The Centre for Liberation Theologies (KU Leuven), February 2014
CLT: As a biblical scholar, how do you understand the term “liberation”? How do your focuses on the challenges of systematic poverty and economic injustice, as well as women’s, LGBTQI, and racial and ethnic justice inform this understanding?
Liberation from oppression is a central theme of the biblical corpus, from the story of the Exodus to the Prophets to the Jesus Movement to Revelation’s scream for the restoration of Christian faithful trampled to death by the Roman Empire. The apostle Paul called the gift the Messiah gave humanity apolytrosis, which means, their “freedom papers” (Rom. 3:24). Liberation is freedom, and freedom is the complete unshackling of peoples–body and mind and soul–who have been imprisoned by oppressive cultural systems and their agents. It is the transforming, practiced hope for whole peoples to live together peaceably, in solidarity, and in the joy of daily spiritual flourishing and connection.
Martin Luther King taught us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Cornel West tells us that “justice is what love looks like in public.” And bell hooks, that the “moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” These great activists, and many others (e.g., from Guttierez and Romero to Mandela and Malala Yousafzai), teach us that the systemic practices of oppression–of the continuous creation and dehumanization of the poor, of enslavement and imprisonment of the indigenous, Blacks and other nonwhite peoples, of the abuse of children, and of the hatred of women and lgbtqi-identifying folk–are often distinct in their materializations but interconnected in these three things: the refusal to accept all people’s inherent and equal worth; the absence of justice- and freedom-seeking lovingkindness toward all peoples; and the failure to recognize justice, freedom and love in practice as the central ethical truths of the Biblical witness. In all of these cases, power and freedom are hoarded and channeled into unjust laws, spirit-crushing falsehoods, terrible stereotypes, and inhumane cultural and economic relations, by individuals and groups who fail to recognize that flourishing isn’t zero-sum, that it can expand to the benefit of all when it is shared. Holy justice is like the warmth of the sun on a perfect day; it draws us all out of ourselves to grow and give out of our abundances, whatever they may be.
CLT: Paul hasn’t been among the prominent interlocutors for liberation theologians, even as continental philosophers have been bringing out liberationist themes in his thought. Why do you think this discrepancy exists?
There’s no simple answer to this question. Paul was a complex figure negotiating a truckload of competing problems in his communities: imperialism, inter-ethnic strife, slavery, gender challenges, and status differences. His letters reflect the effort to translate Messianic Judaism to a Greek audience generally enamored of, or at least culturally controlled by, their Hellenic and Roman environments and ideologies of power. Strong liberative themes are present in his writing, in particular around overcoming status and ethnic differences through unity, upbuilding, reciprocity, and love of neighbor. But his was the practical advice of someone who was trying to create a protected realm of thriving and freedom amidst what he calls the reign of Death; its liberative character, which was both spiritual and material, was grounded not in external political transformation but in in-group communion or koinonia, in welcoming outsiders in and practicing reciprocity and collective upbuilding inside the group.
In the modern West and particularly the States, “Paul” was made into the Great Christian Theologian, a source for Fabulous Ideas (like “justification by faith”) unfettered by the messiness of difficult human conditions requiring works of faith. For a very long time (in some places, still, into the present) Paul was also used as the authorized Christian disease-carrier of racial antisemitism, support for slavery, subordination of women, and the mouthpiece for gay-hatred. This modern version of Paul stinks; he is useless for liberation because his is a voice for evil. It is a hard move to put your head down and dig back into and past the voice of such hatred to find the kernels of liberation in Paul’s writings. The good news is that it can be done and people are doing it.
CLT: Do you think that there are Pauline resources that liberation theologians can draw from? If so, how might liberation theologians engage them?
