“Critical Presence” as Good News: Meeting God’s People and Creation at the Point of Deepest Need
By Eleazar Fernandez
It often takes major challenges in our lives to motivate us to explore and articulate alternative ways of thinking and acting in the world. We can, of course, respond to the challenges by closing ourselves. It may be the case that the most common response to change is to proceed with business as usual. However, when we take the challenges in the spirit of openness, they may lead us into alternative ways of thinking and responding to the world. Our Common Global Ministries Board (Christian Church-Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ USA) principle of “critical presence,” understood as “timely and appropriately meeting God’s people and creation at the point of deepest need,” arose out of this spirit of openness to the challenges posed by our current context along with the recognition of our resources and capabilities.
If I may elaborate this definition, I say that critical presence is a radical and life-giving presence that is faithful to our deepest religious convictions and responsive in the most holistic way possible to the world’s deepest needs. The deepest needs should not be limited to a crisis situation, though a crisis situation demands a response that is intertwined with a sense of urgency. Along with a clear understanding of the world’s deepest needs, we must have a clear knowledge of our resources and capabilities for our presence to really be a critical life-giving presence. When we fail to take into serious account our resources and capabilities, our critical presence may not deliver what it promises; instead, it may bring a disempowering and disastrous presence.
It was not an easy matter for me to decide on a biblical passage that would best articulate the depth and breadth of the principle of critical presence. After a good measure of theological wrestling, I finally decided on two passages: John 1:1, 14 and Philippians 2: 1-11. These two biblical passages, I believe, lead us not only to the central theological substance (Word becoming flesh or incarnation) that undergirds or should undergird our notion of critical presence, but also to the category of praxis in which theory and practice are in unity. Likewise, in these two passages we can discern not only the substance but also to the shape and posture of critical presence. In them substance and shape embrace each other and are in perfect unity; in them substance informs shape and shape embodies substance.
Specifically, the substance of the incarnation that I am speaking about is God’s love that brings life, a love that does not remain in abstraction but seeks out relationship in the most concrete ways. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians we have this love assuming the form of the most vulnerable, humbling itself, taking the form of a servant and embracing the terror of crucifixion to be in solidarity and in companionship with suffering humanity in general and with those who are “dying before their time” in particular. In the Word becoming flesh we have this love seeking embodiment in light of the context and its nagging questions, its deepest needs and its soaring hopes. Expressed differently, incarnation means that love takes the context seriously, for it is only in doing so that love becomes good news.
With minds habituated to a kind of thinking that separates theory and practice, and with our rush to do the most practical thing that makes a difference in people’s lives, we often fail to see in the incarnation the unity of the “Word” and the “flesh” or the unity of reason and action, and the crucial as well as the proper role of theory or theological reflection. But with reason and action or theory and action in union, I say that theory is a form of action, and a very practical one to have. Or, as someone puts it, it is very practical to have a sound theory. Transposed into the realm of theology, theological reflection or theological statement is word in action. It is a powerful word in action because it provides both grounding and direction to our actions. When theologies of death pervade the land and have become the official theologies of the global market and imperial projects, a theology that names these idolatries is crucial. When articulated and spoken in a timely, adequate, and prophetic manner in the face of the forces of death, it can lead to a life-giving but costly form of critical presence. In short, critical presence’s form and action may appear in words, written and spoken, but also beyond words.
Yes, critical presence may appear through and even beyond words and pronouncements as the love that undergirds and sustains it always seeks to find tangible embodiments wherever and whenever it is needed the most. Though positive outcomes are very important, critical presence is not simply a strategy and based solely on measurable things that we can do or fix. As love’s life-giving presence, at its most fundamental level, critical presence is an embodiment of our intrinsic relationship and commitment to the web of life. It is a religio-moral expression of our fundamental relatedness and an expression of love seeking to reach out to others, especially in their moments of deepest need.
You may have heard of this story, but allow me to share it, for it illumines my point regarding critical presence.
“A little girl was late getting home from school. Her mother became more and more worried as the afternoon wore on. When she finally arrived, the mother said, “Where have you been?! I’ve been worried sick!” The little girl responded, “Well, I was almost home, but then I saw Suzie sitting on the curb crying. Her dolly was broken.” Her mother, relieved, said, “Oh, So you stopped to help her fix her dolly?” The little girl with the wisdom of the universe said, “No [mom], I sat down on the curb, and I helped Suzie cry.”
