God, Too, Was Freezing and Hopeless: A Primer on Liberation Theology for Our City Leadership
On a Tuesday earlier this month, a local business owner here in Columbia, Missouri was walking home at the end of a late night, when he came across a disturbing reality as he was filming his journey home on his phone. In front of the Wabash bus station at 10th and Walnut, he found a woman bundled up, wearing a backpack and a shoulder bag, lying in the middle of 10th street in front of the bus station.
On that Tuesday night it was 25 degrees in Columbia, and this woman had gone to the bus station for shelter, as it is widely known as a warming center. But the city of Columbia only opens the bus station as an overnight shelter when the weather drops into the single digits. So although it was well below freezing outside, there was no shelter at the warming center to be had.
It seems from the dialogue in the video that this reality was the last straw for the woman in the daily struggle to stay warm and alive without a home in Columbia, Missouri. She laid down in the street, and when the man walking home encountered her, she refused to get up from the street, yelling at him to leave her be, that she would rather freeze to death or be hit by a car than continue the suffering of trying to meet her basic physical, emotional, and existential needs on a daily basis.
The man consents to her wish to be left alone. The video ends there. We pray that this woman survived the night, and might assume she found a way, given the lack of news reports of tragedy on tenth street.
Our community stands damned by her hopelessness… this evidence of our collective dis-compassion.
Our faith-based emergency shelter Room at the Inn, of course, was open that night. But Room at the Inn is not an accessible or desirable sanctuary for some unhoused individuals, especially those experiencing active substance use disorders or those for whom group settings are triggering or unsafe.
And sometimes Room at the Inn is over-full.
And anyone who missed the 5pm shuttle from Loaves and Fishes to Broadway Christian Church that night could find themselves struggling to make the 3 mile journey out to the shelter. Our city, governed by and for the people, provided no other options.
Was her hopelessness any surprise, or was it, moreover, a state created and maintained by a society that worships the wrong gods?
Three nights after the night a hopeless woman laid down in the middle of the street, cars and freezing temperatures be damed, the temperature dipped below 10 degrees and the bus station was opened overnight for warming. Mutual aid providers with John Brown Mobile Soup Kitchen arrived with blankets and hot food to find that the bathrooms inside the facility remained locked.
They were told the bathrooms would remain locked. They had to beg for the outdoor porta-potties to be unlocked so that those seeking shelter could access a basic human need to relieve themselves.
And if they needed to wash hands and faces during a global pandemic? Well, that’s why we keep the little free pantries stocked with baby wipes and hand sanitizer and water bottles, because there are only a handful of places our unhoused neighbors are given access to clean running water.
Our community stands damned by unwashed hands and frantic bladders. What kind of a place provides such a bare minimum of humanity?
Perhaps our city’s leaders, Christian as many of them claim to be, could use a good primer in Liberation theology.
Liberation theology tells us that a faith that has no good news for both the spirit and the body of that woman lying in the middle of the street has nothing important to say at all.
Liberation theology tells us that God, too, lay in shivering in the street that evening, cold and hopeless unto death.
Liberation theology tells us that human siblings struggling to find a place where they could go to the bathroom is a condemnation upon our very faith.
Liberation theology demands prophetic witness and material resistance to the powers and principalities that allow and perpetuate such inhumanity in the face of human suffering.
In the 1950s the Peruvian Catholic seminarian Gustavo Gutiérrez was in France studying theology, psychology, and economics as he prepared for the priesthood.
He found in his studies in Europe that little he was reading spoke at all to the lived reality of his compatriots in Peru, where 60 % of people lived in poverty and 82% of those in extreme poverty — most of it, of course, created by European colonial plunder over centuries.
He returned to Peru after being ordained to the priesthood in 1958 and began living and writing his seminal work Theology of Liberation, centered upon material and intellectual witness to the material suffering of the impoverished in Latin America. Gutiérrez believed that “sin manifested in this world in unjust social structure and that any true faith must emphasize the dignity of the poor by prioritizing the glory of God present in them.”
In his liberation theology, he wrote that faith could not simply be a matter of belief or spiritual witness, but that the faith of the Church must build the economic, spiritual and intellectual liberation of socially oppressed peoples as fulfillment of the kingdom of God.
From these origins in Latin America, liberation theologies spread widely and were manifest in many of the liberating theological movements of the 20th century and into the current day. Today Black theology, Feminist theology, Womanist theology, mujerista theology, Dalit theology, queer theology, disability theology, and other frameworks are all considered to be in the extended family of Liberation Theology. Every theology that insists upon a materiality of faith and salvation could indeed be considered a relation in the family of Liberation Theology, which has several basic conditions:
First: liberation theologies declare that the biblical text expresses a clear preferential option for the poor… God is always on the side of the oppressed.
God is always on the side of the oppressed, and therefore, material solidarity with the oppressed is the direct pathway to embodiment of faith and God’s call.
This is an easy thing to say, but it can be hard to live. If God is on the side of the oppressed, it becomes very clear where people of faith must put their bodies and resources, and that is not always a comforting clarity for those with privilege.
If God is on the side of the oppressed, God is in a dirty porta-potty on tenth street and is bringing narcan to the man overdosing on the corner and is whispering hope to the woman in the road.
