Any Christian theology worth holding has to be engaged with the need for the liberation of the oppressed.
“No social or political movement has succeeded in the U.S. without a significant role for religion.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Lilian Calles Barger. Barger was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and immigrated to the United States as a child. She received her PhD from The University of Texas at Dallas. Her book isThe World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Lilian Calles Barger: For BAR readers, my book reconnects a radical politics with radical religion. America is in the midst of a new war of religions with the Christian right and the Christian left forwarding different visions for society. Both claim to offer a truly Christian politic. Along with that, there are strong secular groups that want religion out of politics altogether.
Among progressive believers, there is a revival of liberation theology as a possible ethic for social change. Often, what the first generation of liberation theologians said in the 1960s and 70s gets lost. The liberationist theological movement, which includes Latin American, Black and feminists theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, recast the relationship of religion to politics. They rejected the way modern theology was done as though it had no political ramifications. For them, any Christian theology worth holding had to be engaged with the need for the liberation of the oppressed.
The theologian James Cone (who died April 28, 2018) sought throughout his life’s work to revitalize the protest role of the Black church. He firmly believed that the Black Power of his time couldn’t succeed without the Black church or that the church couldn’t be part of the solutions without recognizing the role of group power in American society.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I would like activists and community organizers to understand that no social or political movement has succeeded in the U.S. without a significant role for religion. Abolition, women’s rights, anti-war, Civil Rights all had strong religious components. Even today strong religious led movements, such as the Poor People’s campaign, have better prospects. Black Lives Matter and Occupy with less religious involvement are more likely to flounder in the long term. If a movement cannot speak to what the theologian Paul Tillich called the deeper “ultimate concern” of most people, it’s very difficult to rally and sustain the level of commitment required for social change. In the U.S., religion even for people not attached to religious institutions, still offers the language of something beyond the self or the group. This is the inspiring energy that religion provides.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
First, the idea that theology is something rarefied and abstract done by old white guys in a church tower or the academy. Theology is something ordinary people do every day as they notice where divine power is moving in their own lives. Second, liberationists showed that all theology is political and that one cannot separate one’s politics from one’s idea about the divine or any type of transcendence. We all operate under certain assumptions about the overarching meaning of life, which will surely drive our politics.
Christian theology (I believe this is true among all the monotheistic religions) has deep political implications and what theologians articulate about God is never just of individual or private concern. It spills over into all areas of life including the public arena. Even if we're able to build a strict wall of separation between the state and the churches, citizen’s groups will advocate for their vision of the world, which inevitably is a religious vision. One’s politics is an orientation of how to optimize arrangements of power. And what is more powerful than the appeal of a divine absolute? Which of course can take many forms, images, and expressions.
There is a need to unlearn, particularly among the left, that the African American churches have sold out their race by identifying with a white God in order to be respectable. This led many to abandon the African American churches as hopelessly unable to aid in Black liberation. That is why James Cone was compelled to declare, “God is black.” He saw the need to proclaim that God is for Black people and for their liberation as mobilizing energy for political and social change. He hoped to reignite the protest and resistance that historically had been part of African American churches. I believe that’s still a viable proposal.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Wow! That’s a big question. My father, Ruben Francisco Calles, was an immigrant to the U.S. and had a six-grade education. With all the lack of opportunities, he remained curious about the world and read widely in his youth. My intellectual curiosity was nurtured at the dinner table where my father and I discussed all sort of theological, political and philosophical questions. I miss those conversations that many times erupted into heated arguments. I was allowed to disagree with him even as a 12-year-old girl and he never shut me out or denied me having my own mind. At the same time, he had his own form of activism that sprung from his deep Christian faith and sense of justice. He advocated for Mexican migrant workers in Texas working on farms, in chicken processing plants, and the poor in Latin American shantytowns. What better hero than that?
But that is not what you are asking. I don’t so much have intellectual heroes, but there are great thinkers who have dazzled me. As a young woman, I was significantly encouraged by the intellectual fortitude of Simone de Beauvoir. I’ve benefited much from the cultural criticism of the Christian anarchist and sociologist Jacques Ellul and the critical theology of Karl Barth. More recently the work of historian Paul Gilroy’s work on the Black Atlantic and the historian James T. Kloppenberg’s work on the idea of democracy and how difficult it is to realize. Finally, one of my favorite novels is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Columbian Gabriel García Márquez. It must be one of the greatest novels ever written.I read widely and there is always something new, but I still like the older books. That must be the historian in me.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Liberation theologians, who went against the status quo, thought the world could be changed and were criticized for being utopian. They responded by saying that the political pragmatism that ruled the day held to the view that the limits of the future are determined by the structures of today. The possibility for foundational change was limited. All one could really hope for was to keep power in check or spread it around a little more, but not change the fundamental structure of society. Race, class and gender assumptions defended as absolutes, were used to uphold the status quo. Social scientists collaborated in this by conducting bias studies that attempted to define black people, women, and other minorities. Theologians were complicit. Demands for change that reimagined social and economic relations were viewed as utopian and still are. Today American values and institutions that need to be reconsidered are held as sacrosanct narrowing the possibility for change.
Liberationists were correct in seeing that charges of utopianism are easily hurled at that those who don’t accept the status quo as a given. If we think about it, all politics, right or left, liberal or conservative, are utopian. Everyone believes that if their particular political vision was followed the world’s problems would be solved, at least for them.
“Race, class and gender assumptions defended as absolutes, were used to uphold the status quo.”
The other contribution of the liberationists made was that they argued that real fundamental and lasting change never originates from the top. Elites do not easily give up their power so appeals for inclusion or consideration were wasted effort. Any change that has occurred in our history has been due to pressure from below. Slaves, freemen, women, labor and poor all had to fight their own battles for any modicum of freedom they got.
We cannot advocate from a position of privilege. We must do so out of solidarity, which means joining in the struggle and the inevitable suffering that will come. From whatever privilege position one holds (race, class, education, gender, or status), one can’t speak for the marginalized but only amplify their voices.
The liberationists’ intervention was a new way to read the Bible. Instead of an elite white men reading of the Bible, liberationists listened to oppressed people. This change of position from an elite reading to a reading “from below” offered religion as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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