America can learn much from B.R. Ambedkar’s liberation theology. But it first must get beyond bourgeois dismissals of the Dalit leader’s revolutionary dharma.
By: Daniel Clarkson Fisher
Over the last decade, a collection of social change efforts — including (but not limited to) Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the climate movement, third-wave feminism, LGBTQ rights activism, Fight for $15, and the Moral Monday protests — have helped focus much-needed attention on many painful realities about life in the United States today. With Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the White House, many more are and will be engaging with these and other causes: the recent Women’s March on Washington was the largest demonstration in American history; organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have seen unprecedentedly large donations; Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter are preparing to launch their first joint action as part of a “broadening of the coalition”; and the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has tripled since last year.
It should not be a surprise, then, that, within religious communities, liberation theologies (those in which the emancipation of the oppressed from all forms of suffering is centrally important) seem to be having a moment. For example, in 2015, Gustavo Gutiérrez, who is considered one of the founders of the movement, was invited by Pope Francis to be one of the main speakers at a Vatican gathering of Catholic charities. In addition, as part of the process towards canonization, the Church is currently looking into a miracle attributed to another key figure, El Salvador’s assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero. Harvard anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer recently spoke at length about the influence of liberation theology on his international humanitarian nonprofit Partners in Health as well. Looking at events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland in 2015, divinity student Daniel José Camacho also authored a powerful piece at Religion Dispatches, underscoring the percipience and enduring importance of black liberation theology. “Will Christians who have long dismissed [movement founder James H. Cone] ever admit that he was right?” he asks.
As Buddhist Americans begin to grapple with their theologies in the era of Trump, it seems to me that they could stand to ask themselves a very similar question: “Will those who have dismissed the dharma of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar finally give it a fair shake?”