Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Baptists & Liberation Theology

I subscribe to Baptist New Global, a daily email with news from the Baptist universe. This morning, the top story was Liberation theologian prompts Baptist minister’s ‘Franciscan conversion’ to serve the poor. As a person who has been reading about liberation theology for the past decade, I had to click on the story. After reading it, the story seemed to ask for a comment, but there was no ‘comments’ section. Thus, I present this blog entry as my response.

The article states, “Inspired by St. Francis, Jeremy Everett wants to empower those who live in poverty — and defeat hunger in the process.” People can find inspiration in numerous places. When something inspires someone to do good work, the source of inspiration extends beyond its initial audience and intent. For example, the historical St. Francis and the mythical St. Francis inspire good, so he extends beyond his initial time, audience, and sense of calling. When Mr. Everett experiences God speaking a specific calling through St. Francis, he changes the world for the better.

Mr. Everett sounds like an intriguing individual. The article is primarily a brief biography with some news about the Texas Hunger Initiative. It outlines some powerful efforts in the Christian world, organizations that highlight being salt and light in the world. It is about people doing good in the world, making tangible changes in other people’ lives. It shows how living out the gospel is possible and is quite impressive.

My only criticism, which, if I am being honest, is unnecessary. The article misses the nuances of liberation theology and the depth and breadth of liberation theologians. Terry Lee Goodrich labels Gustavo Gutiérrez as “the founder of liberation theology.” Apologies for the pedantic tone of the follow: Ms. Goodrich is incorrect. As a movement, liberation theology evolved over a period of years, if not decades. Born in early post-colonial Latin America, given a voice and theological basis by Vatican II (1962-65), and articulated by many people, Latin American liberation theology is a branch of political theology. It has various forms in North America (e.g. LGBT liberation theology, feminist theology, and Islamic liberation theology), and it developed concurrently with black liberation theology (cf. James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts).

Gutiérrez is one of the most important voices in early liberation theology, but he stands alongside a rich tradition that includes Segundo, Sobrino, Ellacuría, both Boff brothers, and many, many others. One of the key phrases of Latin American liberation theology is the “preferential option for the poor.” Gutiérrez made an undeniably significant contribution to Latin American liberation theology with his book Teología de la liberacíon (1971). Yet, the phrase, “preferential option for the poor” predated Gutiérrez’s work by three years. Pedro Arupe, the superior general of the Jesuits, first used it in 1968.

Calling Gutiérrez the founder of liberation theology oversimplifies his role. It would be like calling George Washington the founder of the United States. Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others made significant contributions. Without the others writing the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Washington might not have had a country.

The article says that Mr. Everett saw a biopic about St. Francis and experienced a conversion experience. This is wonderful! Oh, that everyone could have a life changing experience like Mr. Everett. But… people can. He watched Brother Son, Sister Moon. Reading the English translation of Gutiérrez’s book A Theology of Liberation might yield similar results for some people. Or, Segundo’s The Liberation of Theology, Brown’s Liberation Theology, or any of the 200+ titles on liberation theology from Orbis Books.

Liberation theology is a powerful expression of living out the gospel in today’s world. In some ways, it is dated, and some of the earlier titles are firmly situated in an East/West divided Cold War world. The compassion and empathy for people who live in poverty is, however, timeless. More people need conversion experiences. There is much injustice in the world. God needs people to have Damascus road experiences, look around, and seek ways to live out their faith. Because of the freedom in Baptist polity, Christians in the Baptist tradition are well-suited to respond to God’s voice, as articulated by Latin American Catholic priests.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Upset About Carrier’s Move to Mexico? Don’t Buy a Carrier AC

In a recent shaky cellphone video, a man in a suit tells Carrier employees that the factory where they work is closing. U.S.-based manufacturer Carrier Corp. decided to close the Indianapolis factory and move the 1,400 jobs to Mexico. The video went viral. Then, the company’s decision became political.

Bernie Sanders blamed NAFTA. Donald Trump made a mercantilist promise to impose a 35% tariff on AC units made in Mexico. Hilary Clinton spoke against “any trade deal that hurts America and American workers.” Kasich, Cruz, and Rubio generally support trade agreements.

My point is not to wade into political waters, but to point out the nuances of policy and prescience of theology. A news story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” pointed out an earlier mercantilist period in the United States with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. According to NPR, “most economists say it backfired.” The story cites Mark Perry, an economist for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Our trading partners ended up imposing tariffs and taxes on American goods and so it really reduced, significantly, global trade to a point that then some people even say that that's what made the Great Depression great,” Perry said.

