Baptists and liberation theology: Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean
Following Jesus is always relative to the context in which the following is done. It is not the same to follow Jesus in industrialized, “Christian” Europe as it is to follow Jesus in impoverished, predominantly Islamic Bangladesh. Some groups of Christians in a predominantly Christian context that has been impoverished over the last century have discovered that following Jesus means struggling for liberation from oppression and poverty.
Several factors converge: (1) a recovery of the Bible read in the light of God’s identification with the poor in God’s incarnation and Jesus’ ministry; (2) the recognition that the process of impoverishment was a side-effect of the growth of wealth, some get rich by excluding most of the rest from a share; (3) the initiation of a process of mutual feeding of the two factors so that the Bible was read through the lenses of the perception of an unjust world and the injustices of the world were read in the light of the Bible; (4) the resulting theology was a critical reflection on the Bible and the world.
Because of the context in Latin America where this began forty years ago, the emphasis was at first mostly on a political struggle against oppressive dictatorships. As things developed, feminists and ecologists introduced their struggles against patriarchy and the despoiling of the environment as legitimate concerns of the struggle of the poor for liberation, and the 500th anniversary of the European (and Christian) invasion of these lands and the enslavement of Africans added the effort to free dominated cultures to be themselves. Thus, Liberation Theology (LT) has been broadened to include these elements.
Baptists were certainly not leaders in LT, but neither were they absent. This article is an initial effort to track the Baptist contribution to LT and what elements, if any, are especially Baptist in the movement. The definition of the area as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean responds to the need to limit the scope of the investigation and to the fact that Baptists are present throughout this area.
The paper will proceed in four steps: Some further establishing of the context, a recounting of Baptist presence in the struggles for liberation, the cataloguing of major Baptist liberation theologians and their contributions, and a general assessment of the relation between Baptists and liberation theology.
The Context for Liberation Theology
The last fifty years in Latin America have seen both an increase in wealth and a very great growth in the levels of poverty. While standards of health improved in general, undernourishment and diseases associated with poverty like cholera and typhoid became a permanent presence. Population increased at a time when the economies being built required ever less human power to operate profitably. Our economists, instead of talking about how to build economies to meet the needs of the increased populations, began talking about surplus population!
These few indicators help explain the emergence of revolutionary movements, beginning with Lazaro Cardenas and his Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico in the thirties, followed by the Peronist movement in Argentina in the forties and the miners’ and peasants’ movement in Bolivia in the fifties. Social Democrats established viable governments in Venezuela (Romulo Betancourt), Puerto Rico (Luis Munoz Marin), and Costa Rica (Jose Figueres), which were not able, however, to sustain themselves in the face of an increasingly aggressive market.
A new promise was the victory of the armed insurrection of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement in Cuba that entered Havana in triumph on 1 January 1959. Similar movements had been squelched in Nicaragua in 1934 with the murder of Augusto Sandino and in El Salvador in 1931 with the massacre of thousands of peasants under General Maximiliano Martinez. But the Cuban Revolution was able to maintain itself by establishing an alliance with the Soviet Union, at the price of being sucked into the Cold War. The fear of Communism led to terrible military coups in Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), and elsewhere.
The Kennedy administration launched the Alliance for Progress in Uruguay in 1961 as an effort to counteract the attraction of Cuba with a real development by infusion of capital from abroad. The result was a disaster, with some temporary successes like the Central American Market between 1963 and 1970. But this was the context for a very influential Theory of Dependence (1) to explain the impossibility of development with dependence on outside capital (which wants mechanisms to repatriate its earnings), but also for the literary boom associated with authors like Julio Cortazar (Argentina), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Alejo Carpentier (Cuba), Carlos Fuentes and Juan Rulfo (Mexico) and Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala). Latin America had discovered itself culturally, and it seemed to have identified its frustrating impoverishment as a result of its dependence on foreign investment.
Religiously, Vatican II (1963-65) opened the Catholic Church to the study of the Bible and began an influx of missionaries who were appalled at the poverty they found among the people to whom they ministered. Student movements also took up Bible study and ecumenical approaches along with an enhanced political awareness such as that which exploded in Mexico in 1968 and ended with the student massacre at the Tlatelolco Plaza on 2 October 1968.
It was the ecumenical student movements and the Catholic groups in marginal communities that studied the Bible by which the real movement for liberation took root among Christians. It was in reflection on their activities that people like Gustavo Gutierrez (Peru), Hugo Assmann (Brazil) and Richard Shaull (Brazil), university chaplains; Rubem Alves (Brazil), a young Presbyterian pastor; and Jose Porfirio Miranda, a Mexican Jesuit Bible professor, wrote theologies “of liberation.” (2) The foundational books all appeared between 1970 and 1972, in an amazing coincidence from many points of Latin America. There were no Baptists among this first generation of academic liberation theologians.
Baptists in the Struggle
The precursors. For Baptists in our area, the precursors of the struggles for liberation in the twentieth century were first of all the Jamaican Baptists of the early nineteenth century. Emancipation was declared by parliament for the entire British Empire in 1834, but its implementation was slow, with the Crown offering monetary payment in exchange for freed slaves. The Jamaican plantation owners were in fact the strongest bastion of resistance to emancipation. Jamaican Baptist congregations were entirely made up of peoples of African origin, some of them still enslaved and some freed. The Jamaican Baptist movement was founded by Africans who came from the U.S., many as escaped slaves. Naturally, these religious associations of Africans were among the Jamaicans who pressured for emancipation. In 1842, shortly after emancipation, the Jamaican Baptists formed their own missionary organization to send missionaries to Africa. (3)
A small but interesting episode is the role of Belizan Baptists in providing Christian support structures for the people of Corn Island in the Nicaraguan Caribbean. In 1852, Edward Kelly, a twenty-eight-year-old school teacher was sent by the Queen Street Baptist Church in Belize to found a school and a church on Corn Island, both of which he accomplished in short order. The Ebenezer Baptist Church became the only Christian church on that island and its school the only school there. Pastor Kelly led his flock in instituting 27 August as the big celebration of the year in commemoration of the emancipation made effective by British Superintendent Alexander McDonald on that date in 1841.
