Wednesday, May 11, 2005

My own encounter with liberation theology

One of the criticisms we're hearing about Pope Benedict XVI is that he squashed the liberation theology movement of the 70's and 80's, a movement that was supposed to identify the Church with the poor and help out with crushing poverty in South America. I'd like to look at that from a personal perspective.

In 1999, not long after I was named editor of the Times Review in the Diocese of La Crosse, I went to a conference in Mexico City on the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement particularly on the Mexican economy. It was sponsored by the Catholic Press Association and UCIP, the international Catholic press guild.

Many of my colleagues on this trip were fans of liberation theology and the speakers there, including Gustavo Gutierrez, were of this mind as well. This was unfortunate, because then-Bishop Raymond Burke had wanted me to find out what was really going on with the Mexican economy as a result of NAFTA, particularly on the agricultural front.

I did get some sense of what was happening, which was not good, but the overwhelming sense I had was one of resentment against Church teaching on social justice. Nowhere was this more evident than in a day trip we took to Cuernavaca in the south of the country, the site of Cortez's castle. It's a beautiful place where it never gets below 55 degrees (F). But like the rest of Mexico, it is emblazoned with devastating and constant poverty. A quick drive around the city and you see half-finished houses with rebars sticking up out of them as cement is the building material of choice there. This is obviously subsistance living, but it's being carried out in a city which, while having loads of natural beauty around it, is still a city and not a place that makes it easy to grow one's own food.

A group of about three or four of us met with a family in their home in a new neighborhood in Cuernavaca. They had built it on land that the couple were able to take over because they found documents showing that the land belonged to them. It had been an act of derring-do, one done in conjunction with other people in the area, and one which could have resulted in violence. Fortunately, it did not.

However, these people did not rule out the possibility of using violence later on. There was another piece of property across a ravine from this particular neighborhood that was owned by someone else. The man told me that they wanted to get hold of that land as well. Well, I asked him, do you have any claim to that land? No, he replied. Well then, how are you going to get it? I queried. His reply, though not verbatim, was essentially, If we have to take it by force, we will.

As we sat in their house, which was still unfinished on the outside after six years of building, but was fairly nice on the interior, we asked them questions. One of the members of our group noticed two different pictures on their walls: one was Che Guevara; the other was of Jesus with a cross in his hand, but he looked like he was ready to mow down the next person who crossed him (pun intended). She asked the couple, "Can you tell me about the two icons you have up on your wall?" I honestly don't remember their reply, though I do recall how much they liked that particular image of Jesus because it showed he was going to do something and not just be mamby-pamby.

Indeed, this was evident in the cathedral in Cuernavaca. It is a beautiful exterior structure, but in the late 60's it underwent a serious "wreckovation," the likes of which I do not think have been seen in the U.S. It is now dark, sparse and what little furniture is there is made with ugly and sharp angles. There is no longer a womanly beauty to it, "like a bride adorned to meet her husband." Instead, the sharp angles characterize that of a man on a mean mission, like the picture of Jesus ready to mow someone down. That the bishop of the diocese at that time decided that the interior beauty the cathedral possessed at the time was somehow something only for the rich, and the poor needed to have ecclesiastical solidarity shown by stripping it of its adornment, is evidence of a systemized approach.

All of this went to contribute to this insight, which I am sure I am late at coming to: liberation theology is about systems, not people. Systems have people in them and place people below the system. What is important to systems is the process and the end result. The system liberation theology is concerned with is economics. While the poverty is dire and it is wrong for the people of Mexico or anywhere else to be left in it, liberating people from economic poverty is not the ultimate goal of the Christian faith. Rather, liberating people from sin is the ultimate goal.

And that is where liberation theology fails. There is no love present in it, the only thing that liberates us from sin. Rather, just as the picture of Jesus ready to mow down the next person who crosses him, it wants to mow down those horrible landowners who do not care for the plight of the poor. But that's not what Jesus would do. His solution is to bring conversion to them so that they have a change of heart and freely give of what they have been given, like those in the Acts of the Apostles who sold their land and gave the money to the apostles for distribution to all, or make restitution for what they took, like Zacheus the tax collector.

If this does not happen, the liberation movement will only enslave its adherents in anger, hatred and resentment and keep the fires of conflict between rich and poor stoked.

5 comments:

mattiacum said...

Thank you for putting a personal face on a movement that is unfortunately not seen as evil in North America.

If we could make Catholics see that "There is no love present in it" more might understand.

Daniel Muller said...

I studied in Cuernavaca along with other theology students in the summer of 1988, and I have spent quite a bit of time in Mexico since. Personally, I think that liberation theology is about political power more than anything else, but I wanted to comment on a few particulars in your piece rather than debate your main point.

Guttierez Spell-check.

you see half-finished houses with rebars sticking up out of them as cement is the building material of choice there. This is obviously subsistance living, ...

On the contrary, this is quite typical of Mexican urban construction and it is done so for at least three reasons:

1. Taxes: a home with exposed rebar is unfinished and unassessable as finished. Forever if necessary.

2. Expandability: it is quite common to build one's home, whether from domestic income or remittances from the United States, a floor or even a room at a time; the unpredictable peso encourages investment in durable goods as soon as possible. A complete house in the city usually has at least two floors, so this is just planning ahead.

3. Tradition: just as a classic colonial house centers on the patio, a Mexican house looks inward to the "hearth" (actually, an Acros brand stove) and family, not outward. Surely you noticed all the iron fences (lower and middle classes) and tall walls with broken glass (upper class). It is often easy to see where Mexicans live in my city as they often hire each other to put up those iron fences. An ugly exterior is even desireable from a security perspective; arms are illegal in Mexico, so one of the most common crimes is to break into a house when no one appears to be home.

