Liberating Spirit as Christian

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Liberating spirit as Christian  involves two tasks that demand both theoretical and practical response.  These tasks – one deconstructive, the other constructive – are distinguished throughout my writings, but also are often interwoven with one another. Sometimes they occur simultaneously, working together, as in the article, “Counter-Imperial Faith.” Both tasks are essential to the intellectual work of Christian theological discourse.

Deconstructive Task

This “deconstructive” task exposes, criticizes and seeks to end those Christian practices and beliefs that reinforce class exploitation, white racism, gender and sexual injustice, neocolonialism and imperialism. Such a first task also opens a space for experimenting with forms of Christian thinking and practice that have long been repressed or marginalized. This is especially important today as Christian groups often support U.S. war-making (overt and covert), and are compliant, too, with the neoliberal globalization policies that destroy lives and communities. Throughout my publications, I have long called for a delinking of Christian belief from U.S. imperialism, and from the multiple ways that imperialism – together with white racism, heteronormative sexuality and colonialism – are at work in contemporary police violence, the death penalty and U.S. mass incarceration. The stakes are high for Christian practice in the U.S., especially if we recall Alain Badiou’s reminder that “there cannot be the least political liberty, the least independence of mind, without a constant and unrelenting struggle against the imperium of the USA . . . the deadly guarantor of the obscene accumulation of wealth . . . the American Army the key instrument in the race of ‘Western’ masters against all the unfortunates of the earth” (Polemics, 2006, p30). The work of “de-imperializing” Christian theology- and generally deconstructing it – is most evident in my books, Remembering Esperanza, The Executed God, and Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire.

Constructive Task

In the wake of deconstructing Christianity, there is also a constructive (or, reconstructive theologial task). For this task, I work mainly historically, socially and politically – with key help from the arts (whether of literature, painting, music, and more) – in order to reconstruct key beliefs of Jesus-followers for liberating spirit today. My aim here is not to restore Christianity to any position of privilege over other religions and spiritualities. I seek in reconstructed Christian beliefs no new “better” hegemony. Instead, I seek to reconstruct Christian being in the world, understood as its co-habitating with earth and with all peoples (with those of all religions or no religion) fomenting new practices in coalitions that forge justice and love for enduring revolutionary futures. For examples of Christian theologians’ creative work  at the reconstructive task, see the book I edited with Professor Rebecca Chopp, Reconstructing Christian Theology.

The aim in this constructive or reconstructive task is to contribute to the building-up of Christian liberating faith as counter-imperial and counter-colonial. For this I find resources from “underground” traditions that have persisted throughout the Christianity-dominated West, even in Europe and the United States. Moreover, I have been instructed by the liberating use of Christian beliefs among peoples in resistance across the global South of colonial pasts and the (neo-)colonial present.

I have also attempted to reconstruct Christian beliefs and symbols so that those who dwell in social worlds of entitlement can betray our entitlements – those due, for example, to our whiteness, our being male, relatively affluent and so on. “Betrayal,” though, may not be the only appropriate response.  Those of us with access to worlds of social “privilege” might also deploy that access to liberating ends. Yet, whether as “betraying” or “deploying” such entitlements, I emphasize that white males and others in positions of privilege, especially those in hegemonic Christian systems, cannot be – will not be – the central architects and agents of liberatory change. At most, they contribute work in theory and practice that reinforces liberating and de-imperializing change. The initiative and leadership is forged, driven and orchestrated by leaders of the many dispossessed and repressed communities.

But what imight be the distinctive contribution of Christian liberating spirit? Using historical scholarship of both early Jesus-movement materials and from the practices of contemporary Christian communities of liberating practice, I have foregrounded three key dimensions of Christian liberating spirit. Each of these have received chapter-length treatments in my book, The Executed God, and there are presented as dimensions of Jesus’ “way of the cross” in history and society.  But this “way of the cross” is not simply an idealized version of individual pilgrimage, a single person’s “following Jesus.” It can be that, but it is more a collective process of people artfully drawing from Christian symbols and intellectual traditions to forge a social resistance and affirmation of life in relation to earth and its peoples.

These three dimensions of a Christian liberating spirit, as set forth below, correspond to the three aspects of liberating spirit: antagonism, the popular arts, and social movements that are discussed on the Home Page.

