Last week (June 3-7) I attended the annual conference of Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed (PTO) at the University of Texas in Austin. This gathering brings together students, educators and practitioners working for healing and social justice in communities and schools across the world. The organization takes its name from the two seminal thinkers and activists who developed the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Paulo Freire) and the Theater of the Oppressed (Augusto Boal). Both men have passed away, but this conference brings together folks who continue to work in solidarity with those most ignored and injured by the policies, structures and practices of our society. About two-thirds of the participants were practitioners of Theater of the Oppressed (TO) and one third were educators such as myself seeking to practice the pedagogy of the oppressed (PO) within and beyond the formal classroom.

While I have only recently begun to learn about the life and thinking of Boal, I have studied and sought to put into practice the teaching philosophy of Freire for several years. In that study, I have come to recognize that Freire was a revolutionary thinker and educator who sought to use teaching and learning as a tool for helping the oppressed change the dehumanizing systems that hold them down; I have also learned that he was a deeply spiritual man who referred to himself as a “friend of Christ.” In Freire’s native Brazil the overwhelming majority of people are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Freire himself had great tensions with the Church because of its complicity with the military junta and wealthy elites that exiled him from his country. Nonetheless one can not read his writings without coming across references to Christ, Easter, conversion, and love. While he did not write extensively about his beliefs, it is clear that his spirituality and faith in God shaped and undergirded his work and writings. Furthermore, his thought was shaped and helped shape the writings of the Latin American liberation theologians who taught that Jesus preached a “preferential option for the poor” and stood on the side of the poor and oppressed

As a result it has always baffled me that only a handful of scholars have written about Freire’s spiritual beliefs, and usually only in the context of liberation theology or religious education, and rarely in relationship to his philosophies of teaching and social change. Many authors make mention of his relationship to liberation theology and his use of Marxism, but few make mention of his connection to Christ. Moreover, it surprises that so many folks who claim to be shaped by his perspective on teaching & learning, and the process of social change don’t make the connection to the spirituality that undergirds his work. This is a project I have taken up and am attempting to present and publish in when I have the opportunity.

It also surprises me at gatherings such as the PTO conference that spirituality is rarely if ever discussed. In one workshop I attended we were discussing what a society free of oppression would look like. After several substantive suggestions were made, I offered that this new society also ought to have a spiritual dimension in that (a) Freire himself was a deeply spiritual man and that (b) almost all the world’s major religions have a vision of a preferred future that can inform our thinking on peace, equity and social justice. Well that comment dropped like a stone and the conversation quickly moved to something else. Afterwards a woman who worked at a church came up to me and shared a similar experience from another workshop where she also had felt alienated when she dared to bring up a spiritual topic.

So it left me thinking: where were all the Christians and other people of faith who see their faith tied to issues of social justice? Where are people whose work for justice and peace is fueled by a deep spirituality? Where are people like Freire, like Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, like Mother Teresa, who are willing to bring their religious faith and spiritual beliefs into the public sphere? What confounds me is how often in circles where we discuss issues of social justice the names of people like Dr. King and Gandhi are invoked, and yet how seldom the focus goes to the spiritual vision that energized them to do and speak as they did.

Have we as justice seeking Christians become so intimidated by the religious right that we are unable or unwilling to associate with so called political radicals? I know that’s not entirely true because I have many friends actively involved in politically progressive efforts who do so as an outgrowth of their faith; yet are there not other thinking people of faith who see that connection? Likewise, I have to believe that there are many political activists who in the quiet of their own offices or homes are nurtured by spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, worship or devotional reading be it Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Zen or otherwise. Where are these spiritually oriented folks when it comes to these conversations among political progressives? For the past three years I have been attending conferences such as these, both politically oriented, as well professional academic settings, and I have experienced the same void when it comes to discussing spirituality. Next week when I attend the US Social Forum in Detroit, I expect to find the same hesitation. While this hesitation confuses me, it also troubles me because it suggests that issues of faith and spirituality have been pushed out of serious public conversation to the private and personal sphere, the implication being that spirituality has nothing substantive to offer.

During the years I was a Baptist pastor I often got in trouble with my congregations when in their words I “mixed religion and politics.” Most of those folks would have been considered political conservatives. The ironic thing is that people on the left of the political spectrum seemed to have the same hesitation.

Ironically, at the conference the most extensive conversation I had about spirituality and Freire’s work was with a Brazilian born linguistics professor who was a professed atheist. He said to me “Even though I am an atheist, I recognize that Freire was a dedicated Christian.” He too was surprised that spirituality was not more of an item of conversation at the conference. So here I sit in what my colleague Nathan Corbitt calls the “muddled middle” wishing to find more people of faith willing to make the connections between our spiritual practice and our work for social justice.