Another story that articulates this fundamental point of critical presence comes from our missionary in South Africa, Scott Cooper. Speaking of his local church HIV/AIDS ministry, Scott admits that there are times when they despair in the face of the enormous challenge. But what keeps us going, Scott continues, is that “[w]e are constantly reminded by those we serve that our efforts to help are everything to them! What the ministry ultimately achieves is the demonstration of profound and unconditional love; and it is love that conquers all, even the inevitable deaths.” Even the inevitable deaths, critical presence does not surrender because it is rooted in unconditional love.
Having established the fundamental theological basis in which critical presence must be grounded, I say that critical presence seeks not only to embody the principle of solidarity faithfully; it also seeks to be a powerful and effective life-giving presence. Seeking to be a powerful and effective life-giving presence is not peripheral to faith; it is central to faith and faith demands it. Critical presence as solidarity and accompaniment seeks to accomplish more than crying with those who cry and lamenting with those who lament. Critical presence through solidarity and accompaniment is a viable strategy, and it has delivered positive results. In many instances, critical presence through solidarity and accompaniment has become a vehicle for exposing human rights violations, extra-judicial killings, and other heinous crimes of authoritarian regimes around the world, and it has placed these regimes under the watchful eyes of the international community. In many instances, critical presence through solidarity and accompaniment has helped release political prisoners and has saved the lives of those who have received direct threats to their physical existence.
Critical presence can be a powerful and effective presence, but only if it seriously engages and studies the context at both the micro and macro level. As an expression of love and solidarity seeking to find concrete expression and in the most crucially helpful way possible, critical presence cannot but take the context seriously if it is to become good news. We are familiar with the saying, “the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.” Good intentions are not enough. They must be accompanied by a sound analysis of the context.
Lest we forget, taking account of the context seriously includes taking account of our social location seriously in any context. Among other things, taking account of our social location is a way of taking account of the power differentials that our critical presence is intertwined in whatever context we are located. My awareness of the crucial importance of the connection between social location and critical presence was heightened during my recent teaching work in Cameroon. Let me put this insight in this way: In the Philippines I was simply a Filipino. When I settled in the U.S., I became a racial-ethnic minority. But when I arrived in Cameroon, I became a white person, an American. To my surprise, in Cameroon I was forced to take account of my geo-political location and privilege. In Cameroon I became acutely aware that I can only be a bearer of liberating critical presence if I take account of my privileged location.
Loving the world demands knowing the world and knowing ourselves; knowing the world and taking account of our social location is critical to loving the world. Knowing the world and taking account of ourselves demand that before we offer our answers, we must seek to understand the world, to listen to its questions, and to raise questions about many of our assumptions. There is always the temptation to answer unasked questions or to ask the kind of questions we are prepared to answer. Likewise, many times we speak because of our need to say something, not necessarily because we have something to say. To distinguish one from the other is not always easy.
It is at this moment that critical presence as love seeking to be helpful at the point of deepest need must assume the posture of hospitality, humility, and openness. In the first place, critical presence as hospitality means “showing how much [we] care for another person [or community] before expounding how much [we] know.” This hospitable presence is not just about giving or providing services; it is also about receiving the gifts of others; and it is also about opening ourselves so we can truly listen and learn from others. Critical presence in the mode of hospitality means making ourselves receptive to the concerns and ideas of others; it means that we truly value the views of those who are in our midst.
If critical presence as hospitality means opening ourselves to the gifts of others because we truly care and value their ideas, then it follows that discernment of the world’s deepest needs must, from the very beginning, be done in ecumenical partnership and with preferential attentiveness to the plight of the most vulnerable members of our global society. This discernment must be done in the spirit of mutuality and respect with our ecumenical partners, both here and abroad. A credible discernment of the world’s deepest needs cannot be done in a unilateral fashion. Never!
The demand for an ecumenical and dialogical discernment of the world’s deepest needs over against unilateralistic discernment and action is all the more pressing in our highly globalized world. Of course we have always been connected globally, but globalization is making us more acutely aware that we live in a global village with shared vulnerabilities and hopes. We are globalized to the point that the global is lived locally and the local is lived globally. The slogan, “think globally and act locally” is not that simple; neither is the reverse, “think locally and act globally.” More fittingly, I propose that we “think `glocally’ and act `glocally.'” Our “glocalized” context provides a lens through which we must see the principle and practice of critical presence.
In a world where the global is interwoven with the local, in many instances our critical presence must take the form of acting globally because it bears on how we live locally. But there are also many instances in which the best way to help people “out there” is to do our job here, such as educating our churches as well as speaking truth to power through acts of social advocacy, especially that we know that when the arrogant empire sneezes, the rest of the world gets pneumonia. What the people of the global South are calling our attention to is not for us to be responsible for them, but for us to take account of ourselves-our American Dream, which, in many instances, has become their nightmare.
