William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Presentations (Page 2 of 2)

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainty: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

Below is a description of the paper I will be presenting for the Kierkegaard and Niebuhr groups’ joint-session at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this November:

In her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, Bonnie Honig has contended contra Carl Schmitt, that both sovereignty and the state of exception need to be de-exceptionalized and dispersed back into the hands of “the demos.” For her, exception and emergency are part of even the most ordinary and everyday political processes, and human agency is always involved in interpreting, augmenting or even suspending the law in its administration. In this paper I propose to discuss and show how the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr can aid us along toward the aim of reconceiving the power of democracy and social progress in human history for a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in striving for the good.

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of which comes first, good people or good laws? That is to say, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? Moreover, there is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded.

But democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, by recognizing the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, we can celebrate the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. In order to do this, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms, only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues, but in the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the possibility of a “miracle.”

For Kierkegaard, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change or progress. The Danes of Christendom much like citizens in our time would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. Socrates put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it, but Climacus only saw this as “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would say, for Socrates, a Christ was not expected. But as Kierkegaard has it, the place from which our faith comes is precisely infinite and paradoxical, both in its nature and in what it promises.

The point is that a miracle can only occur if the people are prepared for it.  In other words, it is not solely depend on the infinite but also on finite receptivity. Miracle here does not refer to the norm-exception binary that commands and compels attention, but instead is thought to be one that with subtlety solicits a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to first be open to its possibility. This openness requires preparedness and the cultivation of a certain orientation toward divinity, as well a periodic collective gathering. Democracy is much the same way. When democratic forms of life are interrupted by emergency, well prepared subjects may experience the chance to respond democratically, that is, in faith, to gather and to mobilize for the protection and expansion of the values of the collective.

Socrates’ ethic not only lacked room for a miracle (revelation), but he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin and guilt. What stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the demos is the paradoxical combination of human freedom and limitation, analyzed so well by Kierkegaard and later appropriated by Niebuhr into the realm of social ethics. As both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, to the detriment of assuming agency for extending new rights to new constituents.

What Niebuhr does is creatively reimagine the place of finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love. In this respect, he is thoroughly Kierkegaardian, but in a socio-historical fashion. Niebuhr has a more optimistic outlook on so-called natural theology than Kierkegaard, but is equally realistic about the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard individually, and Niebuhr politically. The paradox politically speaking for Niebuhr, however, is between striving to realize proximate justice within history on the one hand, by resisting the temptation to unreservedly push forward and expect human fulfillment of a justly representative society without remainder on the other hand.

Niebuhr says it like this in Nature and Destiny: “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (p. 71). The agape of God, which is the paradox of God and of politics, is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God, as Niebuhr calls it, and of God’s relationship to history. So it is from faith in the tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, I will argue, that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr illuminate the horizon upon which historical-political subjects can strive for the good.

Sacralizing the Secular: The Economic Organization of Emerging Ecclesiology in North America and its Latent Spirit of Resistance

[This is a working copy of the paper I presented at AAR this year in Chicago in the Ecclesiological Investigations Group on the following theme: “The Social Gospel in a Time of Economic Crisis: The Churches and Capitalism Today.”  Here is a link to a further description.]

Walter Rauschenbusch observed and contended that global capitalism directly opposes the spirit of Christianity in at least two fundamental ways: by inhibiting economic democracy and by encouraging the rule of profit motive over and against the value of human life.  In contrast, the Christian spirit is marked by devotion to the common good and to God’s reign of justice in the world: “Devotion to the common good is one of the holy and divine forces in human society, [and] [c]apitalism teaches us to set private interests before the common good” (315).  

The mission of the church in light of global capitalism then it seems is to mirror and foster an alternative social and political order by instilling and adhering to values that subvert the dominant narrative of competition, consumerism, imperialism and individualism.  Such subversive values include peace-making, generosity, cooperation and solidarity.  In order for these values to be thoroughly integrated into the church and the lives of Christians, they must also affect the economy of ecclesial organization itself.

Rauschenbusch, like most everyone else in his time, failed to be duly cognizant of racial and gender prejudices and the challenges of religious pluralism.  Furthermore, he was obviously unable to foresee the current impending ecological crisis, peak oil, the post-WWII triumph of U.S.-dominated international military and economic power, and more recently the hyper-financialization of the global market itself – specifically with its heightened volatility as demonstrated by the Great Recession.  Nevertheless, much of what Rauschenbusch meant by “Christianizing the Social Order” was profound and is still relevant.

Rauschenbusch attempted to popularize the view that Jesus’ teachings about the reign of God regarded God’s peace and justice as ideals to be prayed for and realized in the present as much as anticipated in the future.  Rauschenbusch diagnosed and identified the capitalist, corporate state as “the industrial outfit of society . . . owned and controlled by a limited group, while the mass of the industrial workers [– often propertyless –] is without ownership or power over the system within which they work” (311).  Extrapolating from this, Rauschenbusch argues that

where [profit from Capitalism] is large and dissociated from hard work, it is traceable to some kind of monopoly privilege and power . . . Insofar as profit is derived from these sources, it is tribute collected by power from the helpless, a form of legalized graft, and a contradiction of Christian relations” (Christianizing the Social Order 1926, p 313).

Impressively, this issue of ownership of the means of production and wealth in general by a few is perhaps as pertinent as ever for people in North America today.  Growing income inequality and the stagnation of wages adjusted for inflation, particularly in the past three decades, is staggering.[1]


With respect to the recent financial crisis itself, Christian leaders and theologians would benefit by understanding the values, incentives and mechanisms that gave rise to the housing bubble and the subsequent market crash – if we wish to have a hand in shaping and informing a counter-consumer culture in Christian communities.  Discussing the causes for the Financial Crisis itself is beyond the scope of this presentation, but by relying on the work of others – like Dr. Christine Hinze – who have taken the time to really grapple with what exactly led to the recession, I’ll briefly make a few observations from which I think we can appropriate intentional local practices that might really signal a thorough critique of the disparate economic establishment.[2]

The consensus seems to be that, broadly speaking – even if it has become cliché to say since OWS – the market crash itself was brought about by a financial sector that incentivizes and even secures the privatization of profits and the socialization of risks and therefore losses, or costs, as evidenced most notably by federal bailouts of the big banks.  In summary, one might identity at least four major factors the led to the financial crisis:

  1. Deregulation via the removal of much-needed firewalls between commercial banks, insurance companies and security trading institutions/brokerage firms — through legislation passed under the Clinton administration, and through the role that money plays in Washington in general (SuperPACS, Citizens United, no term limits, etc.)
  2. A lack of a principle of agency and responsibility for taking bad risks, enabled by the design and implementation of financial instruments that repackaged and sold over-leveraged credit at multiple levels (e.g., credit default swaps)
  3. Credit-rating agencies with conflicts of interest issued artificially high approval ratings for mortgage-backed securities
  4. The toleration, or promotion of, in many cases, a culture of debt-financed living – even if many people were victims of predatory lending

These phenomena highlight a top-down proclivity of global capitalism in general for not only privatizing market success and socializing market failure, but also its contribution to an increasing disparate distribution of wealth in the U.S.  Additionally, the financial crisis unmasked the elasticity and underscored the interdependence of global relations.  (It should also be mentioned that there are other critical perspectives from an even longer-term standpoint about the causes of the Great Recession, as exemplified by Yanis Varoufakus’ recent work.)


What we call the secular is actually the realm or domain of the Spirit. The secular – literally meaning the world, the realm outside of church control – isn’t profane. Rather, properly understood, it is sacred because the Spirit is and has always been active there, evoking light from darkness, order from chaos, fullness from void, life from lifelessness, actuality from potentiality, and potentiality from actuality. (Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? p. 151)

In the wake of economic recession and the recent financial crisis, and in view of growing global and domestic disparity with respect to wealth and power and its concentration into the hands of so few at the expense of so many – without adequate transparency or accountability – I propose in response that churches in North America are entrusted with several basic tasks:

  1. Raising awareness and making the economic inequalities and interdependencies of the world, both abroad and domestically, better understood by Christian congregants
  2. Engaging the public sphere through changes in habits of consumption so as to bear witness to God’s mission of (economic and ecological) reconciliation in the world
  3. Using capital, organizing themselves (in church governance and leadership) and conducting their worship and service practices as a church in such a way that challenges and contributes to the transformation of these inequalities
  4. mobilizing the fulfillment of this mission in part by facilitating participation in local political decision-making processes in order to disperse economic power where it has become overly concentrated, disembodied or undemocratic

I suggest that the church in North America will be best situated to oppose the exploitative nature of global capitalism by embracing the erosion of the sacred-secular divide – what Charles Taylor called “the Great Disembedding”[3]  – a distinctively modern divide, or as Taylor elsewhere descries it – a modern social imaginary – and one that is still prevalent in liberal-democratic nation-states and Western culture in general.  It is true, however, that a “de-secularization” or  “re-enchantment” of the world has been increasingly noted and called for in recent decades, indicating “both a discrediting of [rigidly] scientific theor[izing] of secularization and a renewed debate about a more nuanced understanding of secularism, religion, and the influence of modernity on each.”[4]  Aaron Stuvland insists, for example, that  

“Secularization, far from undermining religion with its denial of the transcendent and its insistence on verification through the senses and the application of cold logic, has created a spiritual vacuum and a deep desire for integration.  In fact, secular space for that matter simply does not nor has it ever existed. Or if it has existed as a political coercion, the secularization of the church results in the sacralization of the secular.”[5]

Gustavo Gutierrez has expressed the need for transgressing this boundary by emphasizing that there are not two histories, one sacred and one profane, one soteriological and one political, but rather, Gutierrez contends, that “the history of salvation is the very heart of human history [itself].”[6]

I believe that the boundary-blurring of the sacralization of the secular would serve to de-privatize religious communities and thereby renew or potentially re-capture something of their transformative force in the public sphere.  Such is a spirit of resistance to capitalism, I submit, or at least a spirit of resistance to a certain kind of capitalism – namely, its late neoliberal, global form with a reach that, though fragmented and not monolithic, relativizes, consumes and subsumes at so many levels –vertically, horizontally and internally – in terms of intensity, velocity and overall impact.

By using the language of “resistance to capitalism,” however, I’m not implying the endorsement of some other kind of macro, total state model, socialist or otherwise.[7]  In this way I do intend to break somewhat with the analysis of traditional Latin American liberation theology, despite deep indebtedness to Gutierrez and others of the movement.  Rather, I’m speaking of the church and its response to and role in the shadow of a corporately compromised capitalist state.  As such I am persuaded by those like Martin Luther King Jr. who summon the church at times to be the conscience of, or conscience raiser for the nation-state – though not because I believe this to be a primary vocation of the church.  The church is not a servant of the state; nor should its purposes be defined in terms of the state.  But, I do agree that speaking truth to power is one of the church’s chief responsibilities and means for bearing witness to God’s reign in the world.

