Liberation Theology and the Left in Latin America (Fifth in a Friday Series on Liberation Theology)

 Unlike its counterpart in the United States, the left in Latin America has not lost its sense of mythological reason – i.e. ability to connect the profound truths of ancient myth and story with contemporary problems. Instead, LT has fostered among the third world poor the understanding of Jesus and Paul described earlier in this series. That is, over the last 45 years, LT has used the insights of the poor themselves coupled with those derived from the scripture scholarship of the last century and a half to nurture social activists and social movements, and to sow the seeds of profound social change. 

That’s exactly what happened beginning in the 1960s, especially following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the meeting of Latin America’s National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ in Medellin, Colombia in 1968.

The Second Vatican Council was a precursor of liberation theology. Largely inspired by the loss of the working classes in Europe to communism and socialism, Vatican II attempted to connect with the European left to regain lost terrain. So the church re-presented itself as the servant rather than the opponent of the world. It owned publicly as its official teaching the “best kept secret of the Catholic Church,” viz. its progressive social teachings that first took shape with the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum in 1891. Those teachings endorsed labor unions, higher wages for workers, and government social programs on behalf of the working classes. 

The impact of Vatican II was immediate. Catholics everywhere representing the largest Christian denomination in the world, at last felt free to join in common cause with communists and socialists. The resulting praxis cannot be disassociated with the social revolutions that followed in Europe and in the United States throughout the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The near toppling of the French government in 1968 cannot be disassociated from Vatican II and the Catholics it inspired to join students, labor unionists, atheists, socialists and communists marching, demonstrating and rebelling in the name of social justice. Similarly, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement in the United States cannot be explained without taking account of the Catholics who swelled their ranks as a direct result of Vatican II. The same can be said for the women’s liberation movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, the American Indian Movement, the prisoners’ rights movement and others. None of them can be fully explained without prominent reference to the Second Vatican Council and the resulting appropriation of religious mythology by the activist left.

In fact, the civil rights movement itself expressed a kind of black liberation theology – a politicized theology in the black evangelical community. Without the black churches the achievements of the civil rights movement would never have happened. Even Malcolm X who rejected Christianity realized that any social movement that refused to connect with the spiritual is doomed to failure.  He used the teachings of Islam to mobilize African-Americans the same way Martin Luther King Jr. used the Christian tradition as understood in the African-American community.

Meanwhile, in Latin America, the earlier referenced Medellin meeting of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM), sought to apply the teachings of Vatican II to their region. They shifted even further to the left than the Catholic Church in general. In fact, they adopted a liberation theology understanding of the Gospel. They reaffirmed that understanding at Cancun, Mexico in 1973 and at Puebla five years later. In all three cases, they appropriated the LT term, “preferential option for the poor.” That is, they agreed that God’s chosen people are the poor and oppressed, and that the church’s primary mission is to serve the poor in the interests of their liberation – politically and economically as well as spiritually.

More to the point, what had happened with Vatican II and even more so with liberation theology is that for the first time, the left had confronted the right with an extremely powerful alternative mythology to counteract the mythology of what Marx referred to as “the gods of heaven” and the “gods of earth.” Those gods were responsible for keeping Latin America’s poor not only impoverished, but (in Marx’s terms) humiliated, subjugated, abandoned and despised.

The gods of heaven challenged by liberation theology are familiar enough. They can be met at any hour of the day or night on the religious programming so prominent on radio and television. The myths belonging to the gods of heaven rationalize poverty in terms of God’s will. The poor are especially dear to God, of course. But what pleases God is not their struggle for liberation, but patience in this life for the sake of reward in the life to come. 

As for Marx’s “gods of earth,” they are most prominently money, capital, law and market. Traditional prophetic language would refer to them as “idols.” In this 21st century, they are absolute in their power. Ironically, despite their “scientific” and “secular” pretensions, they are no less religious than their heavenly counterparts. For example, there’s something quite revealing about the chairman of Goldman Sachs using theological terms to describe the firm’s mission. “We’re doing God’s work,” he said recently. In Popper’s terms, the dogmas of these gods of earth are entirely un-falsifiable and hence “religious” not scientific in nature.

In other words, the rumors of the dawn of a secular age are vastly exaggerated. Hopefully secularization will be achieved by our children or grandchildren; it has largely eluded our generation. In any case, the myths underpinning the gods of earth include the myth of progress, that of the “Invisible Hand,” the “trickle-down” myth,  as well as the one summarized in Margaret Thatcher’s famous mantra, “There is no alternative” (to corporate globalization).  These gods of earth are unquenchably blood thirsty and demand those 30,000 child sacrifices each day. They demand as well a $2 billion per day U.S. war budget against the infidels who would resist the empire that serves the gods of earth. Those infidels, by the way, are invariably the Third World poor.

Next Friday: The First Religious War of the 21st Century

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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