“I’m religious, but I’m not very political.” In the Baptist church, this phrase is synonymous with someone politely excusing themselves from an awkward conversation. No one was outright political when implored of their party affiliation, yet there were strict, unspoken guidelines of ideological leanings one was expected to have. At my former Baptist university, politics were suppose to be equally as taboo. The pretending and outright refusal to see their theology carrying them to it’s conceptual actions is practiced by many who consider themselves religious. A new trend in the church has emerged, where we believe we are excused from the uncomfortable, political discourse of our generation because doing God’s work is too time consuming. Young, unarmed black men are murdered in the streets by police officers and the church calls for praying that our youth will look less like a thug, instead of marching in the streets with those historically oppressed by our nation.
A theology that does not drive those studying it to rebuke injustice in all political systems and the pursuit of liberation both spiritually and physically is lacking what helps humanity experience the community and the Divine around them. Theology, described by Richard Hooker as “the science of things divine”, intrinsically makes us political.
“The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order.Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation
My first encounters with liberation theology were most likely similar to other evangelical Christians. Followed by the warnings of it’s radical leftism, liberation theology was painted to me as a political movement disguised as dogma that sought to disrupt what white evangelicals saw as a fair and equal society. Essentially, it was full of heretics. Beginning in the 1970’s a doctrine invested in Integral mission emerged in the Catholic Church of Latin America that established Christian theology and social activism as fundamentally connected. This doctrine placed the liberation of the poor and oppressed at the center of their calling. Predictably, liberation theology met hostility in the United States due to its Marxist concepts of pointing out the ruling, privileged class of American capitalism that continued to institutionally enslave and exploit minorities. Liberation theology exposed the systemic hierarchy in the Catholic Church as well as the way in which religion had coddled a class structure via capitalism that oppressed the poor and justified racism with Biblical scriptures.
My awakening to the importance of this allying between Christian theology and social activism not only had prominence in my political ideologies, but also changed the way in which I saw the Divine. God was no longer something that only beckoned humanity into extravagant church buildings and high attendance numbers, but those seeking a reflection of him could not help but pursue liberation for the oppressed.
Another impactful experience I had in studying theology that would change my engagement in politics was when I came across the mystic Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel saw the relationship between theology and political activism as indispensable to one another; that they could not help but produce and demand each other. Alive during the time of Jim Crow and the Vietnam War, Heschel was not content with only the academic side of theology. Feeling uncomfortable stuck in his office, he believed theologians had the responsibility to engage in the critical social issues of our time. In 1963, he wrote a telegram to, then president, John F. Kennedy on the issue of institutional racism, saying, “Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declarations. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.” He ended the telegram with a call for religious leaders to donate their salaries toward housing and education for African Americans, underlining the requirement of personal sacrifice from professed spiritual leaders. Heschel understood that theology had to make our hearts move and our bones burn, forcing him to get up and protest the unjust war in Vietnam and inherent racism that birthed America. As he famously said, we must literally be “praying with our feet”.
Political activism is the place that we arrive when we are exposed to the theology of the Divine and we realize just how greatly its image is lacking in our society. Similarly, the work of political activism is demoralizing on our souls and can often bring us to a place of feeling defeated in the face of resistance to social justice. Heschel knew that the community found by experiencing the God beyond all religious creeds was vital for society to fight the nihilism that can emerge when confronted with these institutions of oppression. There is a humility we encounter when we are able to understand our humanity may never allow us to achieve this heaven on earth, but that does not absolve us of our obligation in the pursuit of this holy image. The despair can be daunting when we engage fully in the oppression around us, but that experience is not only what makes us human, it is the exact role the divine inspires us to stand in.
Both Liberation theology and Abraham Heschel have been just a piece of my political transformation through studying theology. The religious background I had come from where I watched congregations sit silently in the pews, not called to the liberation of God’s people, had left me with the idea that theology’s morals rung hallow.
Through my return to spirituality, I have seen the struggle toward justice is demanding but the experience of the Divine creates in us unrelenting souls. Heschel describes it as a force that inspires our self-sacrifice for one another and is part of tasting the sacred. We are unable to watch American imperialism destroy humanity in the Middle East through a murderous drone program or allow them to turn away the refugees they have created in the very same military actions. We are unable to ignore the families going hungry while a select, ruling class hoards ungodly amounts of wealth. When we encounter the Divine, a black man executed by a police state, which will never be brought to justice, is not just a news story but rather our brother. We need theologians to be more than just books and lectures. If theology is the search for the divine, then I am convinced that search will always bring us back into community with the world around us. Forcing us to see the brokenness and embarrassing us of our negligence.
It is for these reasons theology must be political.