Whatever happened to liberation theology? New directions for theological reflection in latin America
Kater, John L Jr
Thirty years ago, Christians around the world were introduced to Latin American liberation theology, a powerful theological movement emerging among Christians in that part of the world but with links to currents stirring in many other places. A generation later, the context in which liberation theology took shape has changed significantly, its advocates are older and the concerns and aspirations it touched have also changed. Other theological voices have taken center stage, liberation theology has disappeared from the front pages of the newspaper and is virtually unmentioned even in many academic journals. After two decades of evolution and growth, the nineties proved to be a period of reevaluation and redirection.
But in spite of the changes that have occurred, the theological enterprise among Latin American Christians remains vibrant and creative-and of importance to North American Christians, even if that is not always recognized. The purpose of this article is to summarize what has happened to liberation theology in the last decade, to identify what seem to be areas of future development, and to offer some suggestions with regard to the future dialogue between Christians from North and South.1
When Gustavo Gutierrez published his seminal study A Theology of Liberation in 1971, it was as if a bombshell had exploded among Latin American Christians. Only a few years before, at its meeting in Medellin, Colombia, the [Roman Catholic] Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) had taken seriously the encouragement given by the Second Vatican Council to evaluate and restructure its pastoral ministry in light of the context in which it is carried out. That mandate is indicative of the Vatican Council’s intention, under the leadership of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the modern world, epitomized by Pope John’s hope of aggiornamento (“today-ment”) and summarized in the Council’s affirmation that “the Church exists to serve the world.”
While liberation theology in Latin America is undoubtedly indebted to the impulses affirmed by Vatican II and especially the Medellin Conference, it was not unrelated to other currents already moving in various places in the aftermath of World War II. Africa and Asia were feeling the results of a powerful movement to end the colonial control of territories dominated by the wealthy industrial countries. In South Africa, the churches were challenged to become involved in the struggle of the Black majority to end apartheid and the World Council of Churches (WCC) had spearheaded international support for that cause. In the United States, the civil rights movement was struggling to end the effects of slavery and segregation, Native Americans were demanding justice, the anti-war movement was leading many to oppose the United States’ support for repressive governments in South Vietnam and elsewhere, and the feminist movement was insisting on equality for women. In Germany, theologians like Johannes Metz and Jurgen Moltmann had already attempted to rethink Christian faith in light of an orientation towards the future. And in 1968, a powerful wave of revolt by young people and their supporters-in South Korea, the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Italy-was demanding freedom, a cry which was to produce profound cultural and social changes as well as provoking harsh resistance in many places.
It was truly a time in which revolution-political, social, cultural-was in the air. The Argentinean Lutheran theologian Guillermo Hansen argues that the WCCs Church and Society Conference, held in Geneva in 1966, gave an early and significant forum to voices calling for Christian participation in the revolutionary movements blossoming in many parts of the world.2 Indeed, at that conference American-born Richard Schaull, a Presbyterian missionary working in Brazil, called publicly for a “theology of revolution.”3
There are indications that something great and terrible is going to happen. The foundations of the world are shaking. The powerful are constructing fortresses of money and arms. They became rich and their pride grew on the dead. The bankers, the dictators, the rich countries, the armies of the right and the left …. But all over the world a great sigh is raised, the sigh of the poor, of the oppressed …. And this sigh is more than a human sigh: it is the sigh of God. The cry of those who suffer: the vengeance of our God.4
Already in Schaull’s passionate and prophetic words some of the principal themes of liberation theology can be discerned: the sense of kairos, the moment pregnant with great and earth-changing events; the energetic drawing of attention to the plight of the poor from whom the rich and powerful minority have unjustly derived their gain; and the insistence that the real God, the God of the Bible, is on the side of the poor who are crying for an end to their misery.
Gutierrez himself summarized what he considered the most significant elements of Latin American liberation theology in an article published in 1995.(5) The “option for the poor”-the demand that the Church ally itself with history’s victims as the fundamental ethical commandment for Christians who are not poor-remains, he believes, “the most important contribution of the life and reflection of the Church in Latin America, and beyond Latin America, as the Christian message.”6 Liberation theologians responded to the “distinct presence of the poor”-their emergence as an active force in history after millennia of being considered a necessary part of reality. Focusing on the causes of poverty-recognizing that far from being the design of Providence, it is the product of social forces, conflicts and human greed and power-leads the Christian who is aware of this truth to a position of solidarity with those who are its victims. “Poverty,” Gutierrez insists, “signifies death.”7
But what Gutierrez and his colleagues affirm is that the God of the Bible is clearly on the side of life, and therefore of the oppressed. It is for this reason that theologians often spoke of the “preferential option for the poor,” God’s willingness to take their side and therefore the need for a faithful Church to do the same. The biblical concept of the “reign of God” seemed to them to articulate the fullness of God’s intentions for humankind and, indeed, the whole creation: a “new world order” marked by economic justice, compassion, peace, ecological harmony, abundance, celebration and festivity, and the perceived nearness of a God whose will is done at last, just as the ancient promises had anticipated.
The broad assumptions of Gutierrez and many others, both Catholic and Protestant, offered an ecumenical underpinning upon which a complex pastoral and political structure was based. If the reign of God affirmed the dignity and value of every human person, especially of the most despised, then Christian pastoral practice must be directed towards them. The evolution of the “comunidades eclesiales de base” (Christian base-communities), made up of poor people who met regularly for prayer, Bible study and shared reflection, seemed to call into question the value of traditional parishes and congregations. The radical priests, pastors and religious who organized and directed them sought a style of leadership that was mass-based and non-hierarchical, and that encouraged the emergence of grassroots leaders.8 Not surprisingly, this perceived threat to structures of Church power caused grave disquiet among many in authority.
But far more troubling was the overtly political dimension of liberation theology. The clergy and others who served as its prime movers were themselves the heirs of a progressive European socialscience tradition, which had profoundly affected Latin American intellectuals as well. The encouragement given to Christians at Vatican II and Medellin to use academic approaches to understanding the world they wished to serve in fact nearly guaranteed that the tools of Marxist analysis would be most congenial to their work. This in fact proved to be the case, provoking alarm not only among Church authorities but also at the highest levels of many governments, including both Latin American military regimes and the Reagan and Bush administrations.
While no liberation theologians would have claimed Marxism as their defining ideology, many-perhaps most-did consider that the insights of Marx with regard to the economic causes of misery and the need for class struggle to eliminate them were to be taken with great seriousness by committed Christians. Rereading the Bible from the vantage point of the “reign of God,” one of the most significant hermeneutical tasks undertaken by scholars committed to liberation theology, it was easy to identify the “preferential option for the poor” affirmed in the Gospels with Marx’s claim that the working class was the “motor of history” by which oppression would be overthrown and a socialist order congruent with the biblical demand for justice would be established. Hence the door was open to Christian participation in Marxist-led struggles for socialism.
The question whether that struggle must inevitably be a violent one divided liberationists within both the Catholic and Protestant traditions. Most supported movements like the Cuban revolution, the Sandinista struggle and subsequent government in Nicaragua, and guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala, viewing the violence associated with them as unfortunate but justified responses to the systemic violence experienced by the poor. Few actually took up arms; the Colombian Camilo Torres, who left the Roman Catholic priesthood to become an active guerrilla insurgent and whose writings were widely read by liberation-minded Christians, was a notable exception.
On the other hand, liberationists were committed to active participation in the political struggles shaking Latin America throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In Chile, the influential “Christians for Socialism” was formed to support the freely elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende. In Nicaragua the Sandinista government included among its Cabinet ministers three Roman Catholic priests, all of whom considered their service to the revolution as an integral part of their priestly ministry. The outspoken support provided by many Christians in a variety of settings caused some Marxist leaders, even including Fidel Castro, to revise their traditional distrust of religion as inevitably allied with the political status quo.
While they held many elements in common, advocates of liberation theology approached their tasks from a variety of backgrounds, assumptions, philosophical biases and pastoral emphases. Some were academics; others, popular educators; still others were primarily pastors and preachers. But whatever their prejudices, they were united in their conviction that God was doing new and marvelous things in Latin America, and that the poor of the continent were a “privileged locus” where God’s purposes could be perceived with special clarity. Their conviction was often expressed with a kind of missionary zeal, which not only defended the appropriateness of their theology in the face of challenges from other, more conservative and “orthodox” voices (especially the Vatican and American government sources), but also claimed to have grasped the fundamental meaning of the Gospel in a way that is meaningful not only in their own context but for Christians in other places as well. This eruption of theological passion was often compared to the Reformation. Even though some of its advocates were born in other places, they shared an awareness of, and pride in, the first flowering of an authentically Latin American theology, the first to be born out of the peculiar realities of that continent and one which honors that context with absolute, even ultimate seriousness.9
Given the high hopes and passions associated with the flowering of liberation theology during the post-World War II generation, we must ask just what happened, both within and beyond the churches and the settings which produced it, in more recent years.
