Small Idea, Big Changes for Justice

Posted on September 1st, 2009 by

Thia Cooper's idea brought together several hundred people to work toward a socially just world.

Thia Cooper's idea brought together several hundred people to work toward a socially just world.

By Kelly J. Nelson ’10

At Gustavus Adolphus College little ideas often lead to big changes. Thia Cooper, assistant professor of religion, had one of those ideas, and it has brought together several hundred people to work toward a socially just world.

As a member of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Cooper brought together differing groups of people who view the Bible from a socially just perspective into one unified assembly.

Each November the academy holds its annual meeting with multiple “consultations,” or panel sessions. Cooper devised an idea for one of these sessions, acquired support for it, and after it was approved and put on the schedule of events, presided over the consultation.

While consultations are common practice within the AAR and draw small cores of interested people, Cooper’s consultation on “liberation theology” drew hundreds of people together to discuss changing the face of justice for the better.

“Liberation theology” is an ideology that encourages social justice and interpretation of the Bible from the perspective of the poor. There are many nationwide and worldwide groups that individually discuss and work with aspects of liberation theology, such as the Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group, the Black Theology group, the Latina/o Religion, Culture, and Society Group, and the Religion in Latin America and the Caribbean Group. Each justice-centered group, thanks to Cooper, now has a place to meet annually and exercise the axiom that two heads are better than one.

“Liberation Theologies Consultation,” as the session was named, encouraged dialogue and reflection on theology across perspectives (economic, political, sex/gender, ethnic/racial, environmental, etc.). The panel attempted to answer the question, “what does liberation theology mean in and for the twenty-first century?”

As the prime mover of the ongoing consultation, Cooper assumes responsibilities for conducting the annual business meeting and working with the administration, inviting possible participants, reading proposals, and presiding over the annual panel.

Cooper’s passion for justice spills over into her teaching as well. “I firmly believe that we should each struggle for justice. Students need to understand how people of different faiths around the world define justice. They need to discern what justice means for themselves and to gain the confidence to struggle for justice in the world.”

One of her classes at Gustavus, titled Community Action and Social Change, is a January immersion class in which students participate in service-learning and work for justice. “I engage in service-learning in my courses in part because when students have discerned their community and how they would like to struggle for justice, I want to enable them to serve in this capacity.” Cooper has proven to be an excellent role model for justice in her continuing efforts to serve others in the community and elsewhere.

Cooper received her Ph.D. in theology and development studies at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, in 2005. She has written one book, titled Controversies in Political Theology: Development or Liberation?, and is currently working on a second book on immigration. She also finds time to translate foreign works from Portuguese and Spanish so that those who write for justice elsewhere can be understood by English readers.

Along with other grants and awards, Cooper received Gustavus Adolphus College Research, Scholarship, and Creativity Grants in 2006 and 2008.


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