A Theology of Connexions
The following reflection was prepared 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.
CONNEXIONS - A PLACE WHERE STORIES ARE TOLD
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:
· is indeed a call to conversion;
· does put us in touch with new and unique dimensions of
our sin (both personal and social) by making us aware of how we
participate in the oppression of others;
· contributes to the development of our critical consciousness
by providing us with yet another glimpse of the world from the perspective
of the powerless and the exploited;
· renews our awareness that all facets of social reality
are connected: "If one member suffers, all members suffer with
her/him; if one member is honoured, all the members share her/his
joy" (1 Cr. 12:26)
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
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 center 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".
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
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.
THE FAITH-AND-JUSTICE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
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"
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
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
"to know Yahweh, which in Biblical language is equivalent to
saying to love Yahweh, is to establish just relationships among
women and men, it is to recognize the rights of the poor. The God
of Biblical Revelation is known through interhuman justice. When
justice does not exist, God is not known, God is absent." (6)
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 - A PLACE TO DO CANADIAN THEOLOGY
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 share, 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.
1. Reclaiming the Bible Through Storytelling, Sheila Collins, page
2. A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis Books, New
York, 1973), pg. 205
3. Retrieval of Subjectivity, Gregory Baum (Canadian Journal of
Community Mental Health, Vol. no. 1, March 1982), pg.91
4. Ibid, pg. 94
5. The Church Since Vatican Two: Prophetic Sign of Hope, Gregory
Baum (Chicago Call to Action, 1317 N. Wicker Park Ave., Chicago,
Illinois 60622, 1982), pg. 2.
6. A Theology of Liberation, Gutierrez, pg. 195.
7. Ecumenist, Review of Power of Poor in History (Gutierrez), reviewed
by G. Baum, Jan. 84.
8. Statement of the Sixth EATWOT (Ecumenical Association of Third
World Theologians) Conference - "Doing Theology in a Divided
World" - a dialogue between First and Third World Theologians,
Geneva, Switzerland, January, 1983, page 13 (of 17 pages), copies
available from Ecumenical Forum, 11 Madison Ave., Toronto, Ont.,
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