Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Youth Ministry as an Exercise in Liberation Theology: Reflections on Gustavo Gutierrez

As it has been mentioned in previous blogposts, all Christian theology is to be liberation theology that pays particular attention to God's special concern [1] for oppressed and marginalized peoples and communities. This is where Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, and his classic contribution to Christian theology, A Theology of Liberation, is advantageous for both academic and pragmatic forums and Christian witness. What follows are reflections from one of my favorite works of theology.

Over the course of my nearly ten years in ecclesial ministry, mainly in the realm of youth work, I have discovered a pervasive, albeit false, dichotomy, i.e. church speech as distinct from church praxis. The segregation of these disciplines is one of the most infectious misnomers among God's people. This is especially true of the faith communities located in suburban contexts of luxury and privilege. Therefore, it is no accident or coincidence that the bulk of liberation theology has roots in and develops from contexts of poverty, communities of oppression, and voices from the margins. In other words, for the aforementioned, Christian theology is liberation theology and refutes any and all dichotomies that segregate speech and witness. [2] Gutierrez writes, "we cannot separate our discourse about God from the historical process of liberation" (xviii). Moreover and especially, this discourse does not bud within a vacuum, rather blossoms in light of real communities and contexts of oppression. Again, Gutierrez writes:

These considerations should not make us forget, however, that we are not dealing here solely with an intellectual pursuit. Behind liberation theology are Christian communities, religious groups, and peoples, who are becoming increasingly conscious that the oppression and neglect from which they suffer, are incompatible with their faith in Jesus Christ (or, speaking more generally, with their religious faith). These concrete, real-life movements are what give this theology its distinctive character; in liberation theology, faith and life are inseparable. This unity accounts for its prophetic vigor and its potentialities (xix).
Therefore, as the Christian pursues related speech and discourse it is imperative to do so not in isolation from, rather in solidarity with the very communities and individuals whom God, in and through the vocation of Jesus, seeks to liberate and redeem. [3]

This theological posture is precisely the rationale for the missional paradigm that has been implemented within the youth ministry I serve, particularly the upcoming immersion experience in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. That is, the hope and prayer over the past four years has been to implement an environment whereby students in the youth ministry, their parents, and related volunteers in the program would become all the more aware of the vital intersection between what we say about God and the gospel and how God's people live into the character of God and related speech. In other words, it has been our intention to overcome the false assumption that theology and mission are two distinct characteristics of the life of a disciple. The result of this missional paradigm, i.e. youth ministry as an exercise in liberation theology, has been young disciples questing to discover how salvation extends well beyond personal assurance of a sweet by-and-by and more into incarnated acts of socio-political justice and reconciliation. Gutierrez says it best:

Salvation is not something otherworldly, in regard to which the present life is merely a test. Salvation- the communion of human beings with God and among themselves- is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ... (85).
This sort of activity in our youth ministry has led to a wide range of relationships across diverse lines of demarcation, or as Paul said, dividing walls of hostility (Eph. 2:14). Students in the Imago Dei Youth Ministry have lived in solidarity with those on the margins, others caught in cycles of poverty, and neighbors on the fringes of society. These relationships have not been developed so to fuel an appreciation for what they have, to earn credits for school, or to boost a resume. Instead, youth have become convicted that what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is to live in rhythm and communion with God's predilection option for the poor.

Nonetheless, there is a danger that lurks nearby when one reads Gutierrez', A Theology of Liberation. That is, one can read an assume that such a theological development is yet another genre created and explored by disengaged academics who have spent years-on-end in isolated study. However, Gutierrez is sure to remind the reader that liberation theology has its beginnings in latino youth movements at the forefront of prophetic gospel witness (40). This observation is yet another reason why, no matter how many degrees I earn or the trajectory of my ecclesial vocation, I long to stay engaged with the Spirit's activity in and through teenagers. It is my conviction that the unashamed nature and fearless character allows young disciples in a variety of contexts to live into the gospel of liberation with authenticity and audacity. Moreover, youth are sensitive to and move beyond irrelevant jargon and hope for alternative and just expressions of social, political, and economic systems. Again, this is not because they are neo-socialists or budding communists. Instead, today's youth, some in the suburbs and others in developing nations, are deeply concerned for proponents of the gospel to move beyond abstract anticipations and into real incarnations of liberation and peace:

