great sage Rev. James Martin on liberation theology

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-james-martin-sj/glenn-beck-to-catholics-l_b_490669.html

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Glenn Beck said last week on his eponymous show that Christians should leave churches that preach “social justice.” Mr. Beck equated the desire for a just society with–wait for it–Nazism and Communism.

I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes.

This means that you would have to leave the Catholic Church, which has long championed that aspect of the Gospel.  The term “social justice” originated way back in the 1800s (and probably predates even that), and has been  underlined by the Magisterium and popes since Leo XIII, who began the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching with his encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum in 1891.  Subsequent popes have built on Leo’s work, continuing the church’s meditation on a variety of issues of social justice in such landmark documents as Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on “the reconstruction of the social order,” Quadregismo Anno (1931), Paul VI’s encyclical “on the development of peoples,” Populorum Progressio  (1967) and John Paul II’s encyclical “on the social concerns of the church” Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987). 

The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, says this: 

The Church’s social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice., which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions….

 

Social justice is not just some silly foreign idea.  American Catholics know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have an Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development.  On that website the U.S. bishops say: “At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace.  Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.”

Get it?  Social justice is an essential part of Catholic teaching.  It’s part of being a Catholic.  So Glenn Beck is, in essence, saying “Leave the Catholic church.”

But Glenn Beck is saying something else: “Leave Christianity.”  Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus mentions our responsibility to care for the poor, to work on their behalf, to stand with them.  In fact, when asked how his followers would be judged he doesn’t say that it will be based on where you worship, or how you pray, or how often you go to church, or even what political party you believe in.  He says something quite different: It depends on how you treat the poor.

In the Gospel of Matthew (25) he tells his surprised disciples, that when you are meeting the poor, you are meeting him.  They protest.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But our responsibility to care for “the least of these” does not end with simple charity.  Giving someone a handout is an important part of the Christian message.  But so is advocating for them.  It is not enough simply to help the poor, one must address the structures that keep them that way.  Standing up for the rights of the poor is not being a Nazi, it’s being Christian.  And Communist, as Mr. Beck suggests?  It’s hard not to think of the retort of the great apostle of social justice, Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” 

The attack on social justice is the tack of those who wish to ignore the concerns the poor and ignore the social structures that foster poverty.  It’s not hard to see why people are tempted to do so.  How much easier it would be if we didn’t have to worry about the poor!  

But ignoring the poor, and ignoring what keeps them poor, is, quite simply, unchristian.  For the poor are the church in many ways.  When St. Lawrence, in the fourth century, was ordered by the prefect of Rome to turn over the wealth of the church, he presented to him the poor.

Glenn Beck’s desire to detach social justice from the Gospel is a move to detach care for the poor from the Gospel.  But a church without the poor, and a church without a desire for a just social world for all, is not the church.

At least not the church of Jesus Christ.  Who was, by the way, poor.

The Rev. James Martin, SJ is the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. A longer version of this post can be found at America Magazine‘s blog “In All Things.” http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?entry_id=1071

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/sage-rev-james-martin-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-li/

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-james-martin-sj/glenn-beck-vs-christ-the-_b_698359.html

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After his colossal “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., Glenn Beck took aim at one of his favorite targets, Barack Obama, but in a novel way.  Beck regrets saying a few months ago that President Obama was a “racist.”  What he should have said, he now realizes, was that he didn’t agree with Obama’s “theology.”  And what is Obama’s theology, according to Beck?  Liberation theology.

Here’s Beck’s definition of the arcane area of study known as 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

As Ronald Reagan used to say, “There you go again.”  A few months ago, Beck decided to demolish the idea of “social justice,” by telling Christians that if their priests, pastors or ministers use that buzz word on Sundays they should leave their churches.  As he may or may not have known, the tenets of “social justice” encourage one not only to help the poor, but also address the conditions that keep them poor.  He called that “communist.”

That approach didn’t work out that well for Beck since so many Christian denominations these days, particularly the Catholic Church, espouse social justice explicitly.  So he backed off.  But liberation theology?  Really? 

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.

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

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Seminar

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The historical Jesus was an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage and faith healer who preached a gospel of liberation from injustice in startling parables and aphorisms. 

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An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological dogmas and social conventions both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience: He preached of “Heaven’s imperial rule” (traditionally translated as “Kingdom of God“) as being already present but unseen; he depicts God as a loving father; he fraternizes with outsiders and criticizes insiders.

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Rather than revealing an apocalyptic eschatology, which instructs his disciples to prepare for the end of the world,  the authentic words of Jesus indicate that he preached a sapiential eschatology, which encourages all of God’s children to repair the world.

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/writing-and-eventually-dying-a-good-death-expressing-sharing-love-to-the-end/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/sublime/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/i-will-die-a-good-death/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/because-in-the-end-great-journeys-of-integrity-are-walked-alone-sage-steven-kalas/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/does-your-life-have-purpose/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/harriet-beecher-stowes-prophetic-engine-sage-joan-d-hedrick/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/randy-pausch-steven-kalas-living-meaningfully/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/oprah-winfreys-popular-wisdom-books-are-not-always-right-sage-steven-kalas/

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One Response to great sage Rev. James Martin on liberation theology

  1. Pingback: My Saint — Oscar Romero — and a flourishing of the Social Gospel, with credit to current Pope Francis | Curtis Narimatsu

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