Monday, July 20, 2009

no essence

-- Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and me.

-- Hemingway: Yes. They have more money.


In this apocryphal literary takedown, Fitzgerald (like his Daisy-struck narrator Nick Carraway) implies that wealthy people are, in the ancient sense, our betters. There is a reason, he says, why they have wealth and the rest of us do not: we regular people don’t have the essence – we don’t have wealth because we’re not “different” in the way that rich people are. To which Hemingway pishes: there is no essence. If you had their bucks, you’d be just like them, and greenhorns from Minnesota would speculate about your essence. The secret is, there is no secret.

The liberation theologians say that the poor are different from you and me – and they are our betters. Is there a theological Hemingway to say, “Yes. They are different. They have less money? Pish -- there’s no virtuous essence of poverty. If the poor had our bucks and our privileges, they’d be just like us, for good and ill. The secret is, there is no secret. Except that the poor are praying, hoping, breaking backs and hearts and sometimes laws, to leave their poverty behind. If they escape, that’s when they will sing laments for their loss of virtue, and sentimental intellectuals will take them seriously.

I shall not indict the next Supreme Court Justice on a charge of practicing theology. But the densely parsed remark from which she has now distanced herself illustrates both the provenance and the limit of liberation theology, indicating the places where it naturally arises and where it terminates itself. To show how in secular language she has invoked a god of the oppressed, I must do some exegesis of my own.

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

We should note, in order to discount it, a subjunctive veil of qualifiers. She “would hope” that the sagacious Latina would reach good conclusions, but does not claim to know that she will. The special sagaciousness will not always be evident; only if one observes the Latina for some time will we see “more often than not” her wisdom manifest. The judge is careful not to compare all people of Hispanic culture with all Anglos, or all women with all men. She compares only subsets -- “wise” Hispanic women with Anglo men “who [haven’t] lived that life.” Her language implies that there are foolish Latinas, and that there are Anglo men who have lived the life.

Much depends however on the meaning of the phrase living that life, and even more on the reference of “that.” The reference tends to float because no other life is mentioned as the term of comparison. One could – by supplying two words not spoken – understand “that” to mean “that [kind of]” life, a life rich in experiences. And yet, in the social context of her comparison, it seems unlikely that a “white male” will have the experience of a poor immigrant. He will have experiences, and they may be rich ones, but those will be experiences of the dominant racial group, and of a community that feels itself to be not immigrant but native. “That life” means therefore not a class of lives which might include the lives of certain white males, but the specific life of the “wise Latina,” and there are no white males who have led it. When the Latina is on her game therefore, her wisdom will produce conclusions better than those of any white male.

Liberation theology is not liberal theology. It is rather a powerful criticism of liberal theology, deriving its power from assumptions that it shares with liberalism. The claims of authoritarian orthodoxy – biblical literalism, for instance – have no traction with liberals because they deny the appeal to reason and reasonableness that is liberalism’s deepest ground. But “the founders of liberation theology . . . departed from liberal theology while taking for granted their training in liberal methods and theories” (Gary Dorrien).* Liberals cannot lightly dismiss a theology that reads scripture critically and judges the church by standards of justice, insisting that love of God means loving “the least of these members of my family,” and that loving them means freeing them from the oppressive forces that make them “least.” Liberation theology adheres to the Lukan rather than the Matthean Beatitudes: “Congratulations, you poor” but “Damn you rich” (Lk 6:20,24 [Annotated Scholars' Version]).

Both liberal and liberation theologies interpret the Kingdom as Justice, but they come to justice from opposite directions. Liberals say that people of color, women, gays and other marginalized people should be freed from their oppression because of the Enlightenment’s Universal Moral Law. Kant’s Categorical Imperative says no one is to be used as the means for someone else’s end, and therefore the poor must be liberated because they are just the same as you and me. Liberationists say that oppressed peoples must be freed because they are different from you and me, and better because of their oppression.

Congratulations to the poor, but damn you rich. And here’s where liberationists sometimes offend us liberals. We are children of Enlightenment: we are rationalistic, and educated. Because we are educated, we tend to be affluent. We believe in General Principles. But the poor are not educated or affluent. General Principles don’t seem to prevail in their lives. Liberationists believe in Special Blessings.

Your General Principles, says the liberationist, have left my community in structural poverty. To Hell with them; and to Hell with your lukewarm, rational commitment. Until we see your passionate engagement in our struggle for liberation, you are irrelevant to us. Don’t tell us that God is Dead; don’t whine to us about how hard it is for you to believe anything. Your social location is godless because God left it. If you really want to find God, come here, where we are. If you want to learn about the Love of God, learn how we exchange that love in our worship, our songs, our prayers. If you want to know what scripture means, let us teach you. God is not dispassionate; God is not engaged in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. God has located truth and meaning. God has chosen, and scripture says He chose us. “Congratulations, you poor! Damn you rich!”

So a black mother who raises her kids on the wages of domestic service knows how things truly are, while Anglo-Saxon white male power-brokers, who stifle her prospects and limit the opportunities of her children, are fundamentally deceived. The Latinas of the housing project are “wise,” while interrogating white men who lived where God was not, and pretend that their social location is the seat of normalcy and law, cannot match that wisdom despite their diplomas.

There is for certain a wisdom, an intimacy with reality, that comes from having been up against the system. Rich white men used to boast about how hard things were “when I was your age,” and claim that because of the obstacles they overcame they knew what was good for you. For several days in the presence of Judge Sotomayor, such people insisted that personal experience could never have any bearing on the law. They are hoist on their own petard.

Her overinterpreted epigram is, in reality, an expression of soft liberationism – a kind of merciful cheerleading for communities now emerging from their limits. Such language has for generations saved lives, and now points the way toward participation. She herself becomes powerful now in a way that no Latina has done before.

As she takes her seat of power, she becomes no longer a liberationist but a liberal. She will be an interpreter and a maker of the law. She will ensure that the circumstances of Latina life are considered in the making of law; but she cannot claim that Latinas should weigh more than others in the scales of justice. It is appropriate that she should pledge, as she did several times last week, to “follow the law,” in faith that law is the best protection for all of us, Latina and gringa, black and white, male and female. She has changed her location. That’s liberation, and it’s the end of liberationism.

*“American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity,” Cross Currents, Vol. LV, No. 4 (Winter, 2005-6)

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