The ultimate reason for commitment to the poor and oppressed is not to be found in the social analysis reuse, or in human compassion, or in any direct experience we have of poverty. These are all doubtless valid motives that play an important part in our commitment. As Christians, however, our commitment is grounded, in the final analysis, in the God of our faith. It is a theocentric, prophetic option that has its roots in the unmerited love of God and is demanded by this love" (xxvii).
Gutierrez reminds the church that there is a point of departure between trendy altruism and ecclesial Christian mission. This departure is found in the real conviction that Christian theology is a missional theology especially concerned for the poor and oppressed. Moreover, this gospel is confessed and pursued not to those on the margins, rather alongside those who are considered last by the world's standards. [4]

While I have found the contributions of Gutierrez and other liberation theologians to be advantageous and faithful to the biblical witness, there is a significant caveat. That is to say, I do not work in communities often associated with poverty, oppression, and injustice. Instead, I work among the elite, the wealthy, and the privileged who live in luxury and comfort versus hostility and marginalization. If God's preferential option is for the poor, is the gospel even available to them? Gutierrez is both consistent in his conviction and sensitive to this real tension when he writes:

The great challenge [is] to maintain both the universality of God's love and God's predilection for those on the lowest rung of the ladder of history...we have here two aspects of the church's life that are both demanding and inseparable: universality and preference for the poor" (xxvi)
Therefore, the task as a suburban youth pastor is to develop an ability to underscore not only the urgency of this preferential option, but also God's deep and universal love for all of humanity- to include those in contexts of comfort.[5] Nonetheless, what I have found, more often than not, is that when students engage the gospel of liberation and dwell in solidarity with those on the margins they understand God's love for them, even as suburban dwellers, to a much fuller and faithful extent. That is to say, they see themselves as fellow image bearers of a Creator who is concerned especially for their oppressed neighbors, brothers, and sisters, and also possesses a deep and abiding love for them in the 'burbs. In essence, the youth I serve recognize that they have found refuge within a broader community and larger story that is not only for them, but also and especially for the whole world. This is what makes youth ministry as an exercise in liberation theology so addictive and contagious, not only for youth pastors, but also for the larger Christian communities in whom they are a part. Even more, this is why we continually pursue partnerships with those in contexts of poverty and injustice, both domestically and internationally, because this is where God is most at work.

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez refers to this as"God's preferential option for the poor." He writes, "The universality of Christian love is, I repeat, incompatible with the exclusion of persons, but it is not incompatible with preferential option for the poorest and most oppressed" (160, italics mine). This thesis stems from the biblical emphasis on God's mission of liberation that consistently elects and saves those in who stem from communities and contexts of marginalization. See my paper, "Poverty, Liberation, and Christian Scripture"

[2] The words of James Cone, prominent Black Liberation Theologian, are pertinent to this discussion, Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ…There can be no Christian theology that is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated and abused. In fact, theology ceases to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed (1).

[3] Gutierrez writes, "To be a Christian is to be in solidarity....the process of liberation requires the active participation of the oppressed..." (67).

[4] Gutierrez offers yet another beautiful insight, "the historical point of view allows us to break out of a narrow, individualistic viewpoint and see with more Biblical eyes that human beings are called to meet the Lord insofar as they constitute a community, a people. It is a question not so much of a vocation to salvation as a convocation" (45). That is, any and all work of liberation theology as missional praxis is to be in partnership with those who are poor, oppressed, and on the margins. This is the framework in which our summer missional experience to Tegucigalpa, Honduras stems and gestates.

[5] This is not to suggest that there are not real experiences of poverty, injustice, oppression, and other forms of suffering in the suburbs, for there certainly are. Instead, I suggest that when one enters into community with those for whom God is especially concerned in cross-cultural experiences, those for whom God has a preferential option in one's own community are much more easily recognized. When this occurs, the Christian is commissioned to to pursue solidarity with their most local of neighbors.