Breaking Free: Liberationist Postmodernism
For many on planet earth, life sucks. Liberationist postmodern theology offers hope.
Tonica lives in Kibera, a slum of nearly one million people in Nairobi, Kenya. The slum is the largest in Africa. Its shacks have no numbers, its rutted dirt alleys have no names. Garbage is strewn across most paths, pushed from the front of one “business” onto another. The air smells of smoke and stench, raw sewage winds among the alley crevices. “Flying toilets” — plastic bags with human excrement flung from shacks during dangerous nights – litter the walkways. Tonica lives here.
She moved here from the Kenyan countryside. Her village work dried up as government resources went toward obtaining advanced technology. The trees around Tonica’s village are nearly gone. They’ve been cut to serve the growing needs of urban civilization and to stoke the cooking fires of the villagers. Remaining with her family and culture is a luxury she could not afford.
As an African woman eking out an existence in this Nairobi ghetto, Tonica has many strikes against her. As a woman, she has far less social and physical power than men. As one with dark skin, she possesses far less political power than those with lighter skin on other continents and her own. As an impoverished squatter earning the equivalent of pennies per day, she owns less than most humans on planet earth. For Tonica, life sucks.
Many postmodernists argue that modern ideas, beliefs, and ways are largely to blame for Tonica’s suffering. The ideology of modernism is intrinsically oppressive. Liberationist postmodernists want to be free to live a better life. They want to escape the array of oppression oozing from modern ways of thinking and acting.
I will focus here on three postmodern liberationist voices: feminist, ethnic, and ecological.
Postmodern feminism places the issue of gender – specifically femaleness — at the fore of our attention. Many feminists claim that modern (and premodern) worldviews presuppose that males are superior to females. Modernists consider more valuable those traits typically identified with masculinity than those typically identified with femininity. Gender injustice is modernity’s calling card.
Males continue to be privileged in part because modern linguistic habits privilege masculinity and stereotypically male characteristics. Common language perpetuates, often implicitly, the idea that women are inferior. Many postmodern feminists resist calling humans “men” or God “Father,” because these terms exclude women or influence us to worship traits commonly identified with masculinity. Postmodern feminists call upon contemporary people to speak and live in ways that empower rather than oppress women.
Postmodern feminists also criticize modernists for believing that detached and disembodied ways of knowing are superior. Modern ways of knowing are based upon the idea that abstract and universal thought provides the only or at least best way to understand reality. By contrast, postmodern feminist ways of knowing emphasize community, relatedness, intuition, and tacit knowing. The unique experiences derived from female (and male) bodies provide a better basis than abstractions for knowing about ourselves, others, the world, and God.
The truths that women grasp from pregnancy and childbearing, for instance, arise from embodied knowing. Although these truths cannot be captured by logical syllogisms and scientific analysis, this knowledge is as real and as important as almost any other knowledge. All humans draw from and rely upon this personally-gained wisdom.Postmodern feminists call upon us to speak and live in ways that empower rather than oppress women. Click To Tweet
Ethnic postmodernism places culture and race at the fore of our attention. The modern worldview considered everyone the same. Modernism either proclaimed or implied that biological similarities provide minorities the basis for equality and a sense of value. Ethnic postmodernists argue, by contrast, that cultural uniqueness establishes one’s value. This uniqueness should be the basis for one’s “voice.” White-bread homogeneity does not represent the diverse peoples of the world. Colonial oppression is a natural outcome of believing that white is right.
James H. Cone’s book, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare, illustrates well the difference between a modern and postmodern approach to issues of race and culture. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of the unification of blacks and whites and the equality of all people illustrates the modern accent upon that which all humans share in common.
Malcolm X, by contrast, offered “a nightmare.” His solution to the race crisis was to accent what was culturally unique to African-Americans. Malcolm X called upon Blacks to withdraw from white society to cultivate African-American identity. One might call his approach “postmodern,” because it accented diversity and plurality rather than uniformity and sameness. Ethnic postmodernists stress cultural difference.
In recent years, the emphasis upon indigenous theological influences has come to be called “post-colonial theology.” Christian theologians around the world realize that some influences of those who colonized their non-European countries have not been positive. Modernism is therefore closely identified with colonial rule. Postmodern theology offers the hope of liberation and reclamation of religious roots.Colonial oppression is a natural outcome of believing that white is right. Click To Tweet
Finally, ecological postmodernism places the issues of environmental well-being at the fore of contemporary attention. Modernity considered the world a machine and its creatures in need of human control. This mechanization of nature provided no grounds to affirm the intrinsic value, freedom, and purpose of nonhumans. Coupled with the evolutionary notion that humans are part of this nature machine, modernism also denied that humans possess intrinsic value, freedom, and purpose.
Ecological postmodernists argue that the world and its creatures are best understood in organic and organismic terms. Humans and nonhumans should be regarded as enlivened, enchanted, or animated. Mind, feeling, and experience are found in many if not all creatures on planet earth. Planet earth is alive.
Postmodern ecologists also argue that we must move beyond modernism’s preoccupation with human welfare alone. Postmodernism considers the good of all life. One way to work for the common good is to oppose modernism’s rampant consumerism. Consumerism objectifies others and thereby justifies their abuse. The postmodern ecological worldview promotes responsible nurture of the earth and all its resources. For God created the world and called it good.One way to work for the common good is to oppose modernism’s rampant consumerism. Click To Tweet
We shouldn’t be surprised that each of these strands of liberation postmodernism has theological implications, and some of those implications have already been noted. Others should be mentioned. Postmodern feminists argue, for example, that modernity’s (and premodernity’s) masculine God fails to affirm characteristics and ways of being typically identified with femininity. God is not male. Ethnic postmodernists argue that minorities have been conquered and slaughtered in the name of modernity’s White Man’s God. God is not white. Ecological postmodernists believe that the earth has been raped and debilitated in the name of the God whom modernists believed placed nonhumans under the domination of humans. God is not andocentric.
Some Christians believe, however, that theology provides unique resources by which to establish a postmodern response to anti-liberationist tendencies. God is essentially neither male nor female, say these postmodernists. And we should use genderless language to express this. God opposes the oppressor and sides with the broken and marginalized. God delights in diversity. God regards all creatures as intrinsically valuable and expects humans to treat all creation accordingly. God is green.God regards all creatures as intrinsically valuable and expects humans to treat creation accordingly. Click To Tweet
Some liberation postmodernists have been attracted to deconstructive postmodernism because of its critique of power. It is little wonder that those typically trampled by the high and mighty would delight in the level playing field deconstructionists seek to provide. But the wedding of these two postmodern traditions seems detrimental to liberationists. Deconstruction provides no solid ground for the freedom liberationists desperately desire.
I believe a revisionist postmodernism is potentially more helpful to liberationist postmodernists of many stripes than the alternatives. In the next and final installment, I outline how revisionary postmodernism can help us formulate a postmodern theology that both accounts for the wisdom of the past and the emerging work of the Spirit today.