Thursday, September 2, 2010

Poor Little Glenn Beck: Liberation Theology Bites Back

Poor Glenn Beck, he gets it from all sides.  But then, he must enjoy it since he keeps asking for it. 
(This video shows Beck receiving an application of Vics Vapo Rub to help him “cry” for a photo shoot …  Not that this kind of thing is new, it reminds me of the old trick putting an onion in a hankie … )

Why is Beck catching it from all sides?  Well, first he tried to marginalize the “social justice” Christians, then he caught it for calling Obama a racist.  Beck now says he regrets calling President Obama a "racist" a few months ago.  What he should have said, he explains, was that he didn't agree with Obama's "theology."


And what is Obama's theology, according to Beck?  (drum roll) … Liberation theology (shudder, gasp).

And what’s so bad about Liberation Theology  Well, according to Beck it’s almost the worst form of anti-American evil.  Here's Beck's definition of Liberation Theology:  “I think that it is much more of a theological question that he is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor and victim....That is a direct opposite of what the gospel is talking about...It's Marxism disguised as religion” (emphasis supplied). 

Is it, really?  A classic logical fallacy is called that of “straw man” (a version of argumentum ad logicam).  The technique for this faulty method of argumentation is to set up a false position for one’s opponent that does not represent the truth of what that opponent stands for.  The fallacious position is easily rebutted and theoretically this dispatches with one’s opponent.  The problem, however, that the false target was what was dispatched, not the true position of the opponent.  Has Obama’s position, and Liberation Theology itself, been mischaracterized?  Is Liberation Theology really “Marxism disguised as religion”?  Is  it really as anti-motherhood and apple pie as Beck claims? 

It goes without saying that Glenn Beck wants to catch it from all sides:  The more sensational he is, the more people will talk.  The   more people talk about him, the better his ratings will be.  The better his ratings, the more money his broadcast employer makes.  So why are we surprised that he, with encouragement from the corporation that supports him, pursues sensational positions?  The problem is that people are confusing entertainment, (i.e. the “sensational”) with what is “real”.  Is Beck telling the truth?

Not to get too sidetracked, but the issue of how Jesus’s teachings may or may not resemble Marxism don’t seem particularly relevant to whether Jesus’s teachings are worthy of paying attention to.  I don’t actually remember Jesus carrying American flags and talking about the personhood of corporations, either.  Corporations, Marxism, the Cleaver family of 1960’s American television, even apple pie -- these are all 20th Century social constructs.  A return to an historically accurate interpretation of Biblical events would necessitate a return to a world of Roman occupation, a world of fishing with nets, drawing of water from a common well, and the washing of dusty feet. 

Of course, even if apple pie is a relatively new invention, motherhood is not.  Some things do still translate from the gospel directly to our daily moral lives.  With regard to this, I distinctly remember a story in the Gospel of Luke 8, when Jesus’s mommy bade him come to her, and he refused, saying that his true family were the people who “hear God’s word and obey it” (ouch!).  And in Matthew 10:37, Jesus told his disciples, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”  Wow.  So, maybe Jesus … But, let’s not go there.  It’s actually a fact that Jesus’s teachings were not always easy, even for those closest to him, who lived right when he did.

Is it possible that the reason comfortable, Middle Class Americans find themselves so threatened by Liberation Theology that it actually hits something of a raw nerve concerning our responsibility for the poor and for social justice?  Is Liberation Theology evil and anti-American, or is it just uncomfortable for rich Americans who would rather have the security of a plentiful bank account, never mind that the poor are just outside the door?  

(The bigger, more important, question in this public debate is probably “who ‘owns’ public policy”?  I know many atheists and people of other religions who would object to the idea of Christians defining “Americana” according to their own theology.  But recognizing that public policy is about morality, and that Christian people have a vital interest in shaping public policy according to generally accepted moral standards, what can we learn from the Gospel about what morality is authentic to Christianity?  For it is only when we’ve discovered what morality is authentic to Christianity that we can then discuss how that morality ought to inform public policy decisions.) 

Is Christian morality represented by patriotism, motherhood, apple pie, and the Cleaver family of 1960’s TV, or is it something else?  For now, let’s stick with the issue that Beck uses against Obama, that' Obama must be one of those … ahem …  Liberation Theology Christians.   If Obama is influenced by Liberation Theology in the morality that he brings to bear on public policy issues, does this make him anti-American, a Marxist in disguise?  This, then, leads to the question, “Just how anti-American is Liberation Theology”? 

The idea of “Liberation Theology” comes from the New Testament, particularly Romans 8, in which Paul proclaims that Jesus came to “liberate” the Believer. (“[T]the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”) This thinking about “liberation” leads not only to the larger question, “liberated from what,” but also to questions about the mechanism by which that liberation occurs and our responsibility in the present world.  The answer to these questions forms the crux of the debates concerning liberation theology.

An article by the Jesuit Priest, Rev. James Martin,* posted on August 29, 2010, entitled “Glenn Beck vs. Christ the Liberator” in Huffington Post (and cross posted on the blog God’s Politics by Beck’s “Social Justice” nemesis Christian Jim Wallis), contains a rebuttal of Beck’s claim that Liberation Theology is evil.