It is unquestionable that liberation theology has been less affected by specifically religious events than by political, economic and social upheavals on the global stage at the end of the 1980s which have had drastic, unforeseen and highly damaging consequences in Latin America.
One important change that affected liberation theology was a decline in confidence in traditional Marxist analysis following momentous world events, the most spectacular being the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist states of eastern Europe. While liberation theologians had always been careful to distance themselves from what they considered the “excesses” and “deviations” represented by the Communist systems in place in Europe and Asia, they had relied on support from the East in their opposition to Western capitalism. Cuba, Nicaragua and a number of leftist revolutionary movements throughout Latin America received considerable material support from the Eastern Bloc. Overnight this support was withdrawn and the consequences were far-reaching. In Nicaragua, following years of war with the U.S.-backed Contras which left its resources exhausted, the Sandinista government was defeated in elections. Lengthy negotiations between armed revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Guatemala resulted in their abandoning the struggle in favor of participation in a peaceful electoral process.
But in some ways economic developments were even more significant than politics. A so-called “new world order,” endorsed by governments and financial organizations in the developed countries and supported by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, dismissed the value of policies designed to protect local business and employment in favor of a global economic system marked by free trade across borders which privileged multinational corporations at the expense of more home-grown enterprise. Burdened by colossal debt incurred decades before, poor countries had no choice but to submit to the draconian measures mandated by the banks and the IMF: drastically reducing government-funded social services, lowering or eliminating tariffs and other government controls to open markets and investment, firing state employees, and clearing the way to corporately induced ecological disaster.
This “neo-liberalism,” the unbridled free market imagined by capitalist thinkers from earlier centuries, is epitomized by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed by the United States, Canada and Mexico. It has left tens of millions of people the victims of unemployment and created conditions that seem beyond the means of poor countries to improve. It has taken advantage of the end of the Cold War and the successes of the “third technological revolution” to create an enormously changed international economic climate with disastrous results for poor countries. The presumed “success” of neo-liberalism has only widened the gap between the small Latin American elite who have profited from it and the majority for whom it has been bad news indeed.
In the light of such catastrophic change, some liberationists have determined that the old ways of understanding how the world economy functioned are now obsolete.10 Furthermore, many have come to believe that in the face of what some call “the monster of neoliberalism” questions of who controls political power are insignificant; what matters is not politics but economics. “Hope does not pass through the taking of power,” which is both “impossible and irrelevant in a globalized world.”11
The apparent success of the neo-liberal juggernaut has also privileged its heavy cultural bias in favor of Western-style individualism, making it more difficult to resist not only its economic policies but the media-based consumerism on which it depends. Such is the power of the media to glamorize the supposed opportunities for individual advancement afforded by the new order that many are captivated by its promises. The prevailing morality, says Jose Comblin, is “the morality of self-promotion.”12 Historian Arturo Piedra notes:
We still don’t understand how, theologically speaking, we can define or explain this big monster, neo-liberalism. In the past we used to say, “Organize a guerilla movement. Organize the unionists. Organize a popular movement.”. . . We’ve had guerrilla movements, we’ve organized unions, we’ve had popular movements, and we still couldn’t defeat capitalism. In the 1980s we had an elaborate and sophisticated theory. Now we just say, “We don’t know.” It’s such an invisible animal we now have it in our houses. So how do we confront it?13
The crisis provoked among liberation theologians by such upheavals has led many to revisit their earlier assumptions and practices with a critical eye.
Jose Comblin reexamined the pastoral style of much liberation theology and pointed out that the comunidades de base, considered the building block of a popular Christian movement on behalf of the poor, in fact never touched more than five percent of the Roman Catholic majority of Latin America.14 He characterizes the base– communities in their traditional form as a sort of “community utopia,” representing nostalgia for the lost world of the countryside and its values, and succeeding in the cities only among recent arrivals from the country.15 Furthermore, he argues, in spite of its commitment to the poor as the creators of their own history, liberation theology was always dominated by intellectuals, including the clergy. Indeed, “the people” were never part of the vanguard; they were too busy trying to survive. And where base-communities were most committed to social action, many experienced liberation in the intense personal religious experience offered by the Pentecostal churches.16
Writing from a Nicaraguan context, Jorge Pixley agrees that most peasants and workers were never genuinely committed to revolutionary change. He considers that the enthusiasm generated by liberation theology was in fact the result of a transitory conjuncture of elements which produced a “cultural boom” and a sense of coming victory during the 1960s and 70s. But with the victory of a global market economy, liberation theology “is no longer an integral part of the culture,” which is now shaped by forces emanating from the United States.17
There has been self-criticism over the last decade about some of the theological and ideological assumptions common in earlier reflection. Assmann and Elsa Tamez, among others, point out that a heavy emphasis on the experience of liberation was not matched by equal attention to a perspective on freedom. But Assmann asserts that freedom is Paul’s name for what Jesus means by the reign of God, and is “humankind’s very reason for being.” Liberation theology cannot be a true theology unless it develops a theology of freedom.18
Tamez does not fault earlier theologians’ failure to address the theme of freedom. “The situation,” she observes, “demanded immediate actions of liberation from oppressive structures” and the very concept of freedom tended to be understood in an “individualistic and abstract manner.”19 Nevertheless, she believes, new attention to the Christian concept of freedom is needed, especially as it is developed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This is because the current “economic, social, political and cultural situation is so bad” and “leads us to restudy Paul’s critique of the law, beginning with grace, and ask ourselves how we can be free and live with freedom in our society, which is oriented towards economic, political and cultural globalization.”20
Assmann renders an even more trenchant critique of what he identifies as an idiosyncratic use of the concept of “historical subject” by many theologians of liberation. “Where,” he asks, “is it found in the Bible that the poor, through their reliable leaders or representatives, would be the drivers of a radical transformation of history?” In retrospect such pretensions seem to him an “ahistorical gnosis, a kind of terrorism of linearity, without true dialectic and without attention to the principle of complexity that governs any true process.”21
There is general consensus among liberation theologians that by depending on a Marxist analysis of poverty, they had overlooked other endemic forms of discrimination: in particular, sexism and discrimination against Native peoples and Blacks. Furthermore, in the face of an unfettered free-market economy, many consider traditional goals of employment and an organized workforce to be irrelevant. In the global workplace, it is now possible to have full employment and still to experience terrible poverty. The primary reality for the majorities in Latin America goes beyond want and is better understood as exclusion: exclusion from the possibility of a decent life by social, cultural and economic forces.22
How best to understand and begin to come to terms with this strange new world? Hugo Assmann sees the underlying ideology of neo-liberalism as “the greatest and principal religion, which subordinates and determines the minor religions.”
The oikoumene which now claims to usurp the task of the basic humanization of the Planet is that of capitalism, by means of the market …. Capital is the Giver of Life. The other gospels are barely particular, with the mission of complementing.
Do we perceive the novelty? What is new in the current world conjuncture is that capitalism arrived at a stage in which it is presented as an integrated whole: market, liberal democracy and capitalist culture. It is in its character of integrated whole that it proposes itself to the world as a global solution. It no longer admits alternative systems and it is not disposed to make concessions.
In this mode, he notes, free-market capitalism has been “messianized” and the dogma of a self-regulating market, working for the common good without any human intervention, is presented as a world-saving gospel. Assmann’s perspective leads him to posit an economic analysis of neo-liberalism as a “sacrificialism” in which “all the sacrifices are ‘necessary.'”23
Franz Hinkelammert, of the Ecumenical Department of Research in Costa Rica, has also undertaken study of the underlying assumptions and structures of the neo-liberal “gospel.” He points out that it pretends to be the most “rational” of economic systems, yet its rational efficiency is calculated only in means and ends. If the enormous human cost of the system is taken into account, its vaunted rationality turns out to be entirely irrational: “The business oriented by calculating money and earnings rationalizes its proceedings, but this rationalization is the origin of an irrational process of destruction of the human being and nature.”24
Others, whose approach is primarily philosophical and ethical, place their analytical reflection in the context of modernity and its critics. The Mexican ethicist Enrique Dussel points out that globalized liberalism represents “the only ‘world-system’ that there has been in planetary history.”25 But, he insists, its utopian nature is revealed “in the light of its own pretensions of freedom, equality, wealth and property for all, and of other myths and symbols in contradiction with themselves, since the majority of its affected participants find themselves deprived of fulfilling the necessities that the system itself has proclaimed as rights” (emphasis mine).26 “The neoliberal utopia of the total market,” like that of Soviet Communism and Nazism, is a utopia “that justifies] the existence of the victims.”27 Nor does postmodernism offer a solution, since “the postmoderns deny any subject and therefore eliminate the possibility of strategic organization among subjects.”28
To pursue reflection from a perspective that affirms the fundamental value of human life over against a dominant viewpoint that considers most people expendable, “extra” and therefore fundamentally useless, raises profound spiritual questions. Some liberation theologians now ask why they permitted Marxism to define not only their analytical tools but even their understanding of the Gospel and of Christian faith. Many more recognize that if neither politics nor economics as they are currently practiced offers any sense of ultimate human value beyond potential usefulness to the market, what is called for is a radical affirmation of the Gospel that speaks in God’s name to each human being: “You are my beloved child.” What is required is an articulation of the Gospel that transcends political categories in favor of a broader understanding of spirituality that encompasses the whole of the human reality in its relationship to God.
