Magazine article Tikkun

New Faces of a Liberating God: The Evolution of Liberation Theologies in Latin America

Magazine article Tikkun

New Faces of a Liberating God: The Evolution of Liberation Theologies in Latin America

Article excerpt

Most of the 10,000 people who live in the mountains surrounding the Andean village of Layo, Peru eat potatoes when their small farms provide them with enough to eat. When they don't, they simply go hungry. The children walk for several hours to get to the village school. There is no doctor. Many sick people brought down from the mountains by their families just don't make it.

I am in Layo looking for whatever happened to liberation theology.

Sister Margarita Recavarren offers me a cup of cocoa leaf tea in the kitchen of the adobe building in Layo where she works. She is a tall, vibrant Peruvian, seventy-five years old with cropped grey hair, who emanates strength and enthusiasm.

Sister Margarita remembers the early effervescence of liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s, and how the reforms of Vatican II led to conferences in Medellin, Colombia in 1968 and Puebla, Mexico in 1979, where Latin American theologists began to articulate a theology specific to Latin America.

It was here in Peru that Guttierez organized the first 'liberation theology' conference in 1968, followed by his book Liberation Theology in 1971. He and other liberation theologians challenged a vision of God that was apolitical and removed from the problems of everyday life. They wrote of the importance of praxis, that a theological theory or lesson needed to be lived and practiced in the real world of hunger, oppression, and poverty. A true Christian should exercise "a preferential option for the poor." Base communities were formed all over Latin America that encouraged the poor to actively analyze and challenge their situation, drawing inspiration from the liberation stories of Jesus and Exodus.

"The crux of liberation theology," says Sister Margarita, "is the question that Father Gustavo Guttierez asked more than thirty years ago: 'How can you talk about a good god to an oppressed people? We are still asking that question.'"

How Liberation Theology was Silenced

THERE AREN'T VERY MANY PEOPLE like Sister Margarita left in Peru these days, people working within the Catholic Church who are still around from the early days of liberation theology. There is Father Victor Ramos, a friend and associate of Guttierez who directs the Southern Andean Institute in Cuzco. And there is Guttierez, who became a Jesuit and now directs the Instituto Bartholomé de Las Casas in Lima [Editor's Note: For more on Las Casas, see the piece by Immanuel Wallerstein in this issue].

Local people speak with nostalgia about concerned activists within the church who are no longer with them: Monsignor Albano, who they say was forced out of his position by the Catholic Church five years ago despite massive popular demonstrations of support, and Father Luis Santoni, who died in a mysterious car accident on a lonely road in the 1980s. Margarita shows me on a map of Peru the thin strips of territory which are still considered liberation theology territory. In Peru, Opus Dei and the conservatives are winning.

The story has been similar in other Latin American countries. During the 1980s, as liberation theologists challenged U.S.-backed governments in Central and South America, right-wing forces responded by cleansing the church of its progressive leaders. Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was gunned down in 1980, and six Jesuits were killed in El Salvador in 1989. In Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, religious activists were taken away with other suspected subversives and killed, imprisoned or disappeared. The United States raised its own call of alarm at the progressive forces within the church in reports published by Rockefeller in 1969 and Reagan advisors in 1980, calling them "dangerous to the exterior politics of the United States."

Though Marxism and armed resistance formed a part of the early dialogue of liberation theologists, people who lived through those times have told me that the label 'Marxist' was used to condemn all progressive theologians much in the same way it was used in the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy Era. …

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