By Lisa Powell
For many in the ancient church the human condition inherited from Adam and Eve is one of bondage: we are captive to sin, death and the devil. Some pictured this with an angling metaphor in which the devil is a sea serpent who swallowed humanity and God liberates us by ensnaring the devil with Jesus’ humanity as bait on the hook of his divinity.
Maximus the Confessor offered a graphic interpretation, including an image of the serpent “quivering convulsively on the hook of the Lord’s divinity” and vomiting out both Jesus and all humanity. Gregory of Nyssa more elegantly says the “ravenous fish gulped down the hook of the Deity” and in so doing God “introduced life into the house of death,” thus vanquishing it, for death cannot exist where life is active.
Christianity has always associated the work of Christ with liberation, with life taken back from the grip of death. Liberation Theology draws from this tradition, emphasizing that God created for the purpose of life, not only eternal afterlife, but life in the world. Systemic sins binding us to death are social structures that oppress people and block them from the human flourishing willed by God at creation and ushered back to the world in Christ, who came to give life and to give it in abundance (John 10:10). If God is the God of life, systems that require the oppression of some for the flourishing of others, are in opposition to God.
Critics sometimes assume this liberation is articulated only for those experiencing material or social oppression and fail to recognize how such a salvation speaks to the need for Christ among those who do not identify with an oppressed community. However, the same systems that oppress people of color in the U.S., also keep white people in bondage to death. Liberation is not just the redemption of our souls from the clutches of the evil one, but must include a liberation from the death-dealing systems that entangle our lives.
Our society has erected institutions that disguise the death that sustains them. We are buoyed by the oppression of others; the abundant life we enjoy is made possible by those drowning underneath the system that supports us. Systemic sin looks like:
• My sense of safety and security erected on the excessive surveillance and brutal force in other nearby communities.
• The preservation of my property values through the exclusion of affordable housing in my neighborhood.
• Education funding linked to property taxes that secure my children a superior education in an affluent district.
I understand we often don’t recognize that how much of our flourishing stems from our whiteness. My family narrative, for example, is one of poverty traced from indentured servitude, to a great-grandparent’s birth on the reservation, to a grandfather with a 7th grade education and my mother’s childhood in a trailer with no bathroom.
However, this history doesn’t contradict what is also true: we benefited from our whiteness. Both of my grandfathers were blue-collar workers who secured fair mortgages (and thus eventually capital), which were systematically withheld from black, indigenous and brown residents in their communities. This growing equity would help support my parents’ college educations, and thus my own. My grandparents enjoyed the safety net of Social Security, which was intentionally denied to domestic and agricultural laborers because these were the few occupations open to black and brown people at the time. When my mother’s parents died, they left enough money for their grandkids that it helped support me in my Ph.D. program. Even affirmative action policies benefit white women like me more than people of color.
The ancient nautical salvation story is layered with deception. The devil tricks humanity to choose death over life. God tricks the devil to secure our freedom (one of the reasons the church abandoned this metaphor). We continue to deceive ourselves that the particular flourishing we enjoy isn’t dependent upon the deprivation of others.
We believe in our merit.
This sin is holding us all captive; it doesn’t matter if our heads happen to be above water, we are ensnared just the same. Support for movements of liberation should not spring from an altruistic offering, which often looks like pity, but because below the surface of our flourishing, we are entangled in the matted web of sin, the death-dealing system destroying our siblings in Christ.
Salvation must also break the bonds that keep white life dependent upon black death and vanquish the systems that crush the neck of our neighbors. Working for racial justice is a response to God’s grace, to God’s offering of abundant life. Reckoning with our bondage will usher in more grace, life and freedom to love than we experienced fettered in our ignorance, willful or naïve. Grace removes the scales from our eyes to trace the lines that bind us, and grace strengthens us to struggle to twist an appendage free, to break the system one ligature at a time.
(Lisa D. Powell, Ph.D., is professor and chair, theology department, and Women and Gender Studies Affiliate at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)