The Ties That Bind: Religious Communities and Political Change

By Raleigh-Halsing, Sarah | Conscience, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ties That Bind: Religious Communities and Political Change


Raleigh-Halsing, Sarah, Conscience


Reverse Mission: Transnational Religious Communities

and the Making of US Foreign Policy

Timothy A. Byrnes

(Georgetown University Press, 2011, 196 pp)

978-1-58901-768-9, $26.95

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

UNITED STATES FOREIGN policy has been profoundly shaped by the desire to contain perceived threats of communism in Latin America, preventing them from reaching the US's backyard. Following this strategy in the 1970s and 1980s led to a history shared by many countries in the region--one of political repression, civil war, poverty and the installation of brutal military dictatorships supported and aided by the US. Drawing on his previous work and interest in religion and politics, Timothy Byrnes gives a unique perspective on the influ ence religion plays in shaping US foreign policy decisions in Latin America in his book Reverse Mission: Transnational Religious Communities and the Making of US Foreign Policy.

The title of the book is taken from the Maryknoll belief that, in addition to spreading the word of God and sharing in the plight of the communities where they are posted on religious missions, the consciences of US citizens and actions of the US government are also fair game for missionary work. Defining the term for the broader context, Byrnes states that a "reverse mission" is the process by which a religious community or some of its members advocate on behalf of their religious brothers and sisters abroad who are affected by US foreign policy but have no leverage in the United States to address their grievances. The book moves beyond a general history of liberation theology and the Catholic church's social justice work in Central America and Mexico and provides an in-depth and compelling examination of how religious communities have created change.

In the case of the Jesuits, one of the order's guiding principles, education, tied the men of the US Jesuit community to their counterparts in El Salvador. The 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests from the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador at the hands of the Salvadoran military was the catalyst for action by Jesuit leaders in the US. Following the murders, they spoke out against United States foreign policy, advocated for change in El Salvador and demanded legal action against the murderers.

The Maryknoll sisters' connection to Nicaragua represents a different approach to transnational religious communities advocating for change in US foreign policy, in the sense that the Maryknoll order has a traditional focus on missionary work. After witnessing the poverty, economic and social disparities and political repression in Nicaragua, many Maryknoll members returned to recount their experiences at Masses across the country and to ask for money for the people of Nicaragua. They also educated the American public about the violence inflicted on Nicaraguans at the hands of the counter-revolutionary forces known as Contras, who were supported by the US military and the Reagan administration. Many of the sisters expanded their missionary education work beyond the confines of Catholic parishes and schools and spoke at public rallies, non-Catholic religious institutions and NGOS in the United States.

In the third case study, Byrnes examines the Benedictine brothers at the Western Priory in Vermont. A traditionally monastic order, in the 1970s the brothers established a close bond with a group of Benedictine nuns living in Mexico known as Las Misioneras Guadalupanas de Cristo Rey. This connection served as an educational opportunity not only for the brothers, who learned about the political, economic and spiritual realities of their sisters in Mexico and the community they serve, but also as an outreach opportunity for US citizens as a whole.

The Western Priory community helps organize retreats for US laypersons who wish to spend time living at the Guadalupe Center, an outreach center run by the Benedictine sisters that offers support and services to the poor of Cuernavaca, Mexico. …

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