I received the following quote via twitter this week. The quote by Ana Levy-Lyons is from an essay she wrote for the recent edition of the UU World, our denomination’s magazine. She states: “It seems clear that there should be tension—enormous tension. Until the world is as it should be, until war and hunger are abolished, until power is shared and all voices are heard, we should not be able to fit comfortably into this culture.[i]”
She is talking about religious communities being counter-cultural, as being a model of a way of life that prophetically calls society to be different than the way society is currently manifested. She then calls upon James Luther Adams, our Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century and quotes his words[ii]:
The element of commitment, of change of hearts, of decision so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius . . . A holy community must be a militant community with its own explicit faith; and this explicit faith cannot be engendered without disciplines that shape the ethos of the group and that issue in the criticism of the society and of the “religious” community itself.
Harsh words to hear. First the question of not being counter-cultural and then not committed to restoring liberalism, religious liberalism to its own prophetic genius that critiques society and our religious living within it. Harsh words indeed. But are there examples of this happening?
In 2005 I had the privilege of visiting Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico. Chiapas is much like Alabama in some ways. It too is among the poorest of its nation. They too made international news for the ways the government oppresses people there. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by the US, Canada, and Mexico, the indigenous people of Chiapas realized that NAFTA was not for their benefit but would actually do them great harm. All of the resources of this wonderful state, Let me repeat that, all of the resources are owned not by the indigenous people. The coffee, the beef cattle, the bananas, the honey, the oil, the electricity, and many other exportable resources; all of it is controlled by the Mexican government and American corporations. The people of Chiapas do not see any of the money produced by these resources.
The people who live here are living in dire poverty and they are exploited not only by their own government but also by the corporations from America and Europe. But how are their needs presented to us?
In a piece that I wrote for the Chiapas Peace House Newsletter, The Children of El Pacayel[iii], I described the charitable organizations portrayal of such children. I said I had been taken in by “the international charitable organizations that seek to raise funds by showing third world children. You know the video clip. The image of Sally Struthers walking down dirt trodden roads with children cast aside along the way unable to move from hunger or disease is meant to pull at our heart strings to donate money. The closing clip shows her holding a young girl all gussied up and smiling. See what your money can do?”
This form of charity, as well meaning as the donors are for those who are destitute does not answer the root causes of the poverty. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff in their text, Introducing Liberation Theology, state this approach as “a strategy for helping the poor, but treating them as (collective) objects of charity, not as subjects of their own liberation…. There is a failure to see that the poor are oppressed and made poor by others; and what they do possess—strength to resist, capacity to understand their rights, to organize themselves and transform a subhuman situation—tends to be left out of account. Aid increases the dependence of the poor; tying them to help from others, to decisions made by others; again, not enabling them to become their own liberators.”
If some of this argument sounds familiar, it is because this is the argument of conservatives in this nation regarding welfare. Conservative voices might add the belief that poverty is caused by some sort of vice such as “laziness, ignorance, or simply human wickedness.” Many liberals tend to see this argument as heartless towards those who are poor, not only in third world countries, but right here in America, right here in Alabama. Liberals response to this argument is to maintain programs of aid to the poor as a form of compassion band aid or as Boff coins it, “objects of pity.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I am one of those liberals who want to keep those welfare programs in tact. But perhaps, it is time for me to recognize that it is at best a temporary safety net measure and not meant to be a permanent fixture in any one’s life.
And that might be why there is the reform argument which is the response from liberals who believe that with minor restructuring within existing systems the situation of the poor will be improved. Alas, Boff writes, “Reformism can lead to great feats of development in the poorer nations, but this development is nearly always at the expense of the oppressed poor and very rarely in their favor.”
This is also the belief that third world countries and even poor states like Alabama and Mississippi are poor as a function of backwardness. In the process of time, if stimulus loans for economic development in Alabama or foreign aid for third world countries were given, then the result would be prosperity and progress.
The problem with reformism is that it is generated not from within the community affected but from outside of the community. Those who are to benefit from reform are “passive objects of action taken by others.”
NAFTA was supposed to be one of those reforms of the system. The thinking was if there was more ease in the production and trading of goods between nations then all would benefit from it. However over 2 million farmers lost[iv] their ability to farm in Mexico once NAFTA was fully implemented in part because they could no longer compete with factory farms in the US and in Mexico. In short, the old adage rings true; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
There is a third way to approach and explain the problem of poverty. It is a dialectical explanation: poverty as oppression. Boff explains that “poverty [is] the product of the economic organization of society itself, which exploits some—the workers—and excludes others from the production process—the underemployed, unemployed, and all those marginalized in one way or another.”
The way out is not through charitable contributions or through reforms but by replacing the present way of doing things by offering an alternative system—a counter cultural approach. It is the poor themselves who stand up to create this revolutionary approach to their liberation.