Martin says Liberation Theology was a “lifeline” for him and the the refugees he worked among in Nairobi, Kenya, from 1992 to 1994.  He concisely explains what Liberation Theology is and why he views it as completely consistent with the Gospel.   Rather than repeat any explanations, I quote him as follows:

A little history: Liberation theology began in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, and was later developed more systematically by Catholic theologians who reflected on experiences of the poor there. The term was coined by the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, in his landmark book A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971. Briefly put, liberation theology (there are many definitions, by the way) is a Gospel-based critique of the world through the eyes of the poor. Contrary to what Beck implies, the liberation theologian doesn't see himself or herself as victim; rather proponents call us to see how the poor are marginalized by society, to work among them, to advocate on their behalf, and to help them advocate for themselves. It has nothing to do with seeing yourself as victim. It is, like all authentic Christian practices, "other-directed."

It also sees the figure of Jesus Christ as the "liberator," who frees people from bondage and slavery of all kinds. So, as he does in the Gospels, Christ not only frees people from sin and illness, Christ also desires to free our fellow human beings from the social structures that keep them impoverished. This is this kind of "liberation" that is held out. Liberation theologians meditate on Gospel stories that show Christ upending the social structures of the day, in order to bring more--uh oh--social justice into the world. Christians are also asked to make, as the saying goes, a "preferential option for the poor."

It's not hard to see what Beck has against "liberation theology." It's the same reason people are often against "social justice." Both ideas ask us to consider the plight of the poor. And that's disturbing. Some liberation theologians even consider the poor to be privileged carriers of God's grace. In his book The True Church and the Poor, Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian wrote, "The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the Good News and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else." That's pretty threatening for any comfortable Christian. For not only do we have to help the poor, not only do we have to advocate on their behalf, we also have to see them as perhaps understanding God better than we do.

But that's not a new idea: It goes back to Jesus. The poor, the sick and the outcast "got" him better than the wealthy did. Perhaps because there was less standing between the poor and God. Less stuff. Maybe that's why Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, "If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me." Like I said, pretty disturbing, then and now. It's hardly "the opposite of the Gospel," as Beck said. The opposite of the Gospel would be to acquire wealth and fail to work on behalf of the poor.

In its heyday, liberation theology was not without controversy: some thought its emphasis on political advocacy skirted too close to Marxism--including Pope John Paul II. On the other hand, John Paul didn't shy away from personally involving himself in direct political activism in Poland. It was the Latin American version of social action that seemed to bother him more. But even John Paul affirmed the notion of "preferential option for the poor." "When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration," he wrote, in his great encyclical Centesimus Annus, which celebrating 100 years of--uh oh--Catholic social teaching.

Liberation theology is easy to be against. For one thing, most people don't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about. It's also easier to ignore the concerns of the poor, particularly overseas, than it is to actually get to know them as individuals who make a claim on us. There are also plenty of overheated websites that facilely link it to Marxism. My response to that last critique is to read the Gospels and count how many times Jesus tells us that we should help the poor and even be poor. In the Gospel of Matthew, he tells us that the ones who will enter the Kingdom of heaven are those who help "the least of my brothers and sisters," i.e., the poor. After that, read the Acts of the Apostles, especially the part about the apostles "sharing everything in common." Then let me know if helping the poor is communist or simply Christian.

I have no idea if President Obama espouses liberation theology. But I do. And for me it's personal. Between 1992 and 1994, I worked with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, and participated in Catholic parishes who tried to help poor parishioners (i.e., all of them) reflect on their daily struggles through lens of the Gospel. And the Gospel passages that spoke of liberation for the poor were a lifeline to me and to those with whom I worked. Oh, and it's not only Jesus. His mother had something to say about all that, too. "He has filled the hungry with good things," says Mary in the Gospel of Luke, "and sent the rich away empty."

Liberation theology has also animated some of the great Christian witnesses of our time. Several of my brother Jesuits (and their companions), some of whom wrote and taught liberation theology, were assassinated at the University of Central America in 1989 by Salvadoran death squads, precisely for their work with the poor, as Jesus had encouraged them to do. Archbishop Oscar Romero, the redoubtable archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred in 1980 after standing for the marginalized, also heard the call of Christ the Liberator. So did the four courageous Catholic churchwomen who were martyred that same year for their work in El Salvador.

These are my heroes. These are the ones who truly "restore honor."

It's hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man. Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see? Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion. It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.

Glenn Beck's opposition to "social justice" and "liberation theology" is all the more difficult to understand because of his cloaking of himself in the mantle of devout believer. "Look to God and make your choice," he said during his rally on Sunday.

If he looked at Jesus more carefully he would see someone who already made a choice: for the poor.
Martin says it well enough.  Liberation Theology is not Marxist.  It’s not American.  It’s not Un-American, either.  It’s a response to the gospel.  Where does that put Beck, with regard to Christianity?   To the extent that Liberation Theology represents the gospel or provides a gauge of how we are doing as a Christian nation, what does it say about, and to, those who make and who debate policy in the United States?   
*James Martin is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. This essay is adapted from a post on America's In All Things.  And again, this post quotes verbatim from the article posted on August 29, 2010, in Huffington Post, HERE

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