As liberationists have turned away from political activism and towards new explorations of spirituality and Scripture, they have also reexamined their conflicted relationship with institutional Church bodies, and in many cases reestablished ties with authorities from whom they had been estranged. Nowhere was that conflict more intense than over the relevance and appropriateness of class struggle in the formulation of Christian theology.
The original version of Gustavo Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation included a chapter section headed “Christian Brotherhood [sic] and Class Struggle.” In it, Gutierrez argued that class struggle was a fact, part of “our economic, social, political, cultural and religious reality” towards which neutrality was impossible. The Church, he argued, does not create the struggle but identifies and names it. Its purpose is not the struggle itself but the elimination of class distinctions: “to construct a socialist society, more just, free and human.” To refuse “conscions and active participation in the class struggle that is happening before our eyes” is to side with the oppressors of the poor.29
How, then, could the universality of God’s love be reconciled with conflict between classes? Love’s universality, he replied, must become “concrete history.” Loving the oppressors means “liberating them from their own inhuman situation.” Universal love “becomes concrete and effective when it is incarnate in the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed.” Unity “is not something already given, it is a process and the result of overcoming whatever divides people.”30
The rapprochement between many liberation theologians and Church authorities can be seen as the product of the wholesale abandoning of Marxist premises and the willingness of some to place their work within the context of the Church’s official teaching. It is also surely in part the result of the institutional Church’s growing awareness of the limitations of neo-liberalism on a global scale. (Indeed, Pope John Paul II has spoken frequently about its dangers; those critical comments seem to have had much less impact than his attacks on Marxism.)
The effects of the changed climate can be clearly seen in the revised version of A Theology of Liberation prepared by Gutierrez nearly twenty years after its first edition. While the original version made liberal use of the social sciences and very little of the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, Gutierrez recast his work within the framework of the recent teaching of the Church, beginning with the Second Vatican Council and including extensive citations from the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II.
In a new section, “Faith and Social Conflict,” which replaced his earlier writing on class struggle, Gutierrez describes the present as a time of “various oppositions between persons, groups, social classes, races and nations,” all of which can lead to violence. He reminds his readers of the Medellin Conference’s clear affirmation of the Church’s option for the poor, but states that “confrontation is not acceptable either from a human or a Christian viewpoint.” To identify a conflict requires critical analysis, revealing economic and racial aspects and other divisions, above all the situation of women. Overcoming these conflicts requires “going to the causes” and “abolishing what produces a world of privileged and dispossessed, of superior and inferior races.” Solidarity with the victims does not promote conflict but seeks to eliminate it by ending its causes.31
Furthermore, he writes, Christians’ preferential option for the poor is not to be identified “with an ideology or a determined political program; these options may be among the legitimate options for a layperson but they by no means exhaust the experiences of the Gospel.”32
If liberation theology has been transformed in such dramatic ways, it is fair to ask: What, if anything, remains of this challenging enterprise that had such an impact on the theological world of the last generation? What new elements and perspectives mark its current development?
There is nearly universal consensus among theologians who have been part of this movement that the misery and oppression which provided the impetus for its development not only remain; in fact, they have worsened.
Modernity goes on towards its end, sowing on the earth, in the majority of humanity, fear, hunger, disease and death… among those excluded from the benefits of the World-system which is being globalized…. It is raised as a criterion of truth, validity and possibility and destroys human life, treads on the dignity of millions of human beings, fails to recognize equality and much less affirms itself as re-sponsible [sic] for the otherness of the excluded and accepts only the hypocritical juridical demand with regard to complying with the duty of paying a (fictitious) international debt of the poor nations on the periphery, although the debtor people perish…. It is a massive assassination; it is the beginning of a collective suicide.33
At the same time, the basic ethical-theological stance which engaged the reality of poverty and exclusion continues to motivate both reflection and action. Mindful of the awareness that poverty stretches beyond economic deprivation to include “non-persons, “the left-over population,” “the excluded,” Gutierrez considers the option for the poor as “the most important contribution of the life and reflection of the Latin American church,” and “beyond the region as the fundamental Christian message.” That option has the effect of “taking the poor out of anonymity,” giving them a face and a name.34 Jorge Pixley argues that liberation theology in fact “rediscovers the central themes of the Gospel, of the Bible.” The cross emphasizes commitment with the expectation of being defeated; the resurrection means “for those who direct themselves to the cross the confidence that God will rescue from their defeat life for the poor for whom [Christ] dies.”35 Nor has the mandate for solidarity with the struggle of the victims changed. Gutierrez notes that Deuteronomy 15 demands that there be no poor in the land; but since there are, “we already know what must be done. … There is no commitment to the poor if we don’t struggle against the causes of poverty.”36 Commenting on the need for fidelity, he observes, “blessed are the stubborn,” and adds, “every saint is stubborn.”37 Solidarity, says Pablo Richard, is rooted in
our faith in the God of life: the God of the Exodus, the God of Abraham, the God who demands the sabbath, the sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee; the God of the prophets, the God of the wisdom and the prayer of Israel; the God of Jesus, the God of the Reign of God, the God of Paul of Tarsus who proclaims salvation by faith and not by the law, the God of John, who has loved us first and who is revealed as the God of Love, the God of Revelation who orients history towards a new heaven and a new earth.38
Addressing the “impasses and new directions” of liberation theology in a context of globalization, a team of Brazilian theologians argue that it is not a question of “abandoning or replacing its originating perceptions,” but the “lengthening and deepening of its conceptual, methodological and thematic horizon.” Far from being a time of decline, the situation is promising for the development of liberation theology. As it opens itself to new movements, “it is confirmed precisely in its capacity to move. Its methodology is not sacrificed; it is exercised and confirmed.”39
Perhaps the accuracy of their comments can best be seen in the appearance of new voices from the ranks of those previously excluded not only in Latin American society but from the ranks of its theologians as well: most especially the voices of Blacks and Native peoples and those of women.
Elsa Tamez observes that this process represents the emergence of new historical agents from among the excluded, one of the primary intentions of liberation theology since its earliest appearance. But she notes that privileging previously excluded voices also implies new categories of analysis. Earlier theologians relied almost entirely on the social sciences; the new voices depend upon other tools. Hence theology is now incorporating ecology (which theologians like Leonardo Boff have used to provide new analytical paradigms) as well as anthropology and symbolism to reflect upon experiences of otherness.40
For Adriana Mendez-Pen ate, an Ursuline religious working in Mexico, participating as a woman in the theological enterprise affects not only the nature of the base-communities and their style of ministry, but also how the Bible is read, how Christians see the earth, and ultimately the very nature of spirituality.
Mendez-Penate comments that Christian base-communities and other popular organizations are important concrete ways of seeking to resist the powerful forces of oppression that are part of everyday life.
We must recognize that in base-communities all over Latin America, women are the majority presence. Although our brother priests resist it and lament the absence of men, the reality is that they depend almost solely on women for the majority of the church’s activities. The male not only does not attend but is sometimes the greatest obstacle to the woman’s making her contribution…. In the base-communities, women are feeling ourselves as persons” but are still a long way from discovering ourselves as “persons of the female sex.” Perhaps this is due to the fact that we are still very subject to what the padrecito41 says or commands; or perhaps, that the padrecito likes “to have the frying pan by the handle” and does not encourage feminine initiatives out of fear, ignorance, the kind of training he received, or for some other “very good reason.”42
But the process of reflection on experience and Scripture (“seeing-thinking-acting”) on which the life of the base-communities depends calls for a mode of reflection which takes seriously women’s perspective:
It seems that our feminine process of seeing-thinking about Life and the Bible is very original. It is much more contemplative and intuitive than mediating and rational. It is closer to a hop than to two steps.
