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LATIN AMERICA
Liberation theologies and ecclesiastic base communities: new actors, new contexts and new challenges
Ana Mercedes Pereira Souza*
4/23/2015
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The 1990s was a very difficult decade for the religious group and the laity, who, according to the perspective of Liberation Theology (LT) and Christian Base Communities (CEBs), chose different dynamics, reflections and supported the different popular sectors of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Spanish theologian and Nicaraguan nationalized José María Vigil translates these times as “the dark night”1, caused largely by the regression of the Catholic Church2, the crisis of socialism, development and introduction of neoliberal policies and globalization.

According to the Colombian lay theologian Fernando Torres Millán, “the general impression is that both LT and the CEBs entered a crisis as they were closely linked to the institution, and the institution was destroyed by all these policies developed at the Vatican, at the CELAM [Conference of Latin American Bishops] to absorb or weaken these experiences.”3

However, LT is only 40 years old and even amidst difficulties and limitations, it was able to build a discourse and pastoral-theological and biblical practices in addition to new policies that came about as a result of the realities of the poor people of the continent. It is therefore a theological wave that is still in progress. It has advanced despite martyrdom, persecution, accusations and exclusions, and it needs time to grow in these dark and quiet, yet hopeful times of the current situation in Latin America.

It is important to take a look at Latin America to see what’s new, to see the new subjects and actors who emerge with their struggles, mobilization and resistance in the context of the logic of death imposed by neoliberalism and economic globalization. Our first finding is that despite the difficulties of spreading the new Latin American theological discourse of LT and the CEBs, this movement continued in different paths. Some religious actors continued to be linked to the Church while some lay members decided to be on institutional frontiers or borders — the so called frontier theology.

The biggest novelty in the 90s inside the Catholic and Protestant religious scope, was the emergence of a new generation of theologians and biblical scholars who expressed and continue to express, through their lay identities, the feelings, desires, struggles and resistance of the different faces of the poor in the continent: the indigenous, peasants, Afro-descendants, women, youth, and LGBTI communities, among others.4 These new theologians and scholars share feelings of “exclusion,” of being seen as “second class citizens” for their secular identity. They demand recognition of their work and biblical theological reflections, which generated continuity processes, partnerships, and Latin American production networks in the context of classical LT crisis, mentions the lay Colombian theologian Maricel Mena.5 

“LT continued making reflections thanks in large part to the biblical-theological lay movement of the 90s. From contextualized biblical and theological perspectives, the movement made epistemological breaks, linking emerging subjects, new issues and new actors,” says Mena.

Partnership with social movements
The question is: how do these new lay actors partner with the social movements of the 21st century through which new subjects demand to be heard and taken into account in nascent political processes? We are referring to the countries with new constitutions (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay) that include democratic, participatory, and inclusive principles, that recognize diversity and the religious cultural, ethnic, political and ideological plurality of our peoples.

Many of the laypeople of the CEBs became empowered through human rights and are now entering spaces of social reconstruction and/or strengthening of civil society through their churches, their links with NGOs or through their grassroots organizations. These new actors are the “pillars” of the creation of new citizen groups who fight corruption, urban and rural gamonalismos, verticalism and patriarchy where they work.

“....The practice of liberation in the current moment moves in the direction of civil society and the popular movements, and from there puts forth in a more long-term manner the problem of political power and the state.

—Richard, Pablo. “Liberation Theology Today: Crisis or Challenge?” Envío, August 1992.

“A new laity that is joining other spaces, creating other opportunities to define its experience of faith and to project itself towards society is surging. I think that was the biggest asset of the last 20 years in Latin America, laymen and laywomen who have developed many innovative and creative ways of  linking their faith with social movements in Latin America, movements against discrimination, eco-environmental movements, movements in solidarity with all peoples, in defense of human rights [and] sexual diversity, among others,” says Torres Millán.

“In 2010, the Cry of the Excluded will be a question followed by a proposal: ‘Where are our rights? Are we taking on the streets to create a popular movement? (...) It is an initiative of the Campaign to limit Land Ownership (...) which has the support of organizations such as the Rural Landless Workers´ Movement, the Workers´ Central Union, the Ecumenical Services Coordinator, Caritas Brazil, the Lutheran Confession Evangelical Church and the Pastoral Land Commission.”

—Martins, José Pedro. “Liberation Theology is still alive.” Latinamerica Press. Sep. 2, 2010.”

Regarding the struggles and resistance movements in Latin America, one of the most important events that bring together various social actors is the World Social Forum, where these actors discuss new realities and settings. With the slogan “another world is possible,” this event makes visible the up-and-coming subjects we have talked about. The LT-CEBs are involved in these events and have been in constant interaction with the new realities and changes in our societies.

At these events we can observe that the indigenous communities of the continent are those who have most opposed the neoliberal imposition, free trade agreements, government policies regarding mining, the plundering of natural resources and damage caused by these actions. And it is interesting that precisely from these ancient communities that were colonized, exploited, enslaved, and excluded, a new paradigm for all humanity — the Good Living — is forming.

