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Book Review: Applied Anthropology, Part II

November 9, 2010

Critical Reflection

I want to delve into Freire’s “cultural action” theory as a way of critical reflection, because it is fascinating philosophically, and because it has the potential to impact Christian ministry.  His theory of pedagogy has already made a substantial imprint on our educational systems.

Based in South America, Freire’s ideology is predicated on Marxist thought which theorizes that there are two types of people in the world:  the power elite and oppressed people of these elite.  It’s a revolutionary movement that seeks to demolish these class distinctions so that all peoples may have access to dignity and self-worth.  Freire specifically tied these ideas to the system of teaching, as he realized that those who were teachers were basically propagating this class system by teaching to students rather than working with them to empower them to think and learn on their own.

Freire’s method takes seriously that all humans have inherent worth and as such deserve to be “co-equals” in the process of learning (94).  They are to be “equal participants in the process, not simply objects of the process” according to Willigen (94).  This method, and its philosophical underpinnings, effectively counters the western, Enlightenment notion, that certain people—mainly those who are white, educated, and rich—are inherently more valuable than those who are not.  Marxism (economically), and Liberation thought (philosophically) ingeniously turns the tables on Enlightenment ideologies by proposing that these very people—white, educated, rich—are oppressors, and as such are actually in need of liberation themselves.  For to oppress is to be less than authentically human.  By reversing the values assigned to people (in the hopes of making all people equally valuable), Freire was able to create a more egalitarian approach to teaching that gave a legitimate voice to the student.  While all theories based on philosophical systems are vulnerable to their own critiques, Freire offers an extremely valuable contribution to teaching/learning and to the process of cultural change.

When this approach is taken to see all people as equally worthy of dignity—rather than valued based on certain ethnic or socio-economic (or religious!) conditions—then, when anthropologists go into a place to bring about change, they may bring local people into the problem-solving process rather than imposing solutions on them.  Further, when missionaries go into a field with the understanding that their goal is not to impose the gospel on the “heathen” (a term that connotes the “Us VS. Them” mentality that Freire sought to undermine), then it becomes possible to truly minister (i.e. serve) and not rule over the people they work with.  While utopian notions of perfect egalitarianism are not possible on this side of eternity, it is certainly possible to identify the power structures that oppress people (including our own) and seek to see the dignity and worth inherent in all human beings.  This can only help our anthropological and missionary endeavors.

Personal Application

Though in the New Testament we certainly find an order to church life and particular roles to be exercised, we hear more than once that “There is new Jew nor Greek, no male nor female…but all are one in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, in the kingdom of God, all divisions are demolished as we each come under the reign of Christ.  Yet, in many of our churches today, we have a large gap between the “clergy” and the “laity.”  On the mission field, we also have a gap between the “western” Christians and the “local” Christians.  In other words, in Christianity, just as in the world, we have often classified people by certain criteria, rather than emphasize our oneness in Christ.  We have an “Us VS Them” mentality.

One problem I see in many of the church models in operation, is that the roles of preaching, teaching, and ministering are left to a select few, and the laity is given very little input.  Instead, they are asked to absorb the message and be faithful attendees (and givers of course!) in church.  Yet, as I’ve come to learn from other readings in the class, and with Freire’s method, only when people are “empowered” or given “buy-in” do they feel fulfilled as authentic people and Christians.  One can only be faithful so long, without an active and participatory voice in the life of the church.  So while I acknowledge that there must be a structure to church, I wonder if it could not be more dialogical in nature.

For example, in the early church, much of the service was participatory.  There was a conversation going on between the leader and the congregants in song, in prayer, and in communion.  Taking Freire’s method of teaching, could we not envision the sermon moving away from a lecture format to a discussion format? While the details of this would certainly have to be adjusted for issues such as church size, it seems that the goal of ministers should be to empower or facilitate congregants in the life of faith, rather than disseminate how to be a “good Christian.”  Could we not say with Willigen that, “Truly liberating education, research, or revolution [or Christianity] requires that all are active and equal participants in the process, not simply objects of the process” (94)?

I would argue that in church ministry and missions, it is crucial that those currently doing the ministry do not continue to operate with the assumption that they are the “called” while those they minister to are somehow not as called.  Instead, our roles should increasingly take on a facilitating function where we dialectically guide people to embracing and walking out their faith.  To be ministers is to embrace the call to serve under (lifting them up) people, not to rule over them and perpetuate the dichotomy between the clergy and laity or the missionary and the “local.”  We could take a lesson or two from Freire’s methodology.

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