Church as a discerning community / Victims and Perpetrators

I just returned home from a very interesting lunch discussion with Philip J. Linden of the Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, and Malik Juma Muhammed, a student at Yale University in New Haven. We talked about the situation in New Orleans, the sufferings of many people over there, the difficulties to rebuild a city that lies in the shifting river Delta of the river Mississippi and that is very vulnerable to further heavy huricanes, and the efforts to continue the teaching work at XULA. We moved then to two topics that touch on Malik’s research theme: hermeneutics and ecclesiology.

When dealing with ecclesiology, there are three perspectives that keep drawing my attention. (a) Church means more than just a gathering of faithful, who relate to one another on the basis of their individual religious experiences. It is also, and fundamentally, a community of discernment, a “public space” in which faith and its relationship to the world in which we live are communally discerned. “Communally” here also means: taking into account a tradition, i.e. connecting with the past and with those who have been building church over the centuries. In that sense, the core of ecclesiology is communal apostolic discernment (CAD): church is being built through our joint efforts at faithfully (following Jesus Christ, that is, for Christians) committing to the world in which we live.

(b) Church as such also touches the core of our faith. We believe in the church, both as the space in which we share our faith with others, and as a core element of the content of our faith. That is a difficult point for many of us, as at times we are tempted to say: “let me believe in Jesus/God, but I cannot believe in the church” … we consider the church as a handicap, a difficulty that we have to overcome when we attempt to believe. But, when we look at the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and when we wonder about what exactly may well be the good news (eu-angellion) that he proclaims to us and lives with and for us, then – at least I think so – we will touch Jesus’ desire, hope and faith that the dream of the Kingdom/Reign of God is a reality that invites us today, here and now, to build up life together. Trusting that we can build up life together and that this “we” ultimately is holistic and non-exclusive (including even the whole of creation) is a very difficult thing: our day to day experiences and everything we know about the world in which we live seem to contradict this trust. The christian faith, I think, is precisely about this trust and this faith on the basis of a word spoken to us and a life lived for us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, who proclaimed the Reign of God, i.e. the fullness of live together for the whole of creation.

(c) Church, in its relationship to the Reign of God, also refers to a vision and the attempt to discover the content of the vision by enacting it, incarnating it. We know about the vision, but we cannot even begin to imagine its concrete form: this really is too difficult and challenging. Nevertheless, we can begin to act on the basis of the vision of the Kingdom, by attempting to build it up amongst ourselves in the concrete circumstances of our lives and, sometimes, against all odds. There is an important (eschatological) tension here, where the vision as a promise becomes a grace that allows us to, precisely, work towards the vision, thereby discovering cautiously and sometimes through failures and mistakes, its features and contents. This is a discernment process together, in which we relate in the Spirit to Jesus, who proclaims and embodies this vision in such a way that he is even referred to as the logos (law, structure) of creation (a word that refers to our foundational connectedness and life together).

We then moved on to talk about an idea for which I have received from one of the Jesuit doctoral students at the Faculty of Theology in Leuven, Elias Lopez: how conflicts of oppression and injustices will only really be addressed when victims and perpetrators become capable of also recognizing oneself and one another as perpetrators and victims respectively. We could write this down as: V(P) (the victim is also perpetrator), and P(V) (the perpetrator is also victim). This does not deny the real suffering of those who pay the bill of injustice and oppression – those voices and realities should always be respected – but it highlights the fact that, in situations of oppression, the simple formula V-P does not sufficiently articulate the complexity of the situation. Indeed, sometimes victims, in the structures of oppression, become perpetrators by strengthening precisely these structures of oppression: they so much claim their status of victim that the conflict cannot be transformed anymore (they do so because it is advantageous or, in some cases, even comfortable to them to be considered the victim), or they imagine the transformation of their victimhood only from the perspective of life as the oppressor lives (that means that they themselves want to become like the oppressor, bringing about new but similar situations of oppression). The same goes for the perpetrators: there is a challenge for them to recognize that the structures of oppression in which they are caught up also dehumanize them and that they may have become the victim of structures that they maintain because they are afraid to lose their (comfortable) positions. There is a lot of hermeneutics at play here that has been unmasked by some feminist or black theologies: to really face a conflict of oppression, victims need also to analyze how, in the structures and processes of oppression, they themselves are at risk of becoming oppressors; to really face a conflict of oppression, perpetrators have to face their evil and recognize that they themselves are victims of structures of evil which they maintain and for which they are responsible at the same time. It is not sufficient, therefore, when in conflict, to ask the question of who are the real victims and perpetrators (that in itself is often already a very tricky issue), one also needs to address the structural questions of which attitudes amongst those who are involved in a conflict (victims, perpetrators, bystanders, third parties, …) will in fact strengthen the oppression or maintain the conflict. This are very difficult and hard questions, that require a lot of respect of the other. These, again, are questions of communal discernment. They are also questions of ecclesiology, as precisely in these situations of conflict the challenge consists in embodying the vision of the Kingdom for all alike.

