Progressive Christians know there is not one liberation theology. United Methodist theologian Joerg Rieger has provided another approach that promotes intersectionality of liberation and identity in his new book, Theology in the Capitalocene. In the interest of full disclosure, Professor Rieger asked me to read the manuscript prior to publication for any insights into the experience and identity of the American working class. I offered some suggestions.
Climatologists often refer to the present geological era as the Anthropocene due to the apparent influence human beings have over the natural systems of the planet. Joerg Rieger focuses the idea to the small but powerful groups that drive the economic life of humanity. Capital is in charge and absorbing everything and everyone into itself.
Solidarity and Liberation
We have many theologies that begin with the problems of suffering, oppression, and poverty. We often identify the suffering of a group with Biblical stories. But we get contradictions sometimes. Moses liberating Hebrew slaves is an image of empowerment for African Americans. But the genocide of native people in America leads to a suspicion of this liberation because of the subsequent conquest of the Canaanites. It is difficult to find intersections or common ground.
Finding common ground and acting in solidarity is not easy. Liberal activists take a big table approach seeking ways to avoid the worst excesses of our common economic life. However, they cannot avoid all the conflicts that emerge between affected people. Liberation theology understands these conflicts are natural outcomes of our present economic life. The final chapter of Rieger’s book deals with these issues.
Anxiety, Identity, and Class
John Steinbeck is often misquoted as having said Americans consider themselves temporarily embarrassed millionaires. The actual words are, “I guess the trouble was we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” We should ask why this is. Working class people in the US think of themselves as middle class. But how is middle class defined? According to Zappia.com, the household income of people considered middle class in the US is between $42,000 and $126,000. This is about 52% of the households in the US. Interestingly, the percentage of households reporting as living paycheck to paycheck is 54% which includes the 29% considered lower class.
These figures represent the economic anxiety of the majority of Americans. Lower income and lower middle income worry about their economic future. This anxiety is one reason money is a taboo subject in church. Class is also a taboo subject. The reason for this is lay church leadership are often employers and upheld as example setters for success. Steinbeck’s identity problem can be reworded as, “Everyone is a temporarily embarrassed example of success.”
Liberation and Ecology
The Bible links liberation of the oppressed with a renewal of the land. Jubilee and the land’s sabbaticals are involved with forgiving debts and setting slaves free. Does poverty cause environmental degradation? My experience of ministry shows poverty is very expensive. Many people must heat their homes with kerosene because they cannot afford the initial investment to upgrade their home systems. Kerosene and wood, for instance, are inefficient methods for home heating. But this is really a small contribution to greenhouse gasses. The major causes of environmental destruction is systemic. People living paycheck to paycheck buy goods that are cheaply made and less reliable. The economic pressure to make these products creates a downward spiral of continued degradation of workers and their neighborhoods. Environmentally racist and classist choices are made against these communities. They have little power to stop the dumping of poisons nearby.
Intersectionality and the Church
Theology in the Capitalocene is a short book (257 pages including notes and index) but not an easy read. It is a challenge for pastors and teachers to consider the root of many social problems. Progressive Christians often discuss single issues in small groups without looking at the larger picture. There are many connections involving economic and social anxieties and violence. It is easy to say the problem is “sin.” And it is easy to argue about how bad things are. It is even easy to organize a demonstration or two. However, actively exposing and opposing the destructiveness of the absorption of everything into Capital is difficult. It cannot be done alone.