Also among the Baptist precursors of the liberation struggle were the first Cuban Baptists, Cuban patriots exiled in the U.S. as a result of their participation in the revolts against Spanish rule of their country. Several became Baptists in their exile, and when they were able to return to Cuba, they resumed their independence struggle while also forming small Baptist congregations which were of course illegal.
Cuba. The population of Santiago, Cuba, was in a state of general discontent in the years after the failed assault on the Moncada military headquarters 26 July 1953. Insurrection brewed under the leadership of Frank Pais, the eldest son of the Rev. Francisco Pats of the First Baptist Church, one of the largest Protestant churches in Cuba. Josue, the youngest son, was also in the clandestine movement under Frank’s command.
Frank organized the reception of the ship Granma which brought Fidel Castro and his band of rebels from Mexico. The plan was to create a major military action in the city on 30 November 1956 by taking several key police and administrative stations in the city. This was to coincide with the landing of the Granma at a beach some miles West of Santiago, where local people were prepared to guide the arrivals up into the mountains. The acquisition of weapons, the military training, the organization into sealed cells of militants, and the communications with Fidel in Mexico were under the overall command of Frank. As it turned out, the Granma was delayed at sea and, although the city was controlled by the rebels on the 30th as planned, the landing did not happen until the 2nd of December. The diversion over, the army was free to confront the Granma band. Some managed to escape with the assistance of Frank’s people, and among them was Fidel Castro. During the months that followed, Frank Pais organized the urban support for the guerrilla forces, uniforms, weapons, fresh recruits, information, etc.
Frank was shot down on the streets of Santiago the morning of 30 July 1957. His funeral the next day closed down the city to accompany his family and church to take his body to the cemetery. His brother Josue had been killed three weeks before. As the oldest son of the pastor of a major downtown church, Frank was well known and spent his last months in the strictest clandestinity. He had been a Sunday School teacher. With natural musical talent, he composed several hymns and songs, and directed the choir in the El Caney mission congregation outside of Santiago. The name by which he chose to be known in clandestinity was David.
It is impossible to know how much support Frank and Josue Pais had among their brothers and sisters of the faith. When he was born on 7 December 1934, the anniversary of the death of patriot Antonio Maceo, it is recalled by a family friend that his father prophesied he would become a great patriot. (4) At this point, there was not yet any systematic theological reflection among Baptists on the call to insurrection, and much less on the more military branch of that insurrection which was his personal calling. A letter to his girlfriend on the wall of the parsonage which is today a museum reveals that he had accepted as his vocation the call to military life, a surprising development which may reveal more communal reflection than Baptists in Santiago recall. (5)
Many years later under the revolutionary government, a broad group of Baptists from several churches organized the Baptist Coordinating Committee of Workers and Students of Cuba (COEBAC), which since 1973 has held annual retreats to study the Bible in search of “Christian social responsibility.” These annual gatherings were in some years held at camps in the country and preceded by a week of volunteer labor in cane fields or fruit orchards. (6) Baptists from abroad often identified with LT were invited to lead the Bible studies. Pastors and lay people from all three Baptist conventions participated. (7) In the early 1990s, when several participating churches were expelled from the Western Baptist Convention for “getting into politics,” some ten churches in the Havana and Matanzas provinces founded the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba. This organization openly supported the revolution and has a study center in the Marianao Baptist Church (Marianao is an area of the City of Havana, on the West side) named for Martin Luther King Jr., where LT courses are offered at various levels.
El Salvador. In the early 1960s, Augusto Cotto, pastor of the Santa Ana First Baptist Church, one of the grand old Baptist churches in that country, was a leader in the popular organization to resist increases in bus fare, and in charges for public utilities. His support in the congregation was from a minority, but this was a formative experience for Salvadoran Baptists in liberation struggles. (8)
The Emmanuel Baptist Church, located near the old Baptist school on the South exit from the capital city, has been an explosive center of witness and action for liberation. Over the years, Emmanuel has been involved in the public life of its agitated country providing labor leaders, directing an orphanage for war orphans (a dangerous enterprise) and holding many intensive courses on LT. Although the church has had some great pastoral leadership, the key to the “conversion” of Emmanuel to the kingdom, was its conscientious use of the Nueva Vida en Cristo Sunday School materials, which call for intensive discussion of Bible and social context. (9) Emmanuel has given four civilian martyrs murdered for their witness to Christ the Liberator.
In 1975, the Baptist Association of El Salvador (ABES) founded a theological school in Santa Ana, which, during its existence until a crisis in 1993, trained pastors in an LT perspective, which created a participatory style in the Baptist churches of El Salvador and an openness to both sides of the war and to cooperation with Catholics for the public good. (10)
Mexico. The center of Baptist identification with popular struggles in Mexico is the Baptist Seminary of Mexico (SBM) in the San Angel area of Southwestern Mexico City near the campus of the National University (UNAM). (11) In 1972, Augusto Cotto became Rector and the seminary openly declared itself an advocate of LT, inviting Jesuit Porfirio Miranda to teach some Bible courses and the exiled Paraguayan Catholic priest Gilberto Gimenez to become dean.