To over-identify the church’s mission with the task of affecting the public sphere though without some further qualification is to risk confusing and conflating the secular and the sacred altogether; that is, the danger could be the secularization of the sacred rather than the reverse.[8]  I wish to maintain, therefore, that the church’s role is to transcend the allegedly immanent plane[9]  – not to be captured by so-called secular reason (Milbank).  I understand that the church is neither strictly sacred nor secular, but the foremost medium, potentially, through which the process of sacralization can occur.  Thus, my aim in this paper is to try to point to several ways that emerging churches in North America are both obscuring and moving sacred-secular borders, and to indicate additional practices by which this is and can be done by the church more generally.    In light of this aim, I propose that the deficiency of economic democracy in the marketplace can be contested from below by the church as followers of Jesus endeavor to conserve and steward resources more simply and responsibly, hold more in common together, decentralize power, organize its leadership in greater mutuality, meet publically, and share space with others and mobilize for the sake of the good of society as a whole.


By emerging ecclesiologies in North America, I am referring to a wide range of relatively recent “fresh expressions” of church, including house churches, pub churches, new neighborhood churches, and hyphenated churches (this refers to the housing by certain Mainline Protestant congregations of new worship gatherings and services in traditional facilities that treasure the old but bring in the new – that is, merge ancient and contemporary spiritualities and traditions).[10]  With a swelling desire for aesthetic and participatory liturgy, these faith communities bring dance, drama and literature into worship (or maybe better said, they’re make dance, drama and literature more worshipful).  And rather than borrowing their songs from the most popular Christian music or simply singing traditional hymns, emerging communities often write their own music and have their own artists.[11]  Other common practices include corporate and contemplative prayer, as well as Sabbath keeping.  Emerging churches tend to privilege the vision of the Christian community in Acts as the model to be sought, and have frequently been associated with New Monasticism.  These communities have a tendency to resist the self-identification of the title “church,” preferring instead names like “Solomon’s Porch,” “Mosaic,” “Journey,” “Jacob’s Well,” and the “Emmaus Way.” Many do not have (or want) their own buildings or ordained pastors.  If their leaders are even called “pastors,” they’re sometimes bi-vocational, and they’re likely to be compensated at the same rate as other staff members.  While it could be argued that both evangelical churches and mainline denominational churches continue to have a propensity toward preoccupation with numbers and money, and the measurement of overall quantifiable influence, emerging folks might accuse; conversely, as Phyllis Tickle asserts, “Market success, is neither an emergence concept nor even an emergence virtue.”[12]  Tickle describes emerging churches as fairly indifferent to [market success] and individualism as a cultural value.[13]  Tickle paints a picture of emerging churches as free from the trappings of modernity and instead more sensitive to postmodern impulses such as adaptivity, relationality, and hybridity.  This somewhat romanticized characterization is not without criticism, but it may still suffice for the purposes of this paper.[14]

There is in general a noticeable aversion to hierarchy, to clear distinctions drawn between clergy and laity – preferring instead gift-based and team-oriented leadership structure as opposed to ordination-centeredness.[15]  Moreover, emerging faith communities are frustrated by denominationalism and want to form looser, bi-laterally collaborative networks with less infrastructure and overhead.  At the same time, they do not usually endorse a wholesale rejection of or separation from established churches.  Many leading this movement are younger mainliners (though not exclusively young), while others have been called “post-conservative evangelicals.”[16]  Disenchanted evangelicals, for instance, are learning to appreciate and reinvigorate traditional liturgy.[17]  This is partly why one does in fact see new forms of church growing out of existing congregations.

Theologically speaking, emerging churches are characterized by post-foundational epistemology and  theology, “Emerging church ecclesiology . . . seeks to rethink how church is done in a decidedly postmodern context . . . They are asking questions of mission, the centrality of Jesus, and what it means to live in community.”[18]  The rediscovery of the centrality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings as a world-centered or “secular” mission for the church.  There’s a strong belief in the mission of realizing an “alternative social order” implies a new way of being and acting in the world both locally and globally.  The dualisms of modernity are thought to have placated the transformative potency of the gospel, so emerging churches wish to eschew this false dualism, with greater sensitivity to postmodern impulses like adaptivity, interdependence and hybridity. It is supposed by extension that if God’s redemption of the world is already present and bids people take part in its sacralization, then secular space is not without God, and God’s work knows no categories or boundaries.  “Because of this focus,” Andrew Stuvland explains, “emerging churches tend to be small and decentralized communities.” that value commitment and accountability over meetings and institutions. . . Stuvland argues that the “relational and fluid structure of the emerging church a de-centralized, entity opens it up to becoming more relevant and responsive to global realities.”[19] By extension, transforming secular space has become a core practice, it seems, and even a hallmark of emerging churches, as gatherings are held in places like coffee shops, art galleries and neighborhood community centers, in part for precisely the purpose of blurring sacred-secular lines.

According to LeRon Shults, “[emerging ecclesiology’s] resistance to a missional approach that colonizes the other is reflected in theological commitments to more dynamic models of ecclesial identity as wholly embedded in the relational life of “the world.”[20] Many [emerging churches] want to focus more strongly on the way in which embodied communal life here and now is being redemptively transformed and reordered in salutary ways that manifest justice in the world. In a certain sense, then, one could say that [for emerging ecclesiology] all salvation is “outside” the church.”[21] Shults concludes, “If [emerging churches] have anything in common, it is a desire to embrace the prophetic, the enthusiastic, and even the mystical as they move toward reformative ways of being and becoming in community as followers of the way of Jesus.”[22]

Let me now try to identify more specifically and practically a few marks and habits of economic organization for social awakening, some of which I see budding in emerging churches – while others are more feasible for established churches.  Both though correspond to what I’m calling a latent spirit of resistance to global capitalism.


[As a backdrop to talking about the church’s response to economic recession and the financial crisis, I am presupposing the globalization narrative that industrial economism of the 20th Century has been bulstered by the hyper-financialization of global markets in the 21st Century.]

Stewardship and Conservation: as a result of resource scarcity and the ensuing sustainability crisis brought about by this nation’s current international energy dependency and addiction to consumption, severe consequences are foreseeable – not only ecological in nature but geopolitical.  In other words, the energy crisis is intimately related to militarism and a security crisis, both of which increasingly serve the financial sector.[23]  At leas two kinds of responses are in in order on the part of churches, with respect to how Christians spend their money and where they entrust it: First, purchasing local, regional and fairly traded goods and services – especially food – must become a basic church rhythm in response and value – as sacred as anything else Christians do.  Some churches are adopting this, but many are not.  To resist the massive-scale distribution of goods and services by buying locally is to participate in the subversion of its overarching reach globally. Transactions that sustain small-scale farmers and businesses in turn become acts of living sacrifice for the sake of the propertyless, the unemployed and the otherwise disenfranchised around the world.  Further, in an attempt to protest third-world debt, unpenalized Wallstreet crimes and financial economism in general, it seems reasonable to advise that Christians bank with smaller financial institutions, even if these institutions can’t offer the same services at the same low rates as big banks.  rather than primarily focusing on accumulating wealth in the stock market, Congregations can be encouraged to bank locally and regionally, and even invite them to invest significant portions of their wealth and savings in non-profit micro-finance lending organizations.  So these are practices that emerging and established churches alike can implement.

What is more, in the name of Christian stewardship and creation care, rather than mere humanist environmentalism, church groups can sacralize the secular by conserving water and energy, which are sacred gifts from God but that have been secularized as profitable commodities – So by walking, cycling, utilizing public transportation, and consciously reducing what we send down sewage pipes.  The growing adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets is also sacralizing.  Along these same lines, to form and maintain smaller neighborhood-based churches rather than investing heavily in destination churches, is to conserve energy and therefore to at least indirectly combat the violence and neocolonialism of militarily ensuring secure lines of trade, as well as to challenge a culture of individualism that subjects church attendance to consumer preference and to the commodification of religious goods and services.  And this is where the economic organization of emerging ecclesiology really shines.

(With regard to) Church Buildings, then, whereas many  evangelical churches have perhaps tended to over-accommodated their worship to culture for the sake of remaining relevant, many Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches have adjusted in more subtle ways to signs of times without abandoning the richness of their rituals, liturgy and traditional adornment.  This is one reason why some emerging churches still feel comfortable in traditional buildings.  Another reason is that many emerging church congregants have had negative experiences with contemporary evangelical and non-denominational churches. However, evangelical and traditional Protestant churches alike are usually organized in such a manner that requires the allocation of the vast majority of their resources toward utility, maintenance, facility and payroll costs.  As a result, most of the money, time and energy of established churches is being directed toward the preservation and proliferation of their particular ministries and programs – ministries and programs that, however effective and well-intended, tend to reinforce sacred-secular divisions.  The advantage of the economic organization of emerging churches is that, with lower and fewer fixed costs, more resources are freed up to be directed outward.

Of course established churches can experience social awakening too, and in ways already mentioned.  Examples range from the incorporation of recycling, carpooling and other energy saving programs to awareness campaigns that emphasize the importance of spending less, sharing more, and replacing wasteful systems of any kind.  They can lease or share their worship facilities to newly forming, emerging congregations, for instance – or to non-faith-based organizations more generally that fall into the purview of the church’s broader mission for social justice.[24]  Buildings can be used for soup kitchens or homeless shelters in the winter.  One Anglican Church in Alantown PA was able to keep its doors open during the recession because it used its space to start an AIDS clinic and to  partner with another organization to offer GED classes five days a week.

Making greater use of urban real estate for other purposes, like after school tutoring and youth programs in sports, music and art in particular are some of the most tangible ways to curtail neighborhood gang activity and therefore also to protest/resist mass-incarceration in this country.

Further still, there are both emerging and established that perform some kind of service to the community in lieu of a worship service, say, once a month or every quarter, which can be a powerful statement to society about the church’s concern for the world.  which, as Michelle Alexander made so well known in her book The New Jim Crow, has a grossly uneven effect on the African-American population in the United States.[25]  Partnering with the school system in this way too would by extension combat drug-related violence in Mexico with the weapon of education rather than that of the penal state and outsourced slaughter to competing drug cartels.

