Thursday, March 27, 2008

Theo-political Discourse: an Exchange



This letter is in response to a friend's questions on my thoughts of how theology plays into voting. Here's my response:


Dear B.,


Thanks for writing; you raise some excellent, pointed questions about the election. I wish more people were thinking as critically as you.

It's true I am an Obama supporter, and I will tell you why in a few minutes. But first I want to talk about some of the points you brought up, starting with black liberation theology.

I have read some of James Cone's work and have referenced it on numerous occasions in past research (I'll see if I can dig up some papers, for curiosity's sake). While you seem to have a good idea of his general theology, I need to clarify a few points.

First, black liberation theology falls under the general umbrella 'theology of liberation' (aka, liberation theology) developed by Fr. Gustavo GutiƩrrez Merino, a Dominican priest from Peru. It's important to recognize that the social, religious, political, and economic landscape of Latin America plays an inextricable role in the development of this particular theology. Without going into too much detail, the general premise of liberation theology is founded in the Exodus movement...that the children of Israel called for help in their bondage under the Egyptians, and God delivered them, establishing an unbreakable covenant as a result; "You will be my people, and I will be your God." God made a promise to a people to deliver them from oppression, and as Christians of a new covenant, we are charged with the responsibility of carrying out that job, to be the "hands and feet of Christ," who no longer has human hands and feets besides ours with which to work. It is the social responsibility of all Christians to fight, and die if need be, on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable whose voices are trampled daily, but whose God "hears the cry of the poor."

Cone is not anti-white...he is anti-oppression. And in Cone's view, blacks have not, for all intents and purposes, been liberated by the political civil rights procured in the sixties as a result of political activism and civil disobedience. Although I don't know for certain, I would imagine Cone would be drawing from the influence of both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr--recognizing the need for a spiritual discipleship fused with political responsibility in the civic arena. As a Christian, MLK felt that the oppression of blacks under segregation was not only unjust from a civil liberties point of view, but sinful, because it perpetuates the kind of injustice that, in his view, is incompatible with the justice of God, since as it is written, "God hears the cry of the poor."

Malcolm X felt similarly about the need to liberate blacks from oppression, but was not on board with King's Christian pacificism. X had a kind of "holy anger" directed at injustice that I, personally, find prophetically admirable (much more so than the righteous indignation of, say, the Religious Right) because he was more concerned with liberation from oppression for blacks than he was with getting such-and-such laws passed in the House. Cone's theology is based in the idea that oppression is incompatible with justice, which is both political justice and the justice of God--his promises to the oppressed for liberation. As an American black man, he is bringing his experience into his theology, which is what all theologians do (so called "object theologians" can also properly be called "liars") and as Cone sees it, racism and oppression, despite what White America might have you believe, is still alive and well and built into the very system on which this country stands. He is not a Latin American. He is not a woman. He is not a GLTB. There is criticisms from black feminist theologians that Cone's theology might not take women's struggles into account (his later revised edition of A Black Theology of Liberation addresses some of these issues in a more sensitive way, much like X's hardline Black-supremacy softened after his pilgrimage to Mecca.) Black theology can be ascribed to by whites for its general theology of justice and liberation. But it can only be written by blacks, because it can only be felt by blacks.

I did not vote for Kerry in 2004 because I thought he was a noble candidate, and while I think it was a case of voting for the "lesser of two evils," the particular issues surrounding him that were at odds with my personal religious beliefs were just that--issues. As a "big picture" person (versus a "details" person), I guess it should not be surprising that as a whole, I felt voting for George Bush would not be the best thing for our country. Though far from a being a responsible American citizen, I do not question that choice; in spite of criticism from many of my own people (if I can speak about my Catholic faith, and the global Catholic community, in that way) who felt that a Catholic could not, in good conscience, vote for a pro-choice [platform] candidate, or a candidate not fit to receive Communion because of his divorce and remarriage, I voted my conscience.

People vote their values. If the environment is your #1 concern, you'll vote Nader. If you are a hard-core libertarian, or someone with strong evangelical Christian values, you go Ron Paul or Huckabee.

I am an environmentalist through and through. Part of my obsession with getting these electric bikes and hybrid motorcycles and L.E.V.'s out on the road is because I believe it is a calling of sorts. With the Vatican recently listing environmental degradation as on of the newly established "social sins" (a huge step in papal recognition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops letters addressing the need to consider social issues such as the environment, economic inequality, and institutionalized racism and discrimination, not as simply social issues, but as moral ones), I feel that part of my responsibility as a Christian working to build the Kingdom of God on earth is to use whatever gifts and talents that God has given me in order to answer and live out that call.

But as a conscientious American citizen, I recognize that my role in the political office is not to petition to elect representatives that represent strong beliefs in one issue or another. Ironically, I am strict conservative in that way, in that I believe that the original intentions of the founders of this country were ultimately good, and that at the heart of that is the belief is that all people are created equal and that all people should enjoy the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is why, after all, we are all sons and daughters of immigrants.

With all that being said, I have had no problem in the past flying my flag upside down from a high mast in protest of the degeneration of those values. My Christian beliefs are neo-orthodox in this way, and I have been strongly influenced by the theology of Reinhold Neiber and others in this school, who believe that above all ideology is, in a way, idolatry, and that above all sense of loyalty to self, others, or systems, must take second seat to the God who says, first and foremost, "you shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, strength, soul, and mind" above all things. Yes this is radical theology...but that also depends on where you are sitting. For me, I can't concede any other belief.

