Here is an excerpt from a much longer essay I completed this term entitled ‘Liberation Theology: Problems and Possibilities; Between Pragmatism and Metaphysics’. This section is a critical evaluation of Daneil Bell’s response to the liberation theology in his work ‘Liberation Theology After the End of History’ which was published in the radical orthodoxy book series.
2.2 Daniel Bell and forgiveness as resistance
Another voice emerging from within the radical orthodoxy movement in regards to liberation theology is Daniel Bell, who in his work Liberation Theology After the End of History develops a full length critique of contemporary liberation theology in relation to the domination of western capitalism. Along with a critique, Bell identifies a potential future trajectory the liberationists could take to ‘save’ their movement; Bell identifies this as the ‘refusal to cease suffering’.
Among Bell’s major criticisms of liberation theology, and one very much in line with the previously mentioned critiques offered by Milbank, is that it lacks the ecclesiology necessary to enact real liberation. Bell carries out this critique by drawing on both Deleuze and Foucault to show how the church has failed to provide ‘technologies of desire’ capable of forming individuals free from the ontological influence of capitalism. Bell identifies one of the major failures of the liberationists in their acceptance of the disciplines offered by capitalism. For Bell, liberation theology has thus far failed to recognize that capitalism is more than just a political and economic system; it is in fact an inherently ontological system that has shaped the way in which the modern individual perceives reality in itself. In a sense, Bell acknowledges the ‘victory’ of global capitalism, and hopes that the liberationist would realize this victory as well and move past any aspiration to resist or overthrow the systems in power.
Instead of any directly political opposition to capitalism, Bell instead argues that the church needs to oppose capitalism through the enacting of alternative technologies of desire for the purpose of enabling an alternative social, political, and economic formation. In this way the church’s alternative technologies would teach individuals to ‘re-focus’ their desire, which has previously been formed through capitalism. Bell identifies confession, repentance, and penance as the key technologies of desire to be used by the church in opposition to the technologies of desire enacted by the capitalist order. These alternative technologies offered by the church are crucial for Bell because each involves the formation of forgiveness, which Bell notes is the “form of Christian resistance to capitalism”, as well as the condition of possibility for justice, which for Bell must always come after forgiveness.
These alternative technologies of desire enable the church to become what Bell refers to as the ‘crucified people’, which Bell locates among the base communities in Latin America. These people are characterized by their ‘refusal to cease suffering’ and their radical and unconditional extending of forgiveness towards any and all of their victimizers and oppressors. This model for the church is characterized by its use of forgiveness as a tool of resistance, which lies in opposition to the historical emphasis of the liberationists on justice, rather than forgiveness. Thus, the future of liberation theology envisioned by Bell is one in which the Church would not be militant in their opposition to the ruling economic, social, and political powers but would instead militantly forgive these powers for their continued oppression.
One of the glaring problems with Bell’s assessment, specifically in regards to capitalism, is his assumption that the church can somehow ‘escape’ capitalism and “succeed where very other social body has failed”. Interestingly enough, Bell’s assessment sounds remarkably similar to the thesis put forward by philosopher Simon Critchley in his recent book Infinitely Demanding, where he argues that any new politics must exist at a distance from the state, and rather than attempting to abolish the state, this new politics must instead resist by bombarding the state with an infinite amount of impossible demands, not in order to do away with the state, but in order to ‘better’ it. In a review article of Critichley’s book, Slavoj Žižek asks, “[…] if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state?” Žižek goes on to give the example of individuals protesting against the US attack on Iraq that took place in 2003, and the way in which their ‘resistance’ did nothing but further encourage those in power. This passage is worth quoting at length:
“The protestors saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimize it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government – will be possible also in Iraq!’”
It is important to note the similarity between this act of political ‘resistance’ and the ‘refusal to cease suffering’ encouraged by Bell. What oppressive government wouldn’t want their poor and oppressed to ‘resist’ through forgiveness! How magnificent for the systems in power! They can continue to oppress the poor and marginalized of society, but rather than worry about potential uprisings, they can instead rely on the continued forgiveness of the people. Even better, these oppressive governments can instead ‘use’ their capitalist economic framework to develop new policies and programs that will encourage ‘development’ in the two-thirds world. In this way the ‘crucified people’ can continue to cease suffering, while the capitalist state can continue to increase its political and economic domination.
Before moving on it is necessary that we take heed of Ivan Petrella’s critique of Bell’s project, in which he emphasizes that:
“[…]the very notion of the refusal to cease suffering downplays the material plight of the Latin American (and world’s) poor. At stake is not just suffering or non-suffering but, as liberation theologians repeatedly stress, life and death. In this case, the refusal to cease suffering emerges as a death sentence. In life one may refuse to cease suffering, until death.”
If liberation thought regards life as primary, then it is clear that Bell has little to offer the future of liberation theology.