Tuesday 19 May 2020

Liberation Theology in a time of a pandemic

Well, firstly - I want to say that I love you. The first act of a liberating theology is to declare God's love for the whole of creation. You are loved, and God wants us to love each other whatever happens. This planet and all that live on it are made for love. Thank you for the love you share with all around you.

It may be hard to feel this love in the beginning of a Pandemic. When I say 'beginning', I do not refer to 'peaks' or death rates. Here in the UK, we are hopefully well over our 'peak' (I write this blog in mid-May, the latest daily death toll is below 200 people) I say beginning, because we have such a long way to go. The pandemic is being contained in Europe, but elsewhere there are worrying signs of the spread of contagion, especially in parts of South America. Until affordable and workable vaccines are available to everyone, we are in uncertain territory.

Of course the real cost of the pandemic in terms of lives will perhaps never be determined. Speaking from Sunderland, a region in the North East of England that has suffered some of the highest death rates per head in the world so far, I'm horrified at the human cost. Perhaps as many as 1 in every 1000 people have died here as a result of the virus.

We are only beginning to see the real cost in people's lives. In terms of mental health, those costs will clearly be high. In terms of finances - we are only at the beginning of realising the economic cost on our society. Youth employment is about to soar; small businesses will be hit very hard; universities will lose staff and pay a heavy price. In the UK we were all expecting cuts due to the impact of Brexit on the economy, now we face much deeper impacts on public finances than we could ever have imagined.

What does liberation theology have to say into all this? Firstly, it must be said that liberationists mostly believe that theology is a reaction to communities, not individuals. These are my own personal views, but a real reaction will come out of listening and sharing our experiences in community. The virus has curtailed those communications, especially with the most marginalised. 'Stay at home' policies mean that communication is limited to those with good access to technology and is largely dictated by mainstream media or by our limited social networks. Who we listen and talk to is often those least affected by such a crisis. It will take time to work out our community response to the pandemic for these reasons, but some things are clear.

One. Pandemics do not affect everyone equally. Pandemics openly display the fault lines in our societies. It exposes the gaps that blatantly exist between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, between the black and white, between men and women. The virus can hit anyone, and our Prime Ministers hospitalisation showed that, but the real socio-economic impacts between different communities couldn't be more obvious. The poorer you are, the more exposed you are to overcrowded housing; the more likely you are to be in low paid 'key worker' professions; the health of your community and the resources available to your community all affect your chances of survival.

Early on in Pandemic, it became clear that BAME communities were hit hardest in London, ministers made remarks about checking to see if there was a 'genetic' reason for this, rather than easily admitting that our BAME communities had faced systematic healthcare and economic inequalities throughout our country's history. Then the worse death rates began to occur here in the North East, among poor white working class communities, and it became obvious that the dangers of exposure and chances of survival were clearly down to poverty, not genetics.

Liberation Theology points out those inequalities, and shouts out 'that is not what God wants!' This not how it is meant to be. In the Kingdom of God, no community is left behind. God's abundance is designed for all.

Two. Isolation is not how we are meant to live. Humans are collective in nature and design; we all matter to each other. The Ubuntu theology of Africa sums this up perfectly when it says that 'I am who I am because you are what you are'. Our interconnectivity is God designed. Of course we must all separate to stop infection rates, but this has only highlighted how much we all depend on each other, and how our own wellbeing is connected to our neighbours. The longing for community is expressed beautifully in the weekly clapping for our health care heroes. It is an act of community; it is an act of deep solidarity.

Three. Church is about solidarity and mutual aid. The buildings have become redundant. And though some of us clamour for the security of the familiar surroundings, the architecture and rituals that we are so familiar with, we all realise that 'church' is actually people. We break bread together when we share our resources. The Eucharist, the breaking of bread, takes on a new meaning when my neighbour brings round a loaf that he has made, when we take our offering down to the local foodbank. Churches at their best have served their local communities, especially the most vulnerable. Even at a safe social distance they have 'washed the feet' of their neighbours. Churches have been models of 'mutual aid', systems of looking after communities, whether they are members or not. Mosques have fed the hungry. Sikh temples have turned their kitchens over to the needs of the whole community. It is a beautiful insight into what the reign of God's love can look like.

Four. The reign of God turns our world upside down. It is the lowly who have been lifted up. It is the key workers, the healthcare workers, the shelf stackers, the cooks and cleaners who have become the heroes. And the rich have been brought low - with their failure to act with compassion or to organise Personal Protection Equipment for those on the frontline. Scripture points endlessly to this as God's reality, God's desire for humanity - that we should see a world where the powerful are brought low and the powerless lifted up.

Five. Another world is possible. A greener, fairer world is not just a fantasy - we could have it. People could fly less, could cycle more. Nature could heal itself if we stopped buggering it all up. The lockdown has exposed in our minds the possibilities of a new world to come. We cannot pretend we are anywhere near that yet, or that capitalism will not relentlessly go back to business as usual as soon as it can (and indeed, looking at the logging rates in Brazil, will actually try to do its worst even during a pandemic) but we are finally exposed to the reality that the world can be different. Liberation theologians and all progressive people must hold on to those possibilities and work to make them a reality.

That's enough for now. There is too much to do to spend too much time writing about the situation. Liberation theologians must never merely interpret the world. The point, as ever, is to change it.

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