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Politics of Scripture

Political Theology As “Liberative” Theology (Rubén Rosario Rodríguez)

The following is the fourth of a five-part symposium on the question “how theological is political theology”, which took place at the 2016 American Academy of Religion meeting in San Antonio.  The first article by Martin Kavka can be found here, the second by Catherine Keller here.  The third appeared a week ago.

I stand before you a scholar unabashedly committed to a liberative methodology whose own work has been indelibly altered by the formation received at two of this nation’s leading theological seminaries.  These are Union Theological Seminary in New York and Princeton Theological Seminary – admittedly very different institutions in terms of history and ideological commitment that have nonetheless made a major impact in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The texts I read and studied at Union—Harvey Cox, The Secular City, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, and James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed—grounded both my pastoral and scholarly work. Yet it was at Princeton that I discovered Rubem Alves, the Brazilian Presbyterian theologian who first coined the term “theology of liberation,” and whose engagement of Ernst Bloch’s Marxist philosophy of hope in A Theology of Human Hope, and critique of Protestant fundamentalism in Protestantism and Repression, deeply informed my doctoral dissertation.

Consequently, as a liberationist I am undaunted by the apparent political shift in the United States, because for someone like me who has grown up a person of color in this nation, and has had to struggle every step of the way for acceptance in the academy (despite its explicit commitment to progressive values and cultural diversity) nothing much has changed.

The issue is political power. Who has it, who wields it, and to what end.  All the recent election has managed to do is bring out into the open the racist and white supremacist core festering in the heart of our culture.  It is a culture of white supremacy that liberationists have worked to expose—and positively transform for almost half a century. Therefore, if there is a guiding mantra for understanding what “political theology” means in my work as a constructive theologian, it is these lines from the old song by the rock group The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Won’t get fooled again.”

As a liberation theologian, I conceive of the church as a counterculture resisting oppression and defending human dignity, even while recognizing that the institutional church has more often served the oppressors instead of the oppressed.  Still, in the words of our colleague Miguel De La Torre, “global oppression exists. But does a religious response uttered from the depths of inhuman condition also exist?”(23) The work of liberation theology is grounded in the shared hope that through communal action we can make a radical break with the status quo in order to bring about profound social transformation. Sadly, the tone of the contemporary political discourse threatens to undermine any hope of a common moral discourse.

Bonhoeffer’s challenge to practice theology from the “underside of history,” along with his vision of a “religionless Christianity,” has guided the course of Latin American liberation theology. Echoes can be heard in the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose critique of traditional theological language emphasizes orthopraxis as a corrective against ossified orthodoxies: “the goal is to balance and even to reject the primacy and almost exclusiveness which doctrine has enjoyed in Christian life and above all to modify the emphasis, often obsessive, upon the attainment of an orthodoxy which is often nothing more than fidelity to an obsolete tradition or a debatable interpretation”. (8)

Rubem Alves, writing in the revolutionary context of Brazil in the late 1960s, argues that “in order to be free for history and for the transformation of society one has to unlearn the language of theology.”(29) Yet academic theology in the First World has missed the mark in its understanding of what Bonhoeffer meant by a “religionless” Christianity. According to the liberationists the goal is not a secular spirituality – some nameless, vague religious feeling – but rather a theology free from the “dead faith of the living” (111).

Christian faith is a given for Gutiérrez, not something that must first be established through argumentation, so it is not surprising that Karl Barth’s theology features prominently in his thought: “Karl Barth, whose central concern was the transcendence of God, said that God has always been on the side of the poorest, the most despised, the most oppressed.”[4] Therefore, Gutiérrez writes: “faith in God does not consist in asserting God’s existence, but rather in acting on [God’s] behalf.”(89)

As a liberation theologian I am engaged in a utopian project grounded on an eschatological promise fully aware that this project might never be fully realized in this life. Nevertheless, hope remains because rather than expending energy in debating old theological arguments, liberationists embrace Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach about changing, not just the interpreting the world. This approach views analyzing and critiquing inequalities of class, gender or race in order to create more just social structures informed by traditional faith perspectives as part and parcel of theological work.

Therefore, I use the term “political theology” to describe not only the work of theologians who intentionally relate religious belief to larger societal issues, like the liberation theologies of Gustavo Gutiérrez and James H. Cone, but also to describe the work of theologians not explicitly engaged in doing “political” theology whose work has nonetheless had an impact on the broader civil society, like Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin.

