Covenant Christology

Now a word must be said about Christology, which remains the punctum stantis et cadentis of any theology that calls itself Christian. The suspicion that Asian theology in general compromises the "uniqueness of Christ" becomes a straightforward accusation when it comes to liberation theology. Since in an Asian political theology the politics of poverty and the theology of the Christian religion have a greater task in coming to terms with each other than in any other continent, the Asian paradigm of Christology has been dramatically shifting away from the Chalcedonian model. For the Christological councils of the church neglected the political dimension of the historically recorded assassination of Jesus under Pontius Pilate and concentrated unduly on the philosophical problem of reconciling humanity with divinity in the mystery of the Incarnation, which lies beyond the pale of historical verification.

The Incarnation, a liberation theologian would argue, has to be interpreted in the light of the life, work, words, and especially the victorious death of Jesus, rather than vice versa; victorious, because the cross is not merely the locus of his death but also of his exaltation, that is, of his Resurrection and Ascension and of Pentecost, which the evangelists spread out as post-crucifixional events to give feeble human minds the time needed to experience them in a slow-motion replay through a series of liturgical celebrations. The cross, in the language of liberation, is the political conflict in which God vanquishes Mammon, love defeats power, life rises from death, and the victim turns victor. It is the symbol of the good news of liberation, of which the main addressees and the sole announcers are today's victims of political conflicts.

The Asian Christians who engage in dialogue with other religions without any concern for the politics of the cross (theologians sometimes called incultur-ationists or indigenizers) might at most confirm the Chalcedonian speculation with parallel theories of god-man cults of Asian origin. But a political theology has to hold together the two baptisms of Jesus: first at the "Jordan of Asian religiosity" (choosing discipleship under the Deuteronomic prophetic stream of lib-erative religiosity represented by John, later a victim of a political assassination, rather than under the enslaving religiousness of Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees or Zealots), and second on the "Calvary of Asian poverty" (as a victim of a political conspiracy between the imperial colonizer and the local exploiters of the religious-minded masses). This picture of Calvary is so true to reality in most Asian countries that Jesus' self-effacingly brave deeds of love, referred to as "baptism" in the Gospels, present Christ as a humble servant-teacher eliciting love rather than as a triumphalist conqueror demanding submission. It is in this picture of Christ ("meek and humble of heart") - Christ, who never asked anyone to change religion but only change his or her ways (shub, metanoia) in conformity with his meekness and lowliness - that his uniqueness is revealed. Such a Christ does not compete with the founders of other religions but cross-fertilizes Asian religiosity with the politics of poverty as no other teacher has done. Hence it is in neglecting the political aspect of Jesus' life and death that Chalcedon (though correct in what it tried to affirm, namely, that the human and the divine in Jesus admit neither of fission nor of fusion) has left out what is truly unique to him.

The Asian political theologians point out that traditional Christology has indulged in too much speculation about the Incarnation instead of encouraging a commitment to Christ's mission; that it is primarily a theory from which a praxis has to be strained out speculatively. The message of love which requires the two baptisms mentioned above is absent from this Chalcedonian exercise because the preoccupation with the Incarnation has eclipsed the politics of the cross. The fact that Jesus, who recapitulated the whole of revelation and salvation in the two love commands (Matt. 22: 40), went to the extent not only of telescoping the love of God into love of neighbor (Matt. 7: 12) but also of defining the love of neighbor as our involvement with the victim of robbery and violence that we meet on our life's journey (Luke 10: 29-37), confirms not only that in Jesus God has become my neighbor, but that this divine neighbor of mine is pre-eminently the victim of injustice offering me salvation in exchange for my being involved with his or her plight.

This way of seeing Christ as "God become my oppressed neighbor" could be developed into what one might call "covenant Christology". For the Exodus is a liberation process that culminates in the covenant between Yahweh and the runaway slaves of Egypt. The purpose is to present to the world an alternative society based on justice and love, that is to say, a contrast society wherein Yahweh alone, and no other creature, is served as the sovereign. It was Yahweh's nature not to sign any agreement with the imperial powers or a dominant social class. Hence colonial Christianity, which colluded with the Western oppressors of non-Christian nations, had no mandate to preach God's message of liberation, for Christ is the embodiment of both God and the oppressed in one person. Accordingly, their theology of domination has to be replaced by a theology of liberation which is founded on this covenant.

As the new covenant made flesh, Jesus put his disciples in touch with both partners of the covenant. Whereas Chalcedon saw Christ as a union of "divinity and humanity," liberation Christology sees Jesus as the one in whom "God and the victims of injustice" are encountered as one undividedly salvific (i.e. covenanted) reality. The "person" of Jesus, therefore, is not merely "an individual substance" as presupposed in Chalcedon, but a corporate person in so far as he incorporates the poor as his own body. For Asian liberation theologians, to confess "Jesus is the Lord" is to proclaim in word and deed that "Jesus is the new covenant." Hence, to raise one's voice and give public testimony to having "experienced the Lord" in worship assemblies is suspect unless that declaration is authenticated by a passionate involvement with God's inseparable covenant partner, not only through "a personal struggle to be poor" but also through "a political struggle for the poor." These two kinds of struggle evoke the two baptisms of Jesus mentioned above. Evidently, the evangelicals and libera-tionists in Asia speak from two different pulpits; they preach two different Christs.

