“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the sort-of-Christian blog that, too infrequently, looks at the relevance of 1970s style Latin American Liberation Theology to today’s world. Writers like Cuban-born Miguel de la Torre are keeping the tradition alive with their demand that all power structures be examined to see how they serve to perpetuate an unjust status quo, not only in the developing world but in the centres of wealth also. When I took the Open University Diploma in Third World Studies in the 1980s, the prevailing analysis was called the ‘Dependency Theory’, the product of the mind of a fellow called Andre Gundar Frank. I remember being amused at the residential summer school held at the University of East Anglia to find that the Dept of Third World Studies had two tame Asian water buffaloes grazing outside the classroom windows whom they called ‘Andre’ and ‘Gundar’!
Dependency theory basically sees the world divided into the ‘metropolis’ (urban centres in the rich world which import raw materials and export manufactured products), and the periphery (poor countries which are prevented from developing their manufacturing sectors by quotas, tariffs and low raw material prices imposed by the rich West. They have no choice but to export raw materials with low returns.) In the immortal words of Che Guevara, speaking to the UN General Assembly “The ‘Free World’ is a world where free chickens are chased round the farmyard by free foxes’.
This ‘Red Christian Document’ is in fact a series of extracts edited by myself and taken from de la Torre’s excellent book. If you don’t see any connection between this and Christianity, then it’s about time you opened your bible!
Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins
For those who do ethics from the margins, the issue of power becomes paramount in the development of any ethical discourse. Foremost for those who are marginalized is the ethical response to the use, misuse, and abuse of power rather than issues of character, values, virtues, or moral principles.
Christian ethics should first struggle with the question of power and how to crucify power and the privilege that comes with it so that so that justice and love instead can reign. Yet if those who are privileged by the present political, economic and social structures refuse to acknowledge that being wealthy and white provides specific advantages over against the disenfranchised, how can they participate with integrity in any discourse that addresses injustices?
Jesus can never belong to the oppressors of this world, for he is one of the oppressed. The radicalness of the gospel message is that Jesus is in solidarity with the very least of humanity. The last shall be first; the centre shall be the periphery. In Matthew 25:31-46 Christ returns to earth to judge between those destined for the reign of heaven and those who are not. The blessed and the cursed are separated according to what they did or did not do to the least among us. Specifically, did they or did they not feed the hungry, welcome the alien, clothe the naked, and visit the infirm or the incarcerated? Is the ethical lifestyle of individuals in solidarity with the marginalised demonstrated in liberative acts that led others towards an abundant life?
The church of Jesus Christ is called to identify and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The act of solidarity becomes the litmus test of biblical fidelity and the paradigm used to analyze and judge how social structures either contribute to or eradicate the exploitation of the marginalized.
In the name of Jesus Christ, crusades were launched to exterminate the so-called Muslim infidels; women seeking autonomy were burned as witches; indigenous people who refused to bow their knees to God and king were decimated; Africans were kidnapped, raped, and enslaved; and today the pauperization of two thirds off the world’s population is legitimized so that a small minority of the planet can consider itself blessed by God. Yet the ethical pronouncements articulated within traditional Christian institutions such as churches, seminaries, Christian colleges, and Bible institutes tend to reinforce the ideologies of the dominant culture – ideologies which have brought untold death and misery to humanity.
Even when ethical pronouncements are made that are critical of the power or privilege amassed by few at the expense of many, little if any praxis is put forward to dismantle the mechanisms responsible for maintaining the status quo. Usually, cosmetic reforms are offered, with no serious consideration of the structural forms of injustices or social sin. As long as oppressive social structures persist, actions by individuals, no matter how well intended, are incapable of liberating those existing on the margins of society. Liberation can occur only through radical structural change. Reform simply avoids questioning the basics of the dominant culture’s lifestyle, a lifestyle that many ethicists share.
To some degree, Eurocentric ethics has become a matter of explaining what is ethical. For those doing ethics from the margins, the issue is not to determine some abstract understanding of what is ethical, but rather, in the face of dehumanizing oppressive structures, to determine how people of faith adapt their actions to serve the least among us. Ethics becomes the process by which the marginalized enter a more human condition by overcoming oppressive or controlling societal mechanisms. For them, the starting point is not some ethical truth based on church doctrine or rational deliberation; instead, the starting point is analysing the situation faced by the disenfranchised of our world, our nation, and our workplace and then reflecting with them theoretically, theologically, and hermeneutically in order to draw pastoral conclusions for actions to be taken.
Ethics from the margins insists that racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism are the end products of the exercise of power. The power of the dominant culture that creates Christian ethics can no longer be explained simply as a group of institutions that ensures obedience, or as a mode of subjugation, or as a form of domination exerted by one group over another. Rather, power is used to normalise what the dominant culture determines to be ethical; it does so by harnessing the existing forces to which it has access…Christians of the dominant culture…at times construct ethical perspectives to preserve their power, defining their self-serving ethical response as Christian. In their minds, their perspectives are viewed as ‘truth’, answering the question concerning what Jesus himself would do.
Christian theology for centuries ignored the fact that Jesus, as fully human, was put to death, like so many today, by the civil and religious leaders who saw him as a threat to their power. there is nothing redemptive in the suffering of the just. The importance of the cross for the marginalized is that they have a God who understands their trials and tribulations because God in the flesh also suffered trials and tribulations….and rose from the dead.
Ethics for the Christian must become the means to dismantle structures that privilege one group at the expense of another. Christian ethics is also the path by which God is known, by which justice is created, by which liberation for the oppressed is chosen. Nevertheless Christian ethical discipline continues to be formed and shaped by those who benefit from the present structures of power.
To do ethics from the margins is to participate in a Christian social ethics that fully considers (1) the privilege of power, (2) the causes of supposed superiority, and (3) the rules by which power is maintained. Only then can Christians expose and debunk the obstacles preventing all of God’s creatures from living the abundant life.
de la Torre, Miguel “Doing Christian ethics from the Margins” Second edition. Orbis Books (2014) Extracts taken from pp. 10, 11, 20, 21, 26, 29, 329, 330.