Recognition by the Baptist convention was withdrawn in 1971 because of the seminary’s ecumenical stance, which is in the background of the radical turn toward LT of 1972. This required a reorienting of the church base for the seminary, and the decision was taken by the Seminary Board to privilege work among indigenous groups which were at that time neglected by the convention. A deliberate effort was made to recruit students from Central America, where many young people were going abroad to escape political persecution from military governments in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The student body declined (one year, 1980, it bottomed out at five), but they did intensive pastoral work in rural, indigenous churches. A movement of indigenous churches of various denominations called the Evangelical Indigenous-Peasant Council of Mexico (CICEM) was formed in the mid-eighties with seminary leadership and with an emphasis on recovering Native American values in the churches, including language and religion (up to a point).
Solidarity became a major concern of faculty and students: Rooms in the dormitory were reserved to receive political refugees fleeing from military repression in Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Many ecumenical meetings between Catholics and Protestants of the “left” were held in the Baptist installations. Catholic seminarians came to take classes at the SBM. In 1975, two foreign professors arrived, Jorge Pixley to teach Bible and Jean Pierre Bastian to teach church history and sociology of religion. The professors of pastoral theology were a remarkable couple of Native American pastors, Lazaro Gonzalez, a Zapoteco from the State of Oaxaca, and his wife Olivia Dominguez, a Nahuatl from the State of Puebla.
When Catholic bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo of Cuernavaca organized the Secretariado Internacional Cristiano de Solidaridad con America Latina “Oscar Arnulfo Romero” (SICSAL), the founding meeting was held at the Theological Community hosted by the Baptist Seminary. Some of the best-known bishops of Latin America were there for a week in 1982: Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, Tomas Balduino from Brazil, Leonidas Proano, bishop of Riobamba, Ecuador, and others. Mexican liberation theologians Miguel Concha (Dominican), Luis del Valle (Jesuit), Jorge Dominguez (Franciscan), Raul Macin (Methodist), and others gave the biblical and theological orientations. Alberto Moises Mendez, a Mixteco from Oaxaca and a Baptist minister, was Rector of the Theological Community of Mexico in the first half of the 1980s and provided leadership for this and other solidarity events. In recent years he has withdrawn from theological education.
Puerto Rico. Because Puerto Rico has an old-fashioned colonial relationship with the U.S., the struggle for liberation takes the form of a struggle against U.S. domination in political and military affairs. Perhaps the peak of the struggle for Baptists was the resistance to the draft during the U.S. war against Vietnam. In the 1960s, the university chaplain for the Concilio Evangelico, the Protestant Church Council, was a young Baptist graduate of Yale Divinity School, Samuel Silva Gotay. (12) The Evangelical students participated in protests against the presence on campus of an ROTC unit and had meetings counselling on draft resistance.
In 1971, the U.S. Navy scheduled bombing practice off the island of Culebra in Eastern Puerto Rico. Fishermen protested since they were banned from their fishing waters during the weeks of the exercise. A group of evangelicals including Baptists held vigils on the beach on the site of a Methodist church requisitioned by the Navy. An ultimatum was issued by the Navy, and thirteen men were selected to keep up the vigil, including Baptist theology professor Luis Rivera Pagan. The thirteen were condemned to three months in prison in February of 1971. Students and faculty of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico (SEPR) rallied around Professor Rivera to successfully prevent his dismissal. During his months in prison, the seminary held a theological forum on “Latin American Theology and Black Theology,” to which David Shannon, a U.S. African American Baptist, was invited and where Rivera’s lecture written in prison was read.
Nicaragua. The Somoza dictatorship was overthrown in Nicaragua by a popular uprising, mostly in the cities. Many Baptists participated, some helping to build barricades in the streets to stop the Army jeeps, some youth joining the fighters, some hiding the fighters, and others in other tasks. A case in point would be Monchita Rodriguez, an elderly woman and a member of the Gethsemane Baptist Church (Second Baptist) in Managua. She made her house in a poor section of Western Man agua into a hospital for wounded fighters, for whom she built a secret passage to the next house to conceal the young men when the police came searching.
Once the Revolutionary Government was installed in July of 1979, new opportunities opened for Baptists in public life. There had been some preparation in the teaching of LT at the Baptist Seminary so that some pastors had theological tools for the struggle which were not available to Frank Pals in Cuba twenty years earlier. In the 1984 elections, two Baptists were elected Congressmen for the Sandinista Party: veteran retired pastor Jose Maria Ruiz and a younger layman Sixto Ulloa.
As it became clear that the U.S. Reagan Administration was funding the counterrevolutionaries, the Baptist convention passed several resolutions calling on their brothers and sisters in the U.S. to resist their government’s criminal actions against the Nicaraguan government. Between 1978 and 1992, the executive committee of the Nicaraguan Baptist Convention issued a series of some ten “pastoral letters” supporting their revolutionary government and calling for the cessation of U.S. aggression. Frequent delegations from the Baptist churches in the U.S. participated in tasks such as rebuilding houses destroyed by the bombing of the city of Corinto in 1982, which served to build bridges of people-to-people understanding at a time when their governments were in hostile confrontation.
Meanwhile, the Baptist Seminary in Managua deepened its study of LT. Jorge Pixley was called as a Bible professor and arrived from Mexico in 1986. A journal, XILOTL, devoted to Nicaraguan theology was founded by the seminary in cooperation with the Evangelical Divinity School (FEET) in 1988 and continues to appear to the present twice a year. Its 150-page issues are devoted to articles written in Nicaragua by Baptist men and women and others who are not Baptist. The publication now, after eleven years and twenty-two issues, constitutes a small library of Nicaraguan LT. The Baptist Seminary honors Frank Pais with biennial lectures in social ethics which bear his name.
