I started my Lenten observation last week with a sunrise Ash Wednesday mass at the cathedral in San Miguel, El Salvador. The church covered a full city block, and the doors on three sides were all flung wide open, giving a wonderful sense of worship in the midst of life’s noisy activity, of respite at the center of the waking city’s hustle and bustle. I’ve been writing a bit lately, and as part of my observance of Lent I will attempt to share some thoughts which have been especially meaningful to me, and I hope something will add benefit to this season for you, as well.
As I swam this evening, I reflected on our very positive trip to El Salvador last week and some recent reading I’ve done on the invaluable contribution that Latin American Christianity has made to the global Church and beyond through its so-called theology of liberation. Some altogether beautiful and invitational ideas have blossomed like crocuses from that milieu, such as God’s “preferential option” for the poor, our call to live in solidarity with the powerless, and something Dr. Paul Farmer terms “accompaniment”–the idea that true service and effective ministry comes from actually accompanying the poor on their journey to wholeness and health, not just providing services which may or may not be helpful to them, for reasons we would never know without walking with them.
But I’m so frustrated that too much of this theology of liberation is far too new to me, as it is to most of the Church outside Latin America. Now, I’m familiar with some of its ideas, though in other terms. Other ideas were over my head when I read them 25-30 years ago, when I decided to trust more experienced believers (whom I trusted because they were like me) to discern the wheat and discard the chaff. But part of the reason I did that was because liberation theology also used politically-charged words for that era, words like “comrade.” So I gave up on it.
Nelson Mandela also used such words, even up until his election. So when he died, I found myself feeling the odd need to temper the accolades he was receiving for his amazing global leadership. I felt that need because my personal discomfort with him in the 1970’s and ’80’s kept me from ” betting on his horse” then.
It’s difficult to articulate how discouraged I feel about this. I’m so terribly tired of having history find me too little aligned with those I should have been supporting. And it’s all because something they did or said caused me to, in swimming terms, DQ or disqualify them. In a race, you can get DQ’ed for the slightest technicality…touching a wall the wrong way, or brushing the lane lines, for instance. Nothing else you did in that race mattered, because you were DQ’ed.
I’ve DQ’ed far too many people and teachings that would have enriched my life and perhaps the lives of others… Mandela because he visited Cuba and tolerated violence. Martin Luther King because he was purported to have had a longtime affair. Liberation theologians during the terrible upheaval in Latin America because they used language associated with communism and some of its proponents supported government overthrow against repressive regimes. My response? To over-throw out the baby with the bathwater.
This is more than a once or twice thing, where I can continue to fool myself into thinking, well OK, maybe I didn’t align with the right side that time, but every other position I’m currently taking–or avoiding–is correct. No, there are some systemic problems which I need to face.
As a middle-class American, and thereby one of the richest people on the planet, how would I like it if other people automatically DQ’ed my words on some topic which I know well, simply by saying “How can I listen to that guy when the Bible has 2000 verses on God’s concern for the poor and the downtrodden and he can live in such a wealthy society? He has nothing to say that I could learn from.” How would any of us feel? And who says my DQ rules more valid than theirs? Oh, how much we miss because we are quick to DQ one another over technicalities.
Just as I want to be listened to, everyone deserves to be heard. So here’s the question I struggle with: Who do I continue to DQ today without even thinking about it? Who do I ignore and what do I dismiss or avoid? It is often the most militant who are the most marginalized, and I’ve come to realize that in many cases this is the very reason they in their tremendous frustration have resorted to militancy. My unwillingness to actually listen to their voice has contributed to them replacing their voice with their fist. Our collective DQ has made them provocative and incendiary, which only reinforces our stereotype about them and perpetuates misunderstanding and human devaluation.
This is not a call to neglect discernment. But far too often I’ve used that label to mask distrust and judgment. Rather, the call I sense from Jesus is that these are the very people, the very voices I must especially strain to hear. In doing so, in giving them the dignity of their voice, I may just save them from becoming shrill, strident or even violent. And in the process, their voices may just redeem me.
Last night there was an odd smell wafting in the bedroom windows. We realized it was eucalyptus and manure. They use manure freely around here as fertilizer, and perhaps also where people grow crocuses, as well. Too often, my sixth sense for offense has kept me from finding the beauty right under my nose.