Liberation theology seeks to do this by seeking to first understand the historical context of the poor and oppressed and then find ways to respond in relationship to that context. Now Liberation theology is steeped in Christology—Jesus teachings about the poor and the transformative process through the death and resurrection of Jesus as being central to Liberation Theology. As Boff explains, “the poor are not simply poor, as we have seen; they seek life, and ‘to the full’ (John 10:10). This means that questions relevant to or urgent for the poor are bound up with the transcendental questions of conversion, grace, resurrection.” And conversion, grace, and resurrection are evident in the evolution of the resistance movement Mexico and other Central American countries.
In Chiapas, the Zapatista’s initially rose up and declared war against the Mexican government. And after blood shed in the early years of their declared war, they decided war was not the answer but rather a sustained resistance to exploitation. This came about after the massacre at Acteal, where some 40 innocent men, women, and children were killed by the Mexican military. These people were not Zapatistas but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The world community stood up in protest. Marcos writes in the Sixth Declaration[v]: “the first thing we saw was that our heart was not the same as before, when we began our struggle. It was larger, because now we had touched the hearts of many good people. And we also saw that our heart was more hurt, it was more wounded. And it was not wounded by the deceits of the bad governments, but because, when we touched the hearts of others, we also touched their sorrows. It was as if we were seeing ourselves in a mirror.”
My visit to the Zapatista community of Oventic revealed a community where a democracy by consensus was being developed. These were a people who understood the historical context in which they lived. Not only did they understand their ancestry as indigenous people of Mexico but also their 500 year history as a people living under the domination of the Doctrine of Discovery. The result of this context enabled them to incorporate into their communities an understanding of their own oppression and empowered them to create something new, an alternative to the corrupt Mexican government.
Anthropologist Duncan Earle writes: “ [vi][The Zapatistas] had no model except [for] their own indigenous belief that there should be consensus. They have been able to create a para-state that takes care of its own education, health, transportation and economics.” In response to an article, he stated: “[vii]Chiapas is an island of peace and security, and in the Zapatista zones, good government and no drug cartel activity. That is why tourism is on the rise there, even Zapatourism.”
This approach was recently adopted by the indigenous Purépecha community of Cherán in the Mexican state of Michoacán where the Monarch Butterflies winter. This was a community besieged by organized crime loggers and drug cartels. Their pleas to the government for intervention and protection went unanswered. They rose up as a community and stopped the violence. They kicked out the crime syndicate and removed the corrupt government and set up a council that uses governing principles of their ancestors. This includes having a series of neighborhood bonfires at night. They talk, they cook food for one another, and they come to consensus as to how to protect their community and their forest.
A report states this about the community: “[viii]Retaking old habits and customs; returning to the idea of la faena, work that’s done by all for the good of everybody. It wasn’t long ago that this tradition was still practiced. The elders will tell you: “we built this school with la faena” and remember how at a wedding or funeral, the tradition dictated that everybody helps with something: food, work, anything so that life is easier for all. This old way keeps people close.”
They have set up a counter-cultural community because the ways set up by the government were not protecting them from the violence of the crime syndicate or from the impotent and corrupt government. This community banned political parties as they see them as divisive. They are a community under siege not only from the crime syndicate but also from the Mexican government. The community of Cherán is pulling together and creating something new because reform no longer worked.
But what about here? How does Chiapas and Cherán relate to Tuscaloosa? Yesterday, I met with Somos Tuskaloosa. They are working on developing their goals for their future as the possibility of changing the system of immigration becomes feasible in an Obama second term.
Somos Tuskaloosa discussed the need to understand the historical context in which they find themselves. They are realizing that they cannot simply allow the government to reform immigration without their ability to have a say in how that might be done. They see immigration as a piece of the racist history of the United States. They need to understand that history and the systems developed in response to that racist past. Their desire to develop a community where all people are respected, not just as a rhetorical statement, but brazenly embraced for who they are is counter-cultural in Alabama.
And isn’t that what we want too? To be a community that brazenly embraces the other as equal sojourners in life? As Ana Levy-Lyons challenged us; how would we seek to abolish the war and hunger within our own hearts and in the larger community—figuratively and literally? What would shared power look like here in this congregation? How would we ensure that all voices are heard?
What would we need to change if we declared our community as an autonomous Human Rights zone in Alabama? That is the definition of sanctuary—a place where people are safe and secure from the dangers of the world. May we find the courage to participate in such a liberation—a liberation that yields to a just society. Blessed Be.
[i] “We should be more Counter-cultural” by Ana Levy-Lyons as found at http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/229846.shtml
[iii] http://www.chiapaspeacehouse.org/content/view/276/305/lang,en/ (website is no longer active, currently on hiatus)
[vii] Dr. Duncan Earle (not verified) on April 16, 2009 – 01:53 http://hir.harvard.edu/blog/jason-lakin/fifteen-years-after-the-zapatistas
[viii] Pablo Pérez, Translation by Laura Cann as found at http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2012/07/the-fight-of-cheran-day-it-began.html
“The Cry for Freedom” delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond 11 November 2012 ©