As I reflect on the meaning of praxis in relation to development within my current context, a very special friend comes to mind: Mr. JB. I met JB ten years ago as I served with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) for a summer leading home repair mission teams. My encounter with JB is likely the single-most influential factor in my decision to return to ARM in 2014 to join the full-time staff. In this context of ministry with ARM, my understanding of praxis – generically defined as “a unity of theory and practice” (Ledwith, 2009, p. xiv) – has been shaped by the stories of families in rural Alabama who strive to live lives of dignity and purpose in spite of their poverty housing conditions. These stories reveal how Alabama fails to be a “sweet home” for so many of its residents. Unlike my privileged experience as a middle-class, Euro-American, raced as white, able-bodied male, the experiences of families I have come to know through ARM are marked by various struggles with systemic injustice and marginalization due to race, class, gender, and (dis)ability. My friendship with JB was my informal introduction into this new, bewildering reality of poverty in my own backyard. As I try to be friends with JB, I am led into situations that call for a special kind of action – prophetic action – inspired by the Spirit of Jesus who still anoints God’s children to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to liberate the oppressed” (Lk. 4:18b, Common English Bible). This prophetic action is founded on the hope of “the day of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:19), which is a day of joy, peace, holistic and dynamic flourishing, and perfect community with God, neighbor, self, and all creation – a day of shalom. These three themes – friendship, prophetic action, and shalom – inform the praxis I am seeking to embody. After reviewing common definitions of praxis, this essay will briefly explore an understanding of praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom.
In most cases, praxis refers to a synthesis of thinking and doing, acting and reflecting. The term arose as a response to modern, Western culture which is rooted in “a dualistic post-Kantian epistemology which presumed a fundamental dichotomy between… thought and action” (Markey, 1995, p. 193). However, praxis can also take on broader, less specific meanings. Markey (1995) finds at least three fundamental understandings of praxis in common usage. Following Aristotle, praxis can be synonymous with practice or any kind of “direct activity.” Second, following Kant, praxis becomes “any ethically relevant human behavior” (Markey, 1995, p. 180-1). These two understandings remain ambiguous since neither explains the purpose or goal of praxis. However, the third way of understanding praxis as identified by Markey’s (1995) analysis is more explicit about its purpose. Following Marx, praxis is seen as “human creative activity” that transforms history and people, as social praxis that shapes culture, and as revolutionary praxis which “works to subvert, counter, and overturn the existing social praxis” (Markey, 1995, p. 181). This particular understanding of praxis is the most applicable to the aims of development, which seeks the transformation of individuals and socio-economic processes including subversion of the status quo in contexts of systemic injustice and oppression.
My friendship with JB and reveals the need for the kind of revolutionary praxis that Marx suggests. Even though he and I grew up in the same county in rural Alabama, our life experiences could not be more different and more unequal. JB is an African-American man, raced as black, twice my age, who is unemployed, and lives alone in a severely dilapidated mobile home where he gets by on a very low income from government assistance. JB has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has struggled with alcoholism, and has not been able to keep healthy relationships with his family or his surrounding community. JB’s home is very close to the town where I grew up in a very comfortable home, received a decent education, and was given all the love, support, and opportunity I needed to thrive. If not for my service with ARM’s home repair ministry, I would not have crossed JB’s path because social life in Sumter County is still sharply divided by race. My church, my school, my neighbors, and my friends were virtually all white in a town where African-Americans made up nearly 75% of the population. This oppressive reality of social division and inequality stands in opposition to the will of God who desires an abundant life of justice, love, and community for all people in all places, Sumter County included. A truly Christian praxis, which will be even more radical than Marx’s understanding of revolutionary praxis, is desperately needed to create a space for God’s healing and redemption to unfold in Sumter County and other rural communities across the state. This Christian praxis will be characterized by friendship in prophetic action for shalom.
Through my experiences with JB and many others I have come to know in rural Alabama, I have been convinced that Christian praxis must begin in friendship because praxis is, first and foremost, an embodied response to the God who is Love. As Gustavo Gutierrez (1988) makes clear, “if there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to [the praxis of] liberation, because love exists only among equals” (p. xxxi). Beginning with friendships makes space for people to learn to give and receive from one another, to trust one another, to care for one another, and to share their stories from the heart. This foundation of love, trust, equality, and mutuality are essential to Christian praxis. What’s more, in order for these praxeological friendships to be truly Christocentric, they should be shaped by God’s option for the poor “not because Christ is with the marginalized but, rather, Christ is the marginalized” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 57). For me, this means trying to be friends with someone like JB who reveals Christ to me in uniquely powerful ways. I have come to learn that “Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those [like me] who serve the poor,” because “God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed” (Oliver, 2009). Those who pursue friendships of solidarity with the poor as part of their praxis must be involved in the transformation they seek to see in others and their communities, and be ready to be transformed themselves. As Ledwith (2009) notes, praxis is not an individualized experience because “in praxis, my journey comes together with others in the quest for critical consciousness: making sense of the world in order to transform it as a collective experience” (p. 41).
