Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Pope and a Table full of Baptists

Over the years, I have read a great deal of theology, particularly in the various branches of liberation theology, which arose first in the late 1960s/early 1970s among Roman Catholic scholars, particularly in Spanish speaking Latin American countries. Gustavo Guiterrez's landmark Teologia de la liberation (A Theology of Liberation) continues to resound as a major moment in late 20th century theology, an engagement of "history, politics and salvation".

Like my native Baptist tradition and its mixed acceptance of the writings of Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, the Roman Catholic Church has its varying level of embrace for such connection of faith and the social justice found in Gutierrez and the many theologians who continue to explore these connections.

With the arrival of Pope Francis, a native son of South America with European heritage, the Roman Catholic Church and the rest of the world has been surprised, stunned, inspired and certainly challenged by the different approach of this new pontiff. Indeed, Gutierrez himself has been a much more welcome figure in Rome, recently participating in events held at the Vatican. One wonders what the retired Pope out in the back gardens made of this development, given his role during the John Paul II papacy with increasing scrutiny of liberationists.

This week in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the Pope offered a powerful speech at a gathering prompting Jesuit journalist Fr. James Martin, SJ, to post it on his Facebook account with the following commentary: "A stunning speech, Pope Francis has just used the strongest language I can remember a pope using about the rights of the poor and of social justice, called "land, lodging and labor" "sacred rights" and apologized, clearly and forcefully, for the "grave sins" and "crimes" that the church committed against native peoples during the colonialist period. Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you to read this entire talk, which is sure to be a landmark of his pontificate."

In the speech's conclusion, the Pope writes,

In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you. Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age. Keep up your struggle and, please, take great care of Mother Earth. I pray for you and with you, and I ask God our Father to accompany you and to bless you, to fill you with his love and defend you on your way by granting you in abundance that strength which keeps us on our feet: that strength is hope, the hope which does not disappoint. Thank you and I ask you, please, to pray for me.

The full speech is available:

The Pope's words resound well with my Baptist formed heart, which leans with Rauschenbusch and his inheritors. This past month at the ABCUSA Biennial and Mission Summit in Kansas City, I participated in the Mission Summit Conversations, helping facilitate two table discussion groups. The conversations centered on issues of Poverty, gathering together pastors and lay leaders who care deeply about God's call to serve neighbors in need. I appreciated the chance to hear about the different ways local churches and their community/ecumenical/interfaith partners are addressing the income inequality, access to affordable housing, food and healthcare needs and other challenges affecting persons of all generations.

Baptists historically have referred at times to themselves as "the gathered people". In the Pope's speech and a few Baptists gathered around a table, I hear powerful words about the importance of connecting faith and common good. While our institutional structures and their aims and purposes sometimes turn inward or "miss the point" of the world's deep need, I am deeply grateful when people of faith, Catholic, Baptist and otherwise, live out a faith that seeks to be engaged in the world and share abundance where scarcity otherwise might reign.

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