Toward a Politics of Liberating Theology

Mosaic at United Nations Headquarters, NY/Credit: J. Hawkinson

My goal in this brief conversation is to explore two key components which challenge both Pentecostalism and mainline Protestantism. I look first to the power and place of the Holy Spirit as a defining feature of the church’s life in the world. Second, I take up the challenge of the church’s engagement with a theology of social transformation. In conclusion, I argue for a third way as a new paradigm for theology in a contemporary context: a “liberational spirituality.”

Power and place of the Holy Spirit

Pentecostalism at its core “represents a ritualized prolongation of the original Pentecostal event (Acts 2:10, 19) that expresses the essence of Christianity with an intense spirituality that recalls the life of early Christians” (92). Throughout their work Shaull and Cesar frequently cite the Pentecostal communities as marked almost universally by the radical presence of the Holy Spirit in the everyday lives of the poor. The role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the poor in the Pentecostal church is central and powerful. Even more than traditional theological concepts like sin and salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit is central to the lives of worshippers (139). The Holy Spirit takes the form of “the immediate presence and power of God in everyday life, bringing health and material well-being and a new quality of life here and now” (139). God’s kairos, or breaking into this world, “is known as an immediate experience of the divine, especially among the poor, an experience…of sick persons being healed, of broken lives being reintegrated and restored” (152). The poor, “for whom the world has been a prison, many of whom are living, in a sense, on their own “death row”…enter, through the Spirit, into another realm” (153). The work of the Spirit, for the poor of the Pentecostal church, is the fulfillment of the word preached to free the captives and give sight to the blind.

In contrast, much of the contemporary Protestant church lacks a rich theology of the presence of the Holy Spirit in human experience. I spoke with a colleague working in the social justice ministries of the PC(USA) about this reality, and he jokingly responded that he wasn’t sure the Holy Spirit even appeared in the numerous confessions of the Presbyterian Church. For a variety of reasons, the church in the West has abandoned its spiritual disciplines (165). What once was a rich belief in the Spirit of God offering a “compelling sense of vocation in the world” is now dramatically weakened. Where once the church privileged the “spiritual motivation to struggle for social transformation,” it is now “rarely taken into account in our churches” (214). The current state of affairs is worrying at best, and life-threatening at its worst.

Theology as a tool for social transformation

One of the central criticisms directed toward Pentecostalism in the communities visited by the authors was the claim that the Pentcostal church (though this term is problematically broad) lacks a theology of social transformation. As noted above, Pentecostalism gives strong emphasis to the work of the Holy Spirit in the personal lives of its followers. In contrast, many deeply faithful individuals “gave little or no attention to the analysis of what was happening in the world around them, the social, economic, and political realities causing this destruction of life” (160). Articulated from a theological point of view, the authors “found little evidence of the development of a theology of social responsibility” in the Pentecostal churches they visited (211). In contrast, the PC(USA), as an example, has decades of resolutions and confessions which profess the church’s commitment to social responsibility. And yet, Shaull and Cesar reach the conclusion that the middle-class churches “have little or no connection with the victims of our present order” and are simultaneously “lacking the richness and depth of experience of the presence and power of God necessary for dynamic participation in this struggle for life” (210). If both the Pentecostal and the mainline communities have not created a theology of social transformation, where is the nexus of its development?

Ubuntu as a middle ground

In his life and work, Desmond Tutu has articulated what author Michael Battle has called “a new kind of liberational spirituality” (Battle, 95). Tutu captures this liberational spirituality in the South African framework of Ubuntu. In my analysis, the theology of Ubuntu articulates a vision which balances the radical transformation of the Holy Spirit that emerges from the the daily lives of the poor and the work of theology as a tool for social transformation. Tutu writes “We are each a God-carrier, a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, indwelt by God the holy and most blessed Trinity. To treat one such as less than this is not just wrong…It is veritably blasphemous and sacrilegious. It is to spit in the face of God. Consequently, injustice, racism, exploitation, oppression are to be opposed not as a political task but as a response to a religious, a spiritual imperative. Not to oppose these manifestations of evil would be tantamount to disobeying God” (Battle, 95). This “liberational spirituality” captures the need to nurture both spirituality and “effective social impact on structural forms of oppression” (Battle, 95). While the church should be cautious about adopting wholesale the ethic of Ubuntu, unique to the South African experience, the concept of a liberational spirituality rings true as a promising goal. It seems an essential concept for the Pentecostal church as an encouragement to participate in the systemic transformation of their societies. The commitment to a theology of social liberation may be one of the few ways to consolidate the voice of the most vulnerable in establishing institutions which include their agency. For the mainline churches, the theology of Ubuntu requires a commitment to the deeply spiritual and contemplative life, as well as a commitment to the restoration of justice in oppressed communities. It demands that the mainline church come to terms with its complicity in systems of oppression, while listening for the call to a new vocation in radical discipleship. The church, wherever it lives and serves in the Holy Spirit, would do well to reclaim its history as a radically transformative force in the contemporary world.

Cesar, Waldo and Shaull, Richard. Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Battle, Michael. “The Ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu.” In Archbishop Tutu: Prophetic Witness in South Africa, edited by Leonard Hulley et. al., 93-105. Capetown: Human & Rousseau, 1996.

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