GRACE AND PRAXIS: LINKING THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE IN THE PURSUIT OF JUST PEACE
Marc I. Falconer
Society for the Study of Theology, Annual Conference, April 2019
Luther asserted that “grace is the continuous and perpetual operation or action through which we are grasped and moved by the Spirit of God so that we do not disbelieve His promises and that we think and do whatever is favourable and pleasing to God.” If this is so then grace calls on us to use praxis alongside exegesis to work towards a better life for all God’s people on Earth. This is nowhere more vital than within Palestinian liberation theology.
Jesus’ example in Mark 5:21-43 paves the way for Luther’s assertion on the grace of God as a driving force for praxis, but is it possible to take a study on this Bible passage and use it as an inspiring force to drive an inclusive call for nonviolent praxis with the aim of achieving a just peace in Palestine and Israel?
In the call to Sabeel’s recently launched Kumi Now initiative we read the words “people of faith Kumi Now. Rise up and take action.” This call to take action comes from Jesus’ example in Mark 5:21-43 used as the Bible study basis for the initiative. In calling for action, Kumi Now also notes that this action must be based within a framework of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, whilst noting that these cannot stand alone in the pursuit of justice and peace at the core of Palestinian liberation theology. On the positioning of Palestinian liberation theology within traditional theologies, Naim Ateek writes “Liberation theology is a lived theology. It is a way of understanding suffering and injustice and responding to it” and when he talks of Jesus Christ at the centre of our faith that he can “help us to analyse our situation in life, including the injustices our communities face…he can also give us the strength and courage to confront them.” This clarion call to respond wherever we see injustice comes from a deep relationship through Christ, with God. In responding to this call, we must examine the driving force behind our will, or otherwise, to stand up for justice. At the same time, we must examine whether our responses, driven in this way, can show a clear path to nonviolent praxis and the achievement of a just peace in Palestine and Israel, as well as other places around the world through initiatives like Kumi Now. It must also be noted at this point that the potential bond between the grace of God and praxis leads us to a point where the overlap between liberation theology and practical theology is at its strongest. Steyn and Masango illustrate this bond between praxis and practical theology when they posit that
“being practical in nature, practical theology cannot be freed from its praxis. In this, we are saying that practical theology, although motivated through theological convictions, cannot be separated from its practical outworking of the faith it professes”
This is a link which liberation theology cannot ignore, however, must be grounded in the grassroots of a community. If we are to act for the liberation of marginalised people across the world, we cannot separate our theology from our praxis. Nevertheless, we must examine the driving force behind our actions in order to understand whether the actions we take and the theology that lies behind them, are true to the Word of God.
In this paper I will argue that it is indeed God’s grace which acts as a driving force in our striving for a just peace through nonviolent action and that in order for this to be achieved, we must first be active in our solidarity with those on the margins, and willing to stand in community with others.
The Link Between Grace and Praxis
In his writings on Psalm 51, Luther made the assertion that:
“grace is the continuous and perpetual operation or action through which we are grasped and moved by the Spirit of God so that we do not disbelieve His promises and that we think and do whatever is favourable and pleasing to God.”
This ever-moving grace has the capability to drive us to act in a variety of ways but, at the same time, does not dictate what that action should be. The clear intention of this message is to convey the fact that grace is an ongoing gift from God, always on offer, without end, and without us owing anything. We cannot, however, expect or demand God’s grace upon us just for carrying out actions. Jaqueline Mari, in her explication of Kant’s views on grace, reflects his opinion that “we cannot demand or expect a reward from God for our righteous actions, since to act righteously is our duty and responsibility; it is that which we owe.” John Wesley takes this thinking further when he discusses his thinking around “means of grace”
“By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”
The relationship between God and people, at its core, is best summed up as one of love. Through God’s love He calls people to share his own life and interacts with these people through grace, allowing them to live ‘as God lives’ in the personal knowledge of, and love of, God in heaven. In return, people give themselves over to God through morally good and meritorious actions. God seeks, writes Serene Jones, “fellowship with us even in the midst of our fallen moral actions, and…gives us the grace to act in the first place.” He does not put restrictions on His grace that we succeed in our endeavours; He only asks that we try to live through positive and moral actions at all times.
We also need to define what we mean by praxis in this context. We could substitute the praxis with action, however; this would negate the fact that the action is based on something, in this case, theology. James Will is succinct in his definition of praxis in this context in saying that:
Praxis is a dynamic social process, sometimes beginning with non-violent struggle, always responding to the particular issues of various concrete situations, including as the situation requires interreligious, interethnic, and/or international dialogue. It is also religiously an ongoing process of prayer, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in difficult social struggles for justice, culminating in the peace of communal reconciliation.
The relationship of mutual love and acceptance of God’s grace through standing with others regardless of faith brings us to the question of solidarity. The vast majority of messages coming from the Palestinian community are calls for people to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people against the injustices of the current Israeli administration and in certain respects the current Palestinian Authority. This call for solidarity is not, however, a passive one. Rather it is a call to active solidarity, to solidarity which drives us towards action, towards being moved by the spirit through grace as identified by Luther.