And God is always always on the side of the protestor against the violence of the state. Indeed God sides with the people against every unjust manifestation of state power.
This statement will and should terrify those uncritically aligned with dominant culture, who hear God is on the side of the oppressed and hear deepest insult — that God is against them. Why must there be sides, they might ask? God is for everyone.
But God siding with the oppressed only threatens you if you are choosing, whether by intention or inattention — the side of the oppressor.
God isn’t against you. God is against oppression. God’s preferential option for the poor is a clarion call for what side we ALL need to get on: the side of thriving, hope, and liberation for all.
After the preferential option for the poor, the second claim of liberation theologies is that salvation is an act that must occur within history and involve bodies.
Salvation in this framework is not meaningful as only a future or immaterial state, but must be a material embodiment of the Beloved Community on this earth and in the particular lives of those who suffer.
As the theologian Johnny Bernard Hill writes in his book Prophetic Rage: A Postcolonial Theology of Liberation, “There is no soul salvation without social and political liberation from systems of power and domination that crush the soul and spirit.”
In the same book Hill points out that in our time a crushing spiritual manifestation of oppression is nihilistic despair. We turn our attention back to the woman in the street on Tuesday night, giving up, for at least a few moments, on a life that was too brutal to endure. And we name her hopelessness a symptom of societal faithlessness. We rebuke the systems that failed and failed and failed her humanity. And the call of a liberating faith is to overturn those systems as the pathway to hope and healing for her spirit as well as body, and for our own spirits as well.
In this way we see that collective political and social liberation cannot be separated from the growth of the spirit. We cannot be spiritually whole without embodied collective liberation, period.
After the preferential option for the poor and the materiality of salvation, the third basic of liberation theology is the belief that transformation happens through praxis: There is no such thing as collective salvation by book study, although learning and reflection remain essential features of a grounded liberation practice.
Liberation theology is grounded in life as lived, and also involves reflection and the integration of theory into the realities of life unfolding in the material world.
Hill writes: “Modern theology’s preoccupation with rationalism and personal autonomy, in distancing theory and praxis, continues to be one of the most imposing barriers to transformative and prophetic Christian witness in the world.”
“However,” he continues, “by listening to the voices and stories, and following the footprints, of those who defeated hopelessness in their own times with prophetic rage and action, I believe we will discover powerfully illuminating pathways to social justice, reconciliation, and faithful witness in our time.”
Those who engage solidarity from a position of abstraction, distance, and universality, are not using praxis and are not truly engaging solidarity.
Liberation theology insists on materiality, proximity, and particularity for true solidarity. This is the only way that every life can become a lived witness to liberation.
I have found myself in opposition to the injustice of state power in the face of poverty in theory for quite some time, but I confess hesitation before eventually taking faltering steps into practiced solidarity through my little free pantry, time at room at the inn, and the mobile soup kitchen.
My capacity to practice solidarity altered entirely when I started going on mobile soup kitchen runs before Covid: hiking back to folks’ camps in the woods around town, meeting them on their own turf, admiring the ingenuity of their shelter, and meeting their beloved pets.
Suddenly I had real people to learn from and side with, real stories to reflect upon, and praxis to return to.
The same is true for every oppression. Liberation theology calls us to center the voices, enter solidarity relationship, and materially side with women in the face of patriarchal oppression, people of color in the face of white supremacist oppression, LGBTQ and others in the face of cis-heteronormative oppression, immigrants in the face of xenophobia, fat folks in the face of fat hatred, disabled people in the face of ablism and so on with every situation where power to determine one’s life and access to thriving is stolen and siphoned away.
This is the core of liberation theology: that Love is on the side of the oppressed and each and all are also called to be on the side of Love. That the wholeness of our souls depend on social and political liberation and this-worldly well-being. And that transformation is rooted in life itself — the pathway to liberation leading directly through the lives, witness, and wisdom of those most cast out of supremacy system.
Liberation theology has a deep resonance with my Unitarian Universalist values, but it also has some pointed reminders to our culture. I believe that we are called in this time to align our community ever more fully with its wisdom and practice. I’m becoming less and less interested in whether my faith is a liberal or progressive or leftist one. But I want to be part of a Unitarian Universalism that can truly call itself a liberating faith.
I want to be a part of a faith that has something to say to the woman lying in the street: hope for the spirit and shelter for the body and empowerment through solidarity in rebuking the systems of hopelessness and death. I want to be part of a faith that has something to learn from the woman lying in the street: what powerful protest might arise from joining with her there?
I want to be part of a faith that practices the best good news:
That systems of oppression and death will not be allowed the final say; and that even we can join our voices in song and spirit resisting them.
That suffering of the body will not have final say; and that even we can show up as tender hands of care and nurture.
That freedom is growing like a seed in every abandoned place; and that even we can bring watering cans and party together in the shade of that garden.
That there is a spirit of liberation living and moving in the world, not beholden to static categories or labels we try to put on a shelf, but shining forth in our very lives.
We can become a community that shows up in body for the wholeness of the spirit, that declares each life holy and beloved, and that treats each one as such.
May it be so.