The Crossroads of Liberation and Mysticism

Given the current situation in America right now, our team of moderators in The Virtual Chapel wanted to say something to our community and the world at large. This post had already been written and was scheduled to come out in September for the first Sunday of the month, when we normally feature guest posts, but we decided to post it today as the message is relevant to everything which is going on right now.

This article was written by Jeremy McNabb. Jeremy is a religious history geek with a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies, a graduate student of Theological Anthropology, a hopeful novelist, a Pelagian, and an aspiring heresiarch. He is also one of our moderators in The Virtual Chapel and can often be found there dropping wisdom about Pelagius and Patrick.

We had some debate amongst the moderators about balancing our desire to give space to the voices of people of colour, taking responsibility for educating ourselves, and not remaining silent about the atrocities which are taking place. We decided to educate Celtic Christians from a Celtic perspective while also hearing from and acting in solidarity with people of colour. For that reason, this article is written from a Celtic perspective to those in the Celtic community. We would like to suggest that you also look up these books if you wish to educate yourself further:

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, “A Theology of Liberation”
  2. Katie Cannon, “Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community”
  3. James Cone, “God of the Oppressed”
  4. Delores Williams, “Sisters in the Wilderness”
  5. Emilie Townes, “Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil.”

If you would like to be more involved in the work of solidarity and activism itself, we would like to suggest that you visit the Black Lives Matter website.

Celtic influences often find strange theological pairings, and what I have to bring to the table today is no exception. Gustavo Gutierrez was neither Irish nor a mystic, but I think his writings carry a lesson for those of us who are either. He is considered one of the founders of liberation theology, and for those who aren’t students of church history, liberation theology has three main parts:

  1. It challenges the radical and systematic dehumanization of the marginalized by introducing spiritual hope.
  2. It builds on that foundation of hope by engaging the marginalized in critical self-reflection about both their situation and their oppression.
  3. It studies both scripture and church history to discover parallel movements of liberation.

I don’t know how it plays out in the rest of the world, but mysticism and liberation theology do not frequently cross paths in the American Church. It would be an anachronism to suggest that Patrick was motivated by liberation theology, because what is called liberation theology today did not yet exist in fifth-century Ireland and Britain. It would not be incorrect, however, to say that what motivated Patrick to return to the peasants of Ireland would be called liberation theology if it played out in our modern world.

Though Patrick would fall into what is commonly called “white” today, he was not a member of his world’s ethnic or political majority. The Irish had little privilege except where they aligned themselves with Rome and Patrick himself had been kidnapped and enslaved in his youth. Despite this, he returned to the peasants (pagani) of Ireland after mystically hearing their collective voice calling out to him.

The monk Pelagius is known as a heretic, condemned as one, even. He found himself on the religious fringe, excluded from a circle that included (and whose gates were guarded by) giants like Jerome and Augustine of Hippo. Pelagius accepted that women could learn as well as men and it has been suggested that the pagan belief that humans could directly engage in relationships with deities influenced his Christian understanding of free will.

Germanus of Auxerre also seemed to fear Pelagianism for its tendency to stimulate men and women to resist Roman commands. In fact, it was this fear that prompted Germanus to co-opt Patrick’s call to the pagans of Ireland with the intention of dismantling Pelagius’ influence there.

In recent years, mostly thanks to a wide-spread internet hoax, the plight of the Irish has been unjustly weaponized against communities of color in order to dismiss slavery and xenophobia, and to suggest what good folk ought to do when faced with oppression and marginalization.

I call attention to Patrick and Pelagius, not to ignore black and brown heroes of the faith or to center this religious dialog on men who would have looked like the vast majority of folks at the top of corporations or in Washington, D.C. today, but to point out that it should not be impossible for many of us—who look like them–to grasp the struggle faced by those Gutierrez intended to liberate.

Patrick, Pelagius, and Gutierrez are our spiritual ancestors and speak to us across a communion table that is greater and grander than we can imagine. Their journeys can and should inform ours. Christ said in Matthew 25 (paraphrasing), “Whatever you do or do not do for the least of these, you do or do not do for me.” When we feed the poor, we feed Christ. When we cloth the naked, we cloth Christ. When we visit someone in prison, it is Christ that we visit. And when we ignore those souls, we ignore Christ, too.

As mystics, many of us know what it is like to have other Christians treat us with suspicion for being too “Pelagian” or too “new age.” Many of us know what it is like to have our mystical experiences treated with disbelief, clinical dismissal, or outright ridicule. It should come as no surprise to us that someone of a different skin color or from a different culture could be treated with similar disbelief, dismissal, or ridicule.

When the time comes for white Christians to stand in solidarity on behalf of black or brown Christians, those of us who consider ourselves mystics or heretics should be at the front of the line, not because we’re more important, not because we’re wiser, but because we understand in some small way what it means to be made to feel unimportant.

We should realize that what Christians of color face is a much larger, much more systematic and terrifying version of the same prejudices we have faced, and we should count it a privilege to offer ourselves as a soul-friend to them.

If you found this article helpful, please share it with your friends or on your favourite social media. If you want to do the work of standing in solidarity with the oppressed, check out the website for Black Lives Matter.

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