Women are also using their experiences to express their disagreements and perform acts of resistance. In the last two decades, women become empowered about their rights. They demand the formalization of international agreements that recognize their rights; they build public policies of inclusion, of nonviolence, and policies that give harsh sentences for rapists and those who commit femicides; they also create public policies of equality in public spaces, demand greater recognition of their contributions and more democracy in political and ecclesial structures.

For example, feminist liberation theologians defend their place and demand recognition of their biblical-theological contributions, both in traditional environments as well as within LT. The quest for recognition of these religious and secular female actors led to the emergence of some tendencies within their group. Some work to restore the presence of women in the history of the Church; others perform biblical re-readings with a gender perspective, and another group joins a process of re-discovering the ancient goddesses and re-purposing them for modern times, with symbols, rituals, dances, and prayers that evoke and invite women to regain the power of these goddesses, of Mother Earth and Father and Mother God, who are present and active in women’s lives.

We also can find eco-feminism, an ideology through which Brazilian feminist theologian Ivone Gevara, the Cons-pirando Collective of Santiago de Chile, Ecuador feminist theologian Marcia Moya and other theologians work with women’s bodies, emotions, feelings, and subjectivities linked to pain, the defense of Mother Earth and visions-projections and empowerment practices for women in their gender, political and ecological dimensions.

Current challenges
It is therefore important to reestablish the relationship between LT and education and rethink what kinds of pedagogies and new epistemologies are needed to interact with the new subjects and actors that emerge in these new contexts that are influenced by neoliberalism, postmodernism and globalization.

It is also vital for LT-CEBs to conduct regional systematization to observe significant advances in some regional projects of the CEBs, to analyze successes, failures, limitations and especially learning. In a self-critical perspective of “Corazonar” (thinking with the heart and with reason) proposed by Good Living and from a perspective of fraternal and sororal attitudes, it is also important to collect the footsteps of this journey with humility and the wisdom accumulated by generations of the various actors and subjects linked to these processes, and with these lessons learned, to continue moving forward, taking on the current challenges that require new plural and complex contexts.

Another challenge for LT-CEBs is to go forward with ecumenical proposals, both within and outside LT-CEBs, through inter-religious dialogues for peace and life with dignity. Peace is not only about reaching agreements in the midst of armed conflict (Colombia), but peace is about having food, it’s education, it’s health, it’s work, it’s earth, it’s inclusion, democracy, respect for plurality, respect for human rights and constitutional arrangements, all of them realities of our continent, inviting the LT-CEBs to take part in ecumenical processes and inter-religious dialogues to build this comprehensive peace that we all desire. The experience of Christian groups from LT-CEBs in Colombia shows these paths of ecumenism and citizen construction of peace6:

This challenge includes creating a scenario of Christian mysticism and actions that influence peace within our society, the popular scope and the ecumenical world. It is also about informing and training about the peace process, the role of ecumenism, and the importance of peace with ethics and about citizen oversight.

Finally, there is an ecclesial and political development that is essential to take into account: after 52 years since the start of the Ecclesial Springtime promoted by the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis is transforming the structures of power, corruption and authoritarianism of the Vatican. His attitude of humility, of listening, of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in favor of world peace and life with dignity for the excluded sectors of our society, raises hopes not only for Latin America but for the entire world.

The challenge is to ensure that the thoughts and proposals of  Pope Francis are accepted by the different socio-ecclesial and lay bodies in Latin America and to get the marginalized and excluded sectors to assimilate and live through this new moment of change and hope for a better future.

There are already some developing initiatives in this regard, such as the call of lay people and religious men and women who gather at the Ecumenical Research Department (DEI) of Costa Rica to accept and live this Ecclesiastical Spring with joy, rejoicing in the new times that demand new commitments, unity and respect of the diversity of actors, subject, thoughts and actions that converge today in the LT and CEBs of the continent.7

*Social worker, sociologist, director of the National Ecumenical Network of Women for Peace in Colombia.
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1 Vigil, José María, Aunque es de noche. Hipótesis psicosocial sobre la hora espiritual de América Latina en los 90, Ed. Envío, Second Edition, Nicaragua, 1996.
2 Two Colombian bishops, Mons. Darío Castrillón y Mons. Alfonso López Trujillo, CELAM president and secretary in mid 70s, were very important during the Catholic Church’s regression. They later continued their work from the Vatican with the help of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
3 Interview with Fernando Torres Millán, lay theologian, by Ana Mercedes Pereira, Bogota, Nov.24, 2014.
4 There are multiple publications about black, indigenous, women, and youth theology that are published in RIBLA- Newspaper of Latin American Biblical Interpretation, in Abya Yala editions and through the Biblical Popular Reading Project.
5 Interview with Maricel Mena, lay theologian, by Ana Mercedes Pereira, Bogota, Nov.24, 2014.
6 Objectives of the First National Meeting of the Ecumenical Bureau of Colombia, “Peace with Ethics and Ethics for Peace,” Cali, Nov. 7 and 8, 2014.
7 See
https://www.facebook.com/primavera.eclesial


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