Hand in hand with that, however, is the adjoining commandment given by Jesus--the God-Man dropped transcended into the social-economic-political-cultural world of historical reality: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." These two cannot be separated any more than Jesus' human reality can be separated from his divine. For this reason he said, "there is no greater commandment than these." Theologically speaking, since God's love is inextricably linked to God's justice (i.e., one cannot exist without the other), one cannot say they love God while maintaining injustice against one's neighbor. This, I think, is really at the heart of liberation theology.

But just like our country has crashed off the rails of its noble ideology time and time again throughout history, liberation theology itself has been misinterpreted in history and as a result has betrayed certain aspects of its core. The first example of that (and it continues to be a point of concern for the Vatican today, contributing to its early condemnations) is the taking up of arms in violent protest. If you have ever read The Last Temptation of Christ, it is most akin to the zealots fighting for Israel's liberation from Rome...and not feeling using violence as a means to and end was unjustified for that pursuit. It is my personal feeling that it is at this point that liberation theology--or those taking up arms under its banner--oversteps its bounds and moves away from its core to the point that in order to maintain one's integrity as a liberation theologian (or as one ascribing to this theology, as is where I find myself), it becomes necessary to distance oneself from such zealotry.

Which is why I am voting for Obabma; because I believe (and I stress the word belief), in that I can't prove it anymore than I can prove the existence of God; ie, I trust that it is true, knowing full well that there are no guaranteed returns on those chips (I have Kierkegaard, Marcel, and other Christian Existentialists who have been hugely influential for me, to thank for those beliefs) that he is a man of integrity.

I liken the media's criticism of Obama's association with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, to my own history as a Catholic Worker and Christian Socialist, being part of a movement that claims such "radicals" as Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers, and the Ploughshares Eight, people who put God above Government and have paid a heavy price for their activism and expression of that belief. I am not an activist (I hate crowds too much)...but my association with such "Anti-Americans" who have performed radical EarthFirst! and Sea Sheppherd-type demonstrations (such as breaking onto Federal Government property and attempting to disable nuclear warheads, pouring blood on federal files and courthouse steps, and burning draft papers) could probably come back to haunt me should I decide to run for public office someday (which will be never).

Clinton "never inhaling," Kerry's Swift Boat headaches...anyone who is in the public spotlight long enough and has enemies will have dirt drug up on him. If I ran for president on a platform of non-discrimination, there is nothing keeping anyone who wanted to from charging with me hypocrisy, considering the Catholic Church officially does not recognize gays as worthy of having equal civil rights. They could even bring to light the existence of radical groups such as Catholic Counterpoint, who have officially been classified as a "hate group" in Pennsylvania, thanks to their anti-Semitic rhetoric and charges. I am a Catholic; a radical Catholic group thinks the Holocaust was a sham. Do I believe the same? See the connection here? As Zach de la Rocha screamed, "you know they murdered X...and tried to blame it on Islam."

You seemed concerned about how the media is going to jump on Obama's association with the anti-white and anti-American sentiments of his pastor (former pastor?), but then implied that the media's attempts to discredit Obama are reason enough not to vote for him. I have to say I can't agree with you on this point. I don't see these things as threat enough to Obama's nomination, and I also do not personally believe (though I could be wrong), given the recent Dem take over in the Senate and what seems to be a general public disillusionment with the GOP (thanks in large part to the war, the current administration, and Bush's being an idiot), that McCain has the support he needs to defeat either candidate. Your argument is that we need to bag Obama because the media is going to do him in on this whole Jeremiah Wright business and vote for Hillary because we need to defeat John McCain. Although I advocated the same general strategy in the 2000 election with people throwing votes down the toilet on Nader (sorry, my personal opinion for any Greens out there), that race was close enough to warrant the pressure on Green voters to, "for God's sake, keep Bush out of the White House!" I don't think your reasoning holds for McCain because it is a different race.

I have a lot of hope in Obama. I think the last eight years have brought our country to a new low in my lifetime. I'm banking on Obama to deliver the change he promises. But I am also concerned with how our country is perceived around the world. When I was traveling in New Zealand people advised me to say that I was Canadian when asked where I was from, and it quickly became apparent why: our president is an idiot. While I don't think Hillary is an idiot, I see her as coming to the table with much of the same hard-liner approach that Bush employs in foreign diplomacy...and its a fucking failure and embarrassment and continues to alienate us from the rest of the world. I think Obama offers some hope at being a public representative of a New America, not coming from the same tired Bush-Clinton poli-power families who are indebted to decades worth of political favors from nepotistic back-scratchers. And Obama, while being criticized for his "lack of experience," will not be leading our country cavalier style under his own banner...I have no doubt he will appoint a Cabinent that will, at the very least, clear out the Bush Cronies and the fucking Axis of Evil (Cheney-Rumsfield) that is our present administration and work towards mending severed ties with alienated countries, approach global issues multi-laterally, and restore our credibility as a truly democratic country. Our President is only our Representative...we are the people.

I'd like to send this to everyone who you had on your other email to the group concerning these issues. Would that be okay? I think its good you are pushing people B. and thanks for taking the time to write all you did, and giving me the opportunity to flush out a lot of my own thoughts and feelings.

But I'm still voting 'Bama;)


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