While usually lacking the necessary facilities to support this kind of work, emerging faith communities compliment established ones by being nimble and small enough usually to gather in public space for worship, which has greater potential to bring people of different socio-economic status into the same place, which increases the visibility of suffering, injustice and inequality in the world.  Furthermore, neighborhood-based community groups create greater accountability and intimacy so as to ensure a common culture of commitment to these new practices of economic responsibility, interdependence and creation care in and between households.  Consequently, with lower fixed costs the church will be free to apportion a higher percentage of its resources toward the local and global needs of the most disadvantaged.

the Collapse of Clergy-Laity Separation: (and the re-emergence of bi-vocational church leadership)  Thirdly, emerging ecclesiology demonstrates a dethroning of the sharp clergy-laity divide by championing gift-based rather than clergy/ordination-centered leadership and priestly authority.[26]  Gift-based leadership language draws on Paul’s “one body, many parts” metaphor as a model for team and strength or talent-focused responsibility-sharing in church staff structure.  Obviously this does not mean that just anyone is able to claim theological or pastoral authority, nor that the Eucharist or its relationship to the priesthood is something to be taken lightly; but rather simply that with sacralizing the secular follows as well the disintegration of any inflexible difference between lay and clerical leadership responsibilities.  Instead what emerges is a leadership model based on personal strengths and indigenous, organic anointing that can only happen incarnationally – or, relationally, locally and contextually.  Consequently, there has also been a bourgeoning lay interest in and access to theological education.  In short – taking the priesthood of all believers a little bit more seriously.

As already indicated, the aversion to hierarchy in emerging church culture need not be anti-denominational.  It does seem though that with such great decline not only in church attendance but also therefore the decline in tithes and offerings to the Mainline churches in North America, change in denominationalism itself is inevitable and imperative.  How exactly structural amendments are made will vary significantly, but more relaxed networks with less bureaucracy and fewer layers are needed to meet the demands of emerging ecclesiology.[27]

Advocacy:  Finally, churches can experience social awakening by facilitating community organizing.  Much can be learned from certain Latino/a congregations in this regard with their practices of community organizing.  More so than in the case of arguments made by liberation theologians, for Latino/a ecclesiology the process of transformation (of economic, political, and social structures) is a byproduct of the process of transformation within the domestic cultural location: “So suffering is not only an epistemological category but an aesthetic, physical and domestic experience that the church must embody along with the poor.”[28] There is also implicit in Latino/a ecclesiology a criticism of Protestant liberal individualism, which has invented the individual as an unsituated, rather than community-situated self, and therefore a self-enclosed entity.[29] In his book, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology, Oscar Garcia-Johnson describes how Latino/a churches have utilized community organizing to mobilize and enact the church’s mission in neighorhoods:

Methodologically speaking, community organizing is a social process based on the communal exercise of self-betterment.  [It] employs a language constructed from within the constituency of a given community – a language that aims at social empowerment . . . Such an endeavor entails finding a shared [neighborhood] vision of community development . . . The shared vision is to encourage inclusion, participating in the planning process, and Motivate participants toward imagining the preferred common future for the community.  Community organizing entails a bipolar social process.  On the one hand, there is (social) inclusion, participation, unification, and communal imagination.  On the other hand, there is (socio-economic) assessment, task distribution, decentralization, and leadership development.[30]


My argument in closing is that by “sacralizing the secular” and becoming more decentralized, participatory, and outwardly/practically economically conscious as churches, with respect to our organization, leadership and ordination – which is what many emerging faith communities are already doing – churches will be able to constructively address and with hopefulness respond to the financial crisis and economic recession brought about by the hegemony of global and financial capitalism.  A blurring of the sacred-secular divide would lead to changes like lower tolerance of high operations costs and encouraging/enabling economic and consumer simplicity as well as the support of fair trade, in the lives of individual members of the body of Christ.  Church leaders especially should be expected to embody simple living and risk-taking for the sake of those on the margins in society.

In sum, not so much by taking anything away from the traditional practices of the church but by intentionally expanding the social ramifications of those practices, a theology or ecclesiology of sacralizing the secular is essentially to sacralize the mundane, ordinary everyday-ness of life – to sacralizes all the exchanges, that is, be they economic, cultural, relational.  This can start with the institutional church itself, but is moving forward with many expressions of emerging ecclesiology — some of which are partnering with established churches.  These movements are perhaps the clearest sign that social awakening in North American churches is already well underway.

[1] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).  Some major causes are fairly easy to identify, as there is wide consensus among economists, such as more women entering the workplace, the outsourcing of jobs, immigration and technological advancement.  These factors together have created a labor surplus, which drives wages down and gives prospective workers far less freedom and power to negotiate their compensation.  And of course the problem has only become more acute since 2008.

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Economic Recession, Work, and Solidarity,” Theological Studies 72, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 150–169.

[3] Andrew Root, “A Secular Age,” Word & World 30, no. 1 (Wint 2010): 111–113.  Root summarizes: “This moves the reader to what Taylor calls the Great Disembedding, which in Christianity meant the splitting of sacred and secular into two distinct categories. This would unravel the enchantment of the world. Now, so-called enchanted experiences only had credence in the sacred realm and were eliminated from the secular realm, disenchanting it. Taylor asserts that this division had significant impact on how one conceptualized the self. Now, the self and the world were no longer a whole, but were experienced in parts. Therefore, the porous self gave way to a buffered identity, the idea that you can think of yourself as outside of, or other than, the world. This buffered identity is the core ingredient for the poisonous stew of Western individualism that Taylor so opposes.”

[4] Aaron Stuvland, “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society: Postmodern Christianity as a Source for Global Values,” Journal of Church and State 52, no. 2 (Spr 2010): 210.

[5] Ibid., 221.

[6]  Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 86.  I think it can be argued that even Augustine’s two cities and Luther’s two kingdoms are not in conflict with this notion – as long as the mission of God’s city or kingdom is taken to be one of commission to permeate or sacralize the secular city or kingdom by the divine.  At the same time, there are those who criticize Gutierrez and see a distinction between him and pre-/early modern Christian thought: “Gutierrez thus wants to overcome the bourgeois privatization of the church by elevating the spiritual status of the mundane political world and by breaking down the barriers between theology and politics.  The church is the explicit witness to the liberation of humanity from sin, including social and political sins of all kinds.  The church, however is not epistemologically privileged in understanding social and political processes, which operate within their worldly autonomy and are thus best understood by the social sciences” (Cavanaugh, The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology).

[7] It follows then I am not necessarily trying to make a case against say, market competition – insofar as competition can be conceived within the confines of a more fundamental commitment to cooperation for achieving the end of basic provision and well-being for everyone in society.  Markets are indeed useful and necessary for productivity and efficiency, but they are not value-neutral, as many economists would have it.  Without transparency, accountability and at times thorough ethical scrutiny informed by the interests of the majority, productivity and efficiency can be ruthless.  And the first to pay for the mistakes of the profit-maximizing speculators are almost always the poor. – So I insist with Jon Sobrino, for example, that churches overlooking their responsibility for solidarity with and defense of the most vulnerable are simply not fulfilling their God-given mission. Thus this goes beyond mere Keynesian theory, which, despite recognizing the need for government interference and stimulation, fails to question global capitalism’s normativity, the supposed amoral nature of its capacity for perpetual growth, its dependency on profit motive, or its appeal to unqualified utilitarianism.

What is more, in light of the proliferation of value-pluralism, it probably cannot be argued anymore in the same way Rauschenbusch did that the mission of the church is to “Christianize” the social order.  And while it is perhaps not incorrect to describe the U.S. as a welfare state, it could hardly be credited with social or economic democracy.  But while self-interest drives the economy, confidence in such an economy, as Rauschenbusch rightly saw, will ironically fall if market practice, culture and regulation are not moralized through smart and fairly invasive legislation.

[8] Liberationists like Gutierrez, for example have been charged with expecting the church to bow before the authority of the social sciences.  But conversely, those who privilege ecclesial-based social ethics in the post-liberal tradition, for instance, are accused of too much reluctance to “dirty their hands” with the politics of the nation-state.  In my view the liberationist vs. post-liberal juxtaposition is a false binary, and it seems to me that sacralizing the secular requires greater appreciation and negotiation of the hybridized, dynamic and dialectical character of language itself, as well as the relationship between the church and the public sphere.

[9] D Stephen Long, “How to Read Charles Taylor: The Theological Significance of A Secular Age,” Pro Ecclesia 18, no. 1 (Wint 2009): 93–107.

[10] Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books, 2012), 116.

[11] Scot McKnight et al., Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging (Brazos Press, 2011).

[12] Tickle, Emergence Christianity, 116.

[13] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008)., 145.

[14] There are those who would criticize not only emerging ecclesiology but also Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism for accommodating modern-liberal ideals like democracy and egalitarianism without realize the simultaneous comportment of smuggled-in secular reasoning.  It is argued in other words, that ecclesial authority and institutionalism in the church are still vital. See William T. Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities,” Cross Currents 44, no. 1 (Spr 1994): 67–84.

[15] Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, (Jossey-Bass, 2009), 204. “Emergents downplay—or outright reject— the differences between clergy and laity.”

[16] Roger E. Olson, How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative (Zondervan, 2008).

[17] McKnight et al., Church in the Present Tense, 75.

[18] Stuvland, “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society,” 219.

[19] Ibid. 228.  See also: Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 65; Sweet et al., A Is for Abductive, 264; Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 2006). See the notion of “political religion” explored in Michael Burleigh

[20] F LeRon Shults, “Reforming Ecclesiology in Emerging Churches,” Theology Today 65, no. 4 (Ja 2009): 427.

[21] Ibid., 428.

[22] Ibid, 429.

[23] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson, 2009).

[24] Chris Lewis, ed., Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals (IVP Books, 2012).  British emergent church leader Kester Brewin summons North America churches, in the spirit of “emergence ecclesiology,” to forsake purified space.

[25] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, The, 2012).

[26] Tony Jones, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (JoPa Productions, LLC, 2011), 119.

[27] One should be careful though, not to overly-idealize notions of egalitarianism and democracy – as William Cavanaugh rightly cautions.  Sometimes the modern-liberal heritage of these forms of organization can be uncritically received and incorporated, which may have unintended and undetected secularizing consequences.  Again see Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities.”

[28] Oscar Garcia-Johnson, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology (Pickwick Publications, 2008), 113-14.underlines several traits of Latino/a churches that could be adopted by others as well.  These in particular are worth mentioning: Manana living; Being-in-community and having commonality, which implies coviviencia (life together); by extension, accompaniment – a paradigm for understanding church-in-culture; and lastly, sacramentality as a remedy to false dichotomies – an idea that is akin to sacralizing the secular.

[29] Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos Con Jesus: Hacia Una Teologia Del Acompanamiento (Convivium Press, 2009).

[30] Garcia-Johnson, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit. 128.

