Notes toward a First World Liberation Theology

When we look at Latin American liberation theology, we see our own location in the country and among the people of one of the powers from which this theology seeks liberation. We see ourselves as oppressors, or as a part of the oppressor society. If we are convicted by this theology, still we are in no position to repent or make restitution. We are the oppressor as part of a society which we cannot leave, and not personally sinning. Seeing our powerlessness against oppression and the unmanagability of reversing oppression, we may yet be moved inwardly to some act.

One such act might be repentance on behalf of our own society and people. This might grow out of a view of our current history modeled on the prophets' view of the history of Israel in their times. So we might be moved to repent on behalf of and in the name of our people, our nation's oppressor status and our societal abandonment of the ts'daqah and hesedh of God. We might become a more faithful remnant, who repent the nation's acts and seek God's forgiveness and blessing. We might be a leaven in the lump of the nation, who believe that if a few righteous be found in a people, God might be moved to save and deliver.

Such repentance involves a willingness to suffer. The vision of the acts and our involvement in them gives pain, and this pain is hard to live with day in and day out, but the continuing prayer of repentance requires that we feel the pain and bring it before God day in and day out. Perhaps, however, we may see in the suffering we cause, or at least benefit from, the one who was crucified, and in seeing ourselves his wounders, still join our prayer to his prayer on the cross. We may see the world as only his crucified body and ourselves part of that body, our suffering part of his, and so see ourselves in God, on the way to redemption, living that redemption in the prayer of social repentance.

So also we would be joined with the oppressed who suffer in Latin America, and in every place where folk are poor, exploited, and oppressed. There is a man of Paraguay, Dr Joel Filartega, who treated the poor in his clinic. His son Joelito was taken away by the police. A week or so later, Dr Filartega was summoned to the police station to take Joelito's body away. When he examined the body, it showed electrical burn and cigarette burns as well as fatal wounds. Joelito had been tortured and murdered. Dr Filartega was outraged. So for Joelito's wake, he exhibited his son's body naked, with the wounds on view. Resistance in Paraguay was born.

When the six Jesuits and their two employees were killed in Salvador, there was a picture in the National Catholic Reporter of the bodies and a bunch of priests and bishops standing around them. I thought, "how ugly just to leave the bodies lying there." Then I noticed that the clergy were wearing stoles. I realized that they were following in the footsteps of Dr Filartega. That day I came to pray before the Sacrament exposed on the altar for intercession. And I realized that the footsteps they were following were those of God, who exposed his own son, his own self, wounded and dying on a cross. Wherever the sacrament is held up for adoration, we will need to see the wounded Christ, see young Joelito Filartega, see the six Jesuits and their employees, see those burned to death in Hamlet so that we might buy our chickens cheaply, and countless others. We will have to see ourselves with our own wounds, and our own participation, willing and unwilling, in the suffering and oppression of others. The world will need to look to us to be a crucifixion.

We need not be alone in this. An Anglican priest, G A Studdert Kennedy saw it. He was a chaplain in the First World War who became known to the troops as Woodbine Willie because he gave out Woodbine cigarettes. Here is his discovery:

On June 7th, 1917, I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had been a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, "You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? not much great Prussian blonde about you." Then there came light. It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean that it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay the Christ upon His Cross, and cried, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me." From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a Crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a Crucifix. I see the Cross set up in every slum, in every filthy overcrowded quarter, in every vulgar flaring street that speaks of luxury and waste of life. I see him staring up at me from the pages of the newspaper that tells of a tortured, lost, bewildered world.(1)

Social repentance needs instantiation. We need to come together to commit specific acts of repentance. I attach two pieces of a proposal for such a specific act. And may God have mercy on our souls.

1. Studdert Kennedy, G A, The Word and the Work, New York, Longmans, Green and Co, 1925, pp 57-8.