Ireland is looking down the barrel of a serious and long term economic crisis. The evidence from the national government points to the reality of a cynical and harmful attitude in the current régime towards the wellbeing of those within the community who they consider to be of little or no utilitarian value. Already we have seen a number of societal responses to this deplorable situation. In response to the growing level of unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and local council evictions, the ‘Right to Work Campaign‘ was launched; a coalition of unemployed, trade unions, workers, community groups and other interested parties looking to press for greater effort for jobs and services from the government. Free third level tuition, which was introduced by the Labour Party during the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ (1994-1997), was threatened this year when the Fianna Fáil government warned that a €3,000 annual registration fee was likely to be introduced in the January 2010 budget; making working class participation in further education all but completely impossible. When the students of the country marched on Leinster House (November 3rd 2010), the seat of Dáil Éireann (the national parliament), they were met by riot and mounted police officers from Ireland’s notoriously ill-trained Garda Síochána.
In the course of both of these campaigns tensions have exploded into violence. A small number of members of the Socialist Workers Party with others, including some members of the Workers Solidarity Movement, attempted to ‘storm’ the iron gates of Leinster House during a ‘Right to Work protest’ on May 11th 2010. One protester suffered a serious head injury resulting from a blow from a police baton, while one member of an Gardaí suffered a superficial facial injury. The media apparently seem determined to ignoring the fact that the “iron gates” of Leinster House were wide open and unguarded at the time. The student ‘Education Not Emigration’ demonstration suffered a ‘parasitic hijacking’ by the militant fringe socialist republican Éirígí party, who launched an attack on the riot police. Amateur film shot by protesters on mobile telephones shows clear evidence of police brutality; beating sitting teenage students with batons, intimidating them with Alsacian dogs, and in one piece of footage one female teenager is dragged some meters by her hair by an adult police officer. Such protests are a concretisation of the growing mood of discontent on the ground in the Republic of Ireland. These protests, which are the constitutional right of Ireland’s citizens, look set to become more frequent and increasingly intense when further austerity measures are implemented in the new year. People are outraged at the fact that austerity will drive thousands into joblessness and poverty, while the financial and political élite will be left materially unharmed. As this apocalyptic drama unfolds it has become clear that the instruction from government is “do not damage the oil and the wine (Revelation 6:6).”
Clericalism, and the blatant corruption of the the Irish ecclesiastical hierarchy, exposed by the secular media, surrounding endemic and systematic clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church have all but ensured the total irrelevance of the majority church in its efficacy in addressing new and mounting social problems. The complete indifference of the bishops in Ireland to the plight of the poor and marginalised was evinced by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference’s decision to prioritise their own protest against the first ‘All-Ireland Conference on Abortion and Clinical Practice (October, 2010)’ at the hight of this crisis. The right to life may be a valid issue, but they would do well apropos public opinion if they showed a modicum of concern for the right to a quality of life. The Anglican Church of Ireland has alienated itself from the sympathy of the people of Ireland historically, as the church of the Anglo-Irish and English minority Protestant Ascendancy, and more recently by refusing amnesty in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, to Afghan refugees facing deportation and the death sentence, and by aligning themselves with the Catholic bishops against just criticism from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thankfully the voice of faith and theology is not the preserve of the institutional Church. Theology springs from the wells of human intelligence and reflection wherever there is faith.
How then are people of faith and goodwill to respond to this crisis? At first it must be recognised that the Imago Dei is present in each person and in every human community. The Christian profession of an Incarnate God brings us to a fuller understanding that God is with his people; rich and poor. Therefore the misunderstanding that God needs to be taken to people is negated, for vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit. The task of the faithful in theology then is to realise why God is with his people. When we come to understand that God is love, we come to fully realise that God abides with people because it is the nature of God in love to be with his people; rich and poor. Thus to be united with God in love is to be united with his people also in love; rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. What is meant by being with the rich, the oppressor or the bourgeoisie is that we help them to reflect upon the causes of poverty and the reality of human suffering in poverty. As a prophet, the work of the theologian (the vocation of all the faithful) is to show oppositional solidarity to those people behind the machinery of political, economic and industrial injustice. In being kind to them, and by being a constant prophetic voice before them we offer them the chance to rediscover their humanity. We cannot demonise them, no matter how unconscionable their deeds and decisions. What else are demons and monsters to do other than behave like brutes? It is in our constant reminder to them and ourselves that they are human beings that the true horror of their actions becomes visible for all to see.
One objection to Liberationist ideas is that it patronises the poor as something brought to them by better people. This objection is absurd because it assumes that the poor, the oppressed and the workers are not themselves theologians labouring in the in the field of their own liberation. Liberation cannot be brought to the people of God from the exterior; as in Christ it is something, by birthright, they already possess. Thus it is the task of the academic theologian and the lay theologian who themselves are not of the poor to become the poor (Luke 18:22). Liberation theology is a theology of solidarity which is with Christ and thus with his people. It is in solidarity with the oppressed that the theologian works with them in community to understand their condition, its causes and the remedy. Liberation is also an awareness of the preferential option for the poor, which recognises that poverty, injustice and violence can limit within the victim and victimised community the capacity for ethical awareness. Therefore Liberation is about compassion for the poor and action with them to realise the full potential of their social, political and economic freedom. In contrast to the cheap grace of the television evangelist, the Grace of the theologian is one which is costly. Discipleship with the poor and the oppressed is always costly. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). Rather than meet violence with violence in a contest where the weakest, qua the poor, suffer the most, sometimes the task of the theologian is to bear witness with his or her life beneath the machinery of injustice and oppression.
There are dangers in theological inaction of which an account shall be asked. Christ who always identifies himself with the oppressed says this;
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:34-36
Liberation in modern Ireland is about giving all that we have to the benefit of the oppressed and joining with them in solidarity with their suffering and joining our theological voice to their theological voices. It is a process which embraces change and the changing needs of the community; always willing to meet the oppressor boldly in the ceaseless task of achieving justice for the benefit of the whole community; rich and poor.
Jason Michael McCann