Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Liberation Theology for First World people.

So, why haven't I written in a while? I had a hard semester, which went well. I took my MCAT which went terrible. I'm busy, but that isn't really it. Basically, I haven't written because I've been grossly unenthused by my usual topics lately. I've had a couple philosophy books on hand. I just shelved them the other day, because . . . well, because who the hell cares? That's been my general take for a while now. This stuff (i.e. theology, philosophy, etc.) formerly seemed of great importance to me. Now, my interest has officially waned.

This leaves me with two things to discuss: science and fiction. Neither of which I find to be great blogging material. And, neither of which, I really feel qualified or inclined to speak out as an expert, or even an aspiring expert.

So, I haven't written for a while: not because of writer's block, but mostly due to apathy.

But, yesterday I finished this book:

It's a biography about a doctor/anthropologist named Paul Farmer. I had previously read one of Farmer's works, but this biography put it in context. Farmer has spent most of his life working in Haiti, which continues to rank as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It holds that honor because our government decided long ago that a nation of former slaves was only good for exploiting. Thus, we have instituted policies ever since that taken this exploitation to extremes never before seen or thought possible.

Ever since, Haiti has enjoyed the perks of extreme poverty: violence, ridiculous infant and child mortality rates, a median age range that barely escapes the teens, epidemics galore, starvation, lack of education, lack of infrastructure, and, to Farmer's dismay, lack of basic medical services. Not that these sorrows aren't found in other places, but it's simply a fact that to not find them in Haiti would require a combination of blindness, deafness, and lack of tactile perception. This is the gift of American and Latin American foreign policy because, after all, black people should know better than to revolt against French colonialism and torture.

Paul Farmer grew up in America in a poor family, but went to Duke for his Bachelor's, and received his M.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He has predominantly worked in Haiti since his early 20's and indeed carried out most of his Harvard education by correspondence on the island. But, enough with the gist, here's why I think he's worth writing about:

Farmer is Liberation Theology incarnated. I hear people discuss liberation theology quite commonly, but it is always discussed among people in the First World. We always lend it our sympathies in theory, and in practice know that we are not actually going to do anything to join its cause. I hear the majority of churches in America talk about poverty the same way we talk about sin: it's something out there, and we should do something to stop it. We take up a collection, and then go home to watch Lost or whatever other 'cultural phenomenon' is demanding our attention. But, throwing money at Haiti only serves to shore up the power-brokers that are continuing to mutilate that country. Throwing money at charities generally serves to give jobs to naive white people, who would rather be a shoulder to cry on than an arm to work for the cause of the poor.

We can throw all the money we want at the poor, but the fact is that the "free" market is designed to steal money from those who are easiest to steal it from. American banks are fantastic at slight-of-hand. They've been using it on the Third World for centuries, and now that most of the Third World has been bled dry, they've turned (in the last 3 years especially) on Americans.

Farmer barely self-identifies as a Christian. Yet, he seems to me the embodiment of Ghandi's axiom, "Go to the poor, they will tell you who the Christians are." He simultaneously shows me three things: 1) That I am not a Christian, and that I don't know any. 2) That there is hope that we all could be if we repent. 3) That a life of service to the poor, in other words a life that follows Jesus' example is indeed beautiful, meaningful, and worth attempting.

In other words, this biography is the first meaningful theology/philosophy book I have read in years. Farmer stands out as a great example of what it is for a First World person to live out the gospel in the wake of liberation theology.


At 8:27 AM , Blogger dallasjg said...

excellent post, as always.

At 8:54 AM , Anonymous Jonathan Storment said...

Sorry to hear about the MCAT brother. I hope that it goes better next time. You made me want to read Farmer's book...I think all theology is just good idea unless it's incarnated, so thanks for this reminder.

And by the way, I don't think you have to blog about just the books you read or what new stuff you are learning. You lead an interesting life because you care about people, so you will always have stuff we will think is interesting.