Christian praxis begins in deeply personal friendships, but it must move on to prophetic action. As stated previously, praxis is understood generically as a unity or synthesis of theory and practice. This dynamic is usually described as the action-reflection cycle. For Freire (2000), the two are inseparable such that “true reflection… leads to action… [and] that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection” (p. 66). However, this is not a linear, step-by-step process. Instead, according to Freire (2000), “action and reflection occur simultaneously” (p. 128). This cycle is articulated well within Brueggemann’s (2001) concept of prophetic ministry which seeks to “to nuture, nourish, and evoke [an alternative] consciousness and perception” that simultaneously “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness… [while,] on the other hand, [serving] to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (p. 3).
Christian praxis is prophetic to the extent that it employs a critical analysis of power, ideology, and hegemony. This reflective analysis will reveal how power “is located within a multidimensional system of oppressions in which we are all simultaneously oppressors and oppressed” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 143). In response to these death-dealing systems of oppression, prophetic Christian praxis will invite a “public sharing of pain,” which “seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 117). This lamentation goes deeper than political protest, and allows the voices of those who suffer most to be heard the loudest.
At the same time, prophetic Christian praxis will bring people together to work for concrete changes in their lives and communities. This will mean interacting with and possibly challenging “the political and social structures that normalize injustices” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 47). However, this political action, founded as it is in friendships, will begin locally and, over time, extend to develop “a [global] reach that aims to transform the structures of oppression that diminish local lives” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 3). This transformative action will look different in every context, but will, in every context, consist of “offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 116). Christian praxis as prophetic action must build upon its personal relationships to inspire movements for structural change that can adequately criticize the status quo while energizing diverse groups to pursue in unity a renewed common good where “justice [rolls] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Finally, Christian praxis that begins in friendship and leads to prophetic action will be inspired by a vision of shalom. Or, as Gutierrez (1998) says it, praxis is “the activity of “peacemakers” – that is, those who are forging shalom” (p. xxx). This Hebrew concept found in the writings of the prophets is usually translated as “peace,” but its original meaning is much richer. According to Myers (2011), shalom summarizes God’s “kingdom vision for the better human future”, and describes a community of “just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God” (Kindle loc. 3778). All Christian praxis must be evaluated in the light of this holistic, comprehensive vision of redemption.
However, the light of shalom shines into the present from the future that God and God alone is working out. Shalom is the hope of those who pursue Christian praxis – not their reality – and “hope must be an inherent part of our present commitment in history” (Gutierrez, 1988, p. 11). The pursuit of Christian praxis will face challenges, setbacks, and obstacles at every turn. The structures of social injustice it seeks to transform are deeply embedded, and change will sometimes be slow. And, hardest of all, Christian praxis “will always be practiced through our own conflicted selves,” which are just as caught up in systems of oppression as those oppressed (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 118). Ultimately, our praxis towards shalom can only be a participation in God’s much bigger praxis towards shalom. Praxis, therefore, is a gift received by grace through faith. For now, this gift of shalom is only seen in part – “a reflection as in a mirror” – but on the coming day of the Lord “we shall see [it] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
What does this understanding of Christian praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom mean in my context of ministry among children and families in rural Alabama? First, it means making friendship with those I serve not only a personal priority, but a matter of organizational culture and ethos. It can be easy to see ARM as just another “social service agency” where people with “needs” go to get their needs met and where people who like to “meet needs” go to volunteer. In pursuit of Christian praxis, ARM will need to be transformed from a social service agency to a social capital enterprise where friends – not “needs” – are met. Second, it will require creating a space for with whom we serve to voice their grief and struggles. Both myself and ARM’s volunteers need to hear and come to know the depth of suffering that is endured by families in rural Alabama who live without adequate housing. Third, Christian praxis will require an expanded advocacy role, especially on the state level, which engages and challenges Alabama’s political structure. ARM is already involved in this work in very small, indirect ways, but a deeper commitment must be made. This commitment to political change must be informed by and even led by those families with whom we serve. Finally, the gift of shalom as our hope reminds us to rest, enjoy, and celebrate God’s faithfulness together. Along with all the “doing” of ministry, there must be time simply for “being” together in God’s presence. ARM already tries to incorporate rest and times of fellowship between families and volunteers into its ministry design, but this practice must continue to grow even more widespread. As I recall my friend JB in light of this essay, I wonder: how can I be his true friend? How can I listen, amplify, and share in his pain? What are the socio-economic powers at work in his life and community? Who can come together to challenge these powers? What does shalom look like for JB?
- Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- De La Torre, M. (2004). Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
- Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
- Gutierrez, G. (1988). A Theology of Liberation, 15th anniversary edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
- Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
- Markey, J. (1995). “Praxis in Liberation Theology: Some Clarifications,” Missiology: An International Review XXIII (2).
- Myers, B. (2011). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
- Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).