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Non by Daniel Lobo CC BY-NC 2.0
Catholic Re-Visions

Liberating Liberation Theology: Notes from the “Non” on the 50th Anniversary of A Theology of Liberation

What if Liberation itself must be liberated? Or maybe, like the nonperson and the nonbeing, it has always been breathed into by the breath of white violence.

those who are “nonpersons”—

that is, those who are not

considered to be human beings with full rights,

beginning with the right to life

and to freedom in various spheres.

A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutiérrez (xxxi)

Non- (prefix)

1-Expressing negation or absence.

1.1-Not of the kind or class described.

1.2-Not of the importance implied.

2- (added to adverbs) not in the way described.

3- (added to verbs to form adjectives) not causing or requiring.

4- Expressing a neutral negative sense when a corresponding form beginning with in- or un- has a special connotation (such as nonhuman compared with inhuman).

Oxford English Dictionary

“I” am a non. The quotations here are significant. Embedded within this punctuation is a story, a tragic tale about the fraughtness of identity within the grammar of the New World.[1] They mark a limitation of speech. They warn against a kind of ontological plagiarism. They caution against a dangerous and uncritical assumption of agency. The first-person singular pronoun that these quotations capture is not a mistake but rather a portrait of the ways in which subjecthood is always a matter of captivity, of enclosure, and grammatical claustrophobia for those made Black. Out of the belly of the slave ship, the “disjunctive space,” the nonbeing emerges as “the primal experience of black identity and black religion.”[2] From this Hold, and its sounds, and its sights, and its stench, “I” gaze upward toward Gustavo Gutiérrez’s classic text A Theology of Liberation.

The conversation that Gutiérrez opens and abruptly forecloses in the epigraph begins this paper’s line of thought. It reflects on the ability of the machinations and systems of the World to disrupt the very perceived beingness (the beingness of flesh, or the fleshiness of beings) of persons and subsequently, their ethical and political capabilities. Thus, the epigraph becomes a seemingly mutual site of reckoning for the nonperson of Liberation theology and the nonbeing of Black Religious Studies. In the discussion of these two terms emerges instructive commonalities and generative differences that result in a harrowing truth. This writer suggests that 50 years hence, Liberation is no longer speech that arises within the community of the negated; it too has suffered violence and through that violence becomes something else. Perhaps it has even become something antiblack. Generally, Liberation is often theorized as a project or a process, and not as a thing and a technology of the World in and of itself. But what if Liberation emerges crawling and clawing out of the same womb as all the other ideologies of antiblackness? What if Liberation itself must be liberated? Or maybe, like the nonperson and the nonbeing, it has always been breathed into by the breath of white violence.

Together these identities of negation offer important clarifying questions for theology to continue to reflect upon seriously. How does one tarry with violence that scores the body down to the flesh?  When naming the creative ability of the State to craft identities, how does theology do it without flinching?  While the contributions of Liberation theology are numerous and widely discussed, these ontological contributions displayed earlier are often undertheorized. The concept of violence as a generative force that forms and fashions just as much as it destroys finds resonance with current Black Studies and Black Religious Studies. It is within the community of the non, the negated, and the not human, we are introduced to Liberation. Nevertheless, the condition of the nonperson and the position of the nonbeing are not conterminous. Thus, Liberation does not translate evenly across communities of negation. Although there is a shared denunciation of the power of the State, the matters at stake for the nonperson are not a site of redress for the nonbeing. In fact, what is gospel good news for the nonperson is crucifixion for the nonbeing. The point of departure here is that the negation that attends the nonbeing/Black/Slave is Liberation itself. Liberation is not enough. 

For Gutiérrez, the identity of nonperson is a result of a type of failed politicization rather than a fixed social position or a permanent stain against personhood: “We referred to the poor as non-persons, but not in a philosophical sense because it is obvious that each human being is a person, rather in a sociological sense; the poor, that is, are not accepted as persons in our society. They are invisible and have no rights, their dignity is not recognized” (xxix). Within Gutiérrez’s elaboration, what he marks as “not philosophical”, as objectively “obvious” and as solely “sociological” is the state of being that precedes or rather exceeds the violence against the nonperson. Thus, the turn of phrase, the nonperson is useful because it gestures toward a broader conversation on the utility of theological discourse to aid in naming violence that registers beyond the physical. The violence that attends the nonperson is not solely on their backs or bruises across their face, it has assaulted their very being. The violence of poverty subsumes personhood, creating a nonperson, a being without the ability to participate fully in society. The wounds here are deeper than the body, and the result of not being afforded access to the rights and conditions that should be inherent to the Human. Ultimately, the gift of the term “nonperson” is that it helps us locate a kind of violence that would otherwise be unspeakable and unrecognizable.