Acting “glocally” is crucial in a more unified global economy–an economy in which transnational corporations rule the world and capital is free to move around wherever “favorable investment climate” (fat tax breaks, low wages, no labor unions, no social security benefits, and less regulation regarding ecological consequences) is present. No doubt the global market has experienced tremendous growth and across-border financial transaction has increased. Yet, the promised economic prosperity of corporate globalism has not benefited the largest segment of our population. Metaphorically speaking, contrary to the belief that “a rising tide raises all boats,” the reality has been that “a rising tide raises all yachts.” Worse, the poor do not even have boats, and they are drowning in the tsunami of corporate profits.
Poverty and hunger in the midst of plenty is an expression of an economy gone awry. It is an expression of an unjust socio-economic relation. Theologically, it is an affront against God the economist and a distortion of God’s economic order (oikonomia) in which the needs of all members of the household are met. Poverty and hunger in the midst of plenty are expressions of sin defined as “living a lie” in relation to God and to the rest of creation; they are expressions of the violation of right (just) relation. In the face of this sinful situation, critical presence must take the form of naming and exposing the systemic greed of predatory globalism. It must utter words of prophetic denunciation against the religion of the global market and its gods.
Beyond uttering prophetic words of denunciation, critical presence must articulate a response that is adequate to the complexity and systemic character of the problem. As someone said, if our only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. But the problem is not simply about nails and, therefore, hammers. More sophisticated tools of social analysis have made us aware of the global and systemic character of the problem; hence, a comprehensive, holistic and radical response is needed. Though I still believe that charity has a place in critical presence, a liberating, empowering and life-giving critical presence must move beyond charity. While charity gives crumbs from the table; social justice offers a place at the table.
Social justice, indeed, moves beyond charity and offers the marginalized a place at the table. It exposes the systemic roots, both in discourse and in the socio-economic and political structure, that prevent people from having a place at the table. Not having a place at the table is the systemic pathology, and this leads to other pathologies, such as poor health and other physical diseases. In this context, to use the example of physical health, our critical presence in the area of health care must address not just the symptoms but the systemic social body pathology. Critical presence must not only give medical assistance, for example, to HIV/AIDS patients; it must also counter interpretations and attitudes that are debilitating, advocate policies, and call for the transformation of the health care system and the overall political economy.
Since transformation cannot be founded on simple negation, any act of social transformation calls for an alternative vision. It then follows that a critical presence that struggles for social justice and transformation must articulate an alternative vision of political economy and must engage in alternative socio-economic projects that provide opportunities for people to empower themselves. This alternative political-economic vision must have a structure that allows all members of the global household access to the table and must establish “table manners” that are just and equitable.
Moreover, the alternative vision of a global political-economy that our critical presence articulates must embrace ecological sensibility, especially if we think along with the ecologist that we no longer inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children. With this I challenge us to think beyond the wisdom of the familiar saying: “If we give fish to a person, we are feeding that person for a day. But if we teach that person how to fish, we are feeding that person for a lifetime.” That is not exactly true and it is no longer true. When our seas, rivers, and lakes do not yield the usual bountiful catch due to destructive fishing practices, we must do something beyond teaching people how to fish. Critical presence must articulate an ecological sensibility and advocate social policies that support our ecological vision.
As the socio-economic and political situation of the global village deteriorates and as cynicism and hopelessness take hold of the many disenfranchised, not surprisingly more violent conflicts are to be expected. It is significant to note that as the homogenizing effects of capitalist globalism spread, there has been an increase in anti-globalist sentiments, often buttressed by religious motivations. The most desperate and disastrous expression of these anti-globalist sentiments is terrorism–a terrorism intertwined with the terrorism of the global market and imperial project of some countries in the global North.
The most common response to perceive threats is to put up walls of various sorts: duct-tape securities, pre-emptive strikes, and the global war on terror. These “wallings” that we see from the outside are manifestations of walling from the inside, of hearts constricting and moral imagination shrinking. When our hearts constrict we put up theological walls of various sorts that limit God’s heart. We start believing that God can only be on our side, of our tribe. Consequently, we view ourselves as good and others as evil. Then we commit a terrible blasphemy: using the name of God in vain to bless our imperial projects. Finally, we equate the walls we are building with real security (idolatry) and fail to realize that peace that has walls is no peace at all. Instead of investing our resources cultivating hospitality and the culture of peace, we invest more and more in armaments of hostilities.