What is a Christian to do? What would Jesus do? What would the Apostle Paul do? Be careful. They did not have air conditioning, so it might be an unfair question. They also did not have labor laws in any familiar sense. Jesus’ “render unto Caesar” speech might come to mind, but shoehorning contemporary public policy debates into Mark 12:17 misses the point. It misses Jesus’ radical response in the face of zealots who screamed for revolution, Roman sympathizers and collaborators, and people who were trying to figure out how to live in a complicated time.

First, sympathize with the person who loses her/his job. Regardless of how or why, people who lose their jobs feel traumatized. They enter a job market whether they want to or not. They enter a job market whether they are prepared or not. They need love, compassion, empathy, and support. They might need encouragement. Their fellow congregants, Sunday school classmates, or small group members can listen and speak prayerfully. Some people might appreciate a friend who shares every job lead she finds. Some people might not. Be Christ to the people who lose their jobs.

Second, carefully consider the complexity of public policy. There are always multiple sides to every story. Artificially keeping manufacturing in Indianapolis is like doing something a certain way in church because we’ve always done it that way before. In The Armchair Economist, Steven E. Landsburg writes about growing “cars” in Iowa. He writes, “First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.” Perhaps there is an economic advantage to producing air conditioning units in Mexico. I do not know, but I do know that there is more to the story than mean Mr. Potter making a mean decision. Read. Find out. Learn more about the minutiae involved.

Third, carefully and prayerfully consider voting. Which candidates would do the best job? Should the candidate be moral and decent? Yes. Should the candidate be experienced and present solid plans for potential policies? Yes. Will you find the perfect candidate? No. Most importantly, which candidates appear to care about people? Do any deliberately alienate people? Do they get along with others? Voting is an important part of the democratic process.

Fourth, what about the Mexican workers? Does Carrier pay a living wage to its Mexican workers? Or, is Carrier taking advantage of them in order to provide lower cost units to people in the United States? If so, Carrier is perpetuating systemic oppression and committing injustice. I do not know the answer. Paying a living wage in Tijuana is more affordable than paying a living wage in Indianapolis, but no one asked the question: Is Carrier acting justly and treating its employees fairly, or not?

Fifth, what about the environment? Will Carrier be able to produce more pollution in Mexico than it could in the United States? What about its employees? Will Carrier protect its Mexican workers as well as it did in the United States under OSHA standards? Will it provide workers compensation if an employee is injured? These aspects of business are easy to ignore when companies exclusively seek a profit. Prophets speak against such injustice and the role of government is to protect its citizens, even from the citizens’ own employers.

Finally, if you are upset about Carrier’s move to Mexico, do not buy a Carrier unit. Buy another brand. The free market dictates business decisions. On the one hand, if Carrier’s sales suffered because of their move to Mexico, they would move back. On the other hand, if Carrier’s move to Mexico leads to lower priced units, more people can afford air conditioning and can avoid potential life-threatening, heat-related health issues.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Why be congregational?

There are three types of church polity: episcopate, presbyter, and congregational. That's it. There really are only three, so it is pretty easy to remember. Every Christian church can be put into one of these three categories, and sometimes a church can be in one category on paper but act like it is in another category in real life. When I first explored my call into Christian ministry, I considered the path to ordination and ministerial service in each these types of polities. In the end, I felt God was leading me into the congregational church. This includes a number of denominations, but identifying which denominational structure was the first step for me. Because it was a deliberate decision, I would like to share the fruit of my exploration.

First, let me describe (quite briefly) each type of church polity. In an episcopate, a bishop presides. In a presbyter, an office bearer exercise teaching, priestly, and administrative functions, and the presbytery maintains ownership and responsibility for local congregations. Congregational polity is the form of Protestant church government in which each local church acts as an independent, self-governing body, while maintaining fellowship with like congregations.

All three types of church polity have advantages and disadvantages. Each form of church polity was created by humankind. Therefore, each one is in some way flawed. In episcopates, like the Methodists or Episcopalians, a bishop can intercede with an errant congregation. However, an errant bishop can be quite problematic for a congregation. Presbyteries can represent the congregations, yet maintain the necessary control to intervene in problems in a specific parish. However, presbyteries can also get bogged down with committees and bureaucracy.

Congregational polity best represents my beliefs because I have faith in people. It is true that people can be disappointing, but I believe that no one is better equipped to make decisions for a local congregation than the congregation itself. The members have each been given a brain, a conscience, and the ability to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. The congregational polity also represents humankind’s freedom in Christ.

My belief in congregationalism is not meant as a judgment against episcopates or presbyters. It reflects my spiritual journey, my reading and understanding of the Bible, and my faith in God at work in people's lives and churches. That being said, I cherish the times in my life when, with people from many different polities and denominations, I have broken bread in celebration and remembrance of Jesus.