This year, the Vincentian Family Gathering will focus on the strategies of systemic change. On a recent post at famvin.org, a reader commented, “I am wondering what is the difference between Systemic Change and the Liberation Theology which has been around a bit longer??” I should like to address the question, because it is an important one for making distinctions as we struggle to serve the poor from a Catholic and Vincentian perspective.
The definition of systemic change with which we work is found on in famvin.org’s Vincentian Encyclopedia. There, it is described as a social pattern or construct which has implications for practice. It is, in itself, not related to any particular theological system or set of doctrines. It could easily be implied from natural law philosophy. Its application, and the the particular emphases that a particular program of systemic change evidences, is surely related to the underlying theology of the persons who engage in it. I recommend a thorough perusal of the systemic change section of the Vincentian Encyclopedia and the articles archived under systemic change “tab” on famvin.org.
Liberation theology is a catch-all term for a broad spectrum of praxis-oriented theologies, the goal of which is to identify the traces of the God of Jesus Christ, as that God moves to lift oppression from the shoulders of any group or class of persons. The identification of God’s “doings” among the human race, which we call, in its various incidences, salvation, reconciliation, and liberation, is the one of the tasks of theology. Particularly, the “theologizing” in theologies of liberation (Latin American, African, black, feminsit, etc.) is done by and at the level of those experiencing oppressions. These “base communities” alert the wider world to the workings of God among them. The implications of this communication upon others, especially Christians (as this is usually, though not only, a Christian theological method), is that all are called to partner with God and the oppressed in their integral liberation from oppression, which oppression is the result of sin – both personal and systemic.
As the Instruction on Certain Aspects of “Theology of Liberation” (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 1984) said:
Liberation is first and foremost liberation from the radical slavery of sin. Its end and its goal is the freedom of the children of God, which is the gift of grace. As a logical consequence, it calls for freedom from many different kinds of slavery in the cultural, economic, social, and political spheres, all of which derive ultimately from sin, and so often prevent people from living in a manner befitting their dignity. To discern clearly what is fundamental to this issue and what is a by-product of it, is an indispensable condition for any theological reflection on liberation.
It is at the point of hearing the call or cry of the poor that the intersection of a partuclar liberation theological method and systemic change initiatives is found. For Vincentians, it is always the economically poor and marginalized who identify the places where change – the change of a systemic structure or pattern that maintains an oppressive condition — needs to be initiated to advance the goal of integral liberation. Our theologizing, together, helps us to understand the nature and effects of sin present in any particular situation. The communication (call, cry) of oppressed peoples to the Vincentian family prompts us to partner with them. Systemic change strategies are those means by which we implement the goals identified by our oppressed brothers and sisters, as we, together, seek to identify the traces of God’s movements in our time. We “do” a theology of liberation TOGETHER and act sytemically, drawing upon our Vincnetian tradition and experience, as a result of this theologizing – a theological “praxis.” The results of our common actions lead us back to theologizing — a Vincentian liberation”hermenuetical circle.”
There is certainly more to be said. But, clearly, Vincentian systemic change is a set of strategies that can be employed in a praxis that begins and ends in the lives of the poor, as we advance together on the way that leads to the integral liberation, the salvation, being wrought by God in Jesus. Our hope-filled goal: freedom from sin and oppression on every level.