They had built [their home in Cuernavaca] on land that the couple were able to take over because they found documents showing that the land belonged to them. [sic] ...
However, these people did not rule out the possibility of using violence later on. There was another piece of property across a ravine from this particular neighborhood that was owned by someone else. The man told me that they wanted to get hold of that land as well. Well, I asked him, do you have any claim to that land? No, he replied, ... If we have to take it by force, we will.


One of the curses of Mexico's sad history is the quantity of intestate properties. They cannot be bought and they cannot be sold. A partial, if very poor, solution is to admit squatters' rights. In fact, after a certain point, leases are not apt to be renewed just in case the renter decides to stay for good!

It is a beautiful exterior structure, but in the late 60's it underwent a serious "wreckovation," the likes of which I do not think have been seen in the U.S. It is now dark, sparse and what little furniture is there is made with ugly and sharp angles.

I found the interior of the cathedral shocking as well, but there are some items to be taken into consideration here. First, the furnishings removed from this most ancient cathedral, while beautiful to me, were not extremely antique but the standard neo-classical adornments that most unfortunately replaced the much more antique baroque altars in the late 19th century in almost any Mexican church that could afford the fashion. Second, the renovations/wreckovations did uncover the Japanese mural, which has to be admitted as something wonderful. Finally, even in 1988, I could see that the cathedral had not been maintained; it was frankly dingy, especially where the Scriptures were housed, so I can only imagine how unappealing it would be even later.

the bishop of the diocese at that time decided that the interior beauty the cathedral possessed at the time was somehow something only for the rich, and the poor needed to have ecclesiastical solidarity shown by stripping it of its adornment,

I could not say whether this was Bishop Méndez-Arce's intentions. My understanding was that he merely wanted to simply and beautify at the same time, something that many of us had been told was mandated by the Spirit of Vatican II. It is obvious that there was quite a lot of money spent on this extremely consistent and extensive ---ovation; it even influenced the design of the New Basilica in Mexico City.

I do fault this bishop of Cuernavaca for introducing mariachis (cantina musicians) into the Mass as well as guitars. This destructive influence has spread more rapidly in the United States than in Mexico through the enthusiastic diffusion of his admirers; it has come to the point where Americans think that guitar Masses and pentecostal music are part of Latino culture. Some still know better, though: I remember when I played the organ for a Mass in Spanish in San Antonio; a Mexican-American religious sister afterwards sneered, "I felt like I was in Mexico." (I am now a member of the Association of Mexican Organists.)

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz said...

Thanks, Daniel, for your very pertinent comments and enlightening me, particularly on the unfinished houses. Your insights on the Cathedral were also superb as I had, frankly, forgotten about the Japanese mural.

On Mexican music, I was unaware of Mexico's great musical heritage until last year when I heard Chanticleer's album, Mexican Baroque. It easily rivals that of the Italian and German Baroque composers. I wish I could find more of it to listen to.

I'll make the change on Gutierrez's name.

Mr. the O.G. said...

Hi Tom,

I was drawn to your web log by this post on liberation theology, about which I wrote my undergrad thesis. I think your insights on the liberation theology are accurate.

Often lost in the talk about liberation theology is the fact that the "liberation" of the people of Nicaragua and the institution of the Marxist regime there, supported openly by liberation theologians, led to the near genocide of the Mosquito Indians who refused to bow to the system. The system is what matters, not persons.

With all do respect to Mr. Muller, don't you dare change the spelling of Gutierrez' name. I don't know where Dan got his spelling but Gustavo Gutierrez, whose seminal work I've read, spells his name just like mine.

Gutierrez is clear in his work that Hegel and Marx are right about history and the need for men - not GOD mind you - to take hold of the reigns of history. This requires, in the Marxist paradigm, to take control of any and all economic issues.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his condemnation of liberation theology, argued, among other things, that Marxism is simply incompatible to Christianity. Marx understood this as well. One wonders why liberation theologians insist on the being compatibility.

Well, that's enough. God bless. Omar Gutierrez, La Crosse

Daniel Muller said...

Thomas, thanks for your polite reception of my views.

On Mexican music, I was unaware of Mexico's great musical heritage until last year when I heard Chanticleer's album, Mexican Baroque. It easily rivals that of the Italian and German Baroque composers. I wish I could find more of it to listen to.

Do not we all! Unfortunately, revolution after revolution, the tropical climate in some places, and finally that Spirit of Vatican II have combined to produce a loss of many many scores. Moldering, dumped, or moldering and then dumped.

Some of the most famous Mexican composers have been recorded. I wish that I could remember how to spell de Jerusalén's name correctly -- macaronically -- so that you could find the recent recording of his. SAVAE has also recorded colonial music, but with perhaps a little fantasy. Unfortunately, most of these folks have little interest in liturgical history or use, so the more, erm, creative the interpretation the better.

Another CD is only available at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. "La Música de la Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe Siglos XVIII y XIX, Volumen I" was produced by the archivist of the Basilica and performed by Basilica musicians. A Mexico City Cathedral priest made a remark about my purchase of this CD, but any parish priest in Mexico is naturally mindful of the Basilica's large income. I think that it is quite a fine recording.

An interesting category of colonial music is mission music. Did you know that there were seventeen pipe organs in what is now New Mexico before 1700? Keith Paulson-Thorp is the director of music at the famous Mission Santa Barbara, and he is always interested in finding more mission music. I understand from him that he programs at least one piece of music per Sunday Mass that would have been at home in a colonial or Mexican mission. (But then how hard is that if you use Gregorian chant?)

With respect to modern Mexican liturgical music, I have a stack of new compositions from the cathedral of Mexico City looking for a publisher ...