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One response to “Church as a discerning community / Victims and Perpetrators

  1. I think it is important to recognize that the Church as a discerning community also involves the prophetic nature of discernment. As Prof. Haers indicates the victims and perpetrators participate in that discernment as well as contribute to the dynamics within the context in which the Church discerns. Also, the idea of victims and perpetrators is fluid and marks both the limits of human relations and the limited nature of creation itself. The Church itself is caught up in this milieu for it is composed of people, even creation itself with all the limits and failures thereof. That being the case, discernment is a key role of the Church, for discernment involves looking to the divine within the world and the possibilities of incarnating the already present divine in the world. This incarnation is both the result of discernment and also action within the world that recreates the discernment process with new dynamics and new questions and new possibilities in the process of incarnating the divine.

    The prophetic is important in this process for it gives us the criterion and vision through which we respond to the world. Victims and perpetrators, for example violence against women or violence of structures against whole peoples, gives us evidence of where and how to discern as a community of faith and what that faith calls us to do in the face of violence and victimization. In the case of violence against women, it must be understood the violence of a structure or a system against a perceived lesser being speaks to the fact that there are implicit weaknesses in the structure itself. The ideas of male domination or androcentric interpretations of history not only victimize women but also victimize men in that the paradigm forces an ideology of maleness that even men must serve and espouse. That being the case, the idea of androcentrism does not just speak about the priority of masculine over feminine, but of the problem of dominance and domination. Not only are women created as lesser in such an ideology, but whole people are justified as lesser. Yet androcentrism and racism connect to a much larger reality of oppression and exploitation (i.e. Market economies).

    Professor Haers mentions the reign of God as key to discernment. In the face of market economies and identity ideologies we are able to not only identify graven images of ourselves (or our position in society), but also respond to a world that challenges the very notion of a Reign of God as well as a God of life. It is important to recognize that victimization and perpetration intersects with the disruptive nature of the cross. This goes to show how victimizing/ation plays an important part in the discernment process of the Church. Not only must we identify the problems in our world, our participation in the suffering in the world, or even our plight as victims, but also confront the structural and historic causes of victimization in our contexts. In this way the Church is not only a witness to the cross, but also incarnates the cross and enacts the power it holds by way of making a stance for the Reign of God.

    As a discerning community, the we must realize that we cannot overcome victimization or oppression, but instead stand in the face of victimization and oppression in such a way that witnesses to the coming of the Reign of God as well as the already present sign of the Reign. The prophetic nature of discernment propels the church to challenge existing systems and their legitimacy in regards to justice, but more importantly to the Reign of God. In a sense, this discernment and the prophetic witness challenges the dominant paradigms, structures, and ideologies that maintain even subtle forms of oppression, always opening new possibilities of encountering God in history.

    Rosemary Radford Reuther writes of the Prophetic principle and the four components involved in the principle. I took the “Encountering God in History” from chapter 10 of A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez.

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