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Art for Liberation: Theology from the Margins Challenges Theological Education

March 24, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
This article was originally published January 19, 2015 by SCUPE.
Indian author and one of the foremost prophets of our time, Arundhati Roy, in her book War Talk (South End Press, 2003) wrote:
Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.
The power of liberative art was in prominent display at the Church of South India headquarters in Chennai, where last week, the Christmas celebration took a very different form. Instead of the traditional carols and decorations which we expect at Christmas, this performance was staged by groups of musicians from Dalit (low-caste) and Advasi (tribal) communities – drummers, dancers, singers and poets sharing the stage in energetic performances of liberative art. On to one side was an exhibition of Dalit paintings. They came to celebrate the birth of one of their own – one who came from the margins – to be the savior of the world.
There’s no way to describe in words the power of the high-octane drumming by several groups of young men. The importance of the drum as an instrument of communication in subaltern communities and the difficulties outsiders have in understanding that medium was described well in Sathianathan Clark’s book Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India (Oxford University Press, 2000).
As SCUPE students go into communities in the margins where they interact with people to learn their stories of struggle, they are always aware that their role as outsiders limits their capacity to know and understand the stories and the struggles of the margins. But Art for Liberation (music, dancing and visual art) that was on display in Chennai did not require me to ask questions. Arising from the ground with a depth of authenticity it only required me to be open to its awe and inspiration.
I was in Chennai to give the 2nd annual Dr. Matthai Zachariah memorial lecture on behalf of India Peace Center. A visionary ecumenist, Dr. Zachariah was the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of India, and upon retirement founded the India Peace Center twenty six years ago, as an interfaith organization committed to peace and justice. Unwilling to be constrained by the identity-based ecumenical structures that we had created for yester-year, he knew to move the parameters to include people from many religious traditions in the work of justice and peace. But today we know that just by including Hindus and Muslims, we are not going to get to justice and peace. Many of them are as co-opted by the empire as most Christians are. So the lesson of Dr. Zachariah for today is to learn from the young people who are organizing for justice and peace across the world. For them, it does not matter what religion you are or if you have no religion; what matters is your courageous commitment to justice and peace.
My contribution to that conversation began with the Arundhati Roy quote above. How do we tell a story alternative to what the empire has told us about its versions of history, its wars and weapons and its notions of inevitability, and how do we make our voices heard when corporations control all the media channels? When the media convinces us that greed is good, that accumulation is the right thing to do, that wealth is a blessing from God, how to do we speak an alternative story? Religions across the centuries have told us about the evils of greed, the corruption of usury, the value of interdependence and the virtues of detachment and voluntary poverty. But even if they knew the content of that gospel, preachers have 20 minutes on a Sunday morning to get that message across to dwindling congregations, whereas the message from the corporate media is beamed to our living rooms 24 hours a day.
SCUPE’s answer, I said, is to prepare clergy and lay leaders who know the content of this message, and are able to speak with courage and expertise, not just to their congregations but to the broader public. They are pastors and prophets not just to their congregations, but to their communities. Therefore, we teach them not just to preach, but also to be community organizers, story tellers, artists, poets, rappers, opinion leaders, commentators on television, producers of TV programs and movies, writers of op-eds, blogs, Facebook posts, commentaries, and to be erudite at public microphones. But in order to do that, they must have the capacity to know deeply the struggle of people in the margins, and to read and understand from their perspective government budgets, parliamentary bills and economic and social policies.
Wealth disparity today is off the charts, I told the audience. Eighty five super-rich people own the wealth of 3.5 billion people in the world, and that gap is widening by the day. Public money — the money that is available for the common good — to eradicate hunger and poverty, to support development of communities, to erase national debts that ravage global south countries, to change the course of climate change — is dwindling rapidly. While the corporate media is doing an extremely good job convincing large numbers of middle class educated people with their corporate story of greed, they are also controlling the political processes that make it ever more difficult for the others of us to have enough political power to change this trend. The question is therefore urgent.
It used to be, I said in the lecture, that until yesterday, we believed in the churches and religious communities to be the ones that mediated this message of liberation to God’s people. Indeed, they are among the most organized in the world. The theological seminaries, we thought, who train the one person who gets up in front of congregations, have the capacity to train them to engage in this important work of God’s mission. But the parochial, empire focused theologies that seminaries still teach, have all but obliterated the hope that churches can claim that position it once did, for example, when they were in the fore-front of struggles against apartheid in South Africa and for civil rights in the United States, and won.
But I don’t lose heart. At the same time the churches have been ceding this ground, young people are rising. Today, this is gaining momentum in Ferguson, Missouri. It was so in the occupy movement, as it was in the Arab spring in Cairo, after the contested election in Tehran, and going on right now in Hong Kong. They are not preachers – but they are artists: musicians, drummers, singers, poets, story tellers, rappers, public speakers who tell the other side of the story, authentically, creatively, and powerfully. They have gone before the theological education establishment and left us in the dust. Now, we must run and catch up with them!
If this is to be our hope, theological education must substantially re-think the content of its theology, re-envision its purpose and cater to a much broader student base that needs the best training possible for engaging this brutal and complex global economy. (cf: Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity of the Global Economy – Harvard University Press, 2014).
Arundhati Roy, in her quote, helps me end on a note of hope: “Let’s overcome them with our imagination and creativity,” she writes. “Remember this,” she continues, “We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Published with the author’s permission.