Homily, PIN Retreat Chicago, March 17, 2019, by Kathy Christison
I must say, this really is preaching to the choir!
We’ve been hearing a lot these last few days about love, because this is what the bishops at their spring meeting emphasized. I’d also like to talk about love—meaning God’s love for all people equally—and also about hope.
In a lot of ways, this means liberation theology. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about liberation theology because this is what I’ve been dealing with in theology school. And it astounds me—the notion that I could possibly be a theologian simply because I’m about to get a degree from a theology school!
But in fact it’s not really that complicated or esoteric. I think all of us here are “liberation theologians”: liberation theologians because we’re gathered here as church people to be involved in finding a way to liberation on behalf of Palestinians—which means working to bring justice to Palestinians. Working and praxis. Without action and work—without praxis—liberation theology is nothing but empty words. All theology without praxis is theorizing about God. Liberation theology without praxis is simply talking a good game without doing anything. But, because we’re working as church people, trying to work through our church and alongside the Palestinians, and working with God, we are all doing theology. We’re doing the praxis that makes theology into something meaningful in practical terms.
For us, praxis first of all means listening to, hearing and understanding, what Palestinians have to say about the injustices being done to them, the outrage they feel, the freedoms they’ve been deprived of, the psychological and physical oppression being inflicted on them. Then it means speaking out, writing, making this a political issue, lobbying, talking to congresspeople and policymakers and church leaders—and being in solidarity with Palestinians. This solidarity is hugely important for Palestinians, psychologically if in no other way.
Liberation theology is about love and hope. And, no matter how unctuous and gushy this might sound to our practical, realistic minds—and no matter how suspicious we all may be about the real meaning of the professions of love coming out of the just-concluded Episcopal bishop’s meeting—this is serious stuff. Real love is about working hard, and working hard some more, and continuing to work hard, even when nothing seems to happen, even when it seems impossible. And even when there seems little hope.
This is not happy work.
I want to tell you a story that’s been on my mind for the last several days that shows what this all means—the love and the hope, as well as the despair, which all come together. You may all have heard of a young man from Gaza named Ahmed Abu Artema, who basically started the Great March of Return almost exactly a year ago when he posted on Facebook a suggestion that 200,000 Palestinians should walk to the border wall/fence around Gaza, non-violently, and ask to be able to return to their homes. Something like 70 or 75 percent of Gaza’s two million people are refugees from homes and land that are now inside Israel, and from which they are barred.
Of course, the Palestinian response to Abu Artema’s post has been overwhelming; Israel’s response has been vicious and violent. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been shot to death by Israeli snipers—sharpshooters who could see whom they were shooting at—including children, medical people in medical dress, journalists wearing vests marked as PRESS in large letters, the elderly.
Thousands have been wounded, including hundreds of teenage boys and young men shot in the leg or in both legs who have had to have limbs amputated. This is deliberate, of course: essentially shooting the legs out from under Palestine’s future.
Last Tuesday evening, Ahmed Abu Artema spoke in Santa Fe, where I live. He described the situation in Gaza—a tiny territory (1/10 the size of Rhode Island, our smallest state), with two million people blockaded in, under Israeli siege for the last 12 years, and so on, as we all know.
Abu Artema is 35 years old, but he’s never until now been outside of Gaza. He said the first time he ever saw an airplane other than Israeli bombers and fighter jets was when he boarded a plane in Cairo to fly to the US! But through all this, he emphasized (with no little pleasure because of his own role) that the weekly March of Return, which will reach 52 weeks on March 22, next Friday, has restored hope among Gazans, given them something to live for and look forward to. And it has restored some cultural pride.
It gives them agency, he said—which I will tell you from a liberation theology standpoint is immensely important for any oppressed population. He said over and over that Gazans are “screaming for life,” and that they need to be able to get out. And, combining all those emotions I was talking about—love and hope and despair—he said the Gazans’ desire for life is stronger than their despair. He gave me hope, along with everyone in the audience.
When I got back home that evening, I found among my voluminous emails an article, strangely enough from the Wall Street Journal, that gave a sympathetic picture of Gaza and the March. But it also showed how hope and despair go together. The article began with the story of a 17-year-old boy who was shot in the leg a few months ago and had to have the leg amputated. He tries to be happy and appear brave in front of his family, but one night his father couldn’t find him and went out looking for him. He found the boy in a cemetery where his amputated leg had been buried, sobbing. Sobbing over his lost leg.
As I said, our work is not happy. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Latin American priest who’s sort of the father of liberation theology, once wrote that the challenge of this theology is how it could be possible “to tell the poor, who are forced to live in conditions that embody a denial of love, that God loves them.” How to tell the poor, by which he means everyone who is socially or economically or politically oppressed that God loves them, when they live in horrible circumstances where God appears not to be present.
So, this is tough work. But as liberation theologians and solidarity activists, we can be the love and the hope that Palestinians depend on: we can show the love of God, help them see, through what we do, that God does love them, no matter what things look like. And we can help bring hope through our work.
Liberation theology is resistance to power—the oppressive, colonialist power of governments and economic systems, and of the church—and it speaks truth to that power, it calls out injustice. Jesus was a liberation theologian, and he always spoke defiance to power. He knew injustice when he saw it, and he defied it. We can do no less.