Monday, May 23, 2011

Breaking the Silence

After far too long, Joseph Fromm has reached out to engage in a discussion of my - perhaps overly strident - criticism of some of his blogging tactics. Since the topic we are discussing is important, I thought it should be moved from the comment boxes to a place of greater prominence.

If you recall, I penned a piece not long ago about Fromm's use of "liberation theology" and took exception to what I saw, and continue to see, as a too-facile application of the phrase.

In response, Joseph commented:

Dear Ryan,Thank you for your post. It is important that we can communicate with each other. I labeled the post about Fr. George with the "Liberation Theology" tag because of his quote in the article, "“My priority is to show the world that an artist can be a social activist too." It had nothing to do with his dancing.
This is, indeed, helpful to know. Now we have an arena for discussion: 'social activism'. Hence my follow-up question:
Joe, I agree. I do wonder, though, if you really mean what you say: you deleted a reference to my name in a blog post (that you took from another site) in regard to Brother Boynton's work in Haiti. Is that good communication, to edit what you didn't write?
Nevertheless... 
So, Joseph, if the quote "my priority is to show the world that an artist can be a social activist too" merits the label "liberation theology" then this leaves me with a question. When I tell my students to pray and comport themselves in a way that both abortion and capital punishment are unthinkable, in ways that that are "socially activist," does this merit the label of liberation theology? When I encourage students to take seriously Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God, does this merit the title liberation theology? 
Please enlighten me on this, for surely I encourage people toward social activism in regard to the Kingdom of God. Is this, then, liberation theology? Or is "liberation theology" simply a cipher for things you do not like? Some elaboration would be most helpful.
 Joseph's response:
Fr. George goes on to say,“My priority is to show the world that an artist can be a social activist too. I want to cater to the real needs of poor." One does not have to reach to far to get to Liberation Theology.
A vast majority of people never use the words, "Social Activist".
"Liberation Theology" is not my code word, it is a code word or umbrella word used by others.
I do believe that "Liberation Theology" unhinges a Jesuit from the "Spiritual Exercises".
So, here's my quandary. If I protest outside of an abortion clinic to advocate for the right to life of an unborn child, a right so often and often so easily ignored, isn't this social activism? If I try to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, or take seriously any of the corporal works of mercy...well, isn't this social activism? If so, then am I to be accused of 'liberation theology' and do such practices tear me from the Spiritual Exercises? If not, then is Jesus a liar when he enjoins us to care not only for the spiritual needs but also the physical needs of the least of our brethren?

I'm hopeful that Joseph and I can continue this conversation. I think it is important because it is profoundly unhelpful to throw around labels without a strong sense of what those labels actually mean. If by working together we gain clarity on the meaning of terms such as 'social activism' or 'liberation theology' then perhaps we as a pilgrim people will be better and wiser for it.
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