Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 6.4

Liberation Theologians

Leonardo Boff
Boff, a leading Latin American liberationist until his silencing by Rome, envisioned local church communities as communities of the poor organizing to liberate themselves from oppression. Through prayer, Bible study, and social analysis the poor would gain insight into the best ways to undermine and overthrow the capitalist system.

The Bible is thus at the center of political change in Boff's view. And yet for Boff the key to politics is not a knowledge of the Bible, but a commitment to justice. Justice here is conceived of in neutral, historical or sociological terms; as Boff, quoting German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it, 'the word of God' we are called to transform the world with 'will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming....'

James Cone
'To preach the gospel today means confronting the world with the reality of Christian freedom....Preaching the gospel is nothing but proclaiming to blacks that they do not have to submit to ghetto-existence.'--Again, explicitly biblical terms, but leading to a more general political concept of liberation.

Benjamin Valentin
Valentin is a current Latino liberation theologian working in the US whose work has focused on building coalitions for political change. He works with the concepts of commonality and the public square to advocate the convergence of disparate groups around shared political issues.

In terms of political language, he urges Christians to adopt 'a pragmatic and historicist theological discourse that uses the language of reason and rights in the public sphere, rather than the language of piety, confessionalism, or religious dogmatism.'

This statement is not to negate the necessity of drawing from the symbols and stories of one's religious tradition; on the contrary, Valentin recognizes the importance of such symbols and stories, but hopes they can be developed in an open, constructive way that engages partners of other theological (and non-theological) persuasions.

Any use of the Bible in American politics, we can extrapolate, would have to be in an inclusive way that appeals to Americans who do not share Christian (or Jewish) valuations of the Bible. The goal of the church's political action is pragmatic--social change--so it should focus on joining with others to bring that about rather than trying to fit Bible quotes into speeches.

Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986).

James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986).

Benjamin Valentin, Mapping Public Theology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002).

Questions (sorry I've been forgetting about these!)
1. Boff states that the church is a place where the poor organize for liberation. What do you think about this statement? Do you think the Bible speaks to the political situation of the poor and marginalized?

2. The theologians covered here seem to agree that the biblical message is oriented towards practical political liberation. Do you agree? How does your understanding of the biblical message affect how you think it should be used in politics?

3. What do you think about Valentin's distinction between a 'language of reason and rights' and a 'language of piety, confessionalism, or religious dogmatism'? Does such a distinction exist? To what extent does the Bible fit in either category?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 6.3

Liberation Theology

Though the phrase ‘liberation theology’ arose from a Latin American Catholic movement in the early 1970s, it is now used as an umbrella term for several groups with similar approaches to theology and politics. Black, feminist, queer, ecological, mujerista (Latina), womanist (black women), minjung (Korean), and other theologies fit under this wide umbrella.

Distinctive about liberation theology is its commitment to reading the Bible and doing theology from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. Liberationists believe the God of the Bible sides with the poor, and thus we should too. Accordingly, liberation theology has focused on organizing the oppressed into faith communities which become bases for prayer, Bible reading, and political action.

Theologically, liberation theologians emphasize the kingdom or reign of God that can be actualized now through revolutionary action on behalf of and with the oppressed. This stance led many early liberationists to support violent revolutions, such as the Cuban revolution and the Sandanista revolt in Nicaragua. More recent liberation theologians tend to advocate theologies of non-violence.

The political rhetoric of liberationists tends to be highly biblical, but it also draws from recent sociological analysis. Liberation theology is usually committed to listening for God’s voice in sources outside the church, so Marx and others are regarded as valuable companions to the Bible in advancing the revolutionary agenda.

Because liberation theology is church-based in practice, its political speech tends to take place in the form of sermons and theological writings; because it is revolutionary in character its political speech tends to take place in churches and other grassroots locations. Nevertheless, its sociological analysis allows it to convey some of its central ideas (e.g., land reform, democracy, anti-capitalism) in broad terms to wider audiences.

On the American political scene, liberation theology is an active force behind many denominational and interfaith advocacy alliances. Through their demonstrations and lobby work, we can see the blend of biblical and non-biblical discourse, political speech that is as unafraid of using the Bible as it is comfortable using more ‘common’ terminology.