Neighboring the Invisible
Classical formulations of liberation theology appropriated the biblical narrative of the exodus as a paradigmatic image of a God who sides with the oppressed and acts in history to transform situations of injustice. Recognition of this foundational narrative as a preeminent expression of God’s partial love for the victims of history prompted liberation theologians to begin analyzing the contemporary significance of the exodus theme in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The paradigmatic reception of the exodus in black and Latin American liberation theologies exhibits the pivotal role of the narrative in the emergence of theological reflection guided by the preferential option for the poor. In the late 1980s, however, theologians who were revisiting the exodus narrative in light of the complex realities of settler-colonial power, the mechanics of erasure, and experiences of social invisibilization began to reevaluate the meaning of the exodus in connection with its troubling underside—namely, the envisioned invasion, dispossession, and destruction of the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan. Consequently, the paradigmatic conception of the exodus was critiqued and the enduring value of the exodus as a liberative resource was called into question, especially in relation to contexts and histories of suffering which can be identified in certain ways with biblical representations of the Canaanites. Catalyzed by Osage, Palestinian, and womanist theologians, this important shift in the conversation on the relationship between the exodus tradition and God’s relation to the oppressed brought into sharp focus the harmful dimensions of a biblical narrative which had come to signify the effective justice of God amid dehumanizing conditions. In addition, this renewed attention to the exodus demonstrated how its entanglement with the theme of conquest intersects with challenges of complicity in structural violence and exclusionary legacies in the United States as well as in the larger context of global geopolitics. This dissertation advances the conversation on the theological appropriation of the exodus in several ways. The project first examines the liberation theologies of Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone as exemplary of the paradigmatic model. The discussion of critical departures from the exodus paradigm addresses the contributions of Naim Stifan Ateek, Delores S. Williams, and Robert Allen Warrior. Finally, a constructive response to the question of the role of the exodus in theological reflection grounded in the option for the poor is put forth. This response first introduces key insights from scholars in the field of settler colonial studies as a framework for placing Ateek and Warrior in dialogue with each other as indigenous interpreters of the biblical narrative. The results of this dialogue are then developed in relation to important theological perspectives discussed earlier in the project in order to reimagine the contemporary significance of the exodus in a manner that renders audible the cries of the Canaanites. To neighbor what has been relegated to absence, to disrupt the forgetfulness of what lies buried in both text and world, to sit with broken narratives and encounter God in their disregarded victims—this is central to the challenges facing readers who turn to the exodus in the spirit of liberation today.