Monday, May 07, 2007

"In the land of mankind, conceived as a pyramid..."

I was surprised to see a copy of the New York Times in Starbucks this morning, and was surprised (and gratified) to find out rumors of the death of liberation theology were greatly exaggerated.

Over the past 25 years, even as the Vatican moved to silence the clerical theorists of liberation theology and the church fortified its conservative hierarchy, the social and economic ills the movement highlighted have worsened. In recent years, the politics of the region have also drifted leftward, giving the movement’s demand that the church embrace “a preferential option for the poor” new impetus and credibility.

Today some 80,000 “base communities,” as the grass-roots building blocks of liberation theology are called, operate in Brazil, the world’s most populous Roman Catholic nation, and nearly one million “Bible circles” meet regularly to read and discuss scripture from the viewpoint of the theology of liberation.
It is tempting to engage in an argument with a news article; but that is a bootless enterprise. The teachings of John Paul II are not summed up in a quote, like: “This conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the church’s catechism.” And it is quite another thing to consider this statement when made by a ptochoi or when made by a Cardinal:

More recently, he said, “it seems to me we need not theology of liberation, but theology of martyrdom,” and argued that the movement will become a valid theology “only when it refuses to accept power and worldly logic” and instead emphasizes “inner liberty.”
But, of course, I agree with the argument, insofar as Christians are not called to accept power and worldly logic. But "in the land of mankind, conceived as a pyramid," what are we to tell the people being crushed at the bottom? Congratulations?

The real fight here, of course, is over what the Church teaches. And is that liberation, or salvation?

That drew a sharp rebuke from Felipe Aquino, a conservative theologian whose views are often broadcast on Catholic radio stations here. “In spite of having received the Vatican’s cordial warning, you continue to be incorrigible, poisoning the people with the theology of liberation, which, as Ratzinger noted, annihilates the true faith and subverts the gospel of salvation,” he wrote.
Is it, in simpler terms, love of people? Or love of ideas?

This is not a simple issue. The question of "what keeps mankind alive?" goes back to Jesus of Nazareth, at least. Indeed, we can take it back to Elijah, who asked the widow during a drought to fix him some food from a store of food that wasn't enough for her and her son. But feeding all three, all three survived the drought, as the meal and oil miraculously never ran out. Hardly the gospel of prosperity, but neither was it simply "inner liberty." And the central celebration of Christianity, the unique eucharisto of this world religion, is the table to which all are invited. Paul's house churches were radical in at least one specific way: all members of the household, from the patriarch to the slaves, at a meal together in thanksgiving (eucharist) of the fact they were all equal in Christ. But of course Christians early on became exclusionary, too, which annoyed the civil powers no end.

It was the question of salvation over liberation, and which to choose. That the former more often won out over the latter is a tribute to the seductive nature of power. Re-read the comments of Felipe Aquino above; that is an institutional rebuke, dressed in the language of "God's will for all," which, of course, is salvation. Unless it is, instead, liberation. But there the argument revolves. Eusebius, the earliest chronicler of the church (well, after Luke), took the salvation line. His history of the church begins with Jesus of Nazareth, but he actually takes John's first chapter quite literally, presenting all appearances of God in the Hebrew scriptures as actually appearances of Jesus (the Logos). It is the Word who rains fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah; the Word who wrestles with Jacob at the Jabbok; the Word who appears to Abraham at Mamre. And why?

Reason would never allow that the uncreated and immutable substance of Almighty God should be changed into the form of a man, or, alternatively, that by the illusion of any created thing it shoudl deceive the eyes of the beholoder, or that Scripture should falsely invent such a tale. Who then could be spoken of as God, and the Lord who is the judge of all the world and does justice, appearing in human shape? As it is not permissible to suggest the First Cause of the universe, there is only one answer--His pre-existent Word.
Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, tr. G.A. Williamson (New York: Penguin 1989), p. 4-5

Thus is the Hebraic understanding of the ineffable translated into Greek reason. And so salvation comes first, and liberation only later, and as an ancillary consequence. Because first we must know how God is possible; and only later, how God works. Possibility precedes practice; essence precedes existence.

"In the land of mankind, conceived of as a pyramid, there are few at the top, and many at the bottom,” the congregation sang. “In the land of mankind, those at the top crush those at the bottom. Oh, people of the poor, people subjected to domination, what are you doing just standing there? The world of mankind has to be changed, so arise people, don’t stand still.”
If the words of the Gospel are a challenge to the way we live, are they addressed to us as individuals? Or as members of a community, as citizens of a society? If Christianity indeed says that "sound doctrines are all useless," and "[t]hat you have to change your life (Or the direction of your life)," how does that not affect how we live in the world? Unless we are going to teach that everyone is called into the desert, along with the Desert Fathers? And even they didn't think that was right.

But if we are going to call people into action, especially political action, how does the Church do that? Don't we have to start with: "Congratulations, you poor!"? And where do we go from there?

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