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Liberation and Ethics

The narratives we tell about the meaning of our lives, the interpretations of divine revelation, and the means of appropriating ethical understanding are diverse and rich in expression. In this chapter we will explore some the many voices of ethics within Christianity, including the voices of Postmodernism, and Liberation Theologies.

Postmodernism Soil

Many today claim we are living in an age of significant and fast change described as a shift from "modernism to "postmodernism." We find ourselves in a new and sometimes puzzling situation (actually frightening to many) which implies the end of scientific positivism, enlightenment certitudes, and a particular (yet familiar) political ideological dominance. Citizens have become consumers. The diversity of human sexuality is no longer under covers. CNN takes us to war and puts us besides the starving millions. Genetic engineering is big business, altering the food we buy in the supermarket and suggesting that the ability for human cloning is nearly within our grasp. It is a time of hyperactive living and the loss of familiar securities and of ideologies. The Internet electronically blankets the globe and the promise of virtual reality body suits is just around the corner.

Walter Brueggemann says we are in a new "interpretive situation that constitutes something of an emergency" (1993:1). He claims that postmodernism is not just a theoretical category but a pastoral reality in which we are faced with: The pastoral crisis of social displacement, the theological crisis of respeaking God, and the methodological crisis of how to read (1993:11-12).

The question Brueggemann and many others are asking is: Can the Church respond to the "new situation?" As Brueggemann puts it the Church has a "major piece of work" to do, where it and its pastors "need no longer submit to the dominant modes of power and certitude, and so stand in a place of great freedom, freedom to our confessing selves in a faithful community" (1993:12).  We must ask in what ways this new situation affects how we do theology and ethics today and read the Bible?

Liberation Theology

Liberation has emerged through the years as a respected and powerful expression of faith, affecting the manner in which we think about and do theology and ethics.

While it is true to say that liberation theologies are as rich and varied as our Western theologies, it is possible to summarize the basic method.

Liberation theologians have described there interpretative task as an hermeneutical circle which includes four basic steps:

  • The interpretation of experience, which leads to an ideological suspicion;
  • The application of suspicion to the ideological "superstructure" (our norms for behaving and believing) in general and to theology in particular;
  • The application of an exegetical suspicion (that is, the reexamination of the ways in which we interpret Scripture and the conclusions we reach);
  • New interpretations

Since this hermeneutic actually is circular, the reward of the new interpretation of faith is then directed back to the beginning point which in turn effects our interpretation of contemporary experience. And since the hermeneutical circle presupposes the need for and usefulness of proper tools to lend an accurate interpretation of experience, liberationists rely heavily on the social sciences as an aid for doing theology and ethics. Liberation ethicists are, therefore, among those who believe that Christian ethics does not stand methodologically on its own.

Liberation theologians insist that any theology and ethic, to be valid, must begin in experience and not dogma. Christianity is, essentially, a matter of living faith with commitment in experience. But by experience they do not simply mean the present moment. They see experience as including historical traditions which shape the present. Thus, to insist that we begin in experience, also says we begin in the historical reality of our lives.

The historical and present reality, that is the common experience in which we begin, is the realities of poverty and oppression. Thus, liberation theology and ethics begins in a commitment to liberation in particular situations. This commitment is called social praxis, which means: The process of interpretation of ideas, on the basis of the social realities of poverty and struggle, the reinterpretation of ideas, ideologies, and texts, the discovering of new meanings of God and faith, which in turn are reapplied to ideas and social realities. In other words, social praxis is the hermeneutical circle.

Given the above, it is no surprise to hear Chung Hyun Kyung say:

Doing theology is a personal and a political activity. As a Korean woman, I do theology in search of what it means to be fully human in my struggle for wholeness and in my people's concrete historical fight for freedom. By discerning the presence and the action of God in our midst, I want to empower my own liberation process as well as that of my community. Our personal stories of agony and joy, struggle and liberation are always connected with our socio-political and religio-cultural contexts (1990:1).

While liberation theology began in a very particular context (as is true of all theology!) it has had profound effects on the way we understand and do theology in the West. Many in the West identify with some, if not all, the concerns of liberationists; poverty, oppression, freedom, the need to contextualize faith, and its methodological approach to doing theology and ethics. And, as the world continues to "get smaller" we realize that our brothers and sisters with different voices are speaking to and for the world in which we live.