Adversarial Politics – This first dimension of Christian liberating spirit is an owning of the political antagonism that marks historical and social being. Ideally, adversarial politics is a dimension of Christian living, one in which Jesus-followers name, challenge, call out, and so resist, the complex powers of exclusion and oppression in any period. If need be, they level critique at exploitative powers of Christian groups themselves. Liberating Christian practice, as an adversarial politics, is an affirmation of life that is also, simultaneously, a site of struggle, often mingling lament and rage, moaning and anger – a complex and deep grief. Amid the Roman Imperium, during which early Jesus-movements were forged, followers’ very use of the term “gospel” for Jesus’ message (the Greek, euangelion) was a stealing of a term much used in Roman imperial discourse, since Roman generals often announced their “glad tidings” (gospel) about heroic victories on the battlefields. Jesus-followers took this term, “gospel,” and then attributed it to Jesus, one victimized by imperial execution, death on “the cross” – a para-legal lynching distinctively reserved for the rebellious, the transgressive, the politically eccentric. Such a usage of the “gospel” term in referring to Jesus, a crucified figure, threw-down a challenge to the standing imperial regime and its values. Jesus’ cry is an exemplary cry for Christian practice today. His was a cry of adversity, of lament and rage, marking the body suffering at the crossroads of political adversality. Jesus-followers, if steeped in liberating spirit, are similarly steeped in lives of lament and rage, tasting in varied measure the adversity of crucified peoples, and so placed with crucified peoples everywhere in a living of political adversality that challenges – in daily living and special actions – the state powers that exclude and oppress.

Creative, Artful Drama – All is not political adversality. In a second dimension, I have portrayed Jesus-followers as countering spectacles of domination used by repressive regimes with a lifting-up of peoples’ creativity in the arts – whether crafted at work, in the home, the street, market-places, or marching in more public performance, upon sites of repressive regimes. I interpret the memory of Jesus in relation to people’s arful expression. Jesus is remembered as story-teller, one who used parables and vignettes, and also “street theater,” as when symbolically riding a donkey along the Roman generals’ usual entryway into Jerusalem. Moreover, even the mode in which Jesus’ death on the cross was re-membered, rendered it a powerful spectacle, one in which Jesus’ brutal ending contrasted dramatically with the imaginative and transgressive justice and love he had shown before his execution (an extra-judicial execution, a para-legal lynching). This stark contrast between his innocence and the brutality of his torture and crucifixion as eccentric rebel/criminal, had the effect of heightening the significance of the cross all the more. This dramatic contrast etched Jesus’ death deeply into the memories and life-ways of later followers. They were thus led to take the cross as programmatic for their own lives. Much of later Christianity, which compromised with imperial policy and position, would down-play Jesus’ ignominious and shameful end, and preach instead a message about Jesus as a God/Man enacting a willful and heroic sacrifice on the cross to effect a divine plan of salvation. But the poor among crucified peoples everywhere identified with the shame and the pain rendered in the cross, and were inspired to stand firm in the liberating messages of adversarial politics – of radically inclusive love and prophetic justice. (For an example of how repressed peoples “talk back to” and yet find meaning in the figure of the crucified Jesus, see a death row prisoner’s own poem, “Rufus, the Slave.”

Thus, Jesus’ execution, which was meant by authorities to spread imperial terror and discourage any resistance, had an alternative impact: it enabled the would-be freightened subjects to “steal the show,” to take the spectacle of the cross and make it a memory for resisting empire rather than bowing to it. Creative, artful drama of many sorts can work to “steal the show” that regimes of power often promote to reinforce their sovereign rule with their aesthetic regimes.

Building Peoples Movements – In a final dimension of the way of the cross, I fuse the adversarial politics and the creative artful drama discussed above, with a call to build social movements to promote liberating spirit and revolutionary vision. Jesus-followers are moved to live in ways that transgress imperial regimes of all sorts, especially when such regimes try to quell the radical practice of justice and love for all. In such contexts, Jesus-followers take-on the labor of movement building. Jesus’s own practices of living and relating can be seen as exhibiting an imaginative (re)creating of community, the “kin(g)dom (Greek, Basileia) of God.” I  construe Jesus-followers’ courage and social actions, which sprung up afte and in spite of the Imperium’s attempt to make an intimidating example of Jesus on the cross – as pointing to a power in life that can inspire people to a boldness, a daring and dogged everyday perseverance in practicing Jesus’ values of love and justice. The boldness extends to their daring this justice and love in spite of (” in the face of”) the death-dealing and earth-despoiling, and torture-inflicting powers of official regimes – whether these be of Rome’s Imperium, of the United States Pax Americana, or any other regime of power.