In our search to open new doors and paths towards the Reign, we are using the word “woman” as a clue or key of reading. With it we are opening Life and the Bible. We are seeking a feminine hermeneutic and studying everything about the feminine and maternal characteristics of God and of Jesus in theology and the Scriptures. We are seeking all the women in the Bible and rereading the texts with our heart (from the left side). We are seeing Mary in a different way. We have discovered Jesus and how he developed his feminine side. We have found that the Eucharist and his death on the cross are two of his “maternal expressions.”43
The emergence of women’s voices among liberation theologians results in reclaiming the feminine figures of the Bible, especially of Mary; the expression of strong experiences of identification with the earth; the “festive and self-valuing experience” of women,
an evangelical, creative and feminine experience. This implies, in the end, a great novelty, a new evangelization; very new and good news, that we are daughters (Lk. 8:48) and women and we have a peculiar way of appropriating to ourselves, assimilating, expressing and allowing ourselves to be fertilized by the seed of the Word, the gospel.44
This feminist hermeneutic interprets a staggering experience of oppression on the part of women in Latin America, where — an average of 65 of each 100 married women suffer some kind of mistreatment from their husband. One of each three married women has been enduring domestic violence for more than twelve years. Single or abandoned mothers, or those who live with a married man who has other commitments, number millions. Girls hardly study and have responsibilities that keep them from playing, while their mothers go out to work. They frequently suffer some sexual abuse and almost always from some relative in the same house. Many times they even kill them because the foetus is feminine. Why is it that in countries like Ecuador, the birth– control plans are free and carried out by the Armed Forces of the country?45
Maria Arcelia Gonzalez Butron observes that “besides belonging to a category of gender, women as persons belong to a social class, a racial or ethnic group, a residential and occupational group, and are at the same time individuals with a unique personal history.”46 But, she says, “for many years we have shared in feminist movements and movements of women in general that our fundamental struggle is not only economic, political, social and cultural, but before everything, for the right to be.”47
Gonzalez Butron insists that the perspective of gender is absolutely essential for an adequate epistemological critique of neoliberalism. This critique will challenge not only the patriarchal and sexist assumptions behind the emphasis on competition and capital which motivate neo-liberalism; it will also sustain a theoretical alternative based on corporeality-that is, on the satisfaction of human needs and the creation of a world with room for everyone.48 Only in this way can women move from being “mere abstract or variable entities… considered as a resource or demographic variable” and become full participants in life-changing decisions, the “protagonist agent– subjects,” which is the goal of all liberation theology.49
This participation means the inclusion of the perspective of women in the realms of social development and public policy, particularly in areas that directly affect women. These include identifying the special needs of women, valuing their (often unpaid) work, especially in the home, as an integral part of a society’s resources; creating means whereby women may participate in shaping development policies; and “the participation of the State and civil society in encouraging women and achieving equality between genders.”50
In the diverse spectrum of Latin American societies, the descendants of the Native peoples and of the slaves brought from Africa have historically been excluded from power and privilege; in the strange new world of neo-liberalism, their exclusion only worsens. “Orthodox” Marxist analysis insisted that their misery could be explained as a function of economic forces and overcome through class struggle. In hindsight, it is obvious that their situation was far more complex, involving cultural issues alongside issues of power and wealth and demanding not only access to the benefits of society but entrance to history as the ongoing work of taking responsibility for their own destiny. This is nowhere expressed more clearly than in the document Entramos otra vez a la historic (“We enter again into history”), the manifesto issued by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, published in 1994. That document describes the infernal dialectic between the wealth of the powerful and their own poverty, between those with abundance and those with nothing, between the knowledge that supports the status quo and the ignorance of its victims. It also notes that lack of awareness without which the dialectic could not have functioned:
Our children died by a force that we did not know; our men and women walked in the long night of the ignorance that overshadowed our steps. Our peoples walked without truth or understanding. Our steps went without destiny, we only lived and died.
The manifesto affirms that it was by listening to the wisdom of their elders and their remembered traditions that they learned that “the long night of grief of our peoples came from the hands and words of the powerful” and that “on the bones and dust of our ancestors and our children a house for the powerful was built.”51
Black Latin Americans share with the Native peoples of the Americas the assault on their historic identity and the attempted destruction of its spiritual bases. But while Native people suffered exile and exclusion in their own land, Africans were permanently exiled from the land of their origin. Some Blacks are descended from slaves imported by the Spanish during colonial times; others are the descendants of West Indians who came as agricultural or construction workers (the railroads across Costa Rica and Panama and the Panama Canal were built largely with West Indian labor). The survival of the English language and of customs brought from the islands remain an important mark of identity among Latin Americans of West Indian descent. The profound racism endured by both Blacks and Native peoples cannot be explained-or cured-simply by economics. Affirming those social and cultural elements that preserve a sense of identity– of “peopleness”-are an integral part of the contribution now being made by Black and Native liberation theologians.
Another important part of their contribution is the uncovering of the onslaught on their spiritual heritage by centuries of oppression and the demand that the starting point of their liberation theology be the experience not only of poverty but of racial oppression. Furthermore, they insist that the analytical tools for their reflection include those memories and concepts which are part of their experience of God.
There is no question that the contribution of Native and Black theologians, like that of women, has demonstrably broadened the perspective within which liberation theology is now undertaken. Gustavo Gutierrez observed that the diversity of its distinct currents results from “the expansion of theology outside its original frameworks,” and that “the cultural, racial themes, those of the situation of women” are “steadily more important” for liberation theology, demanding evernew tools of social analysis to take into account the growing awareness of the complexity of the issues.52
Recent work by some Latin American theologians has begun to address seriously the implications of the ecological damage done to the continent in the past and especially in a global market economy, but the nature of their approach depends in part upon their expectations for the future.
Roy May points out that in spite of the growth of industrialization and financial, commercial and information activity-“characteristics” of modern economy-many Latin American economies continue to depend upon agriculture. Indeed, various countries base their economic reactivation on agriculture and the export of primary products, whether coffee, bananas and pineapple in Central America, grapes, apples and trout in Chile or shrimp in Panama.53
May observes that recent developments adversely affect the traditional inhabitants of the land in several ways. The export sector is controlled by large corporations which demand ever more land, forcing peasants and native peoples who traditionally farmed small holdings on an ever dwindling percentage of available farmland. “Globalization,” he points out, “values peasants only in the measure that they are converted into workers and that they deed their lands to the estates of the business interests.”54 Rapid deforestation and widespread strip mining also threaten the survival of small farming. Even the development of golf courses as part of huge tourist complexes designed for affluent foreign visitors has grave consequences for land use, requiring large tracts of space, application of agro-chemicals and prodigal use of water in areas where it is often in short supply. The human costs are enormous.
Globalization provides the incentive for a type of agriculture that will not be able to be maintained over the long term, because of the damages it provokes in the ecological system.
The first to suffer the consequences are the peasants and native people. They lose their resources, their lands become unproductive, and they suffer in their own bodies the results of the inappropriate use of agro-chemicals. Environmental destruction limits them to the options of seeking “new land” or emigrating to the city. Environmental destruction uproots them from the land and their traditional forms of life.55
Some consider that the disappearance of the traditional peasant way of life is inevitable. Jorge Pixley notes the massive abandonment by young people of traditional farming to seek work in the city, and considers that “the peasantry does not have a future.”56 In a similar vein, writing from Brazil, Jose Comblin believes that the peasants are disappearing.57
May disagrees. He admits that “agrarian reform” and “struggle for the earth” may sound like “anachronisms that belong more to the frightening revolutionary times than to the current times of globalization.” Nevertheless, he notes, the struggles over land use are not disappearing. On the contrary, they are increasing. As evidence he points to the massacre of landless peasants in northern Brazil, armed revolts of peasants and native people in Mexico, assassination of native leaders and the massive occupation of banana plantations by peasants in Honduras, confrontations and forced removals of squatters from lands in Costa Rica, the formation of a national movement in Paraguay, and evictions in Chile-“events that illustrate that `the earth,’ far from being a theme from the past, is all too present.”58
Leonardo Boff notes that in fact there are a number of different approaches to ecological themes that reveal much about the perspectives of their authors. Some are purely conservationist in approach, paying little attention to the human cost of environmental destruction. In the developed countries, this is sometimes carried to the extreme of ignoring the human component of the environment, and is often focused on specific areas set aside for the purpose. Human ecology attempts “to define what is the type of relationship that human beings establish with their environment” and also takes into account the cultural perspective. Boff argues for the concept of social ecology, first developed by Uruguayan social scientists, which he identifies as a “Latin American product that goes beyond Human Ecology.”59 A social-ecology approach is not merely a simple acceptance of the “other.”
The other is not there because I have not been able to eliminate him [sic], but because I need him, because he complements me. This is the discourse of complementarity. Because together, in this inter-relation, we carry on constructing our existence. And not only in complementarity, for there exists a reciprocity, an opening to all the beings of the creation. We are bound to reality on all sides: inward, upward, downward.60
Unlike most liberation theology of earlier decades, Boff’s work identifies clear connections between attention to the environment and the conditions under which human beings participate in their environment.
The more we raise up a culture of complementarity and reciprocity, the more we will reduce the rates of social inequality, of conflicts produced by exclusion, because the cause of the processes of social unravelling are the processes of exclusion. In the culture of exclusion, the subject excludes and monopolizes others, denies being enriched, denies reciprocity and symbolically kills the other.
What is most frustrating for the human being is being excluded. Affectively [sic] it is equivalent to being murdered, to being cut down. That is the human being’s most de-structuring feeling. Because the human being is the being of participation. [The human being] lives from participation and all beings become accomplices in our existence.61
Furthermore, our attitude towards the environment not only shapes our attitude towards other human beings; it also shapes our behavior.
When we speak of Social Ecology we want to say that a minimum of ecological justice is necessary for social justice to exist. If I mistreat nature, if I affront it and submit it to pillages it is because I have social structures and mechanisms with which I also wound social classes, different races, minorities. Nature is wounded with the same logic that the working class is wounded. Social justice must go in hand with ecological justice. In other words, we must respect the plants’ biological cycle, respect the trees, respect the soil.