Living the Methodology

Step 4: Analysis of the Dilemma

Structure: Power, Justice, and Liberation
Explore the institutional setting, or structures within which you live, work, and locate your dilemma. Identify where power is placed and how it is used or abused. Considerations of power quite naturally lead to questions of justice. and the possible need for liberation of moral agents. Do such considerations affect your possible actions and your sense of who you are as a person and professional?

The Croquet Game

Within the institutional setting of the church, if Kathy wants help from her minister, she must speak openly of her painful situation. It does not matter if Kathy likes Ruth, though it would help. There is in the institution and "imposed intimacy" (Lebacqz 1985:111). Also, the exchange of information about the self and the situation is unequal. Kathy must expose herself in some ways. Ruth can chose to share or not to share equally painful experiences in her life. The point is, however, that Ruth can chose while Kathy, if she wants help, cannot.

Lebacqz speaks of this inequality saying the "institutionalized character leads to a morally relevant difference in assessing the issue of power and vulnerability...The power held by the professional over the client is not simply a personal power. It is a social power" (1985:113). In other words, professionals like Ruth do not just have power, but authority; which is legitimated and institutional power. For Ruth, her authority represents the Church and, to a certain degree, God. "She interprets for Kathy how he pregnancy and contemplated abortion are seen in the eyes of the church and in the eyes of God...She can shame Kathy or provide support" (Lebacqz 1985:115). As a result Ruth's personal agenda, her power and authority, Kathy's vulnerability are all greatly important. Ruth must ask herself how she will use her power in the face of Kathy's pain and vulnerability.

The above question is so important it leads Lebacqz to say that professionals "have the power to define reality. And it is this power that makes dependence on individual virtue an insufficient corrective (1985:116). Lebacqz is saying, at least in part, that such power is too great a temptation for the individual. There have been two corrective's to this power. The first is the nature of the relationship between professional and client. It has always been assumed that the professional is their for the client and not for personal gain. The second check is the notion of professional indebtedness to society or, as Lebacqz says the "trustworthy trustee is entrusted with power: power is given, and it can be taken away" (1985:124); which is to say the professional is bound by obligations to society. But many would say that these two traditional correctives to abuse of power are not enough.

Concerns for justice and liberation are also necessary. Lebacqz puts it this way: "If power is central  to professional ethics, then justice and liberation become central norms. Liberation means not merely freedom from sin but also freedom from oppressive structures,

mythologies, and personal relations (1985:129). While it may seem, at first glance, to be unusual to put justice and liberation at the centre of ethical considerations, I think it is not. The ethical dilemma that exists for Ruth and Kathy involves the conflict between beneficence and keeping confidence. It has been noted by many that "beneficence" can leave the client indebted rather than liberated. Thus ethists have been moved to consider a new definition of trustworthiness in professional ethics, which includes fidelity to client and society, but also addresses the concerns of use and abuse of power. Lebacqz states it thusly: "the trustworthy one is the one who works for a balance of power that could be called justice" (1985:130).

We must also be aware that liberation cannot be given to a person or community. True liberation is not found in the question, How can I help this person? but, How will liberation happen? How can I facilitate liberation in this situation? (Lebacqz 1985:131). Thus, if Ruth asks how she can help Kathy, she assumes she knows what is ultimately right for Kathy, what Kathy needs. She might, for example, decide that parenthood is too great a responsibility for Kathy and support the notion of an abortion. Or she might decide that Kathy could not carry the burden of abortion and support having the child. Either way, Ruth is in control. As Lebacqz says, the "very first decision that she makes involves the power of definition: she defines what Kathy's problem is, and then decides on the proper solution" (1985:131).

However, if Ruth asks how liberation can happen in this situation things change. She would need to ask what liberation means for a frightened young women in such a situation. She would need to ask what role she plays in Kathy's predicament, how Kathy perceives the situation, how the structures that surround them both oppress or liberate Kathy. In other words, Ruth must begin by looking at who Kathy is, her life story (Lebacqz 1985:132).

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger

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