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Loggers and Liberation Theology
At first glance, it might seem that there was little (or no) common ground between loggers in Pennsylvania and quasi-Marxist (“Marxian”, actually) Latin American women theologians. Stick with me here. You may be surprised.
It would be my guess that most of you aren’t all that well versed in Liberation Theology so a bit of view is in order. It’s like review, only of something you haven’t seen or read before. If you listened to the “Origins” podcast, you’ll remember that reading an essay about Mujerista Theology was one of the pieces of the puzzle which led to the idea of exploring the wisdom of rural Pennsylvania culture. Mujer = Spanish for woman. Ada Maria Isasi Diaz presented an argument for the importance of Lo Cotidiano, and I’ll try to parse out some of the key points in her essay. How, pray tell, does Liberation Theology relate to a bunch of white (mostly) guys in rural Pennsylvania? Further, what might it have to say to the rest of us?
First, Liberation Theology. In theory, it applies to all oppressed people, anywhere. It has come to apply to Latin-Americans. It originated from a 1968 conference in Medellin, Colombia which produced a call to the Catholic Church to look at itself and the ways it aided in the structures of oppression which worked so well for the rich or empowered, but kept the poor and disempowered, well, poor and disempowered. This, claims Liberation Theology, is the opposite of what Christ and God are all about. God is on the side of the poor. Witness the Old Testament pronouncements about caring for widows, orphans, and strangers. Witness Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized members of society: tax collectors, prostitutes, the unclean, lepers. These were the equivalent of the untouchables in Indian society, yet Christ demonstrated that they were the objects of God’s grace and healing power, often more so than those in positions of power.
I know more than a few Christians whose understanding of salvation has mostly to do with life after the end of our time here on Earth. But we suffer “little deaths ,” as Parker Palmer calls them, when we are unfaithful to God. I also know those who see Justification by faith as assurance that as long as we profess Christ as our savior, we’re good to go. Liberation theology would turn that on its ear and say, “no. How we live our lives matters.” This is where Karl Marx fits into the picture. A philosopher as much as a revolutionary, he wrote “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.” The theologian Bevans says “liberation theology finds fulfillment not in mere right-thinking (orthodoxy), but in right acting (orthopraxis).” On one hand these thoughts are still revolutionary. On the other they have been around for centuries, articulated by the likes of Meister Eckhart and Keats. Within this framework, says Bevans, culture is an important part of developing an understanding of faith. Because political and economic systems are part of culture, as is change, faith cannot be politically or economically neutral. Failure to seek change in society makes us less whole and is itself an act of unfaithfulness, a little death. We as individuals are often complicit, albeit unknowingly, perhaps even with the best of intentions, in the oppression of others. So….
A second important piece of Liberation Theology is that oppression is structural. It is imbedded in government, business, social structures and attitudes. One way this plays out is in a Socialist bent: government and social structures can and should be used to engineer society. Government can be the problem; it can also be a tool to rectify injustice. Because oppression is considered structural, there is a strong resonance with the thinking of Karl Marx. It intrigues me that rather than depending solely on God to rectify unjust situations, as Israel did before the kings, there is a tendency to rely on human structures to rectify things. The church is one of those structures, and as the body of Christ, it is obligated to strip itself of the oppressive structures it has tacitly endorsed in the past. To exterminate such structural oppression requires a different way of thinking. So….
A third piece is the inversion of the order of action. Among Quakers, traditionally one waited to hear what God had to say, the ensuing action was evidence of faithful listening to Spirit. Liberation theology has turned this on its ear. As Alister McGrath says in the book Christian Theology, “Whereas classical Western theology regarded action is the result of reflection or the action of God, liberation theology inverts the order. Action comes first, followed by critical reflection.” As Bonino said,”theology has to stop explaining the world and start transforming it.”
From Liberation Theology, we shade into Latin American Theology. In the book “Essential Theological Terms,” Justo Gonzalez says “Latin American theology is a particular form of contextual and liberation theology, seeking to interpret the gospel within a setting of poverty and oppression. It seeks to reflect theologically both the causes of the evils that beset the entire region and on Christian responses to such evils.” For Latin American women who live with poverty on a daily basis, there is still something missing from the above statement. Gonzalez notes “Mujerista theology insists that feminist [and liberation] theology has been so concerned about issues and perspectives in the dominant culture that it is unable to express the experience the oppression and the hopes of minority women.” Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has been a strong voice for this point of view.
In the essay “Lo Cotidiano: A Key Element of Mujerista Theology,” Isasi-Diaz asks why, thirty-plus years after the Medellin conference, has there been so little change in the conditions of the poor? Her thesis is concordant with Liberation Theology: action comes first. In her understanding of how change occurs, action cannot be a top-down process and succeed. All the well-intended programs of the government and church, if they fail to take into account the daily, lived experience of the poor, will not succeed in changing their plight. Action must take into account the experience of those Isasi-Diaz characterizes as grassroots people it professes to help. It is the daily, lived experience that best defines Lo Cotidiano for her. One take-away for me was that the upper classes, those in power, are actually impoverished by their ignorance of this daily lived experience: Have you ever had to make the choice between gas to get to work and food for your kids? The comfort and security of middle/upper class life insulates us from the immediacy and priority of survival. What is it that we who live a comfortable lifestyle have lost?
Isasi-Diaz writes “Lo cotidiano has to do with the crises that grassroots people have to face daily, and to the wisdom they show when, in some way or other, they survive….[when] they manage to bring something out of nothing…. Their lives bring them face-to-face with a reality of vital importance; this has to do with their own well-being… [it] refers not only to the capacity to know, but also the characteristics of their way of knowing. Their lives… are illumined by the struggle to survive and flourish in spite of many obstacles.”
She continues “Lo cotidiano situates us in our experiences… Including the tactics we use to deal with the every day. It helps us to question the reality in which we live. is intrinsically linked with what we usually call common sense. There is much “practicalness involved, not in the pragmatic sense, but in the ‘folk philosophical sense of sagacity (or wisdom) that has to do with being prudent and levelheaded.’… [it]makes it possible for people to keep themselves from getting caught in situations they cannot effectively deal with or alerts them so that at least they are not surprised. Much of this folk wisdom comes from instincts sharpened by their daily struggle for survival. This results in the need to react immediately to what happens, for if not one will probably be in danger. This unmethodicalness is needed to deal with the unpredictability of our lives and of all those who have no power to control or change what happens to them…. this sort of disorderly approach to life indicates the importance of being intuitive and totally present to details. Finally, she states that if the experience does not feed or inform liberation, in this case social liberation, it is not part of lo cotidiano. Because of its insistence on changing societal structures, Mujerista theology is, at its root, political
That’s all very well, you say. How does any of this relate to (mostly) white, (mostly) male loggers in Pennsylvania?
[We would do well to] remind the institution of the Church of its duty to bring its members into a deeper, living union with God rather than simply provide a salvation machine which promises heavenly bliss if members follow the requisite steps. Eckhart favored “life-learning” as well as “book learning.”
 Mirriam Webster online defines political as “…concerned with the making of policy.” Thus, Liberation Theology is inherently political.