Costa Rica. The Costa Rican Baptist Convention is young, since the first church, San Jose First Baptist Church, was founded in 1943, and it is small with only some twenty-two congregations. (13) Among the convention leadership in the 1970s, there built up a resentment against the highhandedness of U.S. missionaries in their dealings with Costa Rica. In 1980, a missionary couple from the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board was declared personae non gratae by the convention, and letters were sent to Richmond requesting that they not return from their furlough. (14) The board sent a delegation to San Jose which met for a day with the convention executive committee but insisted that the couple were assigned to Costa Rica permanently and that they would return. As a result the convention severed its relations with the mission board, a position it maintains to the present day.
The First Baptist Church of Limon, Costa Rica, an English-speaking congregation of black Costa Ricans, houses in its basement the Centro Teologico del Caribe, an ecumenical theological school geared to prepare laypersons with a curriculum and staff much influenced by LT. This, plus the “popular” experience of the Los Cuadros Baptist Church in San Jose, pastored by Miriam Marin, are an LT presence even in the deeply indoctrinated, docile population of Costa Rica.
Distinguished Baptist Liberation Theologians
Augusto Cotto. We have already come across Augusto Cotto, pastor of the Santa Ana First-Baptist Church in the 1960s and rector of the Baptist Seminary of Mexico in the 1970s. (15) In Santa Ana, he was initiated in the popular struggles by that western city’s people. Around 1970, he went to Mexico to continue his studies, and shortly became rector in the midst of the 1972 crisis that shook that theological school.
Augusto Cotto was a leader. He made up for the theological solidity which he and his colleagues lacked with Mexican Catholic and Methodist theologians, whom he was quick to invite to accompany him at the SBM. He made the SBM a center of solidarity, not being afraid of the various political and religious currents rampant among the political exiles to whom his school gave refuge. When the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) was formed in the late 1970s among a coalition of leftist groups in El Salvador and the Salvadoran exile, Augusto had gained enough political credibility to be named the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the shadow government of the FDR. It was on a trip to Panama to meet with President Omar Torrijos that the plane he and some other FDR leaders had rented went down off the coast of Panama City in September of 1980, killing four of them, including Cotto.
Cotto did not live long enough to write a book. (16) His theological production was in the form of lectures given on academic and solidarity occasions. He is remembered for pithy sayings, among them: “The local church is our battle trench.” “A theological school must be a workshop and not a warehouse.” His greatest contribution was his deep involvement in the political arena of leftist forces whose intricacies frightened most Christian believers. He helped ease many young Protestants into the political struggle which for him was the place God was working in his time. And he did so without losing sight of the fact that for believers in Jesus Christ the church will always remain the main arena of political struggle.
Jorge Pixley. Outside of Baptist circles, probably the best-known Baptist liberation theologian in Latin America is Jorge Pixley, a Bible professor in Puerto Rico (1963-75), Mexico (1975-85) and Nicaragua (1986-). (17) Pixley is an academic and not a politician like Cotto. Pixley’s teaching and his writing have been an effort to practice biblical scholarship with an ear for what people in the churches and popular Bible study groups are thinking. During a year at the Lutheran School of Theology in Jose C. Paz, Argentina (1969-70), he was involved in the ecumenical opening of the (Catholic) Association of Biblical Professors (SAPSE) which awakened him to the need for a distinctive Latin American biblical scholarship.
Pixley’s most influential books in biblical studies are a small book on the kingdom of God (1977), a major commentary on the Book of Exodus (1983), a work on the Option for the Poor (1986), and a textbook of the history of Israel from the perspective of the poor (1989). (18) His presence in the Teologia e libertacao collection directed by Leonardo Boff and edited in Brazil helped give some ecumenical vision to that predominantly Catholic collection of tomes of theology. It was for this collection that he wrote the biblical foundation for the Option for the Poor along with Clodovis Boff, who provided the more pastoral insights for that foundational topic of LT. He has been one of the shapers of the biblical reading from the perspective of the poor which characterizes the journal RIBLA, produced in Spanish in Quito and in Portuguese in Petropolis.
Pixley has also produced a series of books for Baptists on subjects of Baptist history and theology, which have been a support for Baptists seeking a commitment to popular struggles for liberation. (19) He has participated in the production of the journal of Nicaraguan theology, XILOTL, and has written there on biblical and historical subjects for a Nicaraguan Evangelical audience.
Luis Rivera Pagan. Born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, in 1940 of parents who were very active Baptists, Luis studied at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico (M.Div.) and Yale Divinity School (Ph.D.). His first public presentation was a paper he wrote in prison on “Hope and Liberation,” which was read at public lectures at the SEPR in March of 1971. (20) Rivera’s lecture contrasted escapist forms of hope with realistic hope based on possibilities not realized but capable of being realized in our world, with distinct echoes of the thought of Tubingen philosopher Ernst Bloch.
Rivera Pagan became deeply involved in the struggle for peace and was for several years a member of the executive committee of the Christian Peace Conference, an organization based in Prague which worked to bring together Christians on both sides of the Cold War to work for peace. As a culmination of these efforts, which made him a well-known theologian in Eastern Europe and Latin America, he wrote a major work on nuclear weapons, A la Sombra del Armagedon: Reflexiones Criticas Ssobre el Desafio Nuclear (Rio Piedras, 1988).