At this point I am reminded of a story. An elderly man saw some six and seven-year-old children at play, and asked, “What are you playing?” “War,” responded the kids. “Why don’t you play peace instead?” said the elderly man. The children stopped, huddled together and discussed something among themselves. Then they looked puzzled and finally ran out of words. One of the children asked, “Grandpa, how do we play peace? We don’t know the game.”
Sad, really sad: our society has taught us more about playing war than about playing peace. “How can we be so stupid to play war,” said the elderly man, “when we know how horrible war is.” I think the philosopher Nietzsche got it right: “The quest for power makes [one] cunning, the possession of power makes one stupid.”
In a context in which walls of duct-tape securities are rising, critical presence must embody the shape of wall-busting and bridge-building. Critical presence must challenge the interpretations and practices that put up walls of fear and division. It must proclaim with clarity and power that peace that has walls is no peace at all. It must voice opposition to the imperial discourse which calls nations that do not submit to the imperial project “the axis of evil” and it must organize communities of resistance against imperial arrogance and idolatry. Rather than walls, critical presence must be a presence of bridge-building-constructing bridges that promote lasting peace and security and creating cultures of peace.
When religious faiths are mired in the conflicts and consumed by efforts at walling, critical presence cannot but take the shape of busting walls of religious narrowness or what is commonly called fundamentalism. I believe the conflicts we are witnessing these days are not the result of a “clash of civilization,” but a “clash of fundamentalism.” Based on this interpretation, I say critical presence’s wall-busting work must take the shape of exposing and transgressing various expressions of religious narrowness as well as of exposing the deep roots of Christianity’s crusading mentality. Put positively, Christian critical presence must take the shape of building bridges of mutual understanding, trust and respect. It must take the shape of interfaith dialogue in its many expressions. This critical presence is not an embodiment of that so-called lukewarm liberal niceness, but a presence that articulates a form of Christianity with a burning center and porous border–a Christianity that is passionate about its core convictions but open to the claims of other faiths; a Christianity that is not a crusader but an embodiment of the wisdom of the crucified One.
When hearts are constricting, critical presence must embody the shape of a heart as large as the world. I am a slow learner, but at least I learned two things in my decade or so of living in the U.S. First, I have found out that white North Americans do not all look alike. Second, to paraphrase Albert Camus, I have encountered people who know what it means to truly love this country and still love global justice. It is not a contradiction to love one’s country and love global justice. In fact, this is the only way to truly love one’s country, and this is what our critical presence should be about.
Deep inside I am crying. I am crying for the world I love so dearly yet often serve so poorly. I am crying because after so many years of struggle for a new and better tomorrow it seems that the forces of reaction are still pervasive and in control. I am crying because I am growing weary and I am worried that I may lose hope. It is difficult to live in hope when our day-to-day lives are saturated by events that continue to make a mockery of our vision and hope. So, we must learn to hope, to wager in hope, and to embody critical presence as hope in the midst of shallow optimism and paralyzing cynicism and despair.
I have no doubt that the forces of reaction will come to declare our vision, hopes, and aspirations as impractical and idealistic, if not impossible. However, it is precisely in these moments when what we dream of and aspire to is considered impossible that our critical presence must persevere to dare so that what has been considered impossible comes in the range of the possible. It is precisely in these moments that our critical presence must be emboldened by hope and must persist in its noble vocation of funding people’s social and moral imagination. When the forces of reaction proclaim to the world that “there is no alternative,” our critical presence must express and act with hope that “another world is possible.” Yes, “another world is possible!”
We have to believe it, “another world is possible,” but we cannot give birth to this new world alone: we need companions (Latin, cum-panis or bread sharers) and we need to conspire (breathe together) with others in the work of transformation. We need companions not only because of strategic political necessity, but also because of spiritual necessity. “If we are a drop of water,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “and we try to get to the ocean as only an individual drop, we will surely evaporate along the way. To arrive at the ocean, [we] must go as a river.” Our community of conspirators is our river. In this context, critical presence must take the form of global solidarity and global organizing and networking.
Certainly, the demands of the world are more than what our critical presence can address. Let us remember, however, that we are not called to do everything but are called to do something-to sew our piece into the larger quilt of our planetary agenda. When we do our share with faithfulness, boldness, and responsiveness to the mission God has called us to participate in, we are embodying critical presence and, often to our surprise, our critical presence becomes God’s critical presence. And, behold, our critical presence has become good news!
7 See Jon Berquist, ed., Strike Terror No More: Theology, Ethics, and the New War (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002); Lee Griffith, The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002); Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000); Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, Property for People, Not for Profit (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 2004), particularly pages 109-139; Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World (Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2002).
 Friedrich Nietzsche, cited in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, ed., Sidonie Smith and Julian Watson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 210.