Citing Einstein’s discovery that matter and energy are interchangeable, he pleads for attention to the fundamental truth that “democracy is a cosmic democracy, the stars are citizens too, the sun and the moon live with us.” Social Ecology “attempts to grasp that and seek balance, while it denounces how the type of society we organize under the hegemony of capital is profoundly aggressive and causes the breakdown of the ecosystems.”62
Boff raises the spiritual dimension of the environmental crisis in dialogue with recent developments in both biology and psychology that attempt to demonstrate “that we possess [subjective] structures that lead us to a greater solidarity and greater collaboration.” The “radical or holistic ecology” encountered in the work of authors such as Frank Capra contributes to Boff’s vision of a universe shaped by grace: “We do not live in a world that threatens us, but a world that is in partnership with our life. We should make a revolution to rescue the lost bonds that tie us to the stone in the road and the snail that painfully drags itself along, to the flowers and the most distant stars.”63 The emergence of themes better described as cultural and social than as strictly political represents both a reaction to, and a further refining of, the goals which have motivated Latin American theologies of liberation.
During the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, and continuing even until the collapse of European socialism at the end of the 1980s, the revolutionary change proposed by numerous political movements provided theologians with what appeared to be a concrete political articulation of the hopes symbolized by the image of the reign of God. With the disappearance of those goals, many who previously associated themselves with political utopias can be seen to be struggling to find new ways to articulate the hope that once seemed so tangible. Josh Comblin believes that
the kind of socialism [practiced under the influence of European models] is simply no longer a possibility in today’s world …. [T]oday the market economy is unavoidable.64
Jorge Pixley continues to insist that “the Gospel confesses that God intends to establish [God’s] reign on this earth.” Nevertheless, he considers it crucial “to disconnect liberation theology from an illusory triumphalism of the 60s and 70s.”65 Jose Gonzalez Faus agrees that “history has an eschaton of freedom, salvation and fullness.” But that endpoint is identified now “in the form of small liberations, anticipations and signs” which clash with the historical reality around them, sometimes leading more immediately to suffering and even death.66 Yet both Pixley and Gonzalez Faus believe that, in Gonzalez Faus’s words, in the end God triumphs “and the previous defeat is converted into the grain of wheat which gives fruit when it dies.”67
Others consider that it is necessary to reformulate the very conceptual basis of hope for the poor. Guillermo Hansen notes the “limits of utopian dreams” and argues for “a new exercise of realism, represented by shifting the object of our Christian moral responsibility from the idea of the ‘reign’ or of the `new human being’ to a concept of relative justice over against the density of the contradictions and ambiguities that permeate social realities.” Such a reorientation means “delicate compromises ….not the historical realization of absolute values.”68
Hugo Assman considers that once the concept of a “final victory” is gone, it is possible
to struggle against oppression without having to affirm . . . the triumph of the oppressed (emphasis mine) …. The challenge is to know how to live together with that ambiguity and not to fall into the temptation of apocalyptic deceit. To cope with the absence of definitive solutions.”69
Elsa Tamez continues to affirm the importance of the dream of a new order-“utopia as a motivating principle”-at the symbolic level as it is found, for example, in the prophecies of Isaiah. But that image is clearly outside history. And she points out that there are other important biblical motifs that provide a broadened conceptual reference for thinking theologically about the loss of a concrete historical utopia. The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, largely ignored by the first generation of liberation theologians, has taken on new importance because of its emphasis on the reality of the everyday. 70
Tamez sees many similarities between the circumstances of Israel under the domination of the hellenistic regime, which produced the book of Ecclesiastes, and the situation of Christians in Latin America today. “We live,” she writes, in
absurd times …. The more poor people there are, the less solidarity and sensitivity you see. That is the time it is ours to live in the North and the South, in the East and the West. A present time which imposes itself as unique, which seeks to exclude any liberating reminiscence of the past and any utopian element that could move towards a new reality…. How can Christians live in times of a “messianic drought?71
The author of Ecclesiastes, she believes, lived in just such times.
When society’s logic is production in the least possible time because time is gold, Qoheleth invites us to assume eternity’s time within the history of short and countable time. And that time is only lived when one enjoys life accompanied by the community with which one shares it.72
In a similar vein, Ana Maria and Sandro Gallazzi observe that for Ecclesiastes.
nothing [is] more eternal than an abundant table and a good life, which, according to the prophets, are signs of the definitive victory of Yahweh (Is. 25:6). That was, that is, that will be!73
Commenting on the importance of everyday life as a primary theme for contemporary liberation theologians, Carlos Dreher observes,
For some time, the questions of everyday life have been discussed, valued and worked on in the midst of popular movements with redoubled interest. It is not that the collective social questions have been abandoned or forgotten. They continue to be relevant. Indeed, they continue to be fundamental. Nevertheless, in the midst of them, the people’s day-to-day keeps gaining space. It is perceived more and more that human beings are not only social and political subjects. They also have a relationship with nature. The), are also individuals, fenced in by personal problems and dilemmas. And all at the same time. There is no way to separate these diverse dimensions of the person. However, we must distinguish and value each of them.74
For Dreher, everyday life is “a space of resistance, of hope and of the creation of an alternative logic.” Personal and collective dimensions, he asserts, need to be integrated.
In the same way, the everyday and the future project should be understood as intertwined. The foot on the ground and the dream are mixed together. Today’s resistance has to do with tomorrow’s hope. The new day that is coming needs to be reflected in today.75
But behind the emphasis on attending to the human necessities without expecting grand and revolutionary changes is a poignant reminder of silence and absence. Perhaps Elsa Tamez is most willing to confront this dimension with openness and sensitivity. Alongside the author of Ecclesiastes, she considers the figure of Job as another source of meaning for suffering Christians. Specifically she underlines the silences and the cries which punctuate the story of “Job, the innocent who suffers abandonment in his own flesh.”76
To read Job today, from our reality, invites us to discern the silences and the cries-wise and useless-to open ourselves to new possible dimensions for a fruitful action. It also teaches us to live God’s silences and cries, which are capable of taking us to open new avenues, other doors, more human. We need to listen attentively to the silence and cries of God. Equally, Job teaches us to enter into relationship with the God of grace. To remember that God loves us just because, not for merits, and to accept that we love God not because God blesses us but just because. It’s about a human-divine relationship that doesn’t happen in mercantile spheres, but in the margins of dignity and grace.77
The silences of job are echoed in the scene of the crucifixion, and in the experience of contemporary Christians.
Sometimes we experience the absence of God as Jesus did on Golgotha, and as the disciples did when they ran away. We feel as if our prayers go unanswered, that God is faraway and that God must be busy with other things. Hurricanes and floods devastate. Violence permeates the whole world. Children are abandoned in the streets. There is excessive unemployment, and a rapid decrease in the language of solidarity, organizations for the practice of justice, and the sharing of resources…. We pray and pray about these anti-human realities and there is no clear response. Can it be that God listens only to those who pray for a television set?
The experience of a “temporary withdrawal of God” recounted in the Scriptures is, she believes, “a key question for a soulless society.” Neither flight nor acquiescence in a market-based theology are real options. “Reality calls us to deep meditation: to rethink our experience of God, to affirm faith in that which is not seen, and to live in the best way we can so that we all have the right to live well and with dignity.” If we are to experience the Holy Spirit in such times, it will be by “turn[ing] our gaze to the bodies of this inhuman reality, to those human beings who are the victims of abandonment.”78
Reflection in the minor key of absence and even abandonment rather than the exuberant expectation of revolutionary triumph is far more in tune with biblical motifs like exile and wilderness than the exodus and eschatology that so dominated earlier phases of liberation theology. In the face of the apparent victory of neo-liberalism and its attendant misery, a new focus on survival appears at the fore. With it comes a profound revival of attention to the practice of spirituality as a means for surviving the hardships of everyday existence without immediate hope.
One of the frequent criticisms directed at earlier liberation theologians was that they tended to ignore the broad issues of spirituality and reduced theology to politics. This was never true of the best of liberation theology. Gustavo Gutierrez’s book, We Drink from Our Own Wells was a careful exposition of the spirituality that undergirds the concepts familiar to liberation theologians. Many of the best biblical scholars working in the area have habitually hammered out their rereading of the Scriptures from the viewpoint of the poor in the setting of base-communities with profound awareness of the spiritual dimension of their work. The Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador demonstrated with their lives the ultimate nature of the commitment that motivated them.
Nevertheless, the collapse of the utopian expectation of God’s triumph has called for a different kind of spirituality, a re-visioning of the nature of God’s presence in the world, of the nature of Christian community, and of the resources Christians share for surviving in a time of darkness and exile.
