Liberation and Telos
by Alejandro Escalante
“[Liberation] is just a word, when the people are starving.”
What is the point of theology? We in theological education are tested in nearly every way about the history of the Christian Church, where our hands should be when we preach, what Tillich said about courage, and on and on. Much of this is useful for the contextualizing of ourselves, the people we will be working with, the history of our churches, and institutions. However, what do we hope to do with this? Much of what I experienced in my undergraduate education did not have an eye for what theology might mean for people who are ‘outside’ the fold of Christianity, and thus many of the questions that we raised were about how exactly to square the idea that Jesus is both human and divine, that there are three Persons of the Trinity, yet only one nature, and on.
Liberation theology for many has been a window into the world that might be, not as it is. The emphasis in liberationist readings of Christian theology entails what it means to act as a Christian firstly, and then to consider what this means about God in the world. If God is indeed present in the world, is that the world of rehashed Christological controversies? or is that the world of Palestine during Operative Protective Edge? or the world of Ferguson? Academic theology has the ease and privilege of not needing anything outside itself, and thus the conversations often look inward, toward each other. I suspect the ease with which White theology has grappled with Jesus’ status as divine son of God points to their own unease with how to do justice in the world.
However, the problems of liberation theology exist as much as any. The safe home that it has found within the Catholic world of Latin America has created its own problems with its female, LGBTQ+, or minority members. There indeed has been an interruption of the poor within the world, but the attention that was given to the poor is now waning as we send shipments of Super Bowl shirts, or Toms shoes to impoverished peoples, and pat ourselves on the back. Young people go in droves to countries they can hardly pronounce, and speak a language just as foreign so they can take pictures with an emaciated child and make that their Facebook profile picture. Liberationist tendencies have been capitalized, marketed, and commercialized. We fly to Argentina and ask “Where are the Base communities?” so we can leave with a Moleskine full of notes about “how-to” do Bible studies. And in the free-market version of liberation theology, we get to manage pieces of what is means to do theology; we get watered-down versions of Cone, or Williams, or Gutíerrez so that we don’t offend the people who remain in power.
I am not disparaging any particular movement or people, but rather systems that engorge themselves on the suffering of other people without hesitation. If our theology is to be anything, it must be subversive. While hope is fine, and something that is temporarily helpful it cannot be all that we preach or teach. Hope will inevitably fail us all. Hope not only fails us, but lies to us. Hope tells us that our status is a temporary thing which will in some future, indeterminable time change for the better. In many ways, hope teaches us to be okay with our suffering so long as a solution is eschatological, or that Jesus suffered in this way, too. We must move beyond hope—and a false sense of hope at that. Simply put, subversive acts are those which up-end all capitalistic notions of ownership, consumption, and production; they are acts that disrupt all power relations between the center and the marginalized; they teach us about how to close our mouths and listen when all we want to do is speak; they are food, clothing, and shelter for all people. Our theological imaginations must move beyond the Origens of our time and use the small privilege have to bring about restorative justice for all.
Theology that is liberative must understand itself to be a project of materialist concerns just as much as it metaphysically minded. The people of God exist as people who are not simply in the world, but are also of it. The majority of Christians do not live in isolationist communities like many Anabaptists do and our theology must reflect that. Liberative God-talk is more than discourse analysis, it is a cry for revolutionary justice.