churches of color. Middle class churches tend to earnestly sing songs about lack, about need. About hunger and thirst. Churches of color, however,  tend to sing about joy and hope and even happiness. This is a reason why Black Gospel music is so much better than White, CCM-based praise and worship music.*

I thought about this trend shortly after reading Rod of Political Jesus’ blog on White God, suffering ,and Christian atheism. It’s an important piece and should be required reading because he highlights the injustice-masking of sanctified suffering.

White middle-class churches sing songs and preach sermons about suffering as a type of longing. They will esoterically talk about the cross and fasting and other forms of suffering as if these are otherworldly experiences, as if they are situations they want to reach – but not for long – and the end-game of spiritual nirvana (on the way to an otherworldly, out-of-body heaven, that is). There is this cornerstone of the very non-Jewish, non-embodied, non-Jesus Greek philosophy of Gnosticism that lingers in Christianity: the flesh is evil and needs to be put into submission and done away with. This stands in stark contrast to the God who put upon flesh to be one of us.

Poor white people may sing songs of suffering, but my experience is that we’re not singing them with any sort of spark in our eye. When we sing songs of suffering and hunger, we are speaking of experience, not romanticism. Yet I also feel we’re told through middle- and upper-class expectation that we need to be content with that suffering. Suffering is a good thing – for those who haven’t been subjected to oppression. When one can choose to explicitly fast, one can usually afford to plan the day or week around that. That’s a different animal than constantly worrying about your kid’s next meal or praying you won’t get stranded across town because your bus ticket doesn’t have any money left in it or stopping short of crying because you can afford the slightest minor derailment from the $25 you have for the week and yet here you are.

Holy Blossom

There’s quite a distinction between choosing to live on a food stamp budget for a week and being forced through poverty to live on a food stamp budget. Between helping volunteer at a soup kitchen, snapping pictures and telling stories about it versus being the one who endures the humility of being told that “beggars can’t be choosers”*and telling others where the best place to eat, sleep and find clothes or work is (or deciding to hide that information).

I sometimes hear from Evangelicals that being poor is being near the heart of God. And generally, I agree with that statement. It’s certainly a step up from the middle class conservative approach that blames the poor for their problems. But I’ve also seen It used as an excuse to pardon and not seek injustice: Why do the poor need food stamps or living wages if being poor means they are closer to the heart of God?

The poor don’t quite feel the same about being poor as those who gaze upon us with a sacred jealousy.

I prefer what Latin American Liberation Theology says instead: God has a preferential treatment for the poor. Which is to say that the institutional and ecclesiastical body of God is to prefer the poor by acting with it and – as an extension – decisively pursuing justice and mercy with and for the poor.

But it is in considering the story of the widow and her mite where I come to grips with Jesus and the prophets shakedown of the religious elites: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. From Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (vv41-44. NIV)

When I was taught this story, everytime Jesus praises the widow for her sacrifice. Yet he doesn’t. Jesus situates himself as an observer of people (some spiritual people focus on the inside, others on social interactions, many on both. I tend to resonate with the social observations) and highlights a practical, regular, ordinary, but hidden injustice. Contrary to depictions of this scene in movies like The Jesus Film, Jesus doesn’t rush out to praise her. Neither does he condemn her. It’s rather a condemnation on the system of wealth extraction that goes on in the temple.

Let’s use the example of tithing, as an example. Say two people go to the same church. One is a single mother who gets by on $250 a week. The other is a financier who makes ten times as much. Both are pressured to give ten percent of their income (before taxes) to the church. Both feel an obligation to do so. Each week, the mother gives $25 to the church, and has 225 left for taxes, transportation, rent, food, utilities, insurance, and perhaps some emergency jar. Each week, the banker gives away $250. He looks like he’s giving away a fortune in comparison, right? But that’s only part of the story. Because the mother is giving away much-needed money, she is encouraged that her action it is one of sacrifice, an act of penance and repayment perhaps. The $250 is not much of an actual sacrifice for the financier – it just means less-expensive nice things. Yet it’s still touted as a sacrifice. The additional suffering that the woman is going through is sanctioned through the teachings of the church – her real reward is in heaven, etc.

The church does not see it as its obligation to practice mercy upon the mother, but demand further sacrifice of her. If it were to practice mercy, it would take the offering of the rich and distribute it to the poor.

Sacrifice privileges those with much to lose and still much left over. But when we ask, guilt, or push the already marginalized to further marginalize themselves, do we not see it for the sin we are committing? Jesus did. And later calls them out for it.

I desire mercy. Not sacrifice.