This covenant Christology can be summed up in the two love commands with which the New Testament has recapitulated the whole of revelation and salvation. Since Jesus is the Word that recapitulates the scriptures, it follows that Jesus is the two-fold love command made flesh. In accordance with this line of reasoning, the first command (worship God alone and no other god) and the second command (love your victim neighbor as Jesus loved us) have been converted, respectively, into two pithy maxims (or sutras) which unfold themselves as a liberation Christology: (1) Jesus is the irrevocable antinomy between God and Mammon (love of God); and (2) Jesus is the irrevocable defense pact between God and the poor (love of neighbor). Thus the love of God (struggle to be evangelically poor) and the love of neighbor (struggle for the socially poor) constitute the liberational praxis, which is at once an act of following Jesus as he lived "in the days of his flesh" and an act of serving Christ "as we know him now" in the poor. It is this double action of discipleship and service that proclaims the Jesus of history to be the Christ of our faith.

This way of encountering Christ as the defense pact which God signs with the poor against their common enemy, Mammon (absolutized wealth), has serious political implications for interreligious cooperation in the area of interhuman justice, a mission that a Christian minority cannot ignore in Asia. Since, in Christ, all that is anti-God coincides with all that is anti-poor, any socioeconomic system which enthrones Mammon (the enemy of both God and the poor) has to be resisted as a violation of the covenant. This is the first axiom in the scriptures and in the teaching of Asian liberation theology. Wherever God alone reigns (i.e. in "God's reign", the project of Jesus) there will be no oppressive poverty, but only the liberative poverty of the beatitudes, which is the common inheritance of all religions in Asia. We can define it as non-idolatrous poverty, for the following reason. As most of the religious systems of Asia are non-theistic soteriologies, the denial of authentic religiosity is not equated with atheism but with idolatry (addiction to creatures, absolutization of the relative, greed for the contingent, slavery to one's acquisitive instinct - these being the equivalents of what we know as Mammon worship). Thus, the personal struggle to be poor (the anti-idolatrous spirituality shared by all religions) is the common platform for inter-religious dialogue, whereas the political struggle for the poor as a condition of personal salvation constitutes a unique Christian contribution to the dialogue.

With this unique message that social liberation and personal salvation constitute together one inseparable commitment of the new covenant, Christianity does not compete with other religions but complements them. Here again the evangelicals' zeal to convert the pagans is substituted by the liberationists' solidarity with the other religionists. For the latter, the enemy is not people of other religions, but the agents and institutions of Mammon worship cutting across the religious and denominational affiliations.

Finally, an important question needs to be answered: who are the authors of Asian liberation theology/Christology? Not, certainly, academics researching in libraries or teaching in universities. These only explicitate and articulate the experiences of the basic human communities where men and women from different religions and no religion struggle to be poor as well as struggle for the poor in politically challenging situations. Their activism is punctuated by a periodic sharing of one another's religious experiences and cross-scriptural studies. The result is neither "syncretism" (a cocktail of religions in which the specific flavor of each religion is modified by that of the others) nor "synthesis" (creation of something entirely new out of the component religions which have, in the process, lost their separate identities altogether), but a symbiosis of religions. This means that each religion, challenged by the other religions' unique approach to the liberation praxis, discovers and renames itself in its specificity in response to the other approaches. In the basic human communities it is the non-Christians who help Christians to clarify their religious identity and spell out the uniqueness of Christ, in a way which the academic theologian will later explicate as a Christology.

There are variations in this line of thinking, with different countries evolving their own specific brands of this theology. "Theology of struggle" was one of the names by which some Filipino theologians liked to call their version of this theology, while there has emerged an Indonesian model that calls itself "contextual social theology." The theologians of the Patriotic Association and the Three Self Movement in China seem to view "liberation" not as a goal to be achieved but as a given fact among their people, which the church was called to participate in and appropriate judiciously in its indigenous, i.e. Chinese, manifestation. Parallel trends have been observed in Vietnam. The North Korean equivalent of this tendency is noticed in those Christians who collaborate with the Juche philosophers (discussed below, under "Minjung theology"). The Palestinian Christians, too, have striven to evolve an "ecumenical liberation theology movement", which they call sabeel (Arabic for "the way", and also "channel", or "spring" of "living water") and which advocates a non-violent struggle for peace and justice, founded on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, "the Corner Stone" (which is the name of the journal that promotes it).

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