It is not enough to simply stand beside those whose homes are being demolished by bulldozers and bombs, those children who are arrested on a daily basis for as little as being suspected of having picked up a stone, those who have their natural resources controlled by an occupying power, or those living under oppression. We must actively stand with people, regardless of where they are in the world, or what, if any, faith background they come from. This act of standing with, of being actively there, is active solidarity and is the attempt that we as humble individuals can make towards achieving justice and peace. This act of being with those on the margins is summed up in Gregory Baum’s definition of active solidarity as “the promotion of social justice and human rights…now seen as belonging to the order of faith, hope and love.” This focus on social justice and human rights through active solidarity ties us back into the grace of God as we strive to do those things which are pleasing and favourable to Him as the grace moves within us. Gustavo Gutiérrez reinforces the link between solidarity and God when he writes “This reflection [on the Word of the Lord] must be rooted in the presence and action of Christians—in solidarity with others—in the world today, especially as participants in the process of liberation.” This active solidarity can take many forms, but above all should, as much as possible, obey societal laws, Gandhi notes in his writings on his nonviolent resistance philosophy of satyagraha that
a satyagrahi [one who practices satyagraha] obeys the laws of the society intelligently and of his own freewill, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which are unjust and iniquitous and only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.
The ability to act with civil resistance comes from the discipline undergone in the process of obeying the civil, social, and moral laws of the state. A satyagrahi while resisting the laws of government should to his or her best to ensure that the social structure is not subverted.
Shared praxis as a foundation for community
“The common struggle makes the traditional ecumenical programs seem obsolete…and impels them to look for new paths towards unity.” These words from Gustavo Gutiérrez reflect part of the rationale behind the Kumi Now initiative. The concept that the traditional programs have come to a point where we need to look towards a different way of doing things. The invitation letter to the Kumi Now initiative lists the issues that are present in the current dialogue in Israel-Palestine on a local, national, and international level, highlighting the fact that the Palestinian people feel despair that their current situation shows no signs of improvement whilst facts on the ground continue to deteriorate.
Churches locally, nationally, and internationally, continue to issue theological statements, cries for help, and other reflections, but have not yet come to the pinnacle of the need for a new type of theology, a theology of active solidarity, a theology of Kumi.
Communities in dire situations such as those currently seen in Israel and Palestine cannot, on their own, bring about a just peace. It is imperative that the global community come together through practical actions, forming a new active community bound by the three tenets of Kumi: justice (based on international law), inclusivity, and nonviolence.
Kumi Now and the Challenge of Action
The Palestinian people have, for a long time, responded in different ways to injustice. Within the global sphere of NGOs and academia, sometimes we have been so fixated on our events, projects, and activities that it has become difficult to stop and take notice of what else is happening around us. Sometimes we stand like the disciples and do not see the value of actions that do not fit with our own way of doing things. In the Bible study (Mark 5:21-43) upon which Kumi Now is based, Jesus asks, “Who touched my clothes?” the disciples are confused. They wonder how Jesus could ask such a question when they are surrounded on all sides. We can imagine the disciples trying to get through the crowd as quickly as possible on their way to their destination. Yet, Jesus stops and takes the time to engage with the bleeding woman and reinforce her faith. Often, it is easy to be like the disciples, to get so caught up in our day-to-day lives, in the noise and chaos of modern life, that we fail to notice the person crying out for liberation.
Having endured ongoing suffering under occupation, some Palestinians feel that the situation is so hopeless that they no longer have the ability to act on their own behalf. Like the people who came to Jairus and asked him “Your daughter is dead, why bother the teacher anymore?” they question why some continue to put their time and energy into actively challenging the occupation when it seems like it is impossible to change the realities on the ground. Sometimes, people may even laugh at these efforts of nonviolent resistance because they seem as futile as Jesus trying to heal a girl who, according to the crowd, has already died.
It is vital to note that by nonviolent action, we do not speak of action which does not challenge, and does not actively protest against injustice, it is not a passive resistance but very much active. The actions within the Kumi Now initiative require the Kumi Now community to participate in simple, active, nonviolent activities in order to bring the plight of the Palestinian people into the public sphere and to act as an active community of resistance. In a recent study of resistance by Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons, Malaka Shwaikh writes:
“the binary reduction of protest into violent and nonviolent action has its roots in the colonial narrative and fails to recognise the agency of protestors: when violence is equated with barbarism and nonviolence is equated with passivity on the part of the oppressed, the participants are implicitly dehumanised.”