With the end of the Cold War, Luis, who was now a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and taught occasionally at ESPR, turned his attention to issues of Latin American history and culture, fields in which his literary production is abundant. A major work on the Conquest was translated into English, A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville, 1992). Since then, he has written several books and many articles on Latin American literature and theology. (21) His interests also include some more inner-Protestant work on Puerto Rican Protestant theologians. (22) In recent years, he has been and is today a member of the executive committee of the Iglesias Bautistas de Puerto Rico, and was chosen to give the launching Bible study at the centennial convention in March 1999.
Of all liberation theologians of any religious confession, Rivera Pagan was during the years of struggle against nuclear warfare the most knowledgeable, and now he is probably the most astute theological observer and interpreter of the literary scene. His reading and criticism cover, not just the “boom” years of the 1960s but also contemporary writing.
Raul Suarez Ramos. Raul Suarez came from a small town west of Havana, and his studies in theology were done at the Baptist seminary in Havana, with a semester later at the SBM in Mexico. The invasion at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) in 1961 found Raul a young pastor of a rural church in the Cienaga de Zapata, the area where the fighting took place. He put himself and the church vehicle at the service of the defense effort, taking the wounded to safety, suffering a minor wound himself in the process. A little later, the imprisonment of forty-some Baptist missionaries and pastors for trafficking in foreign currency scarred Ramos with feelings of shame for the massive Baptist involvement in shady dealings. He became vice-rector of the Baptist Seminary of Havana and pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao. From this position as pastor (he later resigned at the seminary), he led the Western Baptist Convention in coping with the difficult period of confrontation with the state in the 1960s. When it passed, he led in the early 1970s in the founding of COEBAC to draw together “patriotic” Baptists from the three Baptist conventions for annual study retreats and for mutual support. The COEBAC published a journal called CORREO BAUTISTA in which Suarez wrote frequently. After the retirement of the legendary Presbyterian Raul Fernandez Ceballos in the mid-1980s, Suarez became executive secretary of the Ecumenical Council over the objections of many of his Baptist colleagues who supported their conventions in their nonparticipation in ecumenical endeavors.
Suarez’s role as a theologian has found channels in his preaching, his leadership in the COEBAC retreats over the years, and in the founding of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for theological studies in LT in buildings constructed for that purpose on the church lot in Marianao.
With the opening of the Communist Party to Christians in the early 1990s, Raul Suarez was invited to become a member of the national parliament of the “poder popular,” the Cuban equivalent to Congress. He has now served in this parliament for some five years. His speeches and his sermons at Ebenezer, where he continues to serve as pastor, provide guidance to Baptists and other Christians seeking to understand the role they can play as evangelicals in revolutionary Cuba. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center produces a journal, Caminos: Revista Cubana Del Pensamiento Socioteologico, which Suarez founded and to which he is a contributor.
Pastor Raul Suarez’s role in politics has proved controversial among his Baptist brothers and sisters. This is in part a reflection of the peculiar Cuban situation, where Christians have lived forty years of blockade with all the consequent traumas and with a difficult relationship with their peers in other Caribbean and Latin American countries. Among many evangelical Christians, the Revolution itself is blamed for the problems caused by the blockade, and “patriotic” Christians seem to be unfaithful Christians. Rev. Suarez would respond that the Revolution has provided Cubans with health-care and educational facilities unrivaled in Latin America; is not this meeting Christ in the needy (Matt. 25)? Of course, he is right. But the agonizing polarization within the church of Jesus Christ remains, and it ought not to be there.
In a more important sense, what has happened to the Cuban churches reflects a universal problem. LT with its convictions, that the kingdom of God must come first is often an abrasive presence in the church, where many people go to get away from the conflicts of everyday life. The issue is not unrelated to the confidence with which leftist parties and regimes know what is best for people who, they say, are ignorant of their own interests. This is not the place to discuss this important issue. It is to be expected that with the lowering of tensions that accompany the end of the Cold War the parties of the left will become more pluralist and less dependent on authoritarian solutions, destroying adversaries. We already see this within theology with the emergence of “special interest groups” of feminists, Native Americans, blacks, and ecologists within LT. This ought to prove healthy.
Younger theologians. LT has meant a sea-change in theology in Latin America, Baptist and other. The option for the poor can never again be ignored by honest, knowledgeable Christians, when the number of poor people continues to grow at an alarming pace. The requirement to center the gospel around Jesus and the Gospels more than around the more ecclesiastical issues of church-building in the Epistles remains.
This does not mean that LT will remain the dominant current it has been in Latin American theology. Feminism and ecological theology do not seem concerned to affirm their continuity with LT but rather to push their interests for which an explicit commitment to LT might prove an obstacle. There are certainly changes in the theological scene in Latin America. My suspicion is that LT will continue as a major presence finding channels in multiple forms that have an affinity and draw their biblical and theological orientation from the foundational work of LT even though they may prefer to adopt other names to transcend old conflicts.
The younger theologians are, of course, harder to identify than the established figures we have dealt with up to now. Jerjes Ruiz Castro, a Nicaraguan theological professor, is already established, since he became a faculty member at the Baptist Seminary of Nicaragua in 1975. His licentiate thesis in Costa Rica was on Latin American biblical hermeneutic (Carlos Mesters, a Brazillian Catholic, and Juan Stam, a Costa Rican Presbyterian). He earned a D.Min. at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is founding director of the Institute for Humanistic Studies at the (Baptist) Politechnic University, where LT is studied as an outstanding element of Latin American thought.
