Due to the recent travel and my schedule these last few weeks, I’ve been slow to keep up with news stories and public discussions about matters that would otherwise be very important here. Such is the case with a New York Times piece that ran a few days ago, “A Campaign Pitch Rekindles the Question: Just What Is Liberation Theology?” written by Mark Oppenheimer. The last sentence of the opening paragraph summarizes the import of what follows: “With the complicity of clueless pundits and incurious journalists, they are reducing an important theological movement of the past 40 years to an abusive sound bite.”
Oppenheimer’s contention is that conservative politicians and media pundits are “ridiculing liberation theology,” which is certainly the case in many instances. But my sense of the matter is that few who are involved in the public discourse of politics and culture are well-versed in this manifold subfield of theological reflection. And,as Oppenheimer righty notes, “liberation theology” — in its diverse iterations — is a very important theological movement.
What amazes me is that the general ignorance, on the “right” and “left,” of the population is what permits the abuse of an important term so as to construct a metonym for something fearful. Further complicating the pernicious misuse and abuse of the term “liberation theology” is the blatantly racial overtones associated with its now-fearful invocation. This is the impetus for Oppenheimer’s current reflection: anti-Obama movements are seeking to draw attention to the President’s former paster, Rev. Wright, in an effort to scare voters into voting for another candidate. The indictment for Rev. Wright is that he subscribes to “liberation theology.”
Oppenheimer gets right to the point:
Contrary to the simplifications of the past four years, liberation theology, which has become hugely influential, teaches not hate, nor anti-Americanism, but a renewed focus on the poor and the suffering, as embodied by Jesus.
He goes on to quote Dr. James Cone and Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell on the meaning and aim of liberation theology, which, as noted above, simply reverts the focus of theological reflection from doctrinal starting points to the lived experience of the poor and marginalized. Craigo-Snell even said, “Liberation theology, at its most simple, is the Sunday school Jesus who healed the sick or took care of the poor people…It’s what your Sunday school teacher taught you if you grew up in a church. It isn’t something people should be afraid of, unless they’re invested in poor people not getting fed or sick people not getting healed.”
The truth is there are indeed many people who are “invested in poor people not getting fed” and the “sick not getting healed.” Which makes me think that perhaps the pundits and the politicians are not as ignorant as I first thought.
Could it be possible that those who wish to smear terms like “liberation theology” and “social justice” know exactly what they are doing? Is it possible that they are quite aware of the implications that the Gospel demand of followers of Christ and that the questions that arise from such honest and sincere reflection challenge their power, wealth and hegemony? Perhaps.
Our challenge, though, as women and men of faith, is to recognize that whatever the theologians call their particular field of work, their efforts are to exercise what St. Anselm referred to as “faith seeking understanding.” The work of liberation theologians, of moral theologians, scripture scholars, and the like, is at the service of the tradition and of the people of God. Politicians and pundits need to think more carefully about dabbling into territory for which they are definitely not qualified. And we need to be more critical of and discerning about what people in power and authority say.