Response to Mark L. Taylor's "Sing it Hard"


From Taylor’s paper:

In time, flesh will wear out chains.

Victor Serge, “Stenka Razin

                                                Now get yourself a song to sing

                                                and sing it ‘til you’re done

                                                Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well

                                                Send the robber barons straight to hell

                                                The greedy thieves that came around

                                                And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found

                                               Whose crimes have gone unpunished now

                                               Walk the streets as free men now.

                                                Bruce Springsteen, “Death to My Hometown”

  The song now rises as high as the flames of hatred

  now whispers softly, kind and tender,

  Now glows like the sun and glitters like the lodestar

  Now thunders down the prisons

  Trang, “The Rising Song”


Thank  you, Dr. Taylor for your forceful, rich and inspiring presentation.

In his paper, Sing it Hard, Mark L. Taylor begins by briefly describing the problem of mass incarceration both in terms of the sheer number of people it affects in this country (per capita) and with regard to the significantly disproportionate population of minoritized groups and people of color that are imprisoned in the U.S. or controlled by the penal state in various ways.  Using James Samuel Logan’s study on the subject, Taylor lists four primary causes of the rise of mass-incarceration in the U.S., each of which interact together in the greater national and global context:

  1. Mandatory long-term sentencing
  2. The war on crime and specifically the war on drugs inaugurated by the Nixon administration and revived by Reagan, etc.
  3. An “ever-increasing social policy commitment to incarceration and draconian criminal justice policies as a control solution geared toward exploiting fear about insecurity and containing and regulating the frustrations of the nation’s most exploited residents…”
  4. growing privatization of prisons and the profit that can be captured as a result

Secondly, in order to explain how mass-incarceration can be understood specifically as a decolonial struggle, Taylor frames his analysis of this problem both historically and internationally: historically from the standpoint of U.S. politics in the latter half of the 20th Century, contending that mass-incarceration is part of the repeated necessary sacrifice (Dussel) of surplus populations (Mike Davis and Christian Parenti) inherent in the rise of modernity itself dating back to as early as the 15th century and following with the so-called discovery, or as Dussel likes to say, the “invasion of the Americas.”  Internationally the issue is situated with respect to globalization on the one hand and the on-going dominant role of individual nation-states like the U.S. in the West on the other.

I find this to be an especially significant point – acknowledging the growing power of trans and supranational capital and financial mobility that characterizes globalization, but not overlooking the persistence of geopolitical, nationally based centers of power that govern these financial and capital movements – Taylor recognizes, in other words, that to speak of Empire or neoliberalism as if it exists solely in the aftermath of the declining rule of nation-states is premature (otherwise we might not see such disparate imprisonment numbers in the first place) Furthermore, by examining the problem from a global perspective, Taylor does not, in my view, abstract from the concrete situation but rather adds clarity and depth of engagement to it.

(Citing Wacquant and Gilmore) Additionally, Taylor means to show that mass-incarceration is the inevitable byproduct, and to some extent even the engine, of U.S. economic growth since WWII, as well as that it is a consequence of the continued neo-colonial project of American exceptionalism and imperialism in general.

While there have been some praiseworthy underground resistance in the Christian tradition over the centuries, Taylor notes as well the extent to which many of Christianity’s most vocal proponents have been complicit in this militarist-expansionist project of the U.S., often under the guise of speech about “liberty.”

Similarly, while getting popularized by rhetoric about “individual responsibility,” the subsequent withdrawal of social support services and the augmentation of deregulatory economics only compounded the problem and has further lead to the development of the penal state.

Then, following several post-colonial theorists (Wallerstein and Mignolo) and in particular the thought of the Peruvian Anibal Quijano, Taylor expands the issue of mass-incarceration by conceiving of it not only the traditional Marxist, materialist categories of labor and class, but also the ambits of subjectivity, sexuality and collective authority, each of which he expounds upon and are interacting and overlapping dimensions through which mass-incarceration exercises symbolic power (Bourdieu) over its victims,  is expressivist (Durkheim), and functions as a dominant policing and economic force controlling human bodies.

And herein lies the key connection to decoloniality: seeing the U.S. prison population “as an important segment of the “world precariate,” those peoples who belong to the long history of regions, subject to Western and, more recently, U.S., imperial formation and enforcement.”  This, for Taylor, is what warrants that the struggle be named- decolonial.

Attention to these additional dimensions of coloniality coincides with Taylor’s call for a response in theo-poetic fashion – which is not reducible to the level of political economy but is also concerned with affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, artistic, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to both express and catalyze a social movement against the oppressive force of mass-incarceration.  So just as coloniality broadens and deepens the configuration of this particular form of exploitation – in mass-incarceration – so too will an appropriate resistance movement take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in policy at the political-economic level.  It will be more total than that, Consisting of at least three visible marks of critical resistance, a Christian decolonizing effort according to Taylor is constituted by dynamic social existence moving from    

1.     Owning of agonistic being (ontology of struggle)

2.     Cultivating of artful reflex

3.     Fomenting of counter-colonial practices

The fomenting, Taylor stresses, is dependent upon the owning and the cultivating.

Finally, tracing the distinctives of a Christian Theo-Poetic challenge to mass-incarceration, for inspiration Taylor deliberately makes no reference to a transcendent Other or to knowledge that is dependent on some kind of revelation from beyond or outside.  Instead, Taylor wishes to invoke a neither fully immanent nor transcendent mode of trans-existence or trans-immanence (Nancy) that is in-finite, opposing any attempt to lockdown the world as is or close it off, as it were, and envisaging the world as unfolding…

A theo-poetic challenge, however, is nevertheless firmly grounded in the way of the cross for Taylor, and there are three main features to this way.  It is:

1.     Politically adversarial – Taylor makes a strong case for why this can be taken straight from Jesus’ own life and ministry.

2.     Mimetic (theatrical: off-setting the unpredictable, theatrical performance of the state, creatively dramatic – this dimension is crucial, Taylor says, for unleashing a counter-vailing power much like Jesus crucifixion did by challenging violent mechanisms of power.

3.     Kinetic (moving and dynamic) Using Taylor words, this sets in motion an organized embodiment that sought to “sustain life-renewing activity and communal work” by extending Jesus’s own “radically inclusive love that transgressed the ways of the religio-political state”

Anticipating the likely pushback from those whom Taylor might dub guild theologians, Taylor does not deny that power for resistance can be derived from an idea of the God who is found and testified to in Scripture and the creeds, but this is not what Taylor is doing.  Taylor firmly believes that the power of a vulnerable, networking people who bear the weight of produced social suffering is sufficient (and more suited?) to ignite and organize a counter-carceral movement, and he finishes by giving two good examples of this.

Now while one might identify this paper as a work of political theology, it is certainly more political and social in its content than theological (– though Taylor prefers to redefine both of these terms as set forth in his most recent book, The Political and the Theological).  One can appreciate that Taylor distances himself so much from the theologies of Christendom.  When Taylor employs the ontology of transimmanence, he does not appear to be making a case for this ontology as such here, so I’m going to briefly respond to a few of his apparent assumptions that are made rather than take issue with the notion of transimmanence as it might defended.

Without taking anything away from his socio-cultural-political and post-colonial critique and proposal I hope  – and conceding full well that Christianity itself needs to be decolonized, and that ontological otherness has perhaps more often than not been appropriated to numb or to excuse inaction on behalf of the oppressed – to reinforce coloniality in all its ambits – I would prefer to join other more traditional theologians, even if it is predictable and unoriginal, in retorting that faith in God as transcendent and benevolent, and faith in the prospect of eschatological hope, can still be a great catalyst for social change – just as perhaps, I think, it could even be argued that a theology of trans-immanence is susceptible to becoming closed-in, totalizing or despairing in some sense.  In sum, I’m not sure why the neither/nor approach to transcendence and immanence is more desirable than a both/and understanding.  Can’t transcendence strongly criticize idolatry, say, in the form of fetishized domination and over-securitization? Can’t transcendence be the source of courage for Christian communities to enact resistance without fear of death?  And then conversely, doesn’t a concept of a transcendent God’s immanence promise hope to the victimized in that God can be said to suffer with and relate to the victim in Christ?

– I want to pause now though to emphasize something: namely that these doctrinal questions are secondary concerns for me.  They come after, as Taylor puts it, as interpretations – not first (existentially rather than chronologically).  First, there is a choice to be made. Most importantly I want to reiterate and affirm what I interpret to be one of the most compelling points and contributions in Taylor’s presentation – namely, his assertion that “everything hinges on what kind of social existence what kind of communal embodiment, those who call themselves Christians, who identify their lives and groups with the way of Jesus, will present in the world.  In particular what kind of social existence will they present vis-à-vis the coloniality of power in which current mass incarceration is inscribed?“

This, it seems to me, is the battle cry, if you will, that can mobilize people in the Christian tradition regardless of their theological persuasions.  In my view, this is a profound and compelling theological statement about an urgent issue today, even in spite of what some might consider to be Taylor’s otherwise-than-orthodox ontology.  Moreover, this is an attempt to not only include but to join the other, to rally anyone in the struggle for liberation from the chains of imprisonment, irrespective of identity or affiliation – to summon all who are unwilling to stomach, as Taylor says, the injustice and the racism of the penal system. While the issue of Christian identity in the respect that it was raised yesterday by Anselm Min is left somewhat untreated here, one does find both Christian agency and agenda operative in this proposal.  It is an invitation to people of the way of Jesus to deploy their resources, language and practices “so as to find their place within the larger, and not just Christian, movement of critical resistance” to dramatically contest this neo-colonizing strategy of rule.  And I should add: I share Taylor’s concern that not nearly enough Christians are involved in this struggle, in the arts of protest and prayer that might “thunder down the prisons” and sing hard that “flesh can wear out chains.”

One last political comment to close:

Just to indicate one direction in which the discussion could be extended, in the same way that the nation-state cannot be properly understood apart from globalization, perhaps neither can mass-incarceration be thoroughly criticized without examining it alongside of violence in neighboring Central American countries that is being at least indirectly incentivized by these broken criminal justice policies.  At one point Taylor speaks of how de-socialized wage labor is managed by hyper-incarceration.  Hyper-incarceration is only a domesticate system, however, while de-socialized wage labor is being propagated around the globe by U.S. foreign policy and the behavior of certain U.S.-based corporations.  In unstable regions of Mexico, for example, the management system is not hyper-incarceration but murderous competition between drug cartels for control of smuggling routes and the labor of disposable traffickers.

But finally I just want to comment in closing that this paper was very moving for me and has incited my somewhat dormant creative imagination and thinking about this issue as I further explore the problem of the drug war.