Yes, and scholars like Elsa Tamez and Nestor Miguez (just to name two) have been drawing on Pauline texts and concepts (like justice in justification; caritas; the connection between faith and faithful action in Paul and James) for quite a while to challenge global northern interpretations of Paul as (to put it bluntly) the Great White Theologian. There are treasures too among newer South African and Australian scholarship focused on poverty and economics (Roland Boer comes to mind). The challenge for liberation theologians who do not already know these figures is to discover and embrace them and to build on the foundations they have already built.
For me, Pauline concepts rich for embrace include: the material, collective body of Christ, including the belief that all members were invaluable, that all had gifts and abundances to be shared. So also, Paul’s focus on reciprocity of care and community upbuilding; the richness of koinonia; the repeated (Hebrew Biblical) emphasis on status-inversion in (e.g., eating) practices, so that those who had less were cared for first; and the foundational focus on love of neighbor (chesed, the justice-love of the biblical prophets, to care for widow, orphan, the very poor, and any others in need) as a central covenant call of the God of Israel.
CLT: Radical orthodox theologians have challenged liberation theologians to return to the resources of early Christianity, but have done so, as many have argued, within a strongly Eurocentric bias. Do you see productive ways that liberation theologians can use the resources of the early church to complement its social analyses and imagine alternatives?
There are so many paths “in” to this question its hard to know where to start. But my first reaction is never to let one’s work be an unwitting response to the unwittingly dominating critique of others. That said: scholarship of the Bible and emergent Christianity has expanded in the last two decades to tell the stories of the earliest Christians in ways that reveal them more fully in their messiness and multiple dimensions-real people, warts and all. Their stories, like our own today, are stories of everyday people on a quest for identity and communion with God and each other. So also of meanness…and of colonialism and the need for decolonization. And they can be told, these stories, as present day dialogues among kin, among ancestors and descendants, who have and are wrestling with similar challenges of dehumanization, ethnic hybridity and interethnic struggle, imperialism, and other oppressions. There is great theological and socio-analytical richness in this kind of approach to embracing the early church.
CLT: We just had a conference to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Centre for Liberation Theologies. During the seminar, the usefulness of the term “liberation theologian” was questioned. The discussion centered on whether it has become a term to evoke a moral high ground without actually offering the radical critique and forcing the type of commitment that liberation theologians made in the 1970s and 1980s, which cost some their lives. How do you see this? Has “liberation theologian” become just an identity that affords some scholarly privileges, or does positioning oneself within liberation theology open up the possibility to engage necessary critical resources?
Those whose voices we honor most for their bravery and backbone in the work of liberation were, to a person, aware of the risks they took–of imprisonment, harm, excommunication, death in the fight for justice. How can we do any less and call ourselves workers for liberation?
CLT: As one of your former students, it was apparent that you see your teaching as part of a liberating praxis. In what ways can those who strive to be liberation theologians be consistent with the vision of liberation theology in their pedagogy?
Teaching (as a Christian vocation) is either a mechanism of God’s justice or it is a mechanism for domination. For a long time I just taught like I was “a historian”…and I was good at it. But I taught as if “history” doesn’t have a memory with flesh and bones, a memory that echoes in our present actions through its effects on those who have come before and on those who sit in class. Now I know better, which has meant starting over…and trying, daily, to re-see the ways that both what I teach and the way I teach can potentially create spaces for communal learning and transformation. Sometimes that means doing a genealogy of biblical studies as a raced or sexist enterprise. Sometimes that means telling the stories of the Biblical prophets’ hope for the poor in conversation with Luke 4 and Matthew 25 (and a modern prophet or two). Sometimes it means listening to the stories of my students’ lives and placing them in dialogue with those of scripture. Sometimes -most of the time- it is some combination of these things. Each class is different because each group of people is different. But the principles of liberating instruction are the same. The teacher must be a learner and a listener, a model of solidarity; the class a class of teachers; and the classroom a place for journeying together. God is a God of justice who works through people, who at our best, create liberation through collective love in action. It takes all of us in a class, working together, to make instruction a space of liberation.