In a recent paper, Richard Schaull, whose early work in Brazil helped created the climate in which the first genuinely Latin American liberation theology was articulated, revisited some of the challenges for the present. He considers that earlier liberation theologians were moved by social analysis towards political organizations dedicated to socialism, resulting in the loss of the cultivation of the spiritual life. But what unites the poor is not politics but a “spiritual foundation and communitarian support.” What is now required is “to enter into the religious world of the poor.”79
That “religious world” has often been criticized, not least by liberation theologians, as inchoate responses to prevailing neo-liberal ideology. Claudio de Oleivera Ribeiro describes a widespread “autonomous Pentecostalism,” disconnected from traditional denominations, building its successes on promises of “healing, exorcism and prosperity.”80 Much current Latin American Protestantism, he believes, supports a “spirituality of results” based on pietistic moralism (itself a product of a theology of retribution) and a theology of prosperity.81 It co-exists with other movements, some of them imported from around the globe, as well as traditional religions from Africa and the pentecostal movement within Roman Catholicism.
But Schaull now believes that even extreme forms of Pentecostalism must be taken seriously. Such religious expressions provide a vivid experience of God, a basis for surviving in a hostile world and, frequently, a change of life that restores alienated individuals to family and community. And they provide hope, based on the belief that God is “doing great things for them.”82
Pablo Richard has written extensively on the spiritual renewal which he sees as the only possible response to the current situation. He approaches the subject from the traditional concern that the poor become subjects of their own history. But whereas earlier theology often depended on Marxist concepts to articulate this hope, Richard now sees the relationship with the true God, the God of life, as the source of our subjectivity.
In the discussion of the subject it is not about the traditional theme of the historical subject (of social classes that struggle for a transformation of the world), but about the radical possibility of every human being able to live as a subject capable of thinking and acting from his or her own subjectivity, without any overdetermination that paralyzes them as an object or divinizes them as messiah. Nor is it simply about substituting or diversifying the subject-social class by a plurality of new subjects, like indigenous people, Blacks, young people, women, the elderly, etc. The reconstruction of persons as subjects is prior to their diversification by race, ethnicity, sex, class, age …. 83
Commenting on the famous statement of St. Iraeneus of Lyon, “The glory of God is the human being alive; the glory of the human being, the vision of God,” Richard writes:
Only a living subject can see God face to face. The divine glory is revealed in human life, which concretely means: land, work, health, education, participation, festivity and joy. This God of life, who reveals [God’s] glory in the life of the human being, is what permits the living human being to be a living subject in the contemplation of God. There is a direct relation between our conception of God as the God of life, and human beings’ capacity to realize themselves as subjects in the dorect contemplation of this God of life.
Indeed, “spirituality, as life according to the Spirit, is the force whereby the person is affirmed as a subject in the world.”84
In Richard’s view, authentic spirituality-the spirituality required for faithful living here and now-is not an otherworldly project. Neither does it confront or surrender to the values of the prevailing order of things. The challenge is to recognize the idolatrous dimension of the world of globalization, in which “the market, science and technology, useful and necessary in themselves for the construction of the world, can be transformed… into absolute subjects, bearers of messianic hopes,” in which “the human being is reduced to an object” and can then be oppressed and killed “without any limit and with a good conscience.”85
What is called for, then, is a spirituality which begins with resisting the logic or rationality of the system; resisting the culture, the ethic and the spirituality of the system, within the system itself. It is not about fleeing or marginalizing yourself from globalization, but living within it with a different spirit.86
If globalization augments the scourges of social fragmentation and exclusion, then the concrete form in which resistance takes shape is through the practice of solidarity. Solidarity
is the capacity to construct within the system a cultural, ethical and spiritual resistance to the total market system itself. Solidarity with the life of the excluded and with nature constructs a culture of life, against the system’s culture of death.87
Solidarity in turn makes possible hope, which along with resistance and solidarity are identified by Richard as requisites of a faithful Christian spirituality. In addressing the possibility of hope, Richard notes the importance of the traditional spaces in which everyday life is lived, naming them as potential contexts where the alternative logic of respect for life can be lived at the very heart of society. These include ,the family, the human community, the neighborhood, the workshop, centers of labor, the local market.”88
Richard is also hopeful that what he calls civil society may also provide a space where solidarity may be practiced. The political dimension of faith passes today more through the traditional spaces and through civil society (construction of a new power) than through political society (taking of political power).
Civil society includes those communities, places and movements that exist on the margins and in the cracks of the global society. They include the efforts of Blacks, native peoples, women, and young people to gain control of their lives; efforts at land-friendly farming that preserves the traditional peasant society; alternative medicine-any efforts undertaken at the local level to create a space where options are permitted and preserved.89 Insofar as these human undertakings celebrate the possibility of solidarity, they stand as alternatives to the universalizing assumptions of neo-liberalism and look towards the possibility of a different kind of society, oriented towards the common good, in which there is room for all.90
It is nearly impossible for the moment to construct an economic and political alternative to the present system of globalization, yet it is already possible to question radically its logic, its rationality, its idolatrous spirit. Indeed, there exist spaces of life where the poor succeed in surviving economically, small local political triumphs happen, social movements grow, even though the hope of a global economic, political and cultural alternative is not arising. There is still no alternative to the system, but there is an alternative to the spirit of the system, which is lived in those already existing spaces of life.91
Richard and many of his colleagues consider that the reawakening of spirituality in the context of globalization calls urgently for a new style of pastoral ministry with emphases considerably different from those of base-communities in the recent past.
Arturo Piedra notes that the exigencies of the immediate misery suffered by the excluded constitute the “primary territory of work” even though pastoral ministry must also include nurturing awareness of the system which produces the misery. Immediate pastoral ministry, he observes, cannot give birth to a new, more humane system. It can, however, create a network of solidarity to respond to immediate needs which might prepare the way for a more hopeful system in the future.92
In Jose Duque’s words, what is called for is a pastoral discourse not centered on the Church’s internal life, much less what happens inside its buildings, but a discourse that takes with absolute seriousness the context of ministry.93 Richard considers that in the development of such pastoral ministry, nothing is more important than the current work being done to foster Bible reading at the popular level. He is convinced that the Scriptures can give people at the grassroots level the resources for a powerful spirituality that does not depend upon the institutional Church and its hierarchy for its existence.94 Jorge Pixley calls for a Christian education which is at once “a critical reading of our social reality, . . . a critical reading of the Bible as Word of God,” and “a school of critical reading of life as God’s creation threatened by those who seek to take for themselves the goods they don’t need.”95
At the heart of this Bible-centered spirituality of resistance is the concept of the Church as people of God, motivated and defined by solidarity, or mutual love. Faith has
in its hands all the historical force of the Word of God: all the power revealed to us in the exodus and the historical and prophetic traditions of Israel, all the liberating tradition of its books of wisdom and the prayerful and mystical power of the psalms. Finally and in a definitive way, the strength of the Word which was revealed to us in Jesus, in the Jesus movement and in all the inspired writings that were born there.
And, Richard believes,
if the church were capable of reconstructing the identity of its origins and recovering the strength of the Word of its first communities, then the Word of God would be today life and hope for the majority of humanity excluded from all life and hope, and also for the cosmos that groans stricken by humans’ “progress.”96
Richard considers that the renewal of a biblically based spirituality depends on complementary interpretation from three distinct but related sources (or “hermeneutical loci”). The first is the academic, in which scholars and intellectuals use scientific tools of biblical interpretation. The second is the liturgical-institutional, focused in the Church’s worship, preaching and teaching (the “magisterium”). The third, the communitarian, is “the privileged space of the poor and excluded in the interpretation of the Bible,” a space “of solidarity and spirituality,” of “commitment and mission,” creative, prophetic, ecumenical.97
Richard’s vision, to which he and many others are deeply committed, is to encourage the interaction between these three levels of interpretation in order to foster in each believer the power of God’s Word. To this end, he and others have developed the Red de lectura popular de la Biblia (Network of Popular Reading of the Bible), brief intensive workshops offered throughout Latin America to train grassroots leaders who can serve as facilitators of the communal Bible study considered to be essential. By the end of the 1990s, more than 25,000 persons had participated in those workshops. Commenting on the revolutionary potential of such a movement, one of its teachers compared it to the ants that devour whole trees to nourish the fungus from which they feed themselves: “So the house of power can be destroyed!”98
Pastoral ministry based on prayerful and shared reading of the Bible calls, in Richard’s view, for the restoration of a number of vital elements. The first is a redirected biblical scholarship so that its riches may be readily accessible to the whole Church. (One of the Network’s primary objectives is sharing the tools of biblical studies with local educators.) The second is delivering the Scriptures into the hands of the people of God. The third is the recovery of biblical preaching. The fourth is a scripturally based catechesis. He also urges the development of a biblically based spirituality grounded in the tradition of Lectio divina, and renewed attention to the biblical foundations of Christian theology, Christian ethics and the Church’s social ministry.99 A pastoral style incorporating these elements would, he believes, result in a renewed Church, faithful to its calling and reminiscent of the Spirit-filled communities of the New Testament.