A Christian Liberationist Response to the Crisis at the United States-Mexico Border

In this paper I will discuss the problem of violence related to the U.S.-Mexico drug trade as understood within the framework of political and economic globalization.  This will require a brief overview of my political-theological method.  I will then provide a liberationist theological reflection on the problem from a North American Christian perspective.  In closing I will offer a short ethical analysis in light of this theological reasoning.[i]

From the perspective of theology as a discipline, the impetus for this essay is the concern that, while liberation theology as traditionally conceived has perhaps run its course, the usefulness of the tools given to political theologians by liberation theology can only be judged by their continuous applicability.  In more concrete terms, therefore, the intention here is for the application of a liberationist hermeneutic to actually aid in the development of a historical project of liberation for the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Theological and Socio-analytical Methodology

As Clodovis Boff (2005, p 30) once advised, theology must first of all incline its ear to the social sciences if it hopes to be liberating, while also avoiding the collapse of one distinct discipline into another.  As such, for political theology, the social sciences will be genuinely constitutive of what theology can say and what can be its theoretical organization (Boff 2005,     p 30).  And as with any contextual theology, its historical situation and its particular theological concerns will also be mutually constitutive of each other.  Political theology in general and liberation theology in particular function to sensitize people of faith to what is believed to be God’s will in a specific historical setting, and to inspire their commitment to participating in God’s mission of reconciliation in that setting.  Thus the aim in political theology is to bring faith and action together more effectively (Sousa Santos 2009).

Liberation theology is distinct not only for its content but also for its method.  Undergirding this method is the Judeo-Christian-theological commitment to the preferential option for the poor and the oppressed and to seeing change realized for the people in these circumstances.  Secondly, there is the process of socio-historical analysis and the examination of the structures in place that enable subjugation.  Finally, there is the critical-theological reflection on praxis for carrying out action that contributes to the goal of liberation in light of the unjust conditions in place.  Hence, liberation theology is praxis in history and society – that is, critical reflection on action already enacted and largely informed by the context and concerns of a given situation (Metz 1980, p 73).  As such, it begins by way of socio-historical analysis.

The Larger Context: Globalization

The crisis in Mexico caused by the drug trade is seen here to be exemplary of the more universal context of globalization itself.  Globalization is understood in this case as a process or set of processes that embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions in terms of increased intensity, extensity, velocity and impact (Held & McGrew 1999, p 16).  These relations and transactions are not only economic and political in nature but also culture and environmental.

They involve changing and complex regimes of differentiation and homogenization that have constructed new paths and limits for global economic flows.  Other common byproducts include the rapid reconfiguration of territories especially with respect to patterns of economic exchange.  The invisibility of economic power structures and their ability to develop independently of legitimate political power is a key challenge brought about by globalization.  This challenge is exacerbated by the permeation and extension of this economic power beyond national borders.

Moreover, the process of globalization is replete with contradictions, uncertainties and unevenness.  For this reason, globalization is not simply coterminous with neoliberalism.[ii]  In other words, few globalizing factors at work are purely economic and therefore cannot be reduced to the logic of free trade and the international division of labor or class.

At the same time, globalization can still be conceived in many respects as a context in which “devising alternatives to neoliberal market capitalism has become increasingly difficult” Alcoff & Sáenz 2003, p 200).  International deregulation through trade agreements is one of the chief ways the empire of global capitalism is expanded.  In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, NAFTA brought about increases in foreign-direct investment, but the tradeoff has been a less developed and more dependent Mexican economy in many respects.  Mexico has been forced to move away from an agriculturally dominant society to an economy represented by manufacturing, commerce, and services (Camp 2007, p 247).  The overall impact has varied tremendously depending on the region.

With regard to drug trafficking, just as production has been outsourced in the age of globalization, so too have many aspects of organized violence.  States have a monopoly on the ability to legitimize violence but cannot monopolize violence itself.  With the extraordinary coercive power of illicit cartel networks, the drug war is one example of this kind of violence.

The Mexico Drug War Itself

The major impetus for unrest in the border region depends on the demand for drugs in metropolitan centers in the United States and the supply from Columbia.  Once a kilo of cocaine reaches the streets in the U.S., it will be worth $100,000, or about $100 a gram.  In the Columbian countryside the same substance is worth $3,000, or about three dollars a gram.  The single greatest contributor to this giant surplus value is believed to be the illegality and therefore added political risk of the production, transport and consumption of the drugs themselves.              Investigative journalist John Gibler (2011, p 35) explains that, “[i]llegality also requires that one [bolster] the moral discourse of prohibition with massive infusion of funds into armies and law-enforcement agencies.  These infusions in turn require the production of arrests and drug seizures.  Competitors in the drug economy use this need as a way to eliminate opponents and rivals, tipping off federal authorities to the whereabouts of [enemy stashes and hideouts].”  In this context, illegality adds another more blatant complication: every dispute within the industry must be settled outside the law.  Rather than merely engaging in a competitive price war, the most common method of conflict resolution in an illegal business culture rampant with cash is contract murder (Gibler 2011, p 38).

As of 2011, the polls taken by the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego estimate that approximately 50,000 Mexicans have died since 2006 as a result of the conflict, and as a result of the competition at the border for trade smuggling routes between the different DTO (drug trafficking organizations) to secure their gain from the multi-billion dollars-worth of narcotics that cross the border every year (USD TBI, Drug Violence 2011).  Significantly more killings have happened in the border city of Juarez than anywhere else.  Less than five percent of these cases have been or are ever likely to be investigated.  Moreover, many of the murders are spectacular, stylized, and torturous in nature.  For this reason, it is not uncommon for the violence of the drug war to be called “narcoterrorism” – though this kind of terrorism differs markedly from others in that it seems to be primarily motivated by competition for control of revenue in the industry.

Most critics of the drug war believe that the drug trade and the present laws against drug trafficking are mutually reinforcing.  Gibler (2011, p 43) argues that “[t]he blood and chaos that accompany drug trafficking from Mexico into the United States are inextricably related to the simultaneous demand within the U.S. population for the [drugs], and the insistence of U.S. politicians on an ideological commitment to prohibition that seeks to veil prohibition’s use for social control.”  In response, though U.S. policy has not stopped the flow of drugs, it has managed to outsource most of the killing (Gibler 2011, p 203).  With dozens of reporters in Mexico gunned down or disappeared since 2008, the DTOs are especially skilled at silencing those who speak out.  The targets seem to be anyone with access to major media channels, or anybody who annunciates facts that could be bad for business (Gibler 2011, p 23).

Narcoterrorism is essentially an effort to coerce the media and scare others away from cooperating with law enforcement.  Furthermore, it is estimated by Mexico’s own government that the DTOs have infiltrated as much as half of the municipal police force.  At the same time, “[p]roducing arrests is a necessary feature of the industry, and so, like murder, arrest becomes a way of settling accounts or invading territory” (Gibler 2011, p 23).  Thus, the culpable and the innocent are confused, and the hybridity of the drug war zone is highlighted.

The temptation on the part of U.S. citizens is often to dismiss organized crime as outside the “clean legal system,” rather than to recognize how interwoven official government is in drug trafficking on both sides of the border.  This is what makes the U.S. government’s deployment of the phrase “war on drugs” so misleading.  It is well known by even some DEA officials that the drug war machinery suffers from an industrial complex that to some extent causes the very disease it aims to cure, but this is a powerful sector of government that employs thousands of people and can easily lobby for itself (Campbell 2009, p 10).

For Mexico’s antidrug campaign, on the other hand, which was amplified by President Felipe Calderon in 2006, the most important audience is the United States – both its media and political representatives.  It has even been argued that, despite what looks like an intense turf battle on the surface, politicians at the national level in Mexico might have good reason not to substantially disrupt DTO operations for the risk of having their past collusions exposed before an election (“Mexico’s Presidential Election,” 2012).

So at one level, victims sometimes become victimizers.  Those immediately impacted by declining employment opportunities, for instance, can end up on the Sinaloa or Zeta cartel payroll.  This makes them servants to the system in which their fate is often sealed, as many low-paid traffickers and snitches are brutally executed after being intercepted by rival gangs.  Videos of these executions circulate on the internet to incite fear, and bodies are left on public display.

Meanwhile, however, those uninvolved in trafficking are commonly caught in the crossfire.  At another level then, some binaries remain, and it may be possible to make a few general distinctions between the oppressors and those being oppressed.  It seems clear that free trade zoning coupled with continued illegalization – all of which is encouraged or permitted by a corrupt legal system in parts of Mexico – has largely contributed to the creation of a deregulated capitalist “laboratory,” which, in the words of author Charles Bowden, has become “the global economy’s new killing field” (Bowden 2010).  The oppressor then, appears to be a structural economic and legal framework that is bolstered by consumers, misinformed or self-seeking political stakeholders, and ruthless DTO leadership.

Conversely, the oppressed are the low-wage dealers and transporters, the addicts without treatment, the overly incarcerated minorities in the United States, the displaced Mexican migrants, and the thousands who have been abused or killed mostly due to a lack of lawfulness in general (poor teenage women and their activist mothers, among others).  Furthermore, this list notes that the two groups are not simply separated by their citizenship.  The border is significant but by no means an all-determining factor.  In sum, the weight of these asymmetrical relationships falls heaviest on the socially and materially impoverished, which makes a liberationist theological consideration especially appropriate.

A Brief Theological Reflection

From a Christian political-theological perspective, there are two tasks.  First, there is a response to the cry for liberation from the current oppressive situation in view of a preferential option for the poor and the victimized.  Christians of conscience and conviction about the need for solidarity of Mexicans and Americans will be led to heed the demands placed on them by the voices of these persons being erased from history and those of their orphans and widows left behind.  Secondly, one can speak about the solidarity that Christians profess God to have with the suffering victims of this crisis through the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is known through the hermeneutic of liberation in living, dying and being resurrected as God incarnate who embodies solidarity with those whose lives have been disappeared in this battle (Sobrino 1994, p 315).   By announcing both judgment of unjust power and freedom for captives, the poor and the marginalized, Jesus stands firmly within the Jewish prophetic tradition as one who was shunned for criticizing the political and religious status quo.  In his death, Christ’s blood exposes and protests the violence and injustice of the drug lords and all other complicit actors, reflects the sin and wickedness of their deeds, and yet also declares forgiveness and justification to the penitent (Park 2009, p 74).  Jesus cried out from the cross against the torture, murder, exploitation and injustice of the Mexican drug war, just as he denounced the rest of history’s atrocities (Park 2009, p 75).

