Liberation Theology and the Pedagogy of Insurrection

(Image: Peter Lang Publishers)(Image: Peter Lang Publishers)With the publication of The Pedagogy of Insurrection: from Resurrection to Revolution, theorist Peter McLaren offers a tour de force in critical pedagogy.

In wonderfully poetic prose, the book helps readers better understand the overall project of critical pedagogy and its willingness to problematize the common understandings of oppressed peoples to facilitate their liberation from restrictive the thought patterns typically holding them in thrall. However, McLaren’s book broadens that project to appreciatively include the realm of religion and theology by introducing readers to the emancipatory quality of liberation theology. His book brings together a discussion of critical pedagogy and a discussion of the role of liberation theology in popular education in an ingenious way.

An Exploration of Critical Pedagogy

McLaren’s book will be of special interest to teachers of critical thought at the post-secondary level, where courses in “critical thinking” abound. Those offerings typically instruct students in logic, and introduce them to common fallacies, and how to evaluate statements, evidence, statistics and information. Though such elements are valuable and necessary for any disciplined scholarship or indeed for responsible citizenship, they generally leave untouched the parameters of thought defined by society’s powerful socio-economic structures. Literally, those structures define everything else.

Acceptance of such limitation is not the case with The Pedagogy of Insurrection – nor with the more than 50 books about critical pedagogy authored by McLaren, a professor in critical studies at Chapman University who is recognized as a giant in the field. For him critical pedagogy embodies the approach of Brazil’s revolutionary theoretician, Paulo Freire whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed revolutionized literacy training. It moved the teaching of reading and writing far beyond skill-acquisition and towards the recognition and transformation of the social circumstances producing the experience signified by words.

As expressed by McLaren’s colleague, Ira Shor, critical pedagogy addresses

“Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media or discourse.” (Empowering Education, 129)

Put otherwise, McLaren’s approach to teaching is about developing modes of reflection and communication that question received wisdom. It uncovers the radical causes (in the etymological sense of “root” origins) defined by social structures, history, and the interplay of ideologies as they appear in texts and public discourse.

McLaren himself elaborates: “Critical pedagogy includes relationships between teaching and learning. Its proponents claim critical educational studies underwritten by a social justice agenda will require more than lifestyle changes, but concerted critique and transformation of the unbridled barbarism of capitalist social relations.”

In other words, McLaren’s version of critical teaching does not pretend to be “neutral.” It is about changing the world. Having identified unfettered capitalism as barbaric and destructive, its aim is to provide students with powerful theoretical tools to understand themselves in relation to socio-political and economic structures.

(And by the way, Peter does so in an entirely delightful way – his pages overflowing with poetic prose, classical and historical references, and even (in his final chapter) with a wonderful all-encompassing performance manifesto which more than one reviewer has identified as reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.)

Reflections on Liberation Theology

But all of that was to be expected from a truly exceptional artist, philosopher, poet, teacher and activist like Peter McLaren. What was unexpected was his focus on liberation theology as itself a critical if not indispensable tool of critical social theory. As understood by McLaren, liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of those committed to positively transforming the reality of the world’s poor and oppressed.

In adopting this approach, McLaren follows his mentor, Paulo Freire, who inspired the methodology employed in liberation theology’s “biblical circles,” where unlettered peasants uncovered the socially transformative meanings in the narratives of Jesus’ familiar words and deeds.

And what did they find? In Jesus, they found a man recognized by the impoverished protagonists of liberation theology as someone like them. He looked like them. According to experts in the field of forensic archeology, he resembled poor mestizos everywhere in Latin America. He probably stood about 5’1″ and weighed about 110 pounds. His skin was brown. He was a laborer, not a scholar; his hands were calloused.

Ironically, Jesus also possessed characteristics that mainstream Christians often find repulsive and ungodly but familiar to the poor everywhere. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother. He was homeless at birth. If we are to believe Matthew’s account, Jesus was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. The good people of his day called him a drunkard and the companion of prostitutes. They expelled him from his synagogue because he didn’t seem to care about the Ten Commandments, especially the most important one – the Sabbath law. (For a Jew such excommunication and the shunning it entailed were like a death sentence.) The religious authorities said he was a heretic and possessed by the devil. The occupying Roman authorities identified him as a terrorist. They arrested him. And he ended up a victim of torture and of capital punishment carried out by crucifixion – a means of execution the Romans reserved specifically for insurgents. He was not the kind of person mainstream Christians usually admire. He was far too radical to merit their approval.

Jesus’ teachings were radical as well. They centered on social justice. As such they infuriated his opponents but were wildly inspiring to the poor and oppressed. His proclamation was not about himself, but about what he called “The Kingdom of God.” That was the highly charged political image he used to refer to what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that kingdom everything would be turned upside-down. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would be poor; the poor would be rich. Subsequent reflection by followers of Jesus in the Book of Revelation teased all of that out and drew the conclusion that with the dawning of God’s kingdom, the Roman Empire would be destroyed and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth entirely unlike empire. There (as indicated in the Acts of the Apostles) wealth would be distributed from each according to his ability to each according to his need. There would be room for everyone. If that sounds like communism, it’s because, as the Mexican exegete Jose Miranda (one of McLaren’s favorites) points out, the idea of communism originated with Christians, not with Marx and Engels.

With all this in mind, McLaren returns to his critical theory. He traces its roots not merely to Marx and Engels or to the 20th century work of philosophers like Jurgen Habermas or to philosophical circles such as the Frankfurt School. Instead, he takes readers right back to the one he calls “Comrade Jesus.”

And the Great Comrade (along with Freire, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, and Fidel Castro) in turn leads McLaren to complete his hermeneutical circle by revisioning the reality of our contemporary world as expressed it turns out, by liberation theologians like the great Franz Hinkelammert of Chile and Costa Rica. Like McLaren, Hinkelammert excoriates what is usually taken for “critical thinking” as “critical” in name only and as shoring up an order that effectively excludes from consideration the true nature of the contemporary world, its globalized order, and the populations most affected by it. In tune with both critical pedagogy and critical theology, McLaren finds that nature more accurately seen from below than above. Or as Hinkelammert puts it:

New York’s reality is not reflected in Manhattan or on Wall Street, but in Harlem and the Bronx. Neither is it seen in Hollywood. What’s going on in Europe is revealed in Europe’s immigration laws with their inevitable consequences of new lawless (concentration) camps and the deaths of Africans drowned in the sea. Put otherwise, the strategy of globalization is better seen in Africa and Haiti and other Third World countries. God’s wisdom makes judgment from those vantage points. I once heard an African remark at a meeting, “Africa is not the problem; Africa is the solution.” That could very well be true. At least it’s valid to say: if the solution to Africa’s problems is not fashioned from an African perspective, it won’t be a solution. We see that every day in the Gulag of the free world which reaches out to incorporate the slums of the entire globe. It is there in the Gulag that we find revealed the truth about the strategy of globalization. That’s its foundation in flesh and blood . (La maldición que pesa sobre la ley: Las raíces del pensamiento crítico en Pablo de Tarso. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Arlekin, 2010. P. 65)

McLaren could not agree more. Hinkelammert’s words effectively summarize the central idea of The Pedagogy of Insurrection. It is an indispensable source for all serious teachers of critical thought.