I fear this sanctification of suffering is why we do not fight for mercy and justice for the poor. We believe they are better off with sacrifice (or rather, they are better off being sacrificed). So middle class white Christians join in solidarity with the US upper and middle class contingent, which believes that the poor are wicked and lazy, in order to create a superbloc focused on making the poor suffer. This group justifies antagonism towards the poor and financial injustice through keeping wages low, health insurance unreachable and food assistance unattainable. Because suffering is noble, apparently.

But Jesus requires mercy. Not sacrifice.

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*That and musicianship and quality and stuff.

**You’re probably wondering what POS can honestly say that to another human being. It was me. And I’ve been working through my shame issues ever since.

Emancipating Ourselves from Mental Slavery

Being an educator, I get the privilege of hearing some pretty outstanding logic being applied to excuse shoddy or nonexistent work – and sometimes within the work itself. But this is done by students who have not taken a single logic or philosophy course. There are various reasons why they make such time-wasting endeavors, but ultimately the old teacher maxim holds true: They are only hurting themselves.

The most absurd reasoning I witness, however, comes from those who fight for inequality. Not just those who deny that it exists in such horrid and wretched conditions – though that is true as well; it does take a weird sort of intellect to assess that so much evil isn’t really happening to billions of people around the world and here in the West due largely to the sex and color of the recipient of that evil (Glenn Beck, anyone?). But it takes a special kind of mind to conclude that that evil is necessarily targeted towards people of color and women for their own good. An mind enslaved to the concept of necessary enslavement.

In Christian circles (where I would hope that Jesus’ message of liberation and inclusiveness would drive out such demonic forces), this type of logic is propelled by thought-leaders such as Wayne Grudem and John Piper (sex) and Douglas Wilson (sex and race), but also in various forms through many, many a warm and happy Sunday morning church service.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of running across a Christian who argued that feminists and Liberation Theologians both had Hegel and Marx to thank for their existence, for without those privileged old White men, they would never have come to formulate their own selves, their own purpose, their own identity.

IOW, Thank God for the Oppressors because with the Oppressors you wouldn’t have the tools to fight Oppression.

This. This is the kind of absurd person one becomes when fighting so hard against equality and justice.

griots

Let us not be that person, that person so mired in trying to protect what little we have that we go to great stinginess, and thus not only limit our reach, but ourselves.

In order for white suffering to have a voice, white people must realize the largest and most invisible way in which they benefit from their white privilege, and it’s the same thing that’s causing their frustration being The Default. If Person A is actively supporting and benefiting from a system that oppresses Person B, it is very hard for Person B to hear Person A say, “But I’m hurt too!” However, if Person A is actively working to dismantle the system they benefit from but which oppresses Person B, then Person B is finally seen — and Person A’s pain can be embraced. In order to see a person you must see the truth of their pain. If you deny their pain, you refuse to see them. This is what makes black people invisible. And black invisibility is what makes white pain invisible to black people.

And so we live our lives never seeing each other.

When White Americans see Black and Brown Americans in this way, Brown and Black Americans will accept their pain. It is a cycle that begins with destroying The Default.

The Default here is the idea that White is the center of the universe. We can expand that to any number of factors of being and privilege: Male; Middle Class; USAmerican; Cisgendered; Heterosexual. That any of these identities makes a person “normal” and thus others “not normal.” According to this perspective, injustice is a necessary form of justice, for the unNormals need our protection to navigate the world. They are helpless children or animals without us.

This kind of thought is so prevalent that it’s like air. It must not be disregarded, but must be demonstrated against in such shocking manners that the “Normals” realize that there is nothing at all normal about their privileges.

This May Day, let’s fight for all of our rights – and thus emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.

Won’t you sing with us these songs of freedom?

Who Let You In: Our Imperialist Christian Standards, pt 2

Landshark is next

Landshark is next

Makes sense that I wouldn’t be able to delve into what Imperialist Christian Standards means before some Christian spokesperson/media figure jumps the shark on Imperialist Christian Standards. So, shall we give a hand to Chris Broussard for giving such a fine example on ESPN shortly after NBA player Jason Collins became the first active male professional sports player to out himself?

Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly, like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, whatever it maybe, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the bible would characterize them as a Christian.

There are many troubling aspects of this quote. But it definitely falls under the gaze of ICS. For Imperialist Christian Standards is about not just the wrong standards, but also how whatever truths may be revealed and relevant and fitting to one person or group of persons is then automatically and institutionally impressed upon others within scope – as if they also need to know and experience God in the same way, manner, and place the first person does*. They don’t, of course.