At 10:10 AM , Blogger Nicolas Acosta said...

Interesting guy. I looked Farmer up on Wikipedia, and was delighted to find that he's the brother of one of the Sting wrestling incarnations.

I'm having a hard time understanding why this biography has convinced you that you are not a Christian, and that you don't know any. I can easily see how a life of dedicated service like Farmer's could convict anyone of not doing enough. But I don't see the connection between that and implying that only those currently doing radical benevolent work like this can call themselves Christians.

I understand that mainstream Christianity has done a great job of ignoring serious issues of social justice. I wake up on the cynical side of my bed most morning, so this is very apparent to me. But it seems a bit reductionistic to conflate Christian spirituality to a rather singular expression, that of taking care of the poor, which is what it sounds like you're doing. Surely, this should flow from the core of our faith. The gospel's challenge to a radical ethic also comes with grace, so that even though we're all inevitably going to fall short of it we're not disqualified from the journey altogether.

In addition to that, I'm not sure if Jesus' life itself is even enough to be able to reduce his message to one of economic justice. As much as Jesus loved the poor and called his followers to do the same, he didn't really do much to change institutional poverty, quite honestly. If the gospel he sought to bring was one of economic sustenance for the world's poor, then his life was a failure, because it just didn't happen. There are other things he paid more attention to, and there are other people in history who have done more than Jesus did to fight poverty. If we are looking for a gospel that concerns itself exclusively with social justice, I think Christianity might leave us disappointed. That emphasis is far too materialist, and we'd do well to leave talk of religion altogether if that's our only goal.

So I don't think Paul Farmer is liberation theology incarnated, because liberation theology is about proclaiming the gospel from the place of suffering. I don't see him doing that. Now, MLK and Mother Teresa and Shane Claiborne--that looks more to me like liberation theology incarnated. There has to be a transcendence proclaimed, and a transcendence rooted in the saving power of Jesus. Otherwise, it is simply a materialist message, and that kind of materialist economic justice without grace seems prone to class warfare and judgmentalism to me. The Christian gospel is multifaceted, holistic and plural in its emphasis. That's why it's so healing and challenging at the same time.

At 12:21 PM , Blogger Joe said...


As with all book reports, my goal is to get you interested in the book, and make a few vague points about why it was interesting to me. You would need to read it before the discussion of 'liberation theology incarnated' would make any sense.

When I'm sitting here, comfortable in my house with air-conditioning, well-fed, it is quite easy for me to say that the gospel is more complex than economic justice, but for starving people in Haiti it's not. For them, the only gospel is one that feeds them. So, we can write all day about grace, but there are many in the world that know nothing of grace other than the hope that they will somehow stave off malnourishment and disease for the coming days.

The most beautiful point that the biography makes, is that Farmer knows the entire time that his vision will fail. He knows he is fighting a losing battle. That is the reason I see his life as truly incarnational, and why I think it is more "Christian" than other examples. Ultimately Jesus' life was a failure: why do we think we are going to avoid his fate? Or, do we trust in him because he failed, and thus we assume we'll never have to? I see Farmer's life as a proclamation of the gospel from a place of suffering. I don't understand why he would need to attach a homily to it to make it suffice as liberation theology.

As for the accusation of materialism, I confess my guilt. But, you've known that for some time. I don't take pride in materialism, but I think it more accurate to describe myself in such terms than any others I find available. I am surrounded by materialists much like me. We all accept it reluctantly and half-heartedly. I don't think of it as an ideological stance, but more as a matter of worldview. But, the gospel is for us as well, and it's not contingent on us reverting to dualism, or any other perspective.

As for the denial of 'Christian-ness': that should be read in the light of the statement that preceded it. I don't know of many poor who would consider me Christian, and I would hazard they might say the same of most/all of the people I know. I'm arriving at a point where I think we should trust that judgment over the platitudes of orthodox authorities.


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