In his life, Jesus proclaimed the basilea theou, or reign of God, which might be more appropriately termed “God’s economy” or the “divine commonwealth.”  In this economy, power is not granted de facto to the materially powerful, but rather to the one whose way is anchored in justice for everyone.  The hegemony and ordering of the drug trade economy is abolished by this alternative vision – a vision that refuses to ignore the plight of the oppressed in the pursuit of its goal and regards no human being as less than a fellow subject.

Jesus’ crucifixion is yet another symbol of God’s solidarity with the victim of the drug war.  In one sense, it can be treated simply as a prophet’s fate.  Jesus’ death came as a consequence of the kind of life he led and because of what he said and did.  He got in the way of political and religious leaders with imperial agendas.  Many other human beings have been “crucified,” and they too are called sons and daughters of God by Jesus.  By participating in human nature and suffering like so many others have, Jesus demonstrates something about what God is like.  God in Jesus’ humanity is a fellow-sufferer.  Through Jesus, God understands the plight of the victimized.

More specifically, the manner in which Jesus died is astonishingly analogous to the execution practices of the drug cartels.  “Criminals” were crucified at the time not so much for what they did, but for the degree to which they were perceived as a threat to Roman security and sovereignty (Crossan 2007, p 137).  Jesus was replacing Barabbas, the insurrectionist.  The crucifixion was meant to be a public and fear-inciting inscription of Roman territory on anti-imperial bodies.  The drug cartels are similarly interested in intimidation and leaving their signage on victims’ mutilated corpses.  “This is what happens to all those who oppose us,” they warn.

Thirdly, by confessing the resurrection, God’s mission in Christ is not only one of compassion and solidarity but of salvation as well.  Here the nature of God’s power is contrasted with that of the empire, exerted conversely in a just and righteous fashion.  Moreover, this power is not reducible to the political realm alone.  Rather, it is ontological and vital, and it mysteriously raises Jesus from the grave, as the scriptures and the creeds of orthodoxy testify.  For the victims of the world throughout history in general and of drug-related violence in Mexico in particular, some recourse to hope can be found in this promise.

In his life, Jesus broke down social barriers and included the outcast – those like the drug dealer, the prisoner, the addict and the victimized woman.  Jesus’ suffering and death makes it clear that the victims of violence are not all dying because of their guilt or uncleanness (Park 2004, p 75) –– unlike much of what the popular media and the Mexican government would lead the public to believe.  Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life is inspiration to all of the families and friends of dead journalists, and reminds that their sacrifices have not been in vain.  Finally, the resurrection eases the fear of mortality, giving survivors the courage to resist and make sacrifices while also instilling the hope that death might not get the final word.

Of course this represents just one type of theological response in what is otherwise now more broadly called an interreligious stream of liberationist thought, so others must also be urged to give their own interpretation.  The point is that these Mexican brothers and sisters are the suffering neighbors of U.S. citizens, and in the words of economist Ha-Joon Chang, we have been bad Samaritans (Chang 2008).  Nevertheless, blaming the right group is less important than recognizing the justification and need for solidarity from one’s particular vantage point – and responding by living with greater economic responsibility.

Ethical Response

Upon preliminary observation, it seems that any kind of liberating political action will probably require breaking the taboo on debate and reform of drug and free trade policy.   Utopian visions are of little use in this predicament, and a theological criticism must eventually be grounded in practical terms lest it function to re-inscribe the domination of political indifference.  Juarez did not become possibly the most violent and deadly city in the world overnight.  Nor is its current condition accidental.  Despite many other enabling factors, the crisis appears to be most basically a result of the sheer power of unregulated market forces and its ability to bring out the worst in people – driving some to value recreational psychoactive stimulus, the securitization of cash flow, or the appearance of civility over human life itself.

As anthropologist and sociologist of the drug war Howard Campbell summarizes, “the consuming countries clearly have the most power in this context – power to cut domestic drug demand, the power to pressure the policies of drug-producing countries and otherwise meddle in their internal affairs, the power to demonize and otherwise stigmatize producers” (Campbell 2009, p 10).  From a liberationist standpoint, the social and structural sins of the conflict should be named, which, in addition to denouncing the cruelty itself, should entail a new stigmatization of casual drug use and of failure to open the floor for dialogue about different regulatory strategies at the mainstream political level.  Right now in most of the country and in most instances, to consume these substances illegally is to at least indirectly participate in fueling the bloodshed.  What should be instilled in the minds of American consumers, therefore, is a self-critical ethic that uncovers the illusion of personal, private sin associated with social use of narcotics and conversely underscores the urgency of the collective harm done by funding this ruthlessly profit-seeking industry.  Change in U.S. policy toward narcotics and trade might lead to the reduction of rampant murder, the impunity of entire regions, mass incarceration, disguised repression, excessive spending to fight the war, and the pretext for U.S. interference in drug-producing countries.  This is reason enough for the discussion to be welcomed and for experimentation with new policies to be encouraged, because whatever the most just and liberating solution is, the policies currently in effect are not achieving it.

There are many things that Mexicans and the Mexican government can and should consider doing.  Responsibility for this crisis falls on both parties, and obviously the U.S. and its population is in no place to unilaterally advise the Mexican people.  Nonetheless, given the preceding assessment, the most pressing and potentially liberating steps to be taken are likely only possible from the northern side of the border.  For the U.S. to initiate this sort of neighborly action would be a revolutionary measure in the direction of solidarity with Mexico and international economic responsibility.

[i] What is presented here does not exhibit a rigorous empirical study of all the best data available, and this would certainly need to be part of the larger project.  The purpose then is not to make detailed recommendations for policy change so much as to raise awareness, introduce the topic, and broadly explicate the key structural features and likely causes of the conflict so as to signal toward possible paths forward.  In doing so, however, certain suggestions regarding which political issues are most pertinent will nonetheless be clearly insinuated.

[ii] Neoliberalism is understood here as the dominant Western economic ideology that is characterized by trust in self-interest-driven free market competition with very limited government interference as the best strategy both domestically and internationally for bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run.


University of San Diego Transborder Institute Drug Violence Report for 2011. http://justiceinmexico.org/resources-2/drug-violence/. Viewed on December 13, 2011.

Stratfor Global Intelligence, “Mexico’s Presidential Election and Cartel War.” http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/mexicos-presidential-election-and-cartel-war/. Viewed on February 16, 2012.

Alcoff, Linda Martin, and Mario Sáenz. Latin American Perspectives on Globalization: Ethics, Politics, and Alternative Visions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Boff, Clodovis. Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005.

Bowden, Charles. Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. Asbury Park: Nation Books, 2010.

Campbell, Howard. Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.

Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Gibler, John. To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2011.

Held, David. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Metz, Johannes Baptist. Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1980.

Park, Andrew. Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Park, Andrew S. From Hurt to Healing: A Theology of the Wounded. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.

Sobrino, Jon. Jesus the Liberator: A Historical Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth.  Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994.

Sousa Santos, Bonaventura. “If God were a Human Rights Activist: Human Rights and the Challenge of Political Theologies,” Law Social Justice and Global Development Festschrift for Upendra Baxi, 2009.

Solidarity Before Dialogue: Toward an Ecclesiology of Economic Inclusivity in an Age of Religious Pluralism and Globalization

Any kind of Christian theology today, even in the rich and dominant countries, which does not have as its starting point the historic situation of dependence and domination of 2/3 of humankind, with its 30 million dead of hunger and malnutrition will not be able to position and concretize historically its fundamental themes.  Its questions will not be the real questions.[1]


The problem posed by religious pluralism for particular and normative claims about reality and truth on the part of various faith traditions is nothing new.  From the Christian perspective, it has led to or reinforced fundamentalism and exclusivism on the one hand, while also causing others both within and outside of the faith to be suspicious of any claims of normativity on the other.  Ideas and epistemological movements like postmodernism and post-structuralism bring further but also what are by now familiar challenges to this problem.  Consequently, a number of original voices have arisen in attempts to reconcile this conflict of the one and the many in terms of a Christian theological outlook.

One such voice is that of S. Mark Heim who has proposed that a diversity of religious salvific ends might be imaginable within a Trinitarian framework.[2]  Heim’s chief interest in making such a proposal is to honor the integrity of the teachings and salvific hopes in other religions themselves, rather than fitting these aspects into the major tenants of a Christian meta-narrative. Thus the question for Heim of “what counts as salvation?” becomes more crucial than “which one saves?” because the world religions are not all pursuing the same soteriological end.[3]

Despite Heim’s sensitive and inventive contribution, some have found it less than satisfying.  Those like Paul Knitter or even Rosemary Radford Ruether for instance are unhappy with Heim’s proposal based on their commitment to and preference for justice as a unifying imperative, however variably construed.[4]  The difficulty from the Christian view with what Ruether and Knitter propose, however, is that their acquiescence to the conflict of competing creeds obliges a descent from the tradition in a willingness to forfeit or relativize any final or normative soteriological assignment to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In doing so, in Heim’s view they have consequently undermined any universal assertions from all other religious locations as well.  And in order to do this, they must presuppose a common horizon of meaning and discourse themselves.  This is exactly what Heim is trying to avoid; for he and others like him judge what Ruether and Knitter (and Hick before them)[5] purport to be at least equally speculative in comparison to upholding a particular religious commitment.

Another unique voice that has perhaps received less attention than these others is that of Anselm Min.  Min’s approach is distinctive for his attempt to work out a synthesis between these two opposing views just highlighted.  Thus what follows in the bulk of this essay is an overview of and brief response to Min’s approach, followed by an attempt to apply and concretize Min’s thought in the ecclesial context with some assistance from the thought of Gustavo Gutierrez.    There are many issues surrounding this discussion that simply cannot be addressed here – many of them very acute.  It is nonetheless my hope that a better understanding of what Min proposes combined with a degree of Gutierrez’s ecclesiology might enable Christians to better navigate the rough waters of religious pluralism and globalization.[6]


Like Heim, Min accepts the mutual incommensurability of religions.  That is, he avers that the world religions are irreducibly different.  Moreover, religions as dialectical and concrete totalities cannot merely be conceptualized.  Rather, they must be “appreciated.”[7]  As such, in order to attain any approximate mutual understanding, it is appropriate and necessary for each religion to confess its distinctive beliefs and claims including the claim to finality.

Traditional inclusivists on the other hand, according to Min, refuse to accept the irreducible plurality of religions.  In his words, Min puts a pluralist “twist” on Rahner’s inclusivism by stating the following: “God’s love of all humanity and the essential social mediation of our ultimate fulfillment leads us to the a priori plausibility that each religion is the vehicle of that ultimate fulfillment for its own members.”[8]  Here Min is like Heim who dares to contend that that the “‘finality of Christ’ and the ‘independent validity of other ways’ are not mutually exclusive.”[9]  But whereas Heim is interested in constructing an overarching Christian model that includes the distinctives of other world religions, Min favors the liberationist vantage point specifically because of his shared conviction that its concerns – namely, the concerns brought about by the reality of world poverty experienced by roughly two-thirds of the population – are more pressing than the goal of reaching theoretical consensus.