Most of his writing has been in XILOTL and is often poetry or poetic prose. (23) He is an active pastor at the Philadelphia Baptist Church in Masaya, some twenty miles from Managua. Like Luis Rivera, Jerjes’ major concern is that seminarians become cognizant of their own culture, in his case more of local Nicaraguan culture, including painting, dance, and archaeology, rather than the broad tapestry of Latin American literature which is Rivera’s field. Nevertheless, at the Costa Rican gathering of Baptist theologians in 1986, he read a paper on the priesthood of all believers within the Nicaraguan revolutionary context, a LT reading of a classical Baptist teaching. (24) His sphere of influence is basically Central American, but within Central America, he is a significant liberation theologian who strives to hold a local congregation together, a congregation that includes a number of members who were openly hostile to the Sandinista experiment and to LT.
The most important Baptist feminist theologian in our area is Rebeca Montemayor, a young professor at the SBM. While being the mother of young children, she has kept up a teaching schedule and has read papers at several encounters of LT and/or feminist theology. (25) It is too early to know what the contribution of this young Mexican theologian will be, but her work is very promising. She illustrates the turn of LT toward particular struggles for liberation.
Joel Sierra Cavazos is pastor of the Iglesia Bautista Sinai in the industrial city of Monterrey in Northern Mexico. He studied theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Sierra’s greatest contribution is his music. He is a talented composer who writes both lyrics and instrumentation for his pieces, which include a Christmas cantata and dozens of hymns. The inspiration for his music is clearly LT, but whether he will ever write theological books is doubtful. In fact, it is surely more important that he not give up composing his beautiful hymns and magnificent choral music with rhythms from all kinds of Latin American music that inspire singers and listeners to clap and sway while they take in challenging messages.
Leticia Guardiola Saenz is also from Monterrey. After getting her licentiate degree in literature, she studied theology at Northern Baptist Seminary in Chicago. She is currently a doctoral student at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta where she is continuing her literary critical studies in Bible. She has written a promising piece for the experimental journal SEMEIA on the pericope of the Canaanite woman, which suggests promise as a biblical scholar with feminist motivations. (26)
We must attempt an overall assessment of the Baptist contribution to LT and its roots in Baptist realities. This is a strange thing to do, since LT is in principle not a confessional theology. As Baptists, we must, nevertheless, ask the question in order to understand ourselves better.
Because LT sees itself as a critical reflection on practice, we begin by observing that Baptist congregations actively committed to the struggle for liberation are few and far between. Baptists tend to take root among urban people with aspirations to social rising through education and personal effort, hardly a promising setting for a struggle to identify with and work for the liberation of the poor. Nevertheless, we found “liberation” congregations in San Salvador, among the CICEM congregations of indigenous people in Mexico (not all Baptist, or course), and in the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba. Among them, Emmanuel Baptist in San Salvador stands out as an urban congregation consciously striving to follow Jesus in the struggle for the kingdom.
Once we turn to academic theology, the Baptist contribution begins to look greater. Baptists are a people of the Book, and the Bible is everywhere and always a principal inspiration for the Christian struggle for liberation. Baptist liberation theologians have made a significant contribution to the biblical foundations of LT. One must qualify this by observing that this contribution is only possible where a critical reading of the Bible has been achieved, and such is not the case in many Baptist theological schools. In schools like those in Managua, Rio Piedras, and Mexico, where this is an accomplished fact, the contribution of Baptists has been significant. Pixley’s History of Israel has been published in over 20,000 copies in Spanish and Portuguese, a significant number for a theological textbook in Latin America.
Baptists in Latin America are characterized by a practice of their faith which stresses self-discipline (no drinking, dancing, smoking, etc.), and this is an ambiguous feature for our question. On the one hand, a life such as that of Frank Pais is impossible without a great self-discipline. On the other, this lifestyle makes it difficult for Baptists to share in popular movements where festivities are fundamental to social cohesion. We Baptists are uncomfortable at ecumenical worship where wine and dance lubricate the praise of God. Some theologians resolve this problem by breaking down their inherited taboos, but this brings a price tag in terms of one’s base in the churches. And this is not a problem in the first place of theologians but of communities if we are going to live and worship with believers who are Catholic, Pentecostal, and Lutheran in a common effort to follow Jesus. Until we can all gather around the Lord’s table together, we will not get very far in following Jesus together. Studying the Bible together is easier than worship, but even here not many congregations have learned to do so with non-Baptists.
Baptist autonomy has been an important contribution to LT. Although there are means of repression against what are perceived as alien currents at theological schools and in local congregations, Baptists have a greater tolerance for diversity than most other confessional traditions. This has enabled congregations and theological schools to subsist as dissident elements within larger Baptist families. In some cases, it has enabled Baptists to provide a cover for ecumenical solidarity that was not possible in Catholic or Lutheran circles, as at the SBM in Mexico. One must observe that for theological schools the sympathy of the American Baptist Board of International Ministries (ABBIM) and the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) of London have been essential at key moments. Roman Catholic seminaries have had a harder time as the Vatican has turned against LT, except in places like Sao Paulo where a Cardinal protects them. The German Franciscans have played a similar role for Catholics as the ABBIM has for Baptists.
The Baptist connections with the U.S. have been a problem, since this opens opportunities to exit the scene rather than transform it. If our primary international connections were with Spain and Portugal, the situation would be different. “Liberation congregations” have had to cultivate relations with dissident groups in U.S. Baptist churches to attempt to neutralize this temptation. The North American Baptist Peace Fellowship and the American Baptist Women during certain periods of time have been helpful. Nevertheless, the close Baptist relationship with counterparts in the U.S. is a built-in problem for us when we follow Jesus on the way to the kingdom perceived as a social reality.
