by Carlos de Freita and Camille Dubruelh (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Le Monde des Religions
A few days before the second round of the presidential election, the gap has narrowed between José Serra and Dilma Rousseff, the heir apparent to the current president, condemned by the Church for her position on abortion. The campaign plays around the religious issue. An interview with Joaquim Melo, a staunch supporter of liberation theology, the base on which Brazilian democracy was built.
Because of her position on abortion, which has been judged too liberal, Dilma Rousseff has drawn the ire of the Catholic and Evangelical churches. In a country where 70% of the population supports banning it, the candidate has lost points by supporting its decriminalization up until 2009, although she has since retracted her remarks.
In Brazil, beyond strict spiritual practice, it is the religious question which has laid the foundation for the whole organization of society. In the 1970s, liberation theology enabled the poor to organize themselves into communities, trade unions, to fight against the dictatorship in place. This ideological movement is the foundation upon which democracy is built in Brazil, a school of activism from which the managers of state emerged - starting with President Luiz Inacio Lula.
Now general coordinator of the Palmas Institute in Brazil, Joaquim Melo is a former seminarian. A proponent of liberation theology, he has been involved since the mid-1980s in the fight against poverty through the creation of community development banks combining microcredit, social projects, and creation of local currencies.
What is liberation theology?
The great contribution of liberation theology is the belief in the fact that poor people can solve their problems by themselves. It is based on the Book of Exodus (3:1-15) which says: "God has seen, heard, and come down to free His people." Therein lies our great mystique. The churches in general, speak of a God who is up there, away from people's problems, a God who judges people. To which liberation theology responds: "No, our God is a revolutionary God, He descends, He is present among the people. And if God is present, then He gives encouragement on this long journey together, and together we will overcome." Generally, it is this certainty that we, the poor, the small, the humble, by walking together, organized, will win. Over the years we have developed this process of community organization, association, social struggles, banks, demonstrations, marches.
In the late 1970s, when you discovered this ideological movement, the struggle involved mostly the dictatorship. What is your perception of the transition that has led to democratization?
At the time of the dictatorship, everything that represented injustice was commissioned and coordinated by the military: both the physical prison and torture for activists, and the economic prison of inequality between rich and poor. During the 1980s, democracy was restored gradually, the spectre of the military moved away but misery and poverty were still very violent. The economic project remained the same: the exploitation of workers by employers. Today, the mystique of liberation calls for equality between social classes, the right to decent wages and decent housing, access to education - everything that is social rights.
How did liberation theology become rooted in the communities?
Liberation theology created "ecclesiastical base communities," CEBs, by the tens of thousands: in the 1970s and 80s, there were between 10,000 and 30,000 CEBs scattered over the territory, where the problems of the people were discussed, where local answers were found. Sometimes these communities united regionally and nationally, like parishes. Of course, there were Catholics within these structures, because we were the majority, but people of other faiths were also present, and atheists -- all people who believed in social transformation, justice and equality. This was the cradle of Brazilian democracy as it is today -- the unions, political parties, the student movement; most activists who were and are still part of them come from this movement of CEBs with liberation theology as its backbone.
How does liberation theology stand vis-a-vis the conservative front of the Catholic Church?
Since the early 1980s, liberation theology has been violently persecuted by the Vatican, especially by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. I am one of those today who do not recognize him as pope, either as a leader, a coordinator or a facilitator of Catholics. He was involved the violent destruction of the movement. And all those who, like me, came out of the church in 1988, have actually stopped campaigning for the institution, without abandoning this movement towards justice and freedom.
What's your relationship with the evangelical Protestant churches?
These churches join liberation theology with respect to drawing near to the people. But in terms of exegesis, mysticism, spirituality, they depart from it, talking about an absent God. Evangelicals tell people that God is watching them and He will work miracles. He judges them. So if they suffer, it's a good thing. Because one day they will die and be saved. These churches "offer" them eternal life. Liberation theology, on the other hand, affirms that the kingdom of God is here now, that it's up to us to build it.
Does liberation theology still have any influence today?
The 30 years and younger generation would probably not be able to tell you what it is, what it was, but that same generation has values, principles, that are part of the same current as liberation theology. So I think the influence is huge today. Ditