|Liberation Theology|
According to Amnesty International, 83 people were killed between March 10 and 14, 1980 in El Salvador. In San Salvador on March 23, the sunday morning after soldiers had killed a student at a Catholic university, Archbishop Oscar Romero pleaded:
My brothers, they are part of our very own people. You are killing your own fellow peasants. God's law, "Thou shalt not kill!" takes precedence over a human being's order to kill. No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is against God's law. No one has to obey an immoral law.
Romero had consulted a team of priests, sisters, and lay people for his sermon - they had agreed that the amount of violence justified a direct challenge to the military. Romero was shot while saying mass the next day. His funeral was the target of a bomb and automatic weapons. The church would later document 588 murders that month, almost entirely the work of official government and unofficial right-wing agents.
Those moments - that sermon, Romero's murder, his funeral - are among the most important in my life. They also express the core of liberation theology...

What I have learned there, the ideas of the theologians as well as commitment like Archbishop Romero's, has been a kind of compass for my own life, however errantly I may follow it...

Institutionally, moreover, the church was [in the 1960s] disproportionately serving the privileged, since priests and sisters were concentrated in the larger cities, often in Catholic schools for the rich. To the extent he began to be socially conscious, such a priest became aware of the church's complicity with an unjust social order...

Prior to the [Vatican II] council Catholics were taught that their main business in life was to remain in the "state of grace" and get to heaven. The church was the custodian of the means of grace and truth. In such a scheme earthly matters were ultimately inconsequential. At Vatican II, accepting and building on decades of work by theologians, the Catholic church modestly accepted its "pilgrim" status, journeying alongside the rest of humankind. In a further radical shift the church began to see in "human progress" evidence of God's working in human history...

Far more important than any of its particular decisions was the fact that the council led Latin American Catholics to take a much more critical look at their own church and their own society. Not only did they seek to adopt the council to Latin America - they began to ask Latin American questions.

Torres spoke openly of the need for revolution, defining it as a "fundamental change in economic, social and political situations." Power had to be taken away from the privileged and given to the poor majorities - that was the essence of revolution. It could be peaceful if the privileged elites did not put up violent resistance. In language that echoed the gospels Torres said that revolution was

the way to bring about a government that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, teaches the ignorant, puts into practice the works of charity, and not just for a few, but for the majority of our neighbors.
...Although very few church people joined guerrilla movements, many underwent a similar radicalization process. Torres' consistency in moving from words to action made him a kind of instant icon. He intuitively anticipated much of what was to become liberation theology...

Latin American social scientists were beginning to question the possibility of genuine development within the present world order... Their whole history could be written around successive exports (gold and silver, dyes, hides, rubber, coffee, and so forth) exploited by the centers of world production and their local allies, the landholding classes. Their twentieth-century industry was not their own but that of giant foreign corporations...

One key document was Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Progress of Peoples)... Within its generally moderate tone the encyclical hinted at a strong critique of the existing international economic order. The Wall Street Journal called it "warmed-over Marxism." ...In Latin America the most quoted passage was paragraph 31:

We know.. that a revolutionary uprising - save where there is manifest long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country - produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters.
Shortly afterward, a group of eighteen Third World bishops, half from Brazil, drew up a statement that went considerably further than the pope's, while quoting him abundantly. They took a positive view of revolution and approvingly quoted the statement of a bishop during Vatican II: "Authentic socialism is Christianity lived to the full, in basic equality and with a fair distribution of goods."

...In August 1968 about 130 Catholic bishops (representing more than 600 in Latin America) met in Medellín, Colombia for the task of applying Vatican II to Latin America...

In ringing phrases the bishops called for Christians to be involved in the transformation of society. They denounced "institutionalized violence" and referred to it as a "situation of sin" (thus expanding the traditional notion of sin focused on individual transgressions of a divine law)... "Revolutionaries" were described more favorably than "traditionalists" or "developmentalists" (who were viewed as technocrats). Revolutionaries were defined as those seeking radical change and who believed that the people should chart their own course - not as those using violence...

Priests, sisters, and lay activists eagerly seized the Medellín documents as a Magna Carta justifying a whole new pastoral approach.

...[The Latin American] question is not so much whether one can believe what Christianity affirms, but rather what relevance Christianity has in the struggle for a more just world... They are not "fomenting" hatred as critics contend; class conflict already exists. Through solidarity in struggle with the poor, class division must be transcended in a new type of society.

...Chile was at the center of the Latin American stage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Popular Unity leftist coalition won national elections and under President Salvador Allende sought to carry out significant reforms. Other Latin Americans paid close attention. If socialism could come gradually and peacefully to Chile, it could be a sign of hope for others.

...Democratic institutions seemed firmly established, labor unions were strong, and political parties embodied clear-cut competing ideologies. Many became disillusioned with the Christian Democrats' "Revolution in Liberty," especially after harsh repression of strikers in 1967. Critics claimed that Christian Democracy was not a "third way" between capitalism and communism, but simply reformist capitalism, incapable of solving Chile's problems. Significant groups of Christians joined left-wing parties and movements. The Allende coalition victory in 1970 signaled a growing leftward shift.

...The Christians for Socialism movement advocated direct political involvement. Its members believed Christians should accept the basic "rationality" of socialism, although they did not endorse any particular political group. Some were former Christian Democrats who had become radicalized and formed groups like MAPU (United Popular Action Movement) or the Christian Left; many joined MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), which advocated going beyond electoral processes; some joined the Socialist Party... They insisted that since much of the worldview and ideology that had been preached and taught as Christianity hindered people from accepting socialism, Christians had a particular responsibility to free people of such ideological blockages.

In April 1982 some four hundred people converged in Santiago for an international conference of Christians for Socialism... Assmann, Gutiérrez, and a number of the liberation theologians were present. The conference's final document inevitably reflected the Chilean situation, for example, in its frequent denunciation of tercerismo ("third-wayism," i.e., Christian Democracy)...

The conference called on Christians to engage in ideological struggle by identifying and "unmasking" the manipulation of Christianity to justify capitalism...

The document stated that Christians were discovering "the convergence between the radical nature of their faith and their political commitment." There was a "fertile interaction" between faith and revolutionary practice...

The document closed with a line from Che Guevara that had been displayed on banners and signs during the meeting itself: "When Christians dare to give full-fledged revolutionary witness, then the Latin American revolution will be invincible..."

By the mid-1960s some church people had already acquired considerable experience in development projects, particularly cooperatives. But there was a growing awareness of the inadequacy of such efforts. Cooperatives do little for peasants who have little land, and they do nothing for the landless. Desarrollismo - "developmentalism" - was the commonly heard pejorative term for Band-Aid reforms that failed to address the issues of power.

But what kind of a role should priests, sisters, and lay activists take? The model for engagement with the poor appeared in concientización (or in the Portuguese form conscientização). The term, which is roughly equivalent to "consciousness-raising," gained currency as a result of the work of the Brailian educator Paulo Freire in the late 1950s and early 1960s...

Implicit in the "Freire method" is a political agenda that can be called revolutionary, although Freire and his followers are highly critical of all attempts to organize in a top-down manner... They believe that through a concientización process "the people" themselves must decide what sort of organizational approach they will take... Education should not mean incorporating people into existing cultural structures but "giving them the means so that they can be the agents of their own progress."

...Hosea has the Lord say, "For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts" (6:6). Such a notion is indeed a revelation to those accustomed to seeing Catholicism embodied in ornate churches, incense-filled ceremonies, and solemn, brocaded ecclesiastics. Some have taken to heart this critique. In El Salvador, Archibishop Oscar Romero left the cathedral construction unfinished in order to use the church's scarce resources for the poor and for pastoral work.

...practical material aid for one's neighbor is the criterion of a just life. Furthermore, in the person of those who are poor and in need stands Jesus himself, although neither those who aid nor those who refuse to do so recognize him. The criterion is not whether one considers oneself Christian or not - one might even be an atheist - but whether one has served the needs of others.

...Previously accustomed to seeing the church as the priest, or the large church building down in the town, or an organization with its own authorities like those of the government, they now begin to see themselves as the church. Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst" (Matt. 18:20).

They learn that in fact the first several generations of Jesus' followers did not have special church buildings but met in their own homes. Speaking of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, the Acts of the Apostles states:

The community of believers were of one heart and one mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather, everything was held in common. With power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great respect was paid to them all; nor was there anyone needy among them, for all who owned property or houses sold them and lay them at the feet of the apostles to be distributed to everyone according to his need. [Acts 4:32-35; see also 2:42-47]

Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology, 1987, Pantheon Books, New York.


It was the Coca-Cola strike of March 1976 that proved to be the opening wedge of what became a broad opposition movement. When the management fired 154 workers to break the union, the workers decided to occupy the plant. Arriving around midnight, the police entered the plant and forcibly ejected the workers, injuring some and jailing fourteen... President Laugerud met with a CNUS [National Committee for Labor Unity] delegation, thus in fact recognizing it, although legal recognition was never given. On April 7 the government ordered the company to rehire the workers and recognize the union. However, from that point on the union suffered direct violence from the company. Both sides (management / government and labor) saw the Coca-Cola case being not so much over specific worker demands as over unionization itself.

On June 25 the police attacked the headquarters of the CNT [National Workers Federation], which was becoming the spearhead of the renewed labor movement. Knocking down the door with a jeep, they came in shooting and arrested some leaders... All the labor leaders were eventually released, since the charges against them had been absurd...

These events formed the backdrop for a pastoral letter of the Guatemalan Bishops Conference titled "United in Hope"...

Most of the arable land is in the hands of an insignificant minority of the population, which the bulk of the peasants lack even a bit of land of their own for their crops....

The oligarchy, which has insistently tried to maintain its privileged situation at the expense of a whole population being marginalized, has been upset even over the few labor reforms in our laws....

Present legislation seems to be designed above all to defend the untouchability of private property, impeding a better distribution of land, which, we should not forget, God has given to all his children and not just to a few privileged ones.

[Four years later...] Several union members had been murdered. When European unions organized a boycott and workers in Sweden threatened a work stoppage at a Coca-Cola plant, the parent company in Atlanta, Georgia, moved to solve the problem by forcing John Trotter, the owner of the Guatemalan franchise, to sell...

Two days after Romero's funeral, the Carter administration's move to restore large-scale military aid to El Salvador passed a significant vote in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations... The aid was called "non-lethal": vehicles, communication equipment, and so forth. For many months the administration, echoed by the media, portrayed the Duarte government as centrist, albeit besieged by extremes on right and left - and precisely for that reason deserving of United States aid. It was not noticed that no one on the right was ever brought to justice, or that there was no sign that Duarte or the other civilians had the slightest quota of power - even though Romero had raised these issues clearly...

The Carter administration had paved the way for a military approach... In early 1981 the incoming Reagan administration seemed to regard Central America, and specifically El Salvador, as a "test case" it could win easily... The Reagan administration tried to downplay its military aid by insisting that economic aid was three times as large. However, in 1982 U.S. economic aid equaled approximately 80 percent of El Salvador's commodity exports and seemed likely to exceed 100 percent in 1983. Since those commodity exports are the mainspring of the economy, aid from Washington was now propping up not only the government but the economy itself...

The United States government's policy of supporting the ruling groups (despite a professed concern to support or even to create a political "center") has been ethically wrong and, in opposing it, the churches have been faithful to their mission. In both their liberal (Jimmy Carter) and their conservative (Ronald Reagan) forms, United States policies have ignored the real roots of the struggle and have supported the brutal tactics of the military and oligarchy used against the unarmed population.

Phillip Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion, 1984, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.
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