Anthropologically, Min begins by describing human existence both individually and corporeally as constituted by the concept of a concrete totality wherein there are present many mutually distinct and irreducible dimensions, yet also mutually constitutive and internally related dimensions.  In Hegelian fashion, for Min history is a teleological process in which humanity struggles for the resolution of contradictions and strives toward a higher synthesis and reconciliation of opposed elements.  This philosophy posits a certain unity underlying the historical process and human beings themselves as concrete totalities.[10]

Furthermore, human existence is concrete insofar as it is a concrete historical process in which it seeks, through praxis, to achieve liberating self-unification out of the dialectic of these constitutive elements (transcendence and history, personal and social existence, materiality and spirituality, etc.).  Human beings are born into an already-existing world, historically conditioned and formed by particular economic and political organizations, distributions of power, as well as certain ideologies and cultures.  In this regard, Min considers the struggle to meet basic material needs to be the presupposition of everything else.[11]  Hence Min introduces and privileges the idea of praxis and liberation, or what in my interpretation can be called solidarity before dialogue.  Within the context of specific conflicts and possibilities, this struggle “for the realization of human life as a concrete totality” is characterized by working toward liberation from the oppressiveness of the social status quo and by striving for reconciled communities.[12]

Privileging by extension the liberationist hermeneutic circle (Segundo), Min primarily sees human beings as subjects of socio-historical praxis.  As such he subordinates thought, self-consciousness, will, and feeling to this praxis.[13]  Thus, questions of meaning cannot precede those of the demands for life itself.  At the same time, theologically speaking, liberation or salvation in its full sense is both eschatological and historical, so theory still has its place.  But Min consistently points out that theory – despite humanity’s ability to transcend itself – always happens within history and not over it.  For this reason, the issue of religious pluralism cannot be abstracted from the “practical demand and theological significance of massive human alienation and suffering, unjust social structures, global economic and military rivalry, and the rush of history toward the destruction of nature.”[14]

Religions have been both enemies and collaborators in violent and peaceful causes.  Conflict reigns within as much as among the various faith traditions.  Thus, Min selects the criteria of basic justice and the dignity of humanity as the ground for solidarity between religions.  For Min, a theory of justice will come from the Christian tradition, but for others, from the depths of their own religious resources.  From here, Min is forced to conclude that, “a serious dialogue must do away with the assumption of the ultimate harmony of all religions and the plea for indiscriminate tolerance of all diversity.”[15] In other words, some religious forms and expressions are problematic on the grounds that they are destructive and antithetical to the goal of historical liberation and as a result must be challenged and confronted.

Min is careful to say, however, that privileging economic and political factors is not the solution or approach to the issue of religious pluralism for all time necessarily.  Rather, it is because these factors have presented unprecedented challenges for this time.  Hence, the “validity of the competing claims of different religions to ultimacy, universality, and absoluteness” are not unimportant, but they do become secondary for Min.[16] Adherents to various faiths should dialogue, but not before seeking solidarity.  At minimum there is required for Min a dialectical relationship between dialogue and solidarity – the main reasoning here being that the intellectual matters are not divorced from the material ones, as if we could obtain peace simply through understanding or even mutual transformation (which are two of the most common Western ideals for interfaith discourse).

Min intentionally calls for a solidarity of others instead of with others so as to protect against a movement of inclusion by incorporation from a Christian center.  Furthermore, Min wants the Christian faith itself to be decentralized, as one more “other” among many others.  Min’s theology of religions is a theology “from below” in that it disallows for stepping beyond or outside of history and claiming intuitions into ahistorical, universal truths.  This is what Min argues is the key distinction between what he proposes and what many traditional Christian inclusivists maintain (Rahner, Tillich, Pannenberg, and more recently Moltmann, Jacques Dupuis, Gavin D’Costa, and Joseph Dinoia).  At the same time, it would of course be incorrect to say that Min is only working from a material and collective starting point.  His method is first one of faith guiding reason in a classical-Christian manor, and in this respect is also unavoidably a revealed theology “from above” in which Christ is largely the object.  This does not however preclude the liberationist perspective from being a thoroughly historical one.[17]

Despite these epistemological limits and the ontic contingency of human beings, Min asserts that there must also be dialectical flexibility in this thesis.  Just because we cannot stand above history doesn’t mean that a certain degree of objectivity is unattainable.  This is what distinguishes Min on the other hand from those in the post-liberal tradition as well as from post-structuralists.

As has already been noted, Min does not see any compelling reason to reject christological inclusivism as such.  For him it is “premature to abandon our traditional commitment to the finality of Jesus Christ so central to the identity of Christian faith.”[18]  Of course Min acknowledges that upholding this commitment to christocentrism is done in faith and by confession – not by intuition into ahistorical truth.[19]  So Min “cannot a priori dismiss the possibility that we may have to modify or abandon our christological belief at some point in the future.”[20]  And it is this risk that constitutes faith as faith.  Christians cannot deny the sincerity of the followers of other religions, nor the validity of all their respective truth claims, but neither can they live without faith in the transcendent and without a commitment to truth as humanity can best discover it in the obscurities of history and as mediated by human concepts.[21] This is true especially today, Min affirms, when humanity is compelled to rise to a more universal perspective by sheer historical dynamics, without yet having achieved theoretical clarity and consensus about many of the ultimate theological questions.  Cooperative praxis of liberation then becomes all the more urgent precisely in light of the historical conditions of our knowledge in an increasingly interdependent world.

Min believes a theoretical resolution of the issues of comparative evaluation of different religions – insofar as such a resolution is feasible – will simply have to be left to the judgment of future history.  Historical praxis, it is hoped, would expand humanity’s perspectives and create a consensus of intellectual presuppositions that are more universal, thus enabling a resolution of the remaining issues more adequately, dissolving certain present issues as issues altogether.

In addition to the dialectical relationship between theory and practice, pluralism itself, Min argues, must be taken dialectically.  The historicity of pluralism as a reality and the situation of global encounter cannot be taken for granted as simply given.  Min sees this as the mistake of many theologians addressing the problem.  Min first asks, what is the impact that the practical has had or should have on the theoretical?  But “dialectical pluralism is dialectical in the Hegelian/Marxian sense that it takes history . . . to be a process of differentiation, contradiction among difference, and sublation or reconciliation of such a contradiction.”[22]  Because of this, the preservation of particularities as such is not the goal.  Religions inherit their identities and are dynamic in nature, not immutable.  Accordingly, the pluralistic situation is not simply a conglomerate of unrelated juxtaposition of self-contained, unrelated religions; each has its own history of development with many internal tensions.

Thus, Min is striving to be dialectically and historically committed to both his Christian particularity and the irreducible pluralism of religions at the same time.  And like many traditional inclusivists, Min requests a readiness by Christians to make themselves vulnerable to the possibility of being transformed by the other.  More than just being open to mutual influence though, dialogue permits every religion to share its “good news” and invite others to be affected by this good news.[23]  Unlike Knitter then, Min does not think a renunciation of one’s own commitment to particular truths and confessions is necessary for genuine interfaith dialogue. This being said, Min also considers any evaluation of the salvific role of other religions from the Christian perspective premature.  So the primary question for every religion from Min’s view remains: “whether and how it is able and willing, from within its own [tradition], to promote the solidarity of others by contributing to the cooperation of different cultures and religions in common space, and to reinterpret itself and others in light of that solidarity.”[24]

A Critique Considered

Min “understands religion to be a matter of existential commitment, discipleship, and transformation that includes but also transcends objective rationality; thus it is more a (salvific) way of existing to be confessed in faith and praxis than a theory to be understood in detached reflection.”[25]  But is Min not implicitly conceding to Hans Kung, for example, who believes there can be a kind of “best” or “true” universal essence of religion in the first place?[26] And while Min does not subordinate the integrity of other religions to a particular Christian criterion per se, does not Min nonetheless subordinate the value and even utility of other religions to his own viewpoint?  If so, is this acceptable on the grounds that he claims to have no a priori universal perspective?  Indeed, Min is quick to reassure that his point of view is one among many, but is he aware of or fully transparent about the degree to which his religion functions as a mere contingent, concrete totality in the world himself?

Min has a response to this question.  He says, “I gladly admit that my very description of religion as a concrete totality that as such is irreducible to a particular perspective, contains an implicit definition and is caught in the contradiction of claiming both irreducibility and reducibility for religion.”[27]  For Min “it is a question of a practical solidarity of others, of together creating the concrete social conditions of mutual justice and solidarity.”  So Min asks, how will the people of faiths behave toward each other in the face of common historical problems?  Will agreements, governments, systems and laws be set to ensure a minimum degree of respect for life and security and other basic human need?[28]

Those like Heim and John Milbank would likely accuse Min of imposing a Western humanist or eurocentric ethical/categorical imperative on everyone else.  Min contends, however, that there is in fact “a common longing for the reality of justice in the sense of basic fairness in treatment and basic freedom from genocide and externally imposed material suffering and political oppression.  What is at stake is an absolutely elementary reality accessible to all religions.”[29]  In other words, nobody wants to starve or be murdered and dominated.  Ethical common ground between religions therefore “is determined from within the context of needs that human life demands for its survival and development.”[30]  Any focus on cultural or identity preservation and reproduction is based first on the supplication of material needs necessary for physical existence.  Thus the latter must be regarded as primary and fundamental – even universal.

Such an argument would have to allow for various and even, to an extent, competing theories of justice among the religions.  And here, Knitter and Min are in agreement, [31] as Knitter appeals to suffering as a universal with similar and immediate causes such as “poverty, abuse, victimization, and violence”[32] – the latent ambiguity of these terms notwithstanding.  Contra Milbank and Heim then, for Min and Knitter justice is not just one value option for social existence across religious and cultural boundaries.  Min and Knitter would accuse Heim’s model of reducing the problem of religious pluralism to the theoretical which can too easily lead to complacency about urgent matters of life and death.

So is Min judging other religions by his or a Christian standard of justice?  Yes and no, he might reply.  It is only a relative judgment that does not dismiss any religion as a whole. And he admits that Christianity deserves the same scrutiny, since the Church has been guilty of and responsibility for atrocities throughout the centuries.  A dialectical understanding of religions prevents this judgment from becoming too total, as religions are never inherently separate from all of the other historical conditions and factors influencing them.

