This quote from the first chapter of Paulo Freire book Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been instrumental in the development of my theological mindset. I leaned heavily on Freire while working on my doctorate at the Princeton Theological Seminary. I was grappling to uncover ways to find the unique voice of persons addicted to crack cocaine. I asserted that they, as an oppressed population, perceive God and the community of faith, different than the general population.
Freire asserts an approach that requires a partnership between the oppressed and the oppressor that negates the position of power. Each gains from the other. Freire hoped for the formulation of a system whereby the oppressor no longer forces the oppressed to take on the image of oppression. “Long as they live in the duality in which to be is to to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible," Freire states. "Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one."
Discovering that one has existed as an oppressor is a painful place. Even more regrettable is the realization that this knowledge in and of itself does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. A radical shift begins when the oppressor recognizes the limits of past assumptions. “The former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed,” Freire writes.
Freire attacked the system of education used in Brazil for utilizing what he called the “banking” concept of education, in which students were viewed as empty accounts to be filled by teachers. He strongly criticized the transmission of mere facts as the goal of education. He called for an adjustment in the teacher-student dichotomy that has teachers learning from those they teach.
Freire’s conception that learning, at its best, is interplay between teacher and student helped me rethink many of my theological presuppositions. I had to concede that many of my affirmation were rooted in cultural perspective rather than a divinely inspired authorization. I was guilty, along with the community I represented, of assuming the authoritative voice guiding my ways should be implored in all cases and with all people. My power was used to manipulate and control others, and, in the process of holding my truth as the only truth, I limited my ability to learn from those with truth to share.
This is difficult to concede when the Bible is regarded as the inspired words of God. Many of the battles we face in public space are rooted in how the Bible is interpreted. When used as the voice of God for all people, in every situation, and for all times; the Bible becomes an instrument of oppression rather than a remedy to overcoming a history of power and manipulation.
My column writing has exposed the venom of those who hold fast to their theological constructs. They remain stuck in the power play that wars with those on the other side of Biblical and theological interpretation. What shows up on the other side of their reflection is a celebration of some communal vision that pits those who look and believe like them versus those in need of transformation. The voice of the others can’t be heard due to the weapon held in their hand-the Bible. Texts are picked out of the Good Book to validate their contentions, leaving those on the outside of their interpretation void of the power to overcome the conclusions of those in power.
Freire’s critique of education is reflected in the work of Latin American Liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez and Walter Altman. The work inspired James Cone to develop Black Liberation Theology, and has spread to Europe through the work of Jungen Moltman and others. It is reflected in works in men and women around the world. Feminist Theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Womanist Theologians like Jacquelyn Grant and Kattie Canon all begin with the same claim-that the starting point of theological analysis is the community.
These men and women challenge us to consider the pain of the oppressed, and to find God in places not known by those in power. Theirs is a call for dialogue, and this requires a willingness to listen to the voices of those standing on the outside of systems of power. Liberation is an attack on all methodologies that assume truth at the expense of those limited by others who hold the keys in their hands.
What are the implications of Freire’s criticism? It challenges us to rethink the way we teach. It embraces the worth of the student within each teachable moment. It explores the damage done when the oppressed become the image of their oppressors. It forces each of us to concede the failures of our assumptions when placed within a culture with individuals unable to understand or fulfill the demands of our claims.
More than all of that, Freire is a reminder of the strengths of a purely democratic society. He reminds us of John Stuart Mills appeal in On Liberty- that within the marketplace of ideas we must embrace each thought as vital in the formation of a more perfect idea. There is power within each voice. We become stronger when the politics of power are replaced by a spirit of compassion.
Howard Brinton, a Quaker, summarizes it all so well. “Within the meeting equality appears in the equal opportunity for all to take part, regardless of age, sex or ability. It means equality of respect and the resulting absence of all words and behavior based on class, racial or social distinction.”