To use this example, let us first consider for a moment the conservative Christian premise that homosexuality is a sin. Not that this is true nor that we agree with it, but let’s start with this as a premise to facilitate this discussion. And by “homosexuality as a sin” we must rule out the ideas that having an attraction is a sin, or that wanting to have sex with those of the same sex is a sin. Some will argue these notions, but many conservative Christians will rightly rule them as being double-minded and utterly ridiculous. Temptation is not a sin, they point out – giving in is. So, here, we would recognize the idea of the Christian discipline of abstinence. This is the idea of voluntarily giving up sex because the only “pure” sex is done within the confines of the heterosexual marriage bed. (Again, this is the argument, not to conflate my views with theirs.)

Under this understanding, then, Jason Collins is sinning by desiring to raise a family with another man rather than disciplining himself for a life of sexual celibacy. Does this then give Broussard the right to say that Collins cannot be a Christian?

No, it does not. For this understanding is an understanding within some frameworks of Christian understanding, but not all.

Christianity is a two thousand year old religion with various expressions that are in no way standard. As much as some try to limit what being a “true” Christian is (and this includes old order Catholicism, the neo-Reformed – think of preacher/teacher John Piper bidding “farewell” to slightly controversial preacher/teacher Rob Bell – and even many of my friends on the Christian Left who put quotation marks around the word Christian when speaking of those they believe are not practicing Jesus’ message of love and acceptance), it is a No True Scotsman fallacy of the highest order. The label Christian is an identity marker with no centralized authority. Claiming the Bible for that central authority, as Broussard did, simply doesn’t work when United Methodists and Independent Fundamentalists – let alone Russian Orthodox or Ethiopian Coptics – can vary so widely and diffusely on basic interpretation about topics like hell, the Kingdom of God, understanding the Old Testament history letters. And this doesn’t count various types and methods of interpretation within these denominations and even churches.

Even if we were to use some of the centralizing ancient creeds, not only do we have to admit that they were also of a place and a time and not inclusive of even the main Christian voices of the time, they just do not address sexuality.

Now, if Christianity – as I believe and as many Christians argue – truly is about relationship with a holy and loving God, then we cannot enforce or understand it by rules. Guidelines may help, but only if and when they are mutually understood and relevant to the place and status the parties share. Touching may be good and pleasant for some relationships, depending on where they stand, but disastrous and even abusive in others. And the types of touching also obviously change depending on factors like closeness, intimacy, fear, respect, trust, sexual compatibility, history. So the sexual ethos I may have, the weariness I have to alcohol because of past experiences, the type of language I can tolerate may be vastly different from how you can deal with it.

As a result, I may be able to offer advice for your relationship, but it would be awfully imperialistic of me to tell you how to live in your relationship based on how I live mine. That would be the British Empire coming in and redistricting national lines based on what and how it amasses land and can control the region. That would be forcing my economic system upon your land. That would be changing your own dynamics of how you deal with understanding your own relationships with yourself, others and God – in effect, saying that you are not human and not fully able to make decisions about what does and doesn’t work for you.

One more thing about these Imperialist Christian Standards that this example typifies: They are unfairly applied. Would Broussard have accused other male players of not being a Christian for the much more standard practice of premarital sex? He says any other sin done as a “lifestyle” would be open to rebuke, but has he ever applied such standards to other practices he would label sin. When a player dances in the end-zone repeatedly, does he cast him out of the Church for pride? Has he excommunicated athletes or owners for greed? Has he told Tim Tebow or Kurt Warner or Joe Gibbs that they should be comfortable with the money they have already received and not ask for more or tell them they need to sell all of their possessions and give them to the poor? Does every straight athlete who is found to have had a sexual rendezvous (whether married or not) declared to be not Christian? What about drinking and driving? What about the very common practice of coach abuse? Are these sins addressed to the severity of kicking out of the faith?

Are they addressed at all?

The only other sin I see getting such publicity are extra-marital affairs (and usually those committed by preeminent Black athletes like Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods). Even rape isn’t condemned as loudly in most sports. Which causes me to question not just the emphasis of placement, but whether or not we should refrain from condemning sinners in public when their objectionable acts – unlike drunk driving, rape, greed, coach abuse – do not harm others. Maybe that should be our rubric: Does it harm others? If not, that may be a good discipline to have, but it doesn’t have to be another’s in order for her or him to qualify as Christian.

fruit | wine

In other words, the types of fruit you bear do not have to resemble the types of fruit I bear.

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*This is traditionally understood as legalism – the rules established for one’s own benefit being suitable for all.