Waging Peace: Paul Rasor

11 Jan

Go here for clarity on our post September 11 world.

Paul Rasor must be a brilliant teacher if one is to judge from Faith without Certainty, which is a model of clear exposition. His chapter on postmodernism is one of the best things I have read on the subject. I wish the book had been around back in 2002 when I had to teach a unit on pomo to a Year 12 class. I now offer a sample, a long extract from Rasor’s chapter on Liberation Theology.

…there are important differences relating to the kind of social analysis liberation theologians do and the types of explanations they find persuasive. Liberation theologians and other commentators have traditionally distinguished three approaches to the analysis of poverty: the conservative, the liberal, and the liberationist. Conservatives tend to see poverty as the result of individual moral failures of the poor themselves. This view is rooted in New England Puritanism and reflects the American mythology of rugged individualism and the so-called Protestant work ethic. Its ethic of self-help leads to social politics that deny or minimize most forms of social assistance. “God helps those who help themselves” might be said to be its theological motto. Its angle of vision is that of the market. The conservative approach has historically been the dominant view in public policy responses to poverty in the United States. Liberation theology rejects this view outright because it not only leaves the dominant system in place, it assumes that the dominant system is working just fine. But the mere existence of widespread poverty and suffering amid enormous concentrations of wealth belies this assumption.

Liberals locate the causes of poverty in social circumstances rather than in the moral failings of the poor. The proper response from the liberal perspective is to create programs and services for those in need. This appears to be a social response, but at a deeper level it remains focused primarily on individuals. The liberal premise is that those who are poor can overcome their condition if they have the right education and opportunities. The liberal goal is to level the playing field and make the system work better for those who have been disadvantaged. this is a corrective, reform-oriented approach. it arises out of an ethic of service, and its most prominent religious expression is in mission work and other forms of hands-on social action.

This service ethic is reflected in the emphasis on social ethics in liberal Protestantism and in the tradition of social teachings and “works of mercy” in Roman Catholicism. Liberal social programs offer a periodic corrective to the harshest consequences of the conservative approach, and liberal social outreach helps alleviate some suffering. But liberation theologians reject the liberal approach as fundamentally inadequate. Much has been written on the failure of development programs in Latin America, for example, and Cornel West has spoken of “the impotency of liberalism in the face of structural unemployment and class inequality” in our own society. In the long run, the liberal approach does not work because it leaves the basic social structure in place. From the liberation perspective, the social structure itself is the problem.

Liberationists offer a radical alternative. They see poverty as the inevitable consequence of modern society’s economic organization. This perspective focuses on the poor as a social class, not as individuals. Thus, poverty is often referred to as a form of “institutionalized violence.” By the same token, the oppression of women and people of color is seen in terms of deep-seated structures of patriarchy and racism rather than as the result of personal bigotry. In their analyses of poverty, liberation theologians address the structural and systemic causes of oppression. Structural analysis also uncovers the overlapping nature of oppressions, such as the concentration of poverty among women and persons of color in the United States. The underlying ethic is neither self-help nor service, but liberation. From the liberation perspective, overcoming these forms of oppression will take more than new social programs and the good will of the middle class; it will take a radical realignment of the social and economic order.

Liberation theology’s understanding of poverty has an important theological dimension. Poverty does not signify merely the absence of material well-being, it also signals the absence of true mutuality between human beings and in turn the absence of God…

At one level this is a question of human relationships, but it is also about the divine-human relationship. For liberation theology, “God is present wherever this acknowledgment [between subjects] occurs.” But the existence of poverty and oppression

demonstrates a human relationship bereft of God. The existence of the poor attests to the existence of a Godless society, whether one explicitly believes in God or not. This absence of God is present whenever someone is crying out. The absence of God is present in the poor person. The poor are the presence of the absence of God.

This is what makes liberation theology’s analysis of poverty simultaneously sociological and theological. It also points to another difference from liberal theology: “The presence of God is no longer an internal emotion, but rather is transformed into praxis (orthopraxis). Its criteria lie in actual reality…. God’s presence is a doing, a praxis.” Praxis refers to the actual practice of one’s faith in service of liberation.

I am much in sympathy with the liberationist approach which does derive much from Marxist analysis, but without Marxist atheism or Marxist pretensions of being scientific. However, there is clearly a danger in “This perspective focuses on the poor as a social class, not as individuals.” It is only too easy for this abstractive tendency to lose sight of the complexity of individual circumstances. It seems to me that a balance must always be struck between principle and what is really going on is very specific, concrete circumstances. There does need to be room for heresy, even in liberation theology. There are times, for example, when what gets in the way of moving forward is not at the level of broad structural issues but at the level of individual dysfunction or cultural dysfunction, which need to be honestly faced. There are times when “Get off your fat arses, stop feeling so sorry for yourselves, and stop shitting in your own nests” really is appropriate. Hence I lean towards Noel Pearson in matters Aboriginal, as a corrective to a one-eyed liberationist pespective. At the same time, in most cases the very worst of all worlds is one where smug conservatism rules, a circumstance we find ourselves in today.

The last chapter but one of Faith without Certainty confronts the ambivalent history of liberal Christianity’s critique of racism in the USA over the past century or so and invites a firmer prophetic role in this area. Kim Thoday has some interesting points to make in a related matter: “Christian Resistance to Apartheid in South Africa”.

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