The Drawing Together of Grace and Praxis
In his Theory of Action, Gutiérrez creates a strong link between a driving force and an action. Understood at the most abstract level, action manifests a real conviction or inner impulse. Using the language of Aristotle, this impulse would be identified as ‘potential’, which would only become an action through physical movements and commitment. The fundamental significance of an actions has its roots in its central role. Actions are not, as many would assume, simply physical movements, but rather the result of some inner attitude, we do not act without a reason to carry out that specific action. Nor can the action be described as mere application of a point of view – the potential and the resulting action – are intrinsically linked, not two separate states. This essential bond between potential and action leaves space for an examination of the potential for this action as being caused through the grace of God. If we go back to the words of Luther earlier in this paper, it is clear that through God’s grace we are driven to carry out deeds that are “favourable to God” does this then mean that by moving from theology to praxis we are being driven by God’s grace? To answer this, it is important to reinforce the theological and religious links upon which praxis is based. Despite the overall social complexity of praxis, an axiom may be as simple as love. In a true, deep sense this represents a cementing of love with justice, neither of which can be understood without the other. Love is the energy resulting from justice, and justice is the structure through which love can move, they cannot be separated because neither stands on its own. God, through his grace, transforms us into love, and therefore through our praxis we are acting through his grace to drive ourselves in that direction.
This paper set out to urge theologians to wrestle with their theology, in order to examine the drive to praxis from the grace of God. This notion comes from Sabeel’s conviction that praxis can only be sustained over a long timeframe if we are theologically convinced of the need to care for those on the margins and if we can determine that our actions are driven by God’s continual operation through his grace. Unless we have the conviction, and graciousness, to care through our theology, this praxis of liberation is unsustainable.
With regard to the linking of the theology of grace and praxis it is important to look at Gutiérrez fundamental option–do we answer yes or no to God’s call of grace. Lewis, in his writing on this question, notes that “this discussion provides his [Gutiérrez] most extensive treatment of the initial potential or impulse that he views as manifest in action, conceiving it as a basic yes or no to God’s offer of grace.” So, therefore, by answering that basic yes to God’s grace, we are using the potential given to us, through His grace in order to help people on the margins of society.
In order to achieve a just peace in Palestine and Israel it is now time for acta non verba, no longer can the world sit and hope that the solution will just come around through writing statements or issuing decrees.
This praxis, in time, with the prayerful support of God, has the potential to achieve a just peace in Palestine and Israel. Based on a contextual reading of the Bible, and the theological insights which stem from this, we can all be like Jesus in the reading from Mark 5, we can all take the call like the little girl to ‘rise up’. Who will you be? Will you be like the crowd laughing at, and berating Jairus, for wasting Jesus’ time on a dead girl, will you be like the bleeding woman and actively seek to approach Jesus, or will you take up that challenge and ‘rise up’ with nonviolence so that, finally, a just peace can be achieved in Palestine and Israel?
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Jones, Serene, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)
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Luther, Martin, Luther’s Works, ed. by Jaroslav Pelikan (Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), xii
Mari, Jacqueline, ‘Kant on Grace: A Reply to His Critics’, Religious Studies, 33
Sabeel, ed., Kumi Now: An Inclusive Call for Nonviolent Action to Achieve a Just Peace (Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, 2018)
Shwaikh, Malaka M., ‘Dynamics of Prison Resistance: Hunger Strikes by Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israeli Prisons.’, Jerusalem Quarterly, 75, 2018, 78–90
Steyn, Tobias H., and Maake J. Masango, ‘The Theology and Praxis of Practical Theology in the Context of the Faculty of Theology’, HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 67.2 (2011) <https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v67i2.956>
Wesley, John, The Works of John Wesley Vol. 5: The Life of John Wesley First Series of Sermons (1-39) (Books for the Ages, 1997)
Will, James E., A Contemporary Theology for Ecumenical Peace, 1st edn (New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
 Kumi Now: An Inclusive Call for Nonviolent Action to Achieve a Just Peace, ed. by Sabeel (Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, 2018), pg. 3.
 Naim Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2017), pg. 12.
 Ateek, pg.12.
 When we speak of nonviolence in this context, we refer to reflecting the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ ministry portrayed throughout the Gospels.
 Tobias H. Steyn and Maake J. Masango, ‘The Theology and Praxis of Practical Theology in the Context of the Faculty of Theology’, HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 67.2 (2011) <https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v67i2.956>, pg. 7.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. by Jaroslav Pelikan (Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), xii.
 Jacqueline Mari, ‘Kant on Grace: A Reply to His Critics’, Religious Studies, 33 (1997), 379-400, pg. 382.
 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley Vol. 5: The Life of John Wesley First Series of Sermons (1-39) (Books for the Ages, 1997), pg. 253.
 Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), pp. 37-38.
 James E. Will, A Contemporary Theology for Ecumenical Peace, 1st edn (New York, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pg. 35.
 Injustices as breaches of international and humanitarian law as well as United Nations resolutions.
 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, ed. by John Eagleson, trans. by Caridad Inda (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1988), pg. 27.
 Satyagraha is normally translated as “holding firmly to truth” or “insisting on truth”
 Gutiérrez, pg. 60.
 Mark 5:30
 Mark 5:35
 Malaka M. Shwaikh, ‘Dynamics of Prison Resistance: Hunger Strikes by Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israeli Prisons.’, Jerusalem Quarterly, 75, 2018, 78–90.
 Thomas A. Lewis, ‘Actions as the Ties that Bind: Love, Praxis, and Community in the Thought of Gustavo Gutierrez’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 33.3 (2005), 539–67 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9795.2005.00233.x>, pg. 552.