Thus it may not be Min’s christocentrism that poses the biggest obstacle to a wider acceptance of his proposal.  As for the fervent defense of a universal imperative for justice, certainly many could see the idea as desirable if not compelling.  The more pressing problematic appears to be the looming unresolved tension.   between In response, one could make the case that Min is calling for a commitment to solidarity for specifically Christian reasons – not because of a general, abstract philosophical conviction.  In doing so, he avoids the temptation of trying to solve the pluralism problem in strictly abstract terms.  Presumably it is the witness and practical response to a particular christological revelation handed down by the community of believers that is informing Min’s decision more so than universal theology as such (however implicit in this a universal theory might be).  Perhaps what William Cavanaugh has suggested for the Church’s application of a universal principle can serve to “bring down” Min’s analysis: “The Christian is called not to replace one universal system with another, but to attempt to ‘realize’ the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange.”[33]  With this modest corrective in mind, it should be possible to transfer this reflection on solidarity into the ecclesial realm for the discovery of some implications.


            If solidarity before dialogue is the approach to interfaith relations, what are the stipulations on the ground for the Church?  Following Min, a shift in emphasis and attention is compulsory, from religious inclusivity to economic inclusivity – which already assumes religious inclusivity.  This is not to discount dialogue, but rather to take seriously the most pertinent issue facing a particular global situation.  In the words of Enrique Dussel: “We speak of ‘economics’ . . . as the moment in which praxis and poiesis, in a concrete synthesis, are articulated in order to constitute the practical-productive level par excellance.[34]”  Simply put, economics is the language for meeting basic needs and analyzing material poverty.  Material poverty in this instance is assumed to be, as liberation theology has said, a “subhuman situation [. . .] Concretely, to be poor means to die of hunger, to be illiterate, to be exploited by others, not to know that you are being exploited, not to know that you are a person.”[35]  Furthermore, in the age of globalization, by and large poverty is not caused by chance; it is usually a result of actions by those whom the prophets condemn.[36]

This reframed struggle, however – from dialogue to solidarity, or religion to economics – does not prioritize the political and economic issues to the exclusion or negation of other factors (be they cultural, racial, gender, etc.).  Rather, it takes precedence because of its exigency in this particular time and place, in which the difficulties posed by globalization seem overwhelming.  Following Dussel’s argument, the standpoint of the marginalized, the exploited, the poor is henceforth privileged, as “[t]he one who has the ability to discover where the other, the poor, is to be found will be able, from the poor, to diagnose the pathology of the state.”[37] This applies especially to the Church in the dominant stratum of the globalized context.  The Church must be able to scrutinize the state from the perspective of the poor, not because the Church subsists on the same plane as the state or abides by the same rules – of course it does not – but because it must be able to appropriately stand with the poor in solidarity and protest, and this cannot be done without the right tools of analysis.

For Gustavo Gutierrez, “Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and under oppression, so the Church (or body of Christ) is called to follow the same path in communicating to others the fruits of salvation . . . But [Christ] does not take on the human sinful condition and its consequences to idealize it.  It is rather because of love for and solidarity with others who suffer in it.  It is to redeem them from their sin and to enrich them with his poverty.  It is to struggle against human selfishness and everything that divides persons and allows that there be rich and poor, possessors and dispossessed, oppressors and oppressed.”[38]

Secondly, the body of Christ strives to institute a communal life in accordance with the values of the kingdom of God.  And since the kingdom of God implies the establishment of justice in this world, it is not enough simply to denounce poverty.[39]  Nor is the church fulfilling its duty in the age of pluralism and globalization if it merely works to eradicate poverty (through charity, political activism, social programs, etc.).  Churches can actually strive to create concrete, alternative economic practices, spaces and transactions that are truly free – as opposed to the so-called “free market.”  This requires envisioning and realizing spaces marked by the body of Christ, where the key question in every transaction is whether it contributes to the flourishing of each person involved; that is, to the ability for each human life to participate in the life of God.[40]

Gutierrez speaks of the Church of Latin America in solidarity and protest.  With Min’s discussion of solidarity in play, I propose the faithful Church in the North American setting can find in Gutierrez the means and path for reaching economic inclusivity: namely, protest via kenosis.  The former is not achievable without the latter, which is why denouncement by itself is not sufficient.  Gutierrez calls for a church of the poor more than just for the poor.  In other words, the church as such is challenged to practice self-emptying.  Not only by rejecting poverty but by, as Gutierrez avows, “making itself poor in order to protest against it can the Church preach something that is uniquely its own: ‘spiritual poverty,’ that is, the openness of humankind and history to the future promised by God.  Only in this way will the Church be able to fulfill authentically – and with any possibility of being listened to – its prophetic function of denouncing every human injustice.”[41]  This level of solidarity means that the Church makes the problems and struggles of the poor its own problems and struggles.[42]  To use Roger Haight’s language, the Church must be willing to “shake off the ambiguous protection provided by the beneficiaries of the unjust order.”[43]

One has to acknowledge of course that in the 21st century – despite definitive aggregate differences between the global North and South – a church’s location does not always determine its economic status.  There are poor churches and there are rich churches, together, sometimes in the same neighborhood.  Furthermore, a poor church does not always consist of poor people, and visa versa.  With this in mind, what Gutierrez says about spiritual poverty is instructive: “Spiritual poverty,” according to Gutierrez, does not merely incarnate itself by way of detachment from material goods.  It is more profound than that.  Above all, it is a “total availability to the Lord.”[44]  This can be the attitude of the so-called poor churches in America.  As for the affluent congregations, a different rule applies.  Protest in this case for Gutierrez manifests itself in specific action, a style of life, and break with one’s own social class – by committing to radical economic inclusivity.  All of the practical implications cannot and should not be worked out in abstract theory here, as every locale will have its own material demands.  Suffice it to say, in the words of Ricoeur, you cannot really be with the poor unless you are struggling against poverty yourself.  If the Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, like the bodies of believers, the practical significance of clergy lifestyle for instance cannot be stressed enough.  A proper martyrdom as it were to the contemporary world may very well demand a restructuring of the financial dependency of clergy on the people they serve.  Gutierrez advises those who do not wish live on stipends or from teaching religion should be willing to experiment with healthy, secular jobs.[45]  This is just one tangible example of how the leaders of the Church themselves could practice kenosis.

In sum, there may be little that is fundamentally novel about either what Min or Gutierrez have recommended in matters of solidarity and protest, or about pluralism and economic inclusivity from the Christian perspective, as both of them rely heavily on their tradition and the signs of the times.  Nevertheless, a certain combination of their respective views might very well contribute something genuinely unique and fitting for dealing with new issues and questions facing the Church in terms of inclusivity and exclusivity in the age of globalization.


Assman, Hugo. Teologia desde la Praxis de la Liberacion. Salamanca: Sigueme, 1973, 40.

Haight, Roger D. Christian community in history. Vol. 3, Ecclesial existence. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Cavanaugh, William T. “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many.” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324-347.

———. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Dussel, Enrique. Philosophy of Liberation. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003.

———. The Underside of Modernity: Apel, Ricoeur, Rorty, Taylor and the Philosophy of Liberation. Indexed. Atlantic Highlands: Humanity Books, 1996.

Goizueta, Roberto S. “The Christology of Jon Sobrino.” In Hope & solidarity, 90-104. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Revised. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988.

Haight, Roger D. Christian Community in History, Volume 3: Ecclesial Existence. Continuum, 2008.

Heim, Mr. Mark S. The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.

Heim, S. Mark. Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1995.

Hick, John. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Knitter, Paul F. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002.

———. “The solidarity of others in a divided world: a postmodern theology after postmodernism.” Theological Studies 66, no. 2 (June 1, 2005): 469-470.

Kung, Hans. Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. New York: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004.

Min, Anselm Kyongsuk. Solidarity of Others in a Divided World: A Postmodern Theology after Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Petrella, Ivan. Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. Cambridge: SCM Press, 2008.

[1] Hugo Assman, Teologia desde la Praxis de la Liberacion (Ediciones Seguime, 1973), 40.

[2] See Mr. Mark S. Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000).

[3]  S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Orbis Books, 1995), 3.

[4] Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis Books, 2002), 134-136.

[5] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition, 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2005).

[6] I take globalization, very generally speaking, to be the process of worldwide economic, political, and cultural integration that has accelerated substantially in the last few decades.

[7] Anselm Kyongsuk Min, Solidarity of Others in a Divided World: A Postmodern Theology after Postmodernism (T & T Clark International, 2004).

[8] Ibid., 183.

[9] Heim, Salvations, 3.

[10] It should be mentioned here that Min doesn’t seem to necessarily be espousing a full subscription to a Hegelian or Marxist understanding of history in the totalized teleological sense, which in the case of Hegel in particular arguably amounts to a kind of trinitarian pantheism – something Min elsewhere criticizes from a Thomistic perspective.

[11] Min, Min, Solidarity of Others in a Divided World, 157.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 158.

[14] Ibid., 159.

[15] Ibid., 160.

[16] Ibid., 161.

[17] Roberto S. Goizueta, “The Christology of Jon Sobrino,” in Hope & Solidarity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 92.

[18] Min, Solidarity of Others in a Divided World, 170.

[19] It should be mentioned here as well that Min provides incisive critiques of the pluralist perspective as made famous by Hick and Knitter, as well as of postmodernism from the perspectives of Derrida and Levinas, but to address his criticisms in detail here would take us beyond the scope of this paper.

[20] Min, Solidarity of Others in a Divided World, 170.

[21] Ibid., 169-70.

[22] Ibid., 175.

[23] Ibid., 185.

[24] Ibid., 175.

[25] Ibid., 174.

[26] Hans Kung, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004).

[27] Min, Solidarity of Others in a Divided World, 181.

[28] Ibid., 191.

[29] Ibid., 192.

[30] Ivan Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic (SCM Press, 2008), 10.

[31] Paul F. Knitter, “The solidarity of others in a divided world: a postmodern theology after postmodernism,” Theological Studies 66, no. 2 (June 1, 2005): 469-470.

[32] Min, Solidarity of Others in a Divided World, 192.

[33] William T. Cavanaugh, “Balthasar, globalization, and the problem of the one and the many,” Communio 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 324.

[34] Enrique Dussel, The Underside of Modernity: Apel, Ricoeur, Rorty, Taylor and the Philosophy of Liberation, Indexed. (Humanity Books, 1996), 12.

[35] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 164.

[36] Ibid., 166.

[37] Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003), 43.

[38] Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 172.

[39] Ibid., 167.

[40] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), viii.

[41] Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 173.

[42] Roger D. Haight, Christian Community in History, Volume 3: Ecclesial Existence (Continuum, 2008), 68.

[43] Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 58.

[44] Ibid., 171.

[45] Haight, Ecclesial Existence, 71.

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