With the energetic call of Pablo Richard and his colleagues, the vision of a new reformation, which so energized the earliest theologians of liberation, makes its appearance once again. If its contours are no longer as vivid and broad as they were a generation ago, they remain nevertheless shaped by the reality of a crucified continent and the biblical witness of the God of life. Chastened by events and the passage of time, the undercurrents of hope and the call to action continue to sound, this time with new respect for the voices of the past and for voices previously unheard, for the everyday sorrows and joys, for the uniqueness of individuals, for time to play and dance and sing. Perhaps it is a vision at once more realistic and more humane; more noticing of forgiveness and grace.
You speak to us of Latin America. It is not important. Nothing important can come from the South. It is not the South that makes history. Henry Kissinger100
The scorn and dismissal in the words of the former American Secretary of State echo across the years as a reminder that it is very easy for those who wield power to assume that they live on the axis of history. But multiple voices of Christians from Latin America cannot be so easily dismissed by people of faith.
The value of Latin American liberation theology for Christians beyond the continent, and specifically for Christians of the northern hemisphere, has been widely discussed. Some, including this author, have found the concept of the reign of God to be of great usefulness in articulating the nature of Christian faith in a world like ours. Others, while accepting the validity of the approach for Latin Americans, consider that its contextual nature limits its usefulness in other settings. Still others, of course, consider it to rest on an impossibly distorted reading of the Gospel. The question to be asked now is, what effect have the changes that have occurred in liberation theology in the last decade had on its significance for Christians in other places? Does liberation theology at the beginning of the twenty-first century continue to have a place at the theological table?
Earlier stages of liberation theology were useful in helping North American Christians to recognize not only the contextual nature of faith in Latin America, but in every culture. If we are much more willing to ascribe significance to the ways in which our own context shapes our believing, it is at least in part because Latin American Christians taught us how. That insight has not lost validity, and as they have attempted to respond to changes in their own context, contemporary liberation theologians can help us understand just how dynamic is the nature of faith.
I am grateful too for the persistent reminder from Latin America that Christian faith has consequences in the way we live in the world. It has never been easier, and the temptation has never been greater, to shrug at the possibility of change and to retreat into a purely personal and internal “spiritual” form of religion. At this point in Christian history, it seems to be Christians in the so-called developing world, among them Latin Americans, who are struggling to preserve the communal nature of Christian faith, the dimension of solidarity without which faith deteriorates into something less than Christian.
The witness of Latin American Christians committed to a future worthy of human beings created in God’s image should serve as a reminder to Christians in other places that the Gospel’s promise has a political dimension, if by that we mean not a particular political system, but an awareness that we are human in community.
The emphasis on Marxist analysis and the commitment to socialism which marked so much earlier Latin American liberation theology was always problematic for many Christians in other places. On the other hand, many American Christians willing to think further than an exaggerated culturally induced fear of the “Red Menace” gained new understanding of the ways in which economic factors shape both the institutions and the forces within which we live and minister. Now that most liberation theologians have rejected or dubbed irrelevant the classical socialist models on which they depended, the enduring truth of their focus on the place of the poor for the Gospel has become even more accessible for North American Christians.
At the same time, the more recent openness to the reality and value of religious experience and everyday life in dialogue with the social and political dimension of human existence create a more balanced perspective. A faith at once personal and political, mindful of both daily pain and global apocalypse, homely celebrations and cosmic promise, would seem to promise a fruitful dialogue with North American Christians who so often struggle to hold together these two facets of faith.
Unlike their counterparts in more comfortable parts of the world, theologians in Latin America have never been able to avoid the risky aspects of conflict over life-and-death issues. The many whose names are joined to the company of martyrs of the last few decades serve as signs of just how significant is the task of articulating a living faith. We who do not share their danger might do well to recall just how urgent are the fundamental issues of belief and practice.
We might also note and heed the willingness of those whose positions have cost them a great deal to rethink and revise their assumptions in the light of a changing world. To my mind, the humility and grace necessary to do so is a valuable reminder to Christians in more protected environments that it is sometimes necessary to give up our most cherished assumptions for the cause of faith.
But most of all, it is Latin American liberation theologians who have called the whole world to see with the eyes of faith the whole truth about the globalization which defines the world at the beginning of its third Christian millennium.
The fall of the Berlin wall has been interpreted by many people in the developed countries, including Christians, as the turning point of the future. Our politicians tell us this is a fact of life that cannot be changed, and that it is good news for us all. Of course on some level, we know better; our casual acceptance of homeless people even in small-town America is a sign that all is not really well. So too is the burgeoning security industry, along with the wholesale construction of prisons capable of housing a significant percentage of this country’s minority population. But in the prevailing cultural atmosphere of the industrial world, we have come to believe that these are the inevitable price a minority must pay for the well-being of the majority (including ourselves).
Latin American liberation theologians spell out what we would most like to forget: it is not a minority that pays the price for us; it is a majority. Hearing them means that we will find it harder to ignore the consequences of the current world “order,” not only for many of our immediate neighbors but for those to our south and in other parts of the world.
Christians in other places must also be struck by the multiplicity of new theological voices issuing from Latin America. The impact of claiming the right to be a “historical subject”-a shaper of one’s own destiny-has theological as well as social and political consequences. (I am reminded of the evocative title of Fredrica Harris Thompsett’s book, We Are Theologians.)
Liberation theologians to our south have been touched and changed by the presence of voices they had ignored: the voices of women, Blacks, and native people. They have learned that poverty is not the ultimate fact of life; it is exclusion.
Surely the voices of women, of Blacks and Native Americans also need to be heard as we grapple together with the demands of faith in our own setting. And there are other voices historically excluded from the common perception of the world as from the articulation of a common faith. Among many others, we might mention the rural poor; young people and children; the elderly; people whose lives are shaped by their status as illegal immigrants; gay and lesbian people; people from other parts of the world, including Asians and Africans, who now make their home among us. Perhaps a dialogue with Christians in Latin America on the theme of exclusion might make it possible for them to hear some of those same voices that are still silenced to our south.
Of course our native pragmatism finds it nearly unbearable that no “solution” is readily available; but “solutions” solve only superficial problems, while what is at play among us calls for a different way of seeing and being and behaving. Voices from Latin America help us to dare to do what they are doing: wait for alternatives to emerge, and in the meantime hold on to a vision of what it can mean to be human before God.
Henry Kissinger was wrong. At least for Christians, the axis of the world passes among those who are its victims. For nearly half a century, Christians in Latin America have helped us to recall that fact, and to grasp the promise of the Gospel in new and sometimes thrilling ways. If the nature of the hope is different and the wait turns out to be longer than we or they expected, that neither erases nor minimizes the value of their witness. Nor does it diminish the value of our dialogue with them.
In the words of the Costa Rican theologian Victorio Araya:
The worst that can happen in times of desperation is not to have hope; in times of darkness, not to trust in the light. In the depth of darkness we should always have in our minds, as St. John’s prologue says,. . . “The light-life of God came to the world and dwelt among us… . . In the midst of history and its prolonged darkness, the light continues shining. The darkness could not dominate it or put it out.101
1 I am grateful to the Seminary Consultation on Mission for a grant which enabled me to carry out this study at the Seminario Biblico Latinoamericano in San Jose, Costa Rica in June and July of 1999. I am also grateful to the administration, faculty and staff of the seminary, and especially to Professors Arturo Piedra and Victorio Araya, for their help in this study.
2 G. Hansen, “Mas alla de la euforia o el derrotismo: algunas consideraciones eticas y teologicas frente a los nuevos cambios en America Latina,” Cuadernos de Teologia, XVII (1998), p. 173.
3 W Altmann, O. Bobsin, R. Zwetsch, “Perspectivas da Teologia da Libertacao: Impasses e Novos Rumbos,” Estudos Teologicos 37, 2 (1997), p. 130.
R. Alves, “O Deus do furacao,” in Alves, ed., De dentro do furavao, quoted in Leopoldo Cervantes-Ortiz, Series de Buenos: La teologia ludico-erotico-poetica de Ruben Alves, una alternativa del desarrollo de la teologia protestante latinoanericana (Master’s thesis, Seminario Biblico Latinoamericano, unpublished, 1998), p. 30. Tr. mine.
5 G. Gutierrez, “Renovar `la opcion por los pobres,’ in Revista latinoamericana de teologia, XII, October-December 1995, pp. 269-280.
Ibid., p. 269. Tr. mine.
7 Gutierrez, p. 271. Tr. mine.
s Perhaps the most accessible accounts of the reflection fostered by the basecommunities can be found in the series of books published by Ernesto Cardenal, who lived and worked in an isolated fishing community in Solentiname, Nicaragua.
Hello Gallardo argues that to speak of Latin American theology does not imply that its insights are limited to one geographical or historical context; rather, because it takes as its starting point the poverty of the continent, it is related to whatever theologies have a similar genesis. H. Gallardo, “La Teologia de la Liberation como pensamiento latinoamericano,” PASOS, 56, 1994, p. 15.
