By: Sarah Lynne Gershon
Recently I have been struggling with what the appropriate response to a Liberationist perspective within my context would be. At Missio Dei [now, the Mennonite Worker], Latin American Liberation theology has influenced a lot of our ideas about what the gospel really means, what Jesus calls us to, and what the Kingdom of God looks like. We’ve talked a lot about becoming family with the poor and marginalized in our context, about questioning the assumptions underlying the accumulation of wealth (embracing jubilee), and rejecting social structures that disempower. As we’ve talked about this, we’ve tried to reorient our lives and adopt practices that will conform us to God’s kingdom and the person of Jesus, but until recently I’m not sure I’ve understood what it means for me to do these things.
There is always a tendency within me to believe that I am simply called to give what I have to the poor, to serve them, to somehow leverage my power in such a way to help the poor and marginalized among us. While I think we are called to those things, they are not at the heart of Liberation theology. As long as I reject the basic reorientation of perspective that Liberation theology calls me to, I am still reinforcing the same systems and social structures that dehumanize and disempower.
The basic message of Liberation theology to the wealthy and powerful (which of course, includes most of us in the global north in some way or another) is not redistribution of wealth. It isn’t generosity or care for the poor. It is penitence. We are called to repent, not simply for the sake of the poor, but for our own sakes, for our own humanity, and for our salvation.
I’ve often been warned that when I give to the poor, I have to be wary of those who seem to have a sense of entitlement. I must be concerned if the guy I buy lunch for begins to believe that he somehow deserves that lunch. I must make sure he always knows that it is my money he is benefitting from and that I have every right not to give it to him. But this is entirely backwards. It is my own sense of entitlement that I have to be wary of. My belief that I’m entitled to the position of affluence I’ve inherited: the inflated paycheck, new clothes a few times a year and a growing savings account. None of these are bad things in and of themselves, what is wrong with the world is that I believe that I am owed them and that they are mine.
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have already receive your comfort!”
If we are going to be at all interested in liberation, we have to primarily begin by embracing a penitential life. As desperate as the situation is in the global south, our situation is equally desperate (if not more so). We must take head of Romero’s proclamation:
“Would that the many bloodstained hands in our land
were lifted up to the Lord with horror of their stain
to pray that he might cleanse them” (The Violence of Love)
Recently I have seen Saint Francis as a model for our penitential liberation. He didn’t try to use his resources wisely in service of the poor. Instead he forsook all his wealth, giving it away for the sake of solidarity and identification with the poor. Francis did not seek equality with the poor or to eliminate poverty, but did penitence by embracing poverty and always seeking to be “the least” in any situation. This is a very different attitude than most white Christians have adopted in regards to the poor. We don’t usually see ourselves as sinners, shaking off sin’s bondage, but benefactors using our experience and God-given resources to help the poor. In the spirit of penitence, and within a liberationist perspective, we should consider ourselves less than the people are called to serve.
Though my introduction to these ideas was largely within Latin American liberation theology, I have to be careful of the abstraction this can lend itself to. I don’t live in Latin America or Africa or some other “third-world” country. If I am going to embrace this perspective, I must embrace it in my own context. Which means looking for how I can penitentially submit to the historically poor and oppressed in the United States. It means, as James Cone writes, letting the oppressed set the terms of our reconciliation and their liberation (and subsequently my own freedom and humanization following this). As of yet, I and my white brothers and sisters (and/or my affluent brothers and sisters) have largely resisted having any terms set for us.
Again, this isn’t because this is the most “effective” way to end poverty or obtain “equal” rights (though ultimately I believe it is the only way towards either), the penitential attitude I’m prescribing is as much about us shaking off our oppressor perspective as it is about bettering the lives of the poor. It’s about discarding the “bad” eye for the good. For if “your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” (Matthew 6:22-23).
In any of our relationships with the poor and historically marginalized we must submit our culture to theirs, our reason to their reason, and our identity and goals to theirs in order to identify with their perspective and shake off our own. Ideally we will treat them as a holy brother and receive them as Christ, never allowing ourselves to have more abundance. Until we are capable of that, we at least must make it our goal and lament when our sin and self-preservation and self-importance keep us from fully living in identification and service of the poor and oppressed. In the midst of this we must begin embracing practices that are penitential, slowly forming us into Christ-minded people.
Ultimately, I don’t want do this out of shame, guilt, or fear, but like Saint Francis: whose face shone with joy even when he confessed his evil-doing, sin, and unworthiness, and who rejoiced when he received less than his brothers. I want to be motivated by my love of Christ, out of which grows the desire to imitate him. My action needs to be based on my faith in the gospel and the Kingdom of God in which I embrace the foolishness of the cross. Finally, I feel compelled to remember that the only reason I can walk this path, the reason I can continuously fail and continue, is by the unfailing, loving grace of God.
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