I’m taking a class right now in Unitarian Universalist theologies, and as you all can probably imagine, it inspires a lot of thought and discussion. Delving into “theology” means tackling old questions that, to many of us in UU churches, can seem outdated concepts, almost to the point of lacking relevance to today. For example, how useful are terms like “good” and “evil” to us? And would we even ask the question if humanity is inherently one or the other? And why?
At least for me, in a world of so much more understanding on the level of the sciences, including psychology, I feel like that question has been answered for me. I find meaning in the fact that we seem equally capable of both, and that there is indeed a connection to brain chemistry. The environment around seems to be a major factor in how different brain chemistries end up playing out in terms of what most of us consider ethical behavior.
However, I got a fresh look at that question in this class when we talked about liberation theology. I’ll share a snippet from a piece that lays it out very well, much better than I can put it:
Gutierrez’s groundbreaking work, A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971, changed everything. It seemed to chart a whole new course for the church, not just for Latin America, but everywhere. Vatican II challenged scholars to renew their theology and biblical study. Gutierrez responded by examining our concept of God and the scriptures within the Latin American reality of extreme poverty and systemic injustice. That led to a renewed realization of Christ’s presence among the poor and oppressed, especially in their struggle to end poverty and oppression.
In his introduction, Groody reviews Gutierrez’s three bottom-line principles about life and death at the bottom. First, material poverty is never good but an evil to be opposed. “It is not simply an occasion for charity but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected.”
Second, poverty is not a result of fate or laziness but is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others. “Poverty is not inevitable; collectively the poor can organize and facilitate social change.”
Third, poverty is a complex reality and is not limited to its economic dimension. To be poor is to be insignificant. Poverty means an early and unjust death.
(Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor By John Dear SJ
This was a powerful redirection for me, away from questions about “evil” as an abstract concept, belonging to the realm of the individual, instead to a realization of “evil” as something very concrete, and built into our everyday existence as it plays out in our social structures through poverty. It’s hard to get much more concrete than poverty, and for those of us for whom it is still a little distanced, all it takes is to see the suffering of others up close and personal to get a stark reminder of how real it is.
We struggle against this “evil” every single day. That seems to be the great war within us. Somehow, using this theological term “evil” as a lens to look at social structures in the world was a light bulb for me. I realized why it made a difference to use this term, to place such a black-and-white, “subjective” word to something so vast and horribly normal. It made a difference in how I felt about my sense of purpose in the world, and what I strive for with others.
I think what it really did was it gave a greater sense of urgency back, which is hard to do in this day and age where our extensive information about everything awful in the world can be so paralyzing and numbing. And it shifted for me a sense of having a very real “enemy” to do battle against, rather than a vague, anomalous sense of outrage. To be clear, the “enemy” would be poverty, not necessarily those who perpetrate it from positions of power, which is where it is much easier to direct my attention and outrage.
I think about one of my neighbors. He is about my age. He’s had the kind of horrible life that makes you think geez if there is such a thing as luck, this person really got all of the bad versions. It is far too awful to go into detail, especially in such a short space, let me put it that way.
On top of this, he has been told he has less than a year to live, as he battles one of the most dangerous forms of cancer. Every day I run into him seems to be a new crisis. Two weeks ago, it was the 12 teeth that were going to be taken out by a dentist, one of which is painfully abscessed. This week, it is the numbness in his extremities that points alarmingly to undiagnosed diabetes.
We have a joke between us. I call him H. P., because he won’t let me call him Harry Potter in public, but I think he likes it. I call him this because, in spite of every single evil this person has both endured and perpetrated as a result of his environment, he is still capable of love and of making a choice to live differently. He chooses this every day.
It is very, very clear in the way he talks about the choices facing him and the ever present option to fall into destructive behavior and resignation.
There is a holy, soul-light in his blue eyes as he tells me about these talks, as they tumble out of him, through tears that he cannot stop. So I call him Harry Potter because I cannot understand why a person with a story like his chooses goodness, hope, and love each day, when so many others might choose their exact opposites, and with good reason.
And yet, I see the toll the poverty of his life, which affects every single concrete situation each day from transportation to medical crisis to access to healthy food. Every single day poverty affects this person. And I can see it beating him down, even while, in spite of it, he still chooses how he is, quite literally, probably going to die.
I look at how real poverty is for a person like him, and it is impossible not to see the evil in it. I may not be able to “save” my friend, to really help him. I am not sure it isn’t too late for some kind of miraculous help to make a difference, to give him a possible second chance. We still don’t have a cure for cancer, no matter what our individual circumstances.
But being able to call it what it is, and see it as our greatest struggle over our collective souls, somehow makes me feel differently about it than when it seems like some kind of depressing, inevitable reality that cannot be changed. “Cannot” isn’t an option, when you are facing evil, so you have to try.
And the enemy we’re fighting isn’t something that we can expect to see fully defeated in a single lifetime, or to whom we can individually deal a major, endgame blow. Still, it’s different, looking at liberation as a theological question, not simply an ethical one; to have a black-or-white lens about it, a subjective personal judgment. There is a clarity such questions evoke and inspire, and that is why knowledge isn’t enough. We still need “theology.”