Pacifism and Liberation Theology

Christian pacifism has become the betrayal and neutralisation of the liberation theology movement of the 1970s and 80s that had previously created real and meaningful connections between the global struggles of the poor with Christians in the affluent world.

These comments arose out of a discussion about the Old Testament including discussion of violence.

I had initially intended to write something on pacifist philosophy, or more particularly the absence of pacifist philosophy, in the teachings of Jesus. In short, my point was going to be that since the disciples carried swords and were prepared to use them at the end of Jesus’ ministry, then it cannot be argued that philosophical pacifism was part of the discipline of the disciples. Jesus himself said he had not come to bring peace but a sword.

Further, I was going to look at the notion of “love your enemies” as a political framework of uniting Judea and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (the Samaritans) to unite against Roman imperialism, similarly Jesus calls tax collectors and Roman centurions, the agents of empire, to renounce their allegiance to Caesar and become citizens of the Kingdom of God. I was going to argue that the personalisation and individualisation of “love your enemies” was a misuse of the social agenda of the Kingdom of God.

And finally, I was going to refer to Isaiah’s notion of “peace”. Isaiah 32:17
“The fruit of righteousness will be peace; 
 the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.”

Peace is not the goal or plan of spirituality, righteousness is. Peace is a political consequence of righteousness. If we embrace peace as our priority, this is just a selfish desire that obscures the demands of righteousness. Only by embracing righteousness can we achieve peace. They are not the same thing.

But I have decided not to explore these issues as it will no doubt lead to a meaningless argument about the interpretation of text and the cultural, historical and political filters through which the bible has passed from the oral tradition of the Hebrews into the official religion of the empires of Europe.

So, instead I wish to focus on modern history, in particular I would like to suggest that the pacifist mode of political action is a construct of the consciousness of the rich white world and as such it manifests as a barrier to real and meaningful engagement of Christians in affluent societies with the struggles and agendas of the poor.

Christian pacifism has become the betrayal and neutralisation of the liberation theology movement of the 1970s and 80s that had previously created real and meaningful connections between the global struggles of the poor with Christians in the affluent world.

Philosophical pacifism has reduced the social agenda of God manifesting through the liberation of the poor into an individualised personal discipline where God is claimed to manifest through the symbolism of religious obligation of activists of the rich culture.

Notions such as speaking truth to power and public incarnational liturgy have become merely expressions of the opinions of the participating activists who act in a self proclaimed solidarity with the poor and oppressed without any real meaningful link to those people with whom solidarity is proclaimed. In war zones, totalitarian regimes and colonised economies, the strategy and organization of the oppressed colonised peoples themselves is not taken up by the pacifist activists of the affluent west.

The poor and oppressed are appropriated into the spiritual and political frameworks and agendas of the pious activists rather than them “selling all they have to give to the poor” and directly engaging in the liberation agendas of the poor on their own terms.

The reduction of notions of “peace” to a personal discipline and philosophical framework has blinded radical activists to their own complicity in historical violence. For example, an American or Australian (where I live) Christians may well engage in civil disobedience to protest against the invasion and occupation of Iraq or atrocities in Palestine. Satisfied by their proclamations of disapproval of what is happening over there, somewhere else, the radical Christians for some reason do not seem to feel the imperative to deal with the invasion, genocide and occupation of indigenous societies on the very land on which the radical activists live, work and protest.

The pacifist ethic has resulted in Christian activist primarily identifying with other activists of the same philosophical inclination rather than with the historical force and momentum of the poor themselves through their own organizations, strategies and perspectives. The poor have become something that Christians either comment about or provide charity to, pacifism creates an ideological barrier to an open minded engagement with movements who do not advocate pacifism or even participate in some form of political violence.

The desperate struggles of South America including the armed resistance was the starting point of the development of liberation theology. The Christians of South America and the Radical Christians of North America and the Western affluent world came together around real historical movements, not utopian philosophies as pacifists do. There was no agreement about violence amongst liberation theologists; it was a constant cause for debate and deep consideration. But the point is, it was the historical struggles themselves which defined both the common agreement and the controversies within the radical church, not the ideologies and philosophies.

-Sean (John T.)


2 responses to “Pacifism and Liberation Theology

  1. Weeping Black Angel

    Hi John,
    when I traveled among Mennonites they rejected the word pacifism and preferred non-resistance for Jesus said “Resist not evil.” They thought pacifism implied being passive and saw themselves as active.

    They taught that when Jesus said sell your stuff and buy swords, when they said we have two he said “That’s enough.” He was only looking for enough swords and money to be numbered among the transgressors when he was arrested. The money bag and swords being signs of evil doers. Later when Peter actually used a sword he said “Put up you sword all who take it will perish with it.”

    Some of their scholars said that non-resistance was taught from the beginning of Israel’s history at the Red sea right up to the cross. was God’s . Th command was to stand still and see the power of God. Yahweh was to alone be the warrior, and that only when the Jews doubted did they ever participate in wars.

    Non-resistance does not mean do nothing. They divided the world into 2 kingdoms and did not feel it was their mandated to make the kingdom of the world (satan’s kingdom) a better place. They saw their duty to woo people into the kingdom of God. It doesn’t change anyone’s oppressive poverty or unjust situation but it liberated them from their desires. They rejected Liberation Theology because it only benefited the elite among the liberators and the oppressed really saw very little change. They just had new oppressors from among their own.

  2. Hello WBA,

    I am not impressed by the Mennonites who, despite John Yoder’s critique of the Constantinian shift, adhere to an essentially Constantinian/Roman notion of what the bible and spirituality is all about.

    The individualised, personalised salvation of liberating someone from their desires is not what is found in the bible, redemption and salvation is always collective and even nationalist. The saved individuals of the bible do not change within their own personal paradigm, rather they join the collective movement to defend their land, families and culture against colonial domination.

    The individualised salvation, as preached by Mennonites is an insulation from the collective salvation, an escapist avoidance of where the God of the bible located himself. This individualised spirituality is a construct of the Roman empire that needed to repress any collective indigenous power in its realm and control the hearts and minds of citizens through notions of personal guilt. The revolutionary spirituality of Jesus and the prophets as well as the law of Moses has nothing to do with this consciousness of empire.

    You say….”Liberation Theology because it only benefited the elite among the liberators and the oppressed really saw very little change.”

    This is just cold war rhetoric.

    It is true that in many revolutions a hierarchical elite has established itself and prospered from their power. I don’t think it can be said that the lot of the poor has not improved in places like Cuba, Venesuela, Vietnam and China. South Africa and Zimbabwe are perhaps examples of how things have not improved for the poor but this is because these countries’ land and economies are still controlled by the U.S., England and the stock exchange which has perpetuated their poverty. However, despite sanctions, Cuba, China and Venesuela have all improved the lot of the poor.

    However, the authoritarian and economic failures of post revolutionary states cannot be blamed on Liberation theology whose basic concept was local community churches that not only worshipped together but also organised politically.

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