” “The proletariat and class struggle lose relevance; socialism loses its plausibility.” Altmann, Bobsin, Zwetsch, p. 132. Tr. mine.
11 Pablo Richard, Director, Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones (Ecumenical Department of Research), San Josh, Costa Rica, Personal Interview, June 24, 1999.
12 Jose Comblin, Called to Freedom (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1998), p. 161.
13 Arturo Piedra, quoted in Alexa Smith, “Latin American Christians Reshape Liberation Theology,” Villagelife.org, 1999.
14 Comblin, p. 14.
15 Ibid., pp. 84 ff.
16 Assmann, pp. 71, 186. Assmann points out that pentecostal groups grew in conflicted countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador precisely when the Church was most involved in the popular political struggle. He also faults liberation– oriented pastors for politicizing worship by using it to raise political and social awareness. Ibid., . 211.
Jorge Pixley, “Que nos dejo el BOOM de la Teologia de la Liberacion?,” Desafios de la Mision, Third Mesoamerican Encounter of Theology, Comunidad Cristiana Mesoamericana, 1997, pp. 101-106. Tr. mine.
is Assmann, pp.22, 28, 48.
19 Elsa Tamez, “When Sons and Daughters of the `Free Woman’ Are Born as Slaves,” unpublished lecture, Monte Carmelo, Honduras, 1997.
20 E. Tamez, “Neoliberalism and Christian Freedom,,” unpublished lecture, Monte Carmelo, Honduras, 1997.
21 H. Assmann, “Apuntes sobre el tema del sujeto,” in J. Duque, ed., Perfiles teologicos para un nuevo milenio, DEI, San Jose, Costa Rica, 1997, p. 126. Tr. mine. 22 There are an estimated 40,000,000 people in Brazil alone who fall into this category. Altmann, Bobsin, Zwetsch, p. 135.
23 Hugo Assmann, “Teologia de la liberacion: Mirando hacia el frente,” PASOS, 55, 1994, pp. 2-3. Tr. mine.
24 F. Hinkelammert, “Una sociedad en la que todos quepan: De la impotencia de la omnipotencia,” PASOS, 60, 1995, p. 5. Tr. mine.
25 Enrique Duissel, Etica de la liberacion. En la edad de la globalizacion y la exclusion (UAM-I, UNAM, Mexico, 1998), p. 55. Tr. mine.
Ibid., p. 311. 27 Ibid., p. 558. 2 Ibid., p. 562.
29 G. Gutierrez, Teologia de liberacion. PErspectivas (Salamanca: Ediciones Sigueme, 1972). pp. 353-356. Tr. mine.
30 Ibid., pp. 357-360.
al Gutierrez, Teologia de liberaci6n. Perspectivas, versi6n revisada (Salamanca: Ediciones Sigueme, 1990), pp. 312-317. Tr. mine.
32 Ibid., p. 318.
as E. Dossel, Etica de la liberation, pp. 567-568.
34 G. Gutierrez, “Renovar la opcion por los pobres,” pp. 269-270, 273. Tr. mine. 35 Pixley, pp. 103-104, 106.
as Gutierrez, p. 273. 31 Ibid., p. 279.
38 R Richard, “Teologia de la solidaridad en el contexto actual de economia neoliberal de libre mercado,” PASOS, 83, 1999, p. 4. Tr. mine.
I W Altmann, 0. Bobsin, R. Zwetsch, pp. 134-135.
ao Dr. Elsa Tamez, President, Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana, San Jose, Costa Rica, Personal Interview, July 15, 1999.
41 A diminutive form of padre (“Father”) used with clergy with whom one has a personal relationship.
42 A. Mendez-Penate, “Una espiritualidad para la mujer?”, Revista de Interpretation Biblica Latinoamericana (RIBLA), 13, 1992, pp. 89, 90. Tr. mine.
43 Ibid., pp. 93, 94. 44 Ibid., pp. 101-102.
45 Ibid., p. 96.
46 M. Gonzalez Butron, “Desde el mundo de las excluidas para un mundo donde quepan todos y todas: Por la visibilizaci6n de las invisibles,” PASOS, 70, 1997, p. 8. Tr. mine. In this quotation she is citing the work of Janine Anderson, La planificacion con perspectiva de genero, Santiago de Chile: Mimeo, 1994.
47 Ibid., p. 6.
48 “Corporeality, as a source of criteria for an Ethic of Solidarity, has been a fundamental contribution of the feminist struggle …. We want a society where life in its fullness is possible for all.” Ibid., p. 6.
49 Ibid., p. 7.
50 Ibid., p. 7.
51 “Entramos otra vez a la historia,” mensaje del Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion National, in La jornada (Mexico, February 22, 1994), p. 8. Cited in E. Dussel. Commenting on the manifesto, Dassel observes, “Thus ethics becomes the last resource of a humanity in danger of self-extinction” p. 568. Emphases in text original; tr. mine.
52 G. Gutierrez, Teologia de la liberation. Perspectivas (revised edition, 1990), pp. 19, 24-26. Tr. mine.
53 Roy H. May, “La tierra en tiempos de globalizacion,” PASOS, 76, 1998, p. 21. r. mine.
55 Ibid., pp. 22,24
56. J. Pixley, “dQue nos dej6 el BOOM de la Teologia de la liberation?”, p. 105.
57 J. Comblin, Called for Freedom, p. 69.
58 May, p. 21.
59 L. Boff, “Las tendencias de la ecologia,” PASOS, 68, 1996, pp. 1-2, 5. Tr. mine.
60 Ibid., p. 6.
62 Ibid., p. 7.
63 Ibid., pp. 8, 9.
64 Jose Comblin, p. 112.
65 Pixley, pp. 106-107.
66 J. Gonzalez Faus, “Una tarea historica: de la liberacion a la apocaliptica,” Revista latinoamericana de trologia 12, 1995, p. 290. Tr. mine.
68 Hansen, pp. 183-184.
69 H. Assmann, “Apunters sobre el tema del sujeto,” in Duque, ed., p. 129.
70 Elsa Tamez, Personal interview.
71 E. Tamez, “De silencios y gritos. Job y Qohelet en los noventa,” PASOS, 82, 1999, p. 5. Tr. mine.
72 Ibid., p. 6.
73 Ana Maria Rizzante Gallazzi and Sandro Gallazi, “La prueba de los ojos, la prueba de la casa, la prueba del sepulcro. Una clave de lectura del libro de Qoheleth,” PASOS, 14, 1993, p. 79. Tr. mine.
74 C. Dreher, “Editorial,” PASOS, 14, 1993, 5.
76 Tamez, p. 2.
77 Ibid., p. 4.
78 E. Tamez. “The Absence of God,” Latin American Bibical University Newsletter, 6, 1999, p.1.
79 R. Schaull, “El quehacer teologico en el contexto de sobrevivencia en AbyaYala,” undated, pp. 4-5, 10. Tr. mine.
I C. de Oleivera Ribeiro, ” Mudancas e desafios: a Pastoral e a teologia latinoamericanas em questao,” in Revista de Cultura teologica, 3, 1995, pp. 79-80
81 Ibid., p. 94.
82 Schaull, pp. 10-12.
83 P. Richard, “Subjetividad, espiritualidad y esperanza. Algunas perspectivas para definir el sujeto,” PASOS, 79, 1998, p. 30. Tr. mine.
84 Ibid., pp. 29,31. 85 Ibid., p. 29.
86 Ibid., p. 30. Resistance is an important theme in many contemporary liberation theologians’ reflection on spirituality. In 1992, the Revista de Interpretation Biblica Latinoamericana (Journal of Latin American Biblical Interpretation) devoted a whole issue to “Spirituality of Resistance.” (RIBLA, 13, 1992.)
87 P. Richard, “Teologia de la solidaridad en el contexto actual de economia neoliberal de libre mercado,” p. 4.
88 Ibid., p. 6.
89 Pable Richard, Personal Interview, June 24, 1999.
91 ibid., p. 8.
92 Dr. Arturo Piedra, Professor of History, Seminario Biblico Latinoamericano, San Josh, Costa Rica, Personal Interview, July 6, 1999.
93 Jose Duque, Vice-President, Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana, San Jose, Costa Rica, Personal Interview, July 5, 1999.
94 Pablo Richard, Personal Interview. J. Pixley, pp. 108-109.
P. Richard, “Palabra de Dios, fuente de vida y esperanza para el nuevo milenio,” PASOS, 78, 1998, p. 4. Tr. mine.
97 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
98 Sister Ana Francisca Lopez, Red de Lectura Popular de la Biblia (Network of Popular Bible Reading), Venezuela, Personal Interview, June 24, 1999.
Richard, “Palabra de Dios,” p. 8.
100 Quoted in A. Rouquie, Extremo Occidente e Introduccion a America Latina (Buenos Aires: Emece, 1990), p. 353. Tr. mine.
101 V. Araya, “La utopia de la luz,” PASOS, 56, 1994, p. 25. Tr. mine.
JOHN L. KATER, JR.*
* John L. Kater, Jr. is Professor of Ministry Development at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California.
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