Latin American Christians Reshape Liberation Theology

By Alexa Smith
Presbyterian News Service

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Though Latin American theologians here are groping to describe and confront a global economy that continues to devastate Central America, they agree that a political shift from capitalism to socialism -- the solution offered by liberation theology's first generation of thinkers -- isn't the answer.

But that doesn't mean liberation theology itself is dead. It is quietly being reborn and reshaped by a second generation of Latin American theologians who admit that they owe early liberationists a great debt for their grassroots organizing methodology.

The revolutionary fervor of the 1980s has not abolished the grueling poverty that some now call an economic holocaust for the poor in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and, more recently, Costa Rica. So this new generation of Latin American theologians is "rereading the Bible," searching for words to describe what Christians have traditionally called the "new creation" -- a transformation that ultimately alters the political and economic spheres, though it does not begin there.

Realizing that political and economic power is too easily corrupted and that it too readily ignores the needs of the poor, these new liberationists look first for a pastoral response to the suffering all around them.

"We're between Egypt and the Promised Land, contemplating how to interpret this desert we're in," said the Rev. George Cruz, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission worker here. The pastors with whom he works, Cruz said, are struggling with an economic system their Honduran parishioners describe as having gone "from poverty to misery." Cruz said he feels "the church here is standing between the future and the past ... trying to evaluate."

Meanwhile, political questions grow more complex, poverty becomes more dire, international debt escalates and options narrow for Central America's future.

"We still don't understand how, theologically speaking, we can define or explain this big monster, neoliberalism,'" said the Rev. Arturo Piedra Solano, a Presbyterian-trained church historian in San Jose, Costa Rica, defining the term as many Central Americans do as an unbridled free market. "In the past we used to say, Organize a guerilla movement. Organize the unionists. Organize a popular movement.'"

But, he continued, "we've had guerrilla movements, we've organized unions, we've had popular movements, and we still couldn't defeat capitalism," Piedra said. "In the 1980s, we had an elaborate and sophisticated theory [liberation theology]. 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?"

Most dire, some Central American theologians observe, is the insidious consumerism they've observed among North Americans and Europeans that keeps coming closer and closer to home, affecting both those who have too little and those who have too much. This consumerism, said Elsa Tamez, president of the Latin American Biblical Seminary in San Jose, Costa Rica, is most characterized by the proliferation of shopping malls, the availability of credit cards and the marketing of expensive products like Nike athletic shoes that are increasingly sought as status symbols.

Pointing out that a Latin biblical methodology always begins with the perspective of the poor, Tamez said, "I feel that all of the world -- Africa, the United States, Central America -- is involved in this logic that says that to be someone you have to have a lot of power or money, you have to seek status."

In contrast, she said, the new Latin American theologians are "... talking about a new society, where the life of people is first," where profits and possessions take second place to the needs of people. "It doesn't matter if it is capitalism or socialism. If capitalism brings life and justice, then go [with it]. What's important is the new creation. ... [But]," she said, pausing, "how can you say everything is very good in the economy when the quality of life is growing worse and worse and worse?"

Cruz said Honduran pastors seldom call themselves liberationists, any more than Calvin referred to himself as a Calvinist. But liberationism is their theology, whether they call it that or not. And the focus of that theology is increasingly local -- ministry in misery so deep that the people's diet consists largely of tortillas and coffee, minus even the egg that might have been part of the meal when Hondurans were relatively better off.

Cruz said the first generation of liberation theologians lost sight of the fact that "you need to start small -- micro not macro." He told the Presbyterian News Service that the emphasis now is on how God changes the individual life, then moves that life toward the neighbor and the community. "Instead of changing the whole structure," he explained, "they're starting by changing small parts of that structure."

Piedra agrees and, moreover, sees the church as the locus of life in Latin communities and a powerful agent for transformation.

"We as churches could do a lot to alleviate the suffering of people," he insisted. "We don't need to be a socialist state. ... We need local organization. And since religion in Central America is part and parcel of the life of the community ... we need to take advantage of that aspect, in day-to-day life at the community level."

By integrating indigenous religious leaders, known as "the wise," and women into the theological conversation, churches can be more inclusive, said Tamez -- a factor the founders of liberation theology neglected in the 1980s. But working at the local level goes more slowly, she added, stressing that Latin feminists do not want to move ahead so quickly that they leave church women behind.

"We have to work slow with these people," Tamez told the Presbyterian News Service. "Theology and spirituality ... they must be together."

But analysis of the economic tensions between rich and poor are crucial to the theological task. "The fundamental option for the poor remains," said Tamez, citing the oft-quoted liberationist maxim from the 1980s. "But people think liberation theology is dead because the socialism is not there ... but [liberationism] is a methodology ... it's a point of starting."

U.S. biblical scholar Ched Myers of Los Angeles, a longtime analyst of liberation movements, describes the current shift in Latin American theology as a "deepened and broadened" attempt to get at the pastoral needs of war-ravaged Central Americans while still finding effective ways to critique an economy that exploits Central America's people and resources. "The theologians are becoming more analytical, more critical of the Marxist/Leninist [thought]" that characterized earlier liberation theology, he said. "But they've gone through a war. They've seen the successes and failures.

"Now they're [opening up] pastoral theology ... and that is the most authentic kind of Christian response."

Despite the current economic desperation, Piedra remains hopeful. "What we know is that the future is going to be better," he insists. "It is not clear yet how to face the enemies of our people. But we know God is with us because God is a God of the poor. ... That," he said, "is a vision, not an illusion. It is Christian hope for the future."

Related Internet Sites:  

For more information about Central America, see these related sites.
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The Christian Task Force on Central America
Coalition for Central America


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