Accordingly, there exists a great variety of political theologies that: (1) differ to the extent in which they employ the social sciences and other secular critical discourses, (2) differ in local flavor and context in relation to a particular people’s cultural and historical experiences, (3) differ on how they adapt and employ the theological resources of their distinctive faith tradition, and (4) differ on their understanding of how faith communities relate and interact with the state as the locus of political life.

Within this wide and varied mosaic, however, what distinguishes “political theology” from other types of theological discourse is conscious reflection on what constitutes the most appropriate relationship between the secular state and the communities of faith living under the authority of that state. Therefore, I make no effort to understand “political theology” as a single school of thought but prefer to define political theology more inclusively as the various and distinct ways in which particular religious traditions navigate the interface between the theological and the political realms.

Ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre in his landmark book After Virtue (1981) described our current era “as a new dark ages,” and political discourse today as “civil war carried on by other means.”(253)  Many of our colleagues have been dismayed by the results of this year’s Presidential election and have warned of a bleak dystopian future. Even a fellow liberationist like De La Torre entitled a recent public lecture “Embracing the Hopelessness.”  Perhaps he has forgotten what Gutiérrez has taught us about the basis of Christian hope, and the inevitable disappointment that comes from expecting a political project to satisfy our deepest eschatological hopes: “[Political] maturity will likewise enable us to avoid reducing the task of evangelization to some form of political activity, which has laws and exigencies of its own.”(68)

This semester, in the midst of a contentious election campaign – but before the election was decided – I assigned my students an essay in which I confronted them with MacIntyre’s bleak assessment and asked them to opine on whether or not a “common moral discourse” is possible in a pluralistic society.

I am pleased to say that despite the combativeness of the past election cycle, most of my students remain optimistic about people coming together to work for the common good—even after November 8! Nevertheless, given the persistence of oppressive structures despite much well-intentioned political work (here I would include the recent campaigns by Sanders and Clinton), we theologians cannot accept a neutral stance nor tolerate further oppression in the name of political stability. To paraphrase the words of Dr. King from Birmingham City Jail: It is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of oppression to say, “Wait.”

On July 7, 2016, an African American man fired upon a group of police officers in Dallas, Texas during a nonviolent protest against police brutality organized by the Next Generation Action Network. Interestingly, all of the national press coverage of this event identified the protest as a Black Lives Matter rally. The sniper killed five officers and injured nine others. The trauma surgeon on call that day at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dr. Brian Williams, is the lone African American surgeon on an eleven-person surgical team, and he was not even supposed to be on duty that day, but stepped up when another partner had a personal emergency arise.

That day, after a lifetime of silently enduring racial slurs, micro-aggressions and other similarly degrading encounters, Brian felt moved to speak during a nationally televised news conference following the shootings about his fears that, despite being a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, having served his country as a military officer, and becoming a successful surgeon, whenever he is pulled over by a police officer he fears for his life and that of his family. His honest, courageous words about race and racism in the shadow of police brutality proved to be a positive light in dark times, which led to his being invited to the White House to take part in a Town Hall meeting on police brutality a mere 48 hours after this incident.

Yet such courage always comes at a price. Days after the news conference Brian noticed a chill in his relationship with the other surgical partners. He called a meeting to discuss the events of July 7 and its aftermath because he noticed a very clear yet unspoken divide between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter among the medical partners. He was met with total silence. Brian visited with my students – the same one’s brimming with optimism about the state of our current political discourse – and one of them asked Brian how he felt about those people who respond to Black Lives Matter by proclaiming All Lives Matter.

After disclosing the intimate details of how the events of July 7 permanently altered his professional relationships, Brian defended his words at the press conference then explained to my white student how the slogan Black Lives Matter is not an assertion that black lives matter more, but simply an assertion in the face of white supremacy and police brutality that black lives matter too. If there is hope for a common moral discourse, it must proceed on the basis of honest truth telling like Brian’s courageous witness.

Sadly, we now live in the “post-truth” age, which The Oxford English Dictionary defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.” Therefore, however else we conceive “political theology,” the recovery of truth and becoming a “faithful witness” (Revelation 2:13) ought to be part of the conversation.

As theologians, we must risk speaking truth to power, otherwise we allow the demagogues to manipulate and control public opinion.

Rubén Rosario Rodríguez is Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies with a secondary appointment in the Center for International Studies at Saint Louis University.  He is also director of the Mev Puleo Scholarship Program.  He is the author of Racism and God-Talk: A Latino/a Perspective (New York University Press, 2008) as well as Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence: A Comparative Theology with Judaism and Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Dogmatics After Babel: Theology Beyond Language Games (John Knox Press, forthcoming).

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