An important plus for Baptists in this path to God is the existence of Baptist “social” saints, notably Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King Jr., Cristina Gomez (27), and Frank Pais. Such saints are role models who help Baptists understand that it is possible to be Baptists and follow Jesus to Gethsemane. Several Baptist organizations and lecture series are named after King and Pais, and they need to be worked into our Sunday School materials.
We have noticed the importance of culture in LT and its outstanding use by Luis Rivera and Jerjes Ruiz. There is a problem here, however. Because Baptist schools have been modeled on those in the U.S., our people read very little Latin American literature, even of Nobel Prize winners like Asturias and Garcia Marquez. If LT is going to take root among us, our young people must identify with the emerging and multifaceted cultures of Latin America which are most accessible through poetry, novels, and short stories. If the study of the saints is incumbent on Sunday Schools, that of Latin American literature is on Baptist day schools. Countries like Nicaragua have a great literary heritage, specifically in poetry, and this is already being cultivated in the day schools. It is in this culture in our churches that LT will flourish.
We come to the end of our preliminary assessment of LT in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The Baptist contribution has not been insignificant nor has it been dominant. But, why should it be, considering that we are a small Protestant church in a continent still largely Roman Catholic? Our concern should be rather with building for the future, taking advantage of our strengths in Bible study and local autonomy, and working to overcome our weaknesses for the future generations of Latin American Baptists who seek to follow Jesus Christ in His commitment to the kingdom of God. This future neither looks depressing nor promising; it holds real possibilities which must be exploited. And, with the help of God, that should not prove impossible.
(1.) Selected writings: Andre Gunder Frank, The Development of Underdevelopment (N.Y., 1969), Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, Dependencia y desarrollo en America Latina, 2nd ed., Mexico, 1970, Theotonio dos Santos, El nuevo caracter de la dependencia en America Latina (San Jose, 1973).
(2.) Rubem Alves, A Theology of Human Hope (Washington, 1969), which appeared in Spanish as Religion: Opio o instrumento de liberacion? (Montevideo, 1970), Gustavo Gutierrez, Una teologia de la liberacion; perspectivas (Lima, 1971), with an Orbis English edition in 1973, Hugo Assmann, Liberacion-opresion, desafio a los cristianos (Montevideo, 1971), which appeared in English as Theology for a Nomad Church (Orbis, 1976), and Jose Porfirio Miranda, Marx y la Biblia (Mexico, 1971) with English translation by Orbis, 1974.
(3.) See Horace O. Russell, “La iglesia en el pasado: Un estudio sobre los bautistas jamaiquinos en los siglos XVIII y XIX,” pp. 17-36, in Hacia una fe evangelica latinoamericanista, ed. J. Pixley (San Jose, 1988).
(4.) This information about Frank is drawn mostly from a book published by the Cuban Communist Party: Yolanda Portuondo, La clandestinidad tuvo un nombre: David (La Habana: Editora Politica, 1988). The recollection by Juan Francisco Ibarra on Pais’s prophecy is on pages 21-22. Baptists in Santiago have shared many anecdotes about this revered brother.
(5.) In the letter, which startled the author when he visited the parsonage in 1976, Frank says he would be proud to become chief of police in Santiago under a new revolutionary government.
(6.) The author directed Bible studies on the prophet Jeremiah at the 1976 gathering, held in the Second Baptist Church of Santiago in the Sueno sector of the city, and returned twice for later camps held in country camp grounds.
(7.) Cuban Baptists are divided among the Eastern Baptist Convention of churches started by American Baptists, the Western Baptist Convention, started by Southern Baptists, and the Free Will Baptists.
(8.) The author visited Pastor Cotto and his bride at their humble home on a dirt street in Santa Ana in 1964. Since FBC Santa Ana was dominated by middle-class people, one suspects that the young couple were identifying with ordinary people by the choice of living arrangements.
(9.) Nueva Vida en Cristo was prepared by CELADEC, an ecumenical Christian Education organization based in Lima, Peril, and was committed to an LT perspective. In general, few Baptists used this very simple and cheap material; it was very demanding in terms of congregational participation, not promoting LT but letting a congregation come to its own conclusions. The material is long ago out of print.
(10.) For information on Salvadoran Baptists, I have been helped by Ruth Mooney, who developed the Sunday School curriculum there, and by Roberto Saravia, a Salvadoran who currently pastors the Paso Ancho church in San Jose, Costa Rica, and who wrote a thesis at the Latin American Biblical University on the crisis that split ABES in 1992-1993.
(11.) The SBM was founded in 1946 by American Baptist missionaries, while Southern Baptists set up another seminary in Torreon in the North. The latter moved to Mexico City in the late 1960s to the Northwest sector of the city in Lomas Verdes. In these same late 1960s, the SBM joined with Episcopalians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterians in the Theological Community of Mexico.
(12.) Samuel Silva Gotay grew up in a Baptist family in Ponce, then studied at the University of Puerto Rico and Yale Divinity School. After being dismissed by the Evangelical Council as chaplain because of his involvement in anti-war activities, he went to Mexico to study in the Latin American studies program of the National University (UNAM) where he earned his Ph.D. and returned to become a professor in the School of Social Studies of the U.P.R., a position he continues to hold. He wrote what is one of the best presentations of LT, one that focuses on the logic of its thought rather than on the theologies of its big names, El pensamiento cristiano revolucionario en America Latina y el Caribe (Salamanca, 1981), with Portuguese and German editions. He is a Baptist scholar of LT but has chosen not to be a theologian committed to speaking for and to the church. He has recently published a second great book, Protestantismo y politica en Puerto Rico 1898-1930 (Rio Piedras, 1997) which is a historical study of the early Protestants of Puerto Rico and confirms his turn away from theology. For this reason, although he is a Baptist and is committed to LT, we do not consider him a Baptist liberation theologian in this account. His work is, nevertheless, excellent.