The term nonbeing describes the unspeakable violence against the Black amidst the terror of the transatlantic. Blackness emerges on the World political scene as the antagonistic prefix. In other words, for others to be human, citizen, and rational, the Black must first be made “not-to-be,” that is to be made the incarnation of the nonhuman, noncitizen, and nonrational.  Consequently, each suffix of subjectivity owes its life and coherence to the captivity of the prefix. Against the rules of grammar, it is the suffix that modifies and malforms the Black. This relationship is characterized by metaphysical violence. Beyond the physical and even the political, the term nonbeing clarifies the Black nonbeing is the sine qua non for the World, “the without which, not” an essential thing that “without which (there is) nothing.” The violence against the Black is literally world-making.[3] What the term nonbeing offers the reader is the opportunity to reckon with the violence that not only grounds Blackness but the World itself.  Perhaps it is this violence that also grounds Liberation.

Liberation is aspirational. It speaks of possibility. It whispers of becoming. It is grammar addressed to the Human and those who have the capacity to become Human. It is a conversation, or rather a spirited argument between parties over the conditions and requirements of entry into a private club. Within this disagreement, the nonperson, despite their violent oppression possesses an inherent and perhaps even divine potential to be and to be something more than negated. The ability to articulate and then act upon this fact is the locus of their effort. The nonperson demands what is their right and it is to be treated as an autonomous Human being. Liberation is Being-Talk. The possibility of being and beingness grounds Liberation for the nonperson. But what does it take to be in this World? Liberation, as the possibility of being, arises out of what soil?

If Liberation functions as the desire to be, which cannot be untethered from what it has taken this World to be, then Liberation is also the process of violence against the permanent not to be, which is the Black, the nonbeing. Said differently, the possibility of Liberation for the nonperson is a byproduct of the gratuitous violence against the nonbeing. Liberation then, like all social movements that share its redemptive narrative, is a parasite that feeds on the impossibility of the nonbeing for its hope and coherence. The nonperson due to the nature of their negation being communicable on a social level retains a level of ontological possibility; not only is the nonbeing denied this possibility but the very possibility itself is death-dealing. The conundrum is that oftentimes a turn toward Liberation, which is expanding or deepening categories of political subjectivity to include the oppressed and lift them from their posture of societal negation, also furthers the despair of the nonbeing. The possibility and desire to be liberated from negation toward the World mark complicity to violence. The cost to save the nonperson continues to damn the nonbeing.

Thus, as opposed to the nonperson, the nonbeing is against and in fact, must be opposed to Liberation. As Frantz Fanon proposes it is only in the space of the “zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born.” (8)  This is a kind of upheaval that can only originate from the ship’s Hold. It is a burning of the World from the inside out. Liberation as constructed by Gutiérrez stops short of such a demand because it does not need it, the nonperson only needs capacity. The stakes are higher or rather they are lower for the Black. The difference between one who stands on the land and the one who is held in the Hold. The non-person needs voting rights, the nonbeing needs the End of Democracy. The non-person needs economic access and equality, the nonbeing needs the End of racialized capitalism. The nonperson needs the end of Mass incarceration, the nonbeing needs the End of the carceral imagination. The nonperson needs the end of discrimination, disenfranchisement, disrespect, and dishonor, while the nonbeing needs the End of the World.

To misread the position of the Black as the predicament of the nonperson is to engage in the kind of false prophecy warned against in the first line of this paper. When Black politicians (and now Black theologians as well) place their hands on the Bible and swear an oath to uphold America and defend her against “all enemies, foreign and domestic,” why do we cheer? Why do we feel pride? For a community of nonpersons, it would mark moments of Christ-like transfiguration from one state to another. Yet, for the Black what these moments obscure is the transfiguration of death-dealing systems whose very possibility depends on Black death. We must not plagiarize. We must return to our prophetic insistence of foreclosure for this country.  We recommit to a theology from the Hold. For it is here, and only here, amid the sounds, the sights, and the stench we find the power to burn the World down. Anything else is just Liberation.

[1] “World” here refers both to the material and metaphysical reality. The capitalization of the World aims to draw attention to how the way we maneuver, understand, and exist every day is a product of anti-blackness and not naturalness.

[2] Noel, J..Black Religion and the Imagination of Matter in the Atlantic World. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 64.

[3] Palmer, Tyrone S. “Otherwise than Blackness: Feeling, World, Sublimation.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 29, no. 2 (2020): 247-283. muse.jhu.edu/article/782715.

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