A Theology of Connexions
The following reflection was prepared in 1985 by members, friends and supporters of the CONNEXIONS collective on the occasion of the project’s tenth anniversary . We should welcome any response you might wish to share with us.
Whatever you do to the least of these sisters/brothers of mine, you do do me. These words of Jesus have consistently inspired and informed our work with the CONNEXIONS project over the ten past years. They seems as apt now as they did ten years ago when we first sat down to reflect on the theological implications of our work.
Since 1975, CONNEXIONS has committed itself to supporting the struggles of the oppressed, both in Canada and in other lands. We have done this by providing a forum for networking, information-sharing and communication among the many struggling minorities and oppressed groups in this vast country. Because our chief vehicle of communication is the written word – we publish details of new resources and groups dedicated to social change – CONNEXIONS has become something of a crossroads, a meeting place - a place where stories get told .
On the page of CONNEXIONS, one hears the voices of the powerless and the abused the disabled, prisoners, the unemployed, the underemployed, skid row residents, the poor, the psychiatric patients, Third World peoples, immigrants, workers, older persons, women, native peoples, etc. CONNEXIONS realizes that the stories of the poor and oppressed differ radically from those of the typical Canadian as portrayed in mainstream culture.
We at CONNEXIONS feel that this storytelling roles has been a key aspect of our commitment to work for justice. The importance of storytelling in the context of the Christian Journey is explained by theologian Sheila Collins:
If theology is to be meaningful for us, it must not start with abstractions, but with our stories – just as the early Hebrews and Christians of the Bible began with theirs.... Theology begins with our stories: What we do with our time; how we feel about money and who gets it; what we do when we get up in the morning; how we make it through the day; what pains us, enrages us, saddens us and humiliates us; what makes us laugh; what enlightens and empowers us; what keeps us holding on in moments of despair; where we find separation and alienation; where we find true community and trust... As we collect our stories they begin to shape themselves into a body of experience a kind of litany – which can no longer be denied. They become a means for a collective self-expression which feeds and strengthens those who are able to hear, just as the stories of the Hebrews in bondage in Egypt, in flight and in temporary restitution, repeated generation after generation, have strengthened the diaspora. Just as the stories of Jesus, told and retold, sustained the early Christian community through persecution.(1)
To listen to the stories of the oppressed is to risk being changed, is to risk conversion.
This experience has been shared by CONNEXIONS people who research and publish these stories, as well as by our readers and supporters (judging from the feedback we get through surveys of our readership).
We – CONNEXIONS friends, members and supporters have learned that
each social issue, each oppressed group and struggling minority:
Central to our awareness of being closely and inextricable connected with one another is a developing sense of responsibility for one another. In the words of Thomas Merton, the whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all living beings.
But the experience of conversion is not without its cost. Gustavo Gutierrez, the noted Peruvian theologian, reflects upon the personal price of conversion in the social context:
A spirituality of liberation will centre on a conversion to the neighbour... Our conversion to God implies this conversion to neighbour. Evangelical conversion is the touchstone of all spirituality.... conversion means a radical transformation of ourselves; it means thinking, feeling and living as Christ – present in exploited and alienated humanity. To be converted is a permanent process in which very often the obstacles we meet make us lose all we had gained and start anew. The fruitfulness of our conversion depends on our openness of doing this, our spiritual childhood. All conversion implies a break. To wish to accomplish it without conflict is to deceive oneself and others: "No person is worthy of me who cares more for mother or father than for me". But is not a question of a withdrawn and pious attitude. Our conversion process is affected by the socio-economic, political, cultural, and human environment in which it occurs. Without a change in these structures,, there is no authentic conversion. We have to break with our mental categories, with the way we relate to others, with our way of identifying with God, with our cultural milieu, with our social class, in other words, with all that can stand in the way of a real, profound solidarity with those who suffer, in the first place, from misery and injustice. Only thus and not through purely interior and spiritual attitudes, will the "new person" arise from the ashes of the "old". (2)
Each oppressed group/minority invites us to an experience of "death" and "rebirth" (baptism). Fidelity to this conversion process enables us to come into a more authentic experience of and relationship with self, neighbour and the social environment. The two central theme-symbols that can be discerned in this experience of redemption are liberation and communion (liberation implies freedom from all forms of oppression, internal and external; communion here refers to the experience of community with self, neighbour, God and all living things) communion and liberation are wholly interdependent - without authentic liberation, there can be no experience of communion (solidarity).
Communion can never become a reality until we first acknowledge that the present power and relational arrangement is grossly oppressive and grossly unequal. This confession must be followed up with analysis, strategy, and action for change. The movement toward liberation and communion, then, becomes one of transforming persons and structures, of identifying and wrestling with personal and social demons fidelity in this endeavour will result in the renewal and healing of relationships that have been broken and distorted. This creation of relational integrity, of relation integrity, of right relationship becomes for us both a present and future-oriented reality. This milieu - "already but not yet" - is a source of new life - hope, new meaning and new support.
The process of entering into solidarity with sisters and brothers gives birth to the experience of social passion. Social passion is what happens to us when our principal concern reaches beyond ourselves to include others (or a historical cause). Social passion is the experience of self-transcendence whereby we are lifted out of our isolation and alienation and are taken beyond our self-preoccupation. By committing ourselves to someone or something that transcends us, we enter into a stream of energy that expands our horizon in unanticipated ways, opens us to more all-embracing reality, heals our ruptured relationship to our own vital energies and provides us with a renewed sense of personal meaning.