(13.) I am not counting Limon First Baptist, which was founded in the 1880s from Jamaica and was not related originally to the churches on the central highland.
(14.) The couple in question was the mission treasurer in Costa Rica, Donald Redmond, and his wife. From the letter we quote: “The new position of Mr. Redmond as Treasurer of the Mission has led him to take attitudes, in private and in public, which wound our national dignity. Economic pressure and threats have been used by Mr. Redmond and other missionaries to limit Costa Ricans in their right to express opinions.”
(15.) Of humble origins, Augusto was born around 1940 in a small Guatemalan town near the Salvadoran border. He confessed Christ as his Savior in a Baptist church in El Salvador and went to study theology at the Spanish-American Baptist Seminary of Los Angeles, California. He was called to Santa Ana First Baptist upon graduation.
(16.) His speeches appeared occasionally in scattered places. A good example is “El dialogo necesario entre Cuba y el resto del continente,” in Taller de Teologia 2 (1978), 37-44. Taller de Teologia was the journal of the Theological Community of Mexico which appeared from 1978 to 1985 and carried LT reflections by professors of the Baptist Seminary. The topic of Cotto’s piece, the need for a Latin American opening to Cuba from church to church, was a long-time concern of Cotto’s. He traveled frequently to Cuba for both ecclesiastical and political reasons. This article was also published in Praxis cristiana y produccion teologica, ed. J. Pixley and J.-P. Bastian (Salamanca: Sigueme, 1978), 239-47. This book gathered papers delivered at a theological meeting at the Theological Community in October 1977, with the attendance of liberation theologians Hugo Assmann, Porfirio Miranda, and Enrique Dussel, among others, and the participation of Jurgen Moltmann, James Cone, Harvey Cox, Sergio Arce, and David Griffin.
(17.) Jorge (George) Pixley is the son of American Baptist missionaries in Managua, Nicaragua. His elementary and secondary education was taken at the Baptist School of Managua, and then he studied at Kalamazoo College (B.A.) and the University of Chicago Divinity School (M.A., Ph.D.).
(18.) Reino de Dios (Buenos Aires, 1977), translated into English by Orbis Books as God’s Kingdom (1981) and into Portuguese. Exodo: Un comentario evangelico y popular (Mexico, 1983), translated into Portuguese and English (Orbis, 1986). Opcion por los pobres, coauthored with Clodovis Boff (Madrid, 1986), and translated into Portuguese, Italian, English, French, and German. Historia sagrada, historia popular (Managua, 1989, with later editions in Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Paraguay), translated into Portuguese, English (Fortress, 1992), and German.
(19.) Here we would place the two volumes of Baptist “Latin Americanist” theology published in Costa Rica: La mujer en la construccion de la Iglesia (1986) and Hacia una teologia evangelica latinoamericanista (1988). Also several books on the history of Nicaraguan Baptists: La cantera de donde fuimos sacados (Managua, 1988), Con fe viva (Managua, 1992) and Por una iglesia laica: Una historia de las comunidades bautistas de Nicaragua (forthcoming).
(20.) In this dramatic lecture series, David Shannon introduced Black Theology to Puerto Rican Christians, and Roman Catholic bishop Antulio Parrilla and Father Victor Nazario spoke of Colonialism and Latin American Theology. The four lectures were published in El Boletin of ESPR for July-September 1971.
(21.) Among them: Los suenos del ciervo: Perspectivas teologicas desde el Caribe (Quito, 1995); Mitos, exilio y demonios: Literatura y teologia en America Latina (Rio Piedras, 1996). In English: “The Word Became Flesh: Incarnation, Gospel, and Culture in Latin America,” in Hope and Justice for All in the Americas: Discerning God’s Mission, ed. Oscar Bolioli (N.Y., 1998); “Nuclear Apocalypse and Metanoia: Christian Theology in the Light of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” in Voices from the Hispanic Church, ed. Justo L. Gonzalez (Nashville, 1992).
(22.) He wrote a fine small book on three Puerto Rican theologians, two of them Baptist, called Senderos teolegicos: El pensamiento evangelico puertorriqueno (Rio Piedras, 1990). In this same vein is his forthcoming Dialogos y polifonias: Perspectivas y resenas.
(23.) Some samples: “Una cristologia en la poesia de Ruben Dario?” XILOTL 2 (1988), 91-95; “Espiritu de Yave: Liberacion y heroismo,” XILOTL 1 (1988), 59-68; “Carta a Jesus sobre su carta a Filadelfia,” XILOTL 19 (1997), 61-70.
(24.) Jerjes Ruiz Castro, “El sacerdocio de todos los creyentes. Una perspectiva de los bautistas nicaraguenses,” 201-218 in Hacia una fe evangelica latinoamericanista, ed. Jorge Pixley (San Jose, 1988).
(25.) A paper of hers is “De si la Biblia es masculina o femenina. Hermeneutica, genero y pedagogia,” in Por una sociedad donde quepan todos of several authors (San Jose, Costa Rica, 1996).
(26.) Her article is “Borderless Women and Borderless Texts: A Cultural Reading of Matthew 14:21-28,” Semeia 78 (1997): 69-81.
(27.) Maria Cristina Gomez was a teacher at a public school in San Salvador and a member of Emmanuel Baptist. She was a national leader both of Baptist women and in the teachers’ union. She was dragged out of her classroom and murdered by masked men on April 5, 1989. She had three or four young adult children at the time of her martyrdom.
Jorge Pixley is professor of Bible, Seminario Teologico Bautista, Managua, Nicaragua.
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