Saturday, August 29, 2009

Romero's Legacy: The Call to Peace and Justice

Edited by Pilar Hogan Closkey and John P. Hogan, 112 pages, Rowmanlittlefield.

“Eucharist means the real presence of Jesus both in the elements of bread and wine and in the body of believers. The majority of Catholics would probably agree with the former but scratch their heads at the latter. For most of us, Eucharist is an interior retreat – a 'spiritual' thing. One corollary, as we have seen, is the virtual absence of liturgy and Eucharist from official Catholic social teaching, as well as the relatively recent separation of liturgy from social thought and action. Both of these developments are serious betrayals, not only of the liturgical movement, but also of the New Testament and patristic traditions, since they deny the Eucharist its rightful educational role.”

These strong, condemning words reflect the downside of liberation theology. This theology developed among the poor and their priests in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 1960s. It led to some confrontations with Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1980s and '90s for many reasons, such as turning rather enthusiastically to Marxist principles even as Central and Eastern Europe were being terrorized by their own Communists.

The words at the top reflect the divisiveness of this theology. It derives from a zero-sum, we-they manner of thinking. Zero-sum thinking asserts that there exists a finite amount of resources, and that humans cannot easily create new resources or wealth using, for instance, science and technology. Instead, the wealth and resources that we have are limited, and so the poor must rise up and take by force from the rich through changing social structures or through sheer hatred of people who aren't poor.

The final judgment of liberation theology, as reflected in Romero's Legacy, is that the rich (including middle-class Canadians) are bad and that the poor, wherever they are, are good. This romanticizing of the poor parallels the noble-savage, Garden of Eden ideal that people have concocted for the first nations peoples who lived in Canada before the white man came.

Fortunately, this divisive, zero-sum way of thinking does not completely seize hold of liberation theology. Much of its thrust is to create gainful employment and educational opportunities for the poor. Other issues include clean drinking water, physical and psychological safety from brutalization in war zones, and fighting government and societal corruption.

These are all great ideals, but the devil's snare in liberation theology is ultimately that, like many brands of mainstream and radical feminism, after decades of intellectual and spiritual moaning and groaning, liberation theology cannot seem to grow beyond its need to blame. In this way, liberation theologians tend to call not for restorative justice in the model of post-apartheid South Africa, but for retributive justice.

This failure of liberation theology (and feminism) to move beyond zero-sum thinking harms the fight against poverty, because while these thinkers' blame-game tends to alienate the wealthy and supposedly powerful from sharing their concerns, liberation theology's analysis of structural sin is often bang-on:

“Poor nations have debts even though they have paid off the original loans received back in the 1970s many times over, but they are further in debt now than they were back when they got the original loan. There are structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund forcing nations to cut back on their social programs to pay the debt service, therefore depriving their own people of essential programs.”

Finally, liberation theology has failed to grow up because of its excessive emotionalism (which, again, parallels mainstream and radical feminism): “To be awake and set on fire with passion is the greatest grace that we could ever have.” No, that is not the greatest grace we could ever have, and anyone who writes it, even Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, is not proclaiming the most important part of the gospel – divine grace through Christ's resurrection.

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