Social passion means celebrating small victories. Social passion means celebrating the fact that we do not have to be victim to our fears, our affluence, and our needs for power and privilege. Social passion blesses us with hope and keeps us humming in the darkness. Social passion means falling in love with the struggle for communion and liberation. Social passion means dancing in the darkness.
Having listed to the stories of the poor and oppressed, we find that we are no longer able to divorce our faith experience from our concern for justice and solidarity. Religious experience discloses how the self is embedded in the community and dependent on others in the struggle for personal freedom: "A freedom for which others must pay with their subjugation is not really freedom at all. Human freedom is indivisible. A person is ultimately able to affirm herself/himself in true freedom before God and society only when there are no more slaves and captives left in the world" (3)
It thus becomes increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to have a spiritual experience that excludes or ignores "the suffering others": "contemporary religious experience will not allow that people create for themselves, through gifts of consolation, islands of happiness from which the memory of the afflicted has been banned". (4) In this new consciousness, charity is translated into justice.
We have always been taught that faith has a charity dimension. Fully formed faith is generated by love and expresses itself in greater love.... What vast numbers of Christians have discovered in our times is that in a society in which exploitation and oppression have been institutionalized, charity transforms itself into justice. Loving the neighbour in such situations means standing up against domination. For these Christians then faith in Jesus Christ has acquired a justice dimension.
Fully formed faith is generated by the commitment to justice and expresses itself in solidarity with the people at the bottom.....By one and the same spiritual orientation Christians open themselves to God's Word in Jesus Christ and link themselves in solidarity with the people suffering oppression. The Christian faith experience has a socio-political thrust. (5)
Gutierrez argues that this faith-and-justice connexion is biblically
Through listening to the religious experience of the oppressed we get in touch with elements of idolatry, illusion and distortion in our own religious experiencing. The oppressed, by virtue of their very experience, have been endowed with a special prophetic gift. The theological signification of this is clear: it is in the context of a relationship to the oppressed that we are enable to distinguish who God is from who God isn't.
Through them, we discover that God is not the Invisible other who speaks from outside of history; God is not the way of domination; God does not uphold oppression; God does not support the interest of the powerful and the privileged; God does not will nor bless the status quo, "the way thing are", the current power and relational arrangement. No, not at all.
Each oppressed group/minority brings us closer to the face of the living and True God; accordingly God is no longer experienced as an entity living beyond history but rather as the One who binds and grounds the interconnectedness with others and thus illuminates the meaning of he historical struggle; God is the One who blesses us with the courage and imagination to dream dreams, to believe that things can be different, to have faith that there can be "right relationship", to trust that there can be liberation and communion for all persons and all living things.
God is also the One who is intimately present to all who struggle for bread and justice, present as Inspirer, Affirmer, Empowerer, Mobilizer, and Liberator – "lo, I am with you always". To quote Gregory Baum: "the oppressed reaching our for their full humanity is the privileged locus of God's gracious presence in history". (7) God is also the One who graces us with experiences of repentance, solidarity and mutuality in the context of our relationship to (with) the poor and oppressed.
In listening to the stories, experiences and reflections of the oppressed that shared on the pages of CONNEXIONS, we perceive the dual themes of oppression and redemption, themes which also permeate the Scriptures. If we listed intently enough to the suffering others in CONNEXIONS, do we not hear many struggles that parallel those of the subjugated Hebrews longing for the Promised land? Do we not encounter the truth-telling prophets? Do we not hear the anguished cries of the psalmists? Are we also not filled with the same joyful hope that sustained the persecuted but vital early church? And do we not also meet Jesus who identified the poor and oppressed as God's special prophets: "I thank you, O God of Heaven and Earth, for these things from the learned and the wise, and for revealing them to mere children"
As Paulo Freire argues, in the end, only the poor and the oppressed are in a position to genuinely denounce and announce, the rest of us are preoccupied with trying to hold on to our power, privilege, affluence and prestige.
CONNEXIONS has been involved with a number of Christian social change projects in efforts to do Canadian theology from a justice perspective. One such organization is the Canadian Theological Reflection Project, a group of theologians and Christian social justice activists who are attempting to facilitate storytelling and theological reflection among members of Christian organizations committed to social change.
CONNEXIONS is, we feel, an ideal locus for a renewal of theology in Canada. an international counterpart of the Canadian Theological Reflection Project is the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). In 1983 EATWOT incited First World theologians to its annual conference (CONNEXIONS was consulted by Canadian delegates preparing for this conference). The following selection is taken from the EATWOT conference statement:
No theological method is adequate apart from a critical analysis of all the major structures of oppression. How can theology participate in liberating the poor from poverty if it does not know its causes? Therefore comprehensive analysis becomes indispensable in the renewal of theology, an analysis which links the economic, political, social, cultural and religious dimensions of our realities, which helps is to understand better our particular contexts, and which urges us to struggle more effectively for an alternative future. (8)
Because its unique and broad-based mandate, CONNEXIONS is in a special position to contribute to a critical and comprehensive analysis in the Canadian context. For CONNEXIONS is a place where the oppressed tell their stories, where an unlimited number of social issues (local, national and international) are examined, where social analysis is shared, where social demons are named, where social contexts are explored, where links (between persons, groups and issues) are made, where strategies for change are documented, and where signs of hope are made visible.
Connect with Connexions