Disclaimer: As I am not one to wear ALL my thoughts on my sleeve, there are times that I chose to do so for clarity and maybe posterity. The following thoughts are not set in stone, but rather an account of what has been a long and continuous process of internal conversation and debate. These thoughts are not a final project, and therefore should be viewed in the context of history. Just for the record...I still like Jesus, and my faith hasn’t been lost...so don’t worry!
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of serious rethinking about what I really think about liberation theology and how that applies to using force in oppressive situations. I’ve always adhered to the nonviolent way of life and felt that this lifestyle was well complimented with my belief in liberation theology. Yet lately I’ve been having my doubts...or at least questions.
I finished reading this book called Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It was a New York Times bestseller, and has created a general stir in many intellectual circles, and I guess it has created a stir within me as well.
MBM tells the story of development in the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, as he is on a quest to help the most vulnerable of the world. As Motorcycle Diaries chronicles the awakening of the man we know as Che Guevara, MBM documents what a life can look like with such powerful awakenings of inequality and injustice.
The fact that I read this book when I first moved to El Salvador, is probably not just divine providence, but a little bit humorous as well. Nevertheless, the experience of reading this book while learning about the realities of El Salvador has been quite an experience to say the least.
Now, to the meat of my thoughts...I will begin with a quote from Farmer.
Farmer explains that he distrusts all ideologies, including his own, at least a little, because, “...all ologies fail us at some point. At some point, I suspect, not very far from where the Haitian poor live out their dangerous lives.” He goes on to say that, “If one pushes this ology to its logical conclusion, then God is to found in the struggle against injustice. But if the odds are so preposterously stacked against the poor - machetes versus Uzis, donkeys versus tanks, stones versus missiles, or even typhoid versus cancer - then is it responsible, is it wise, to push the poor to claim what is theirs by right? What happens when the destitute in Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, wherever, are moved by a rereading of the Gospels to stand up for what is theirs, to reclaim what was theirs and was taken away, to ask only that they enjoy decent poverty rather than the misery we see here every day in Haiti? We know the answer to that question, because we are digging up their bodies in Guatemala.”
For the record, let it be known that I too distrust ideologies at least a little bit, for the simple reason that the human condition, as complicated as it is, is never the same for any one person. There’s a larger philosophical debate within this statement, but it really doesn’t interest me at the moment, and so I will skip it for now.
In a simplistic form, liberation theology is a rereading of the Gospels in hopes that the wealthy may redistribute their wealth, and the poor may stand up for a future of equality. Before liberation theology, the poor were told to wait and withstand the trials here in this life, and their true reward would be coming in the form of salvation. This is a widely held Protestant belief today, and as s good Catholic girl with a completely different world view, I just can’t accept this reality / theology. If you really want to know what I think about this, continue on to the next paragraph for a slight tangent...otherwise skip the next paragraph and continue on.
Ok, so basically I think this Protestant belief (and lots of Catholics believe this as well) is a complete copout so that any blame can be removed. First of all, if you’re Protestant, chances are you think all of humanity is basically flawed and therefore, conversion to Christianity is the only way to go in terms of life long salvation, when you eventually leave this earth in death. With this kind of thought structure, any bad luck while on earth, is your lot in life. You’re expected to just grin and bear it, and your true reward will come in Heaven. For the poor of the world, this basically translates to “deal with it” and make sure you evangelize along the way. If you’re rich, well then, God has blessed you, and tithing 10% of your income is what God requires of you to be a good hospitable steward of the Lords creation. I have a huge problem with this view for more reasons than I can count, but basically, it gives rich Christians an excuse to feel comfortable in their wealth, while their “brothers and sisters”suffer and die because of an unequal distribution of goods and services. Heck, with this idea, evangelization for the purpose of salvation, gives people the illusion that they are actually doing something in life...helping out the situation if you will, and maybe storing up some brownie points with the Big Guy!
Now with liberation theology, the poor are encouraged by the revolutionary spirit of Jesus, to rise up with love in their heart, and reclaim their dignity....and really, reclaim their share of goods and services. With a bit of Marxist analysis, liberation theology calls for a redistribution of wealth and a general change within the class structures of the world.
This all sounds fine and dandy, however, it’s really hard to live out, and the consequences of this way of life are quite life threatening to many. This is exactly what brings me to my next little internal debate.
Here in El Salvador, 80% of my conversations are about the civil war of the 1980's that was funded by the US government. Everyday, I talk with people from the FMLN (former insurgents / guerillas) during the war....and just for the record, the FMLN is made up of the poor and intellectuals of the country that spoke out, and were assassinated everyday by US bullets funded by US tax dollars. Our current conversations focus on what life was like in El Salvador in the 1980's. We talk about the Peace Accords, and what a load of crap they are. We talk about the poor and how life is getting more difficult with imperialistic treaties like CAFTA. Mostly I ask a lot of questions, and occasionally, I offer my own thoughts, but I am finding that to be more difficult than I had bargained for.
I always thought, that if you really claimed to love humanity, how could you justify killing another person. Of course I can understand why a person would act in a violent way when protecting family, but I could never reconcile that action in my own life. Thus, with this questioning, living a nonviolent life has been met with minimal questions, especially in the US. I’ve found that I can agree with people like Che, right up until his revolution, and then the violence becomes too extreme, and a non-negotiable for me. Here in El Salvador, I’m not quite so sure I could come up with a positive alternative to the war that was fought here (and is still going on in other ways today...stay tuned to future blogs). When the government starts killing people? Sit around and watch as everyone you know is assassinated? It’s not like you can call on the international community...they are just as oppressive as the government of El Salvador. Heck, it was the US that helped created the whole mess here.
So people chose to take up arms, which I can understand...I just don’t know how that sits in my own heart. I asked my Spanish teacher about what she thought about nonviolence and if it would have worked here, and she said it wouldn’t. Besides the fact that the government was killing priests and nuns and getting away with it, they were also assassinating common people in broad daylight...all in the name of removing “Communism” from El Salvador.
So here’s the conflict in a nutshell. Nonviolence is a great concept to live by and has some really useful ideals for life. I think Jesus was a man of nonviolence and therefore, we should all strive to be like that. However, if you also adhere to Liberation Theology, my question is, how exactly do the poor stand up? Either way, they are stuck in a catch 22! You can either speak out and be shot...or you can shut up and be shot...you can rise up with arms (and maybe get away with your life). So exactly how is Liberation Theology a way to be like Jesus, if he was a man of nonviolence. Here lies the dilemma!
I have a feeling that at some point in my life I will reconcile this question somewhere in my heart. I have a feeling that this restlessness of questioning will eventually settle. It’s not like I’m in complete upheaval, just at a state of in-between! So stay tuned and maybe there will be more thoughts to come on this subject.