Loosening the Grip 10

This post is by Mary Veeneman, professor of theology at North Park University.

In the speech he gave the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. said these words:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days
ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to
the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live
a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that
now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the
mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may
not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a
people, will get to the promised land!”

See this.

 When I teach students about liberation theology, I always play them a video clip of this part of Dr. King’s final speech.  I always explain to my students that there are debates about whether Dr. King’s theology fits under the rubric of Black theology and that is not a debate into which I want to enter here.  This part of King’s speech is a great example of liberation theology, though, because King so clearly alludes to the Exodus account.  In doing this, he identifies the oppression of African Americans in the United States with the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt and this is a classic move in liberation theology. 

Among a number of others, one characteristic of liberation theology is a reading of the Exodus account that sees the events of that account played out in the contemporary setting.  In light of that understanding of the Exodus account, liberation theologians argue that the salvation brought by Christ is not simply a spiritual salvation, but is also supposed to be a salvation from oppression on the ground.

J. Kameron Carter seems to be asking questions about similar theological moves in chapter seven of Race: A Theological Account
.   In writing about Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Carter states, “On [Douglass’] autiobiographic reading of things, the Pasch [Passover/Easter] proves to be not an alternative political and social arrangement, but the cultural allegory, the sacred myth even, of the American political order” (305).
Carter writes that in the course of Douglass’ Narrative, “the Easter story…structures the American sacred mythos.  This structure has provided the terms and meaning of identity” (305).  Not only does the Easter “mythos” function in this way, according to Carter, but theology has played a supporting role. 

The Easter story has been used, according to Carter, to support the status quo of white racial power.  At the same time, Douglass has taken the story of the resurrection and applied it to his own situation.  It is at this point that he arrives at the problem, writing, “Douglass’ error is that he has mimed the style of religious thought that he is actually trying to resist….He does this precisely by putting on display what happens when theological discourse functions as nothing more than the symbolic or religious superstructure of the materially or so-called real order of things” (307).  Carter further wants to be clear that it is quite possible to do this even in the context of articulating the historic Christian faith.  When Christian theology is used in this way, he argues, it does not actually tell us anything real about salvation.

In some ways, this sounds like a common critique of liberation theology from more conservative thinkers whether Protestant or Catholic.  Often these critiques will talk about the idea that this earth isn’t ultimately our home and that we should look for the salvation that comes from Christ and saves us from eternal death that that we should not look for any kind of liberation or salvation in the here and now.  Often this comes in the context of an assumption whether explicit or implicit that the here and now is not important.
I want to be clear in my own statements:  the “spiritual” salvation that these critics will talk about is, of course, of utmost importance.  A focus on one’s physical conditions with no attention paid to spiritual conditions will in the end miss the point of a significant portion of New Testament writings.  At the same time, to only talk about the spiritual conditions of various people and pay no attention to their physical conditions ultimately misses the reality that Jesus seemed to deeply care about the here and now of the people he encountered.

Going back to Carter’s critique … he is making a deeper point than are the above-mentioned critics of liberation theology.  What he seems to be saying is that when we map biblical texts onto our own situations without any consideration of life beyond our own context, all we end up with is “purely human religious knowledge that is Gnostically accessed though some cultural calculus or discursive technique of power.”  When that happens, we have lost the true import of the New Testament altogether.

The question I want to leave for you is this:  How do we avoid reading the Bible in a way that only leaves us with human religious knowledge, but also does not lead us into the error of the critics of liberation theology that see no connection between the gospel and our own immediate context?

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  • Mary,
    What a great question. My initial response zeroes in on the concept of power. When the Exodus Story is contextualized into a use of power over rather than power with, we get human religion. When the Exodus Story is moved by the memory “we also were once slaves in Egypt” so that an identification with and compassion for the oppressed is authentic, then the moral, non-violent authority of the Story can penetrate power structures and change them (e.g., Wilberforce et al).

  • RJS

    Excellent post. Carter’s book has some real insights, but was a tough read. He is an academic writer (and I am not sure that is a compliment). One critical way to avoid theology as human religious knowledge is to maintain breadth and scope, reading through the eyes of others (in so much as possible).

