Taking Appalachia seriously: implications for theology and the Church

Taking Appalachia seriously: implications for theology and the Church May 7, 2008

Appalachia was on the radar of participants of the Theology in the Americas conference in Detroit — a gathering of Latin American and North American liberation theologians — in the summer of 1975, just months after the promulgation of the Appalachian pastoral letter This Land is Home to Me, and was included in those discussions as one of many particularized theologies in the U.S. that need to be in dialogue with one another. And while impressive grassroots activity was inspired by the pastoral letter, in recent years the excitement and sense of Appalachian identity has dwindled, and with few exceptions, very little theology has been done from an Appalachian perspective. A theology which takes Appalachia seriously would pose a challenge for theology in the United States, even for U.S. liberation theologians, as well as the Church in general.

Theology in the U.S. largely remains locked in a particular Western mode which is detached from reality.[1] One bit of personal evidence for this is the fact that some fellow theology students were puzzled that I would bother attending a conference like the Appalachian Studies Association conference which met this past month. Much work is left to be done to encourage theologies that are incarnate, that make the “option for reality” in Leonardo Boff’s terms.[2] In particular, attention to Appalachia would challenge conceptions of Catholic social teaching which rely on abstract principles such as the “common good,” which have been used to justify destructive practices like mountaintop removal mining and assumptions about the role of the state as the “keeper of the common good.” William Cavanaugh has critiqued the way Catholics think about the nation-state, arguing that its main function is not the promotion of the common good, but for the benefit of elites.[3] Eve Weinbaum’s ethnographic research on Appalachian politics in the book To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia confirms this is the case.[4]

Attention to Appalachia also poses a challenge to U.S. theologies of liberation and other progressive movements in society and in the Church which are still often quick to dismiss Appalachians, or the South, more generally (as in the case of the website FuckTheSouth.com), or rural people as backward, racist, sexist, caught in regressive traditions — in short, the enemy. Liberation theologian Andrea Smith has criticized the way in which liberationists tend to focus on socially-acceptable victims in our communities rather than the “non-persons” who are marginalized even within our marginalized communities.[5] Focus is placed on those persons who are more likely to generate support for the community from the wider public. Countless liberation movements exist in the United States, sometimes supported by progressive churches. “Redneck” or “Hillbilly liberation” does not seem to be on the agenda, or if it is, it is subsumed into descriptions of a “theology of the poor,” perhaps for the reasons to which Smith points. Appalachian experience, like so many other oppressed communities, is complex and includes severe forms of non-personhood and marginalization, often including embarrassing and dysfunctional characteristics such as alcoholism and domestic violence. These qualities must be owned up to as part of the liberation struggle in the U.S., and not glossed over or rejected in favor of less problematic or embarrassing communities.

Attention to Appalachia will always be a challenge for the Church in general, as it involves a continual conversion in becoming a Church of the poor. This Land is Home to Me showed an ecclesiological model that, above all, is significant in its recognition of the epistemological privilege of the poor. That document, in its words and in the process of its writing, proclaimed that the poor speak with authority and that the role of Church leaders, in particular bishops, is primarily to listen and to serve. Thirty years later, the energy and excitement that animated the Appalachian Catholic community has waned considerably, and the vision and exercise of authority in the Church has retreated from the vision of the Appalachian pastorals into a retrenching of centralized power, with the Appalachian church conceived as a Vatican branch office in the mountains. Interestingly, this has occurred at a time when extreme forms of imperial capitalism have continued to intensify. Now is a key point for examining these connections, re-evaluating the history and mission of the church in Appalachia, and encouraging new forms of authentic inculturation.

Authentic inculturation can be encouraged, among other ways, through a sincere engagement with the Appalachian studies community. This will involve surmounting the ever-present hurdle in Catholicism which continues to deny that non-Church entities might have something to teach the Church. Attention to Appalachian studies, however, must not simply mean studying the important texts in the Appalachian studies canon, though they are important. The Church should in some way learn from and participate in the community and network of Appalachian scholars, activists, and everyday people, reaching across ecumenical divides of suspicion in humility. By doing so, the Church might just contribute to and become a site of resistance and renegotiation of Appalachian identity.

One ongoing problem the Church will have to deal with is its tendency toward paternalism. As postcolonial analysis has shown, the reality of missionary and “social uplift” work and its connection to colonialism often takes the form of paternalism. Debra Vansau McCauley has criticized the social documents of the mainline churches, including the Catholic ones, of retaining a spirit of paternalism in its language, as well as in the churches’ inability to take mountain religion, the dominant Christian tradition of the poor, seriously.[6] Even a thirty-year anniversary celebration of This Land is Home to Me in 2005 featured speeches, viewable online, which spoke of the need to have compassion for the “little people” of Appalachia. There is still a need to purge our ecclesial language of all forms of paternalism that reduce the people of Appalachia to mere objects pity with no dignity of their own.

Finally, attention to Appalachia brings us to and challenges some of the deepest questions about God, God’s relationship to humanity, and our understanding of human agency in its creative power as well as its destructive capabilities. The Appalachian experience of colonization of land and people strikes at the very heart of these issues. In light of the experience of mountaintop removal, consider the words of Isaiah, frequently heard during the Advent season:

A voice cries out: …prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low;
The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.

(Isaiah 40:3-4)

The destructive power unleashed in Appalachia throughout its history up to and including today’s most extreme forms of destruction transform these words from good news into an eerie condemnation of human arrogance. A condemnation, indeed, for the god whose way is being prepared in many places in Appalachia is an idol, as This Land is Home to Me suggests in no uncertain terms. Throughout scripture, the mountaintops are the place where God is encountered. The permanent obliteration of what some consider the oldest mountain range in the world becomes a sacrament of the idolatry that the pastoral letter speaks about.

But scripture speaks another image involving mountains: that of the new heavens and a new earth, of which Isaiah says, “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Is. 11:9). Within that new heaven and new earth, there will be — and must be — a new Appalachia. Not the new Appalachia of “development” and “economic progress,” but a new Appalachia where Appalachians speak for themselves and become the agents of their own liberation. Where, as the pastoral says, “justice speaks loudly, where in the wilderness of idolatrous destruction the great voice of God still cries out for Life.” Appalachian scholars, activists, and citizens are engaging in efforts to bring that new Appalachia more and more into reality. It’s time theologians and the Church joined them.

[An excerpt from a draft of a paper tentatively titled “New Voices from Appalachia: Appalachian Studies, Postcolonialism, and Liberation Theology.”]

[1] Although not quite “theological,” see a recent astonishing Vox Nova post arguing that capitalism has had a positive effect on the environment. The only way such a judgment could be made is a willingness to ignore the realities of real communities of people adversely effected by capitalism. Those of us who come from peripheral regions know better than to fall for such fairy tales.
[2] Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church, trans. John W. Diercksmeier (New York: Crossroad, 1985).
[3] See “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good,” Modern Theology 20, no. 2 (April 2004): 243–74; as well as Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (London: T. & T. Clark, 2002).
[4] New York: The New Press, 2004.
[5] Andrea Smith, “Decolonizing Theology,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59, no. 1–2 (November 2005): 74–6.
[6] Deborah Vansau McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
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