Friday, August 16, 2019

Author Interview: Patrick Oden

Author and Theologian Patrick Oden
(photo: Amy Oden)

I interviewed author and theologian Patrick Oden on the release of his newest book, Hope for the Oppressor: Discovering Freedom through Transformative Community. I've already given a synopsis of his book and you'll find my endorsement on the back cover. Here Oden takes us behind the scenes to discover how this book came to be and what he hopes will be the outcome for those who read it.

The content is worth the hefty price tag for this book, but you can order directly from the publisher using discount code LEX30AUTH19 for 30% off until July 15, 2020. If you still find the cost prohibitive, encourage your library to purchase a copy. 

What inspired you to write this book?
Life!  Well, that’s true but it’s not a very specific answer.  More formally, it started with my experience in missional churches back in the 1990s. All was an attempt to embrace a very holistic community, getting outside the structures and programs of the establishment, including forms of controlling leadership.  All the while, I was reading Newbiggin, Hirsch, and other missional writers alongside academic theologians like Pannenberg and Moltmann. I realized there was a shared ecclesiology. I wrote a book, It’s a Dance, that covered key themes of the Spirit’s work, and that led to PhD studies, to explore more about this connection. My goal was to put emerging/missional churches in conversation with Moltmann, who is the grandfather of liberation theologies.
Early on in my studies, I realized that a lot of what these churches were doing sounded like the efforts of liberation theologies, only directed toward the industrial West rather than oppressed. It was an ecclesiology that shared liberation methods, but to oppressors! And Moltmann has argued over the decades that liberation has to happen from both directions, the oppressed need to be liberated from oppression and the oppressors have to be liberated from oppressing. Both together. I realized I was onto something, that there was a practical community oriented approach that encouraged people to live in new ways.

There was a lot written on liberation of the oppressed, but very little about truly liberating the oppressors.  When I got started on my dissertation, I realized I had to first provide a focus on Moltmann’s ecclesiology, showing he has argued for a liberation of the oppressors since his earliest works.  I had to start with the model of the church, and only then could I think about the bigger picture.
The dissertation was published by Fortress as The TransformativeChurch, so it was time to get to the heart of the project. My key question was what would a liberation of the oppressor look like if we listened to Moltmann’s caution to not start with what they have to give up, but instead point to what they have to gain. That is, I realized I needed to offer a positive approach to liberation, and that meant I had to go a very different direction than most of the ‘prophetic’ books written on contemporary political and social challenges—all while not ignoring the need for transformation, reconciliation, and justice.
Describe your ideal reader. Who did you have in mind as you wrote?   
My ideal reader is anyone who is aware that we have big problems in our society and wants to find new paths forward. This could be either because they’re frustrated by the dysfunctional rhetoric but don’t know how to think about these themes differently, or because they are yearning for their own freedom and wanting to understand how to lead well in their context.
  I’ve also tried to go beyond the American context and would love to have a global readership, since oppression happens all over the world.

One of the critiques of an earlier draft was that I wasn’t ‘prophetic’ enough. I got to thinking how it was too easy to just address issues in ways that would be preaching to the choir. So, given my academic audience, I’ve made pointed remarks about the particular kind of oppressing that happens in academia, and how we’ve excused ourselves. 
One of the most illuminating parts of your book to me personally was your discussion of how systems depend upon the anonymity of participants -- that individuals only matter so long as they contribute to the maintenance of the overall system. How is this the case today in higher education?
Higher education is in a challenging era. The goal of education should be, presumably, education. But there’s a lot of money, power, and status in the mix, and all that contributes to arrangements focused more on perpetuation than education.  A never-ending supply of students paying exorbitant sums have to keep passing through. In many cases they only deal with teaching assistants or adjuncts rather than full-time faculty. And if the students can’t pay, there’s no concern about their personhood or potential, it’s out they go. 
With faculty, much of the growth of institutions has been built on expansive use of adjuncts. Lured into PhD programs, they graduate with passion, significant knowledge about a narrow subject, and often very few other professional skills. They then become cogs in the system, treated as disposable because of the flood of candidates for any given position. More and more PhDs are produced without regard to their job futures, in order to continue to float the prestige that comes from having PhD programs, and the low-cost labor they provide. Those who finish have to stay in the system in order to hope for eventual validation via a permanent position.
Until they do find a position, life can be very hard, trying to navigate all the demands with very little pay and benefits. Adjuncts don’t matter as people, they’re just needed to help the institution continue. Students likewise often don’t care about professors as real people. They’re hoops to navigate on the way to graduation. While many are frustrated at this, most are unwilling to push for change, lest they lose their spot in the system.
You identify yourself as part of the problem, but your family has also been part of the solution. How did your grandfather learn to work outside the power systems of his day?
My grandfather was a farmer in Southern California, beginning in the late 1930s. When his Japanese neighbors were forcibly removed from their land during World War 2, my grandfather was among those who worked their land and made sure that all their bills were paid and the land wasn’t sold off. My grandfather, and my great grandfather as well, were real neighbors, willing to sacrifice their time and energy for those the government deemed untrusted. The Powers of that time acted in anxiety and greed. My grandfather farmed the land so the loss would be minimized.
During and after the war, my grandfather also began working extensively with Mexican workers as part of what was called the Bracero program.  There was, to say the least, a lot of racism and classism directed towards these laborers. As he worked with them, he learned the language and began developing a calling to both minister to them and to train more ministers. He had a degree from Biola, so his farming and ministry training went hand in hand. After he lost his farm because of a few years of bad storms, he saw this as a cue from God to start a Bible college and training center for Mexican pastors.
He made it his life work to empower men and women leaders, and spread the Gospel among those the power structures often ignored.  His method was just starting it and doing it, not waiting for others.  I think of that as the California spirit put to a fruitful use rather than greed.
If you could give readers one takeaway, what would it be?
When it comes to liberating the oppressors, start by looking at yourself.
 We get seduced by the systems to perpetuate them -- whether it be politics, religion, or education -- and we actually contribute to the oppressing even when we might be against these patterns. We want change from others, we assert power, then the struggle for control continues. If we’re not willing to do it in our zone of control, why should anyone else trust we want the best for them or for others?
If everyone considers their own life, their own workplace, their own neighborhood, and begins to live in ways that empower others, using freedom and choice for the benefit of others in real and tangible ways, all these small changes can add up to a massive social transformation.  It’s what I call a fractal community of God’s kingdom, the pattern of the Spirit working from below. People are looking to trust, people are looking for genuine community. If we do it, people believe us and see how freeing it can be. They then can hope for a deeper reality in their lives, and let go all their other attempts to establish meaning and power as part of the process.