  • Eric

    I’m finding it difficult to get a full sense of Carter’s critique from the (necessarily) brief summary, but here are my thoughts: (1) If we are addressing evil, (2) using methods that are consistent with Christ’s, and (3) recognize the part of the over-arching part of God’s Story we are in, then we are more likely to steer clear of the dangers of liberation theology.
    By (1), I mean we should address things that are clearly evil, not merely our political preferences. These can be hard to seperate, and it takes discernment, but when you address true evil it can be hard for critics of liberation theology to deny that at least your goals are worthy. Few will deny that slavery, child trafficking and economic injustice are evil; they may quibble with your methods of addressing them, but they probably won’t deny that the evil is there.
    Which leads to (2) — if you use methods that don’t themselves get wrapped up in power, but instead use methods that are self sacrificial, then its hard for critics to challenge you. I agree wholeheartedly with John (#1) above on this. This is obviously the hard part, but MLK is a good example of the suffering servant — being willing to be thrown into jail and suffer — even death — to expose and defeat evil.
    There are many other examples of this method throughout church history, including within the last century. We should do a better job of studying and understanding them.
    And (3), we need to realize the part of God’s Story we are in — the tension of “yes, now, but not yet (fully).” We live in the tension of Christ having already defeated evil in his death and resurrection, but evil is still ever-present. We can take steps to move in the direction of addressing evil, although we can’t achieve utopia now, and have to wait for Christ’s final justice and reconcillation of all things. Liberation theology gets into trouble when it doesn’t constantly remind itself of this.

  • Your Name

    John #1- good thoughts.
    RJS #2 said:
    “One critical way to avoid theology as human religious knowledge is to maintain breadth and scope, reading through the eyes of others (in so much as possible).”
    Practically speaking, who is going to encourage this? Church leaders need to be attempting and promoting this goal, but they are more focused on issues within their own church and community. It becomes an issue of priority and time. I am not saying that this should not rank up there, and I think most would say it is a priority. However, I don’t think most would be able (willing?) to turn that into action.
    I also wonder about those off the regular radar. There is obviously a lot of attention paid to African-Americans these days; but what about those we don’t think of often? Those suffering in foreign nations, immigrants, unwed mothers, and Native-Americans are often overlooked and forgotten.

  • Rick

    sorry, #4 was me.

  • joanne

    I think that in focusing out attention too much on the substitutionary atonement we miss atonement images that remind us that Christ is victor… over the grave, over the powers of darkness that promote evil systems and evil limitations of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
    Recently I have felt God inviting me to a greater exploration of Christus Victor and to place my trust in the God who truly does liberate people from the powers and ingrained systems of social injustice.
    Christ liberates me from my personal sins and calls me to radical discipleship that involves confronting the powers as Martin LUther King did and as others did who had the courage to stand against evil systems. It’s great to have my own personal sins forgiven but how much more awesome to be granted the power and courage to stand up against sin-sick systems in the name of Christ.
    I am so much more attracted to a powerful Body of Christ who has the courage and stamina and vision to see greater potential in this world. Yes one day all things will be set to rights but in the time being, I want to be part of something that actually does liberate people… from sin and the systems that are fostered by sin.
    I think this involves a radical spiritual formation in which we are willing to follow Jesus to the cross if necessary…just like Martin Luther King.

  • Eric

    I like the way you balance it — Christ’s victory is about forgiveness of our own sins and also confrontation of broader evil. Its two sides of the same coin — the reconciliation that comes through his defeat of all sin and evil through his cross and resurrection.
    I think that is one way liberation theology can go wrong too — focusing on the latter (broad, societal evil) to the exclusion of the former (personal sin). If you drop any version of personal atonement out of the gospel then it looks like you are merely saying that we are called to do good things and liberate people. I think the broader version of Christ’s liberation doesn’t happen if it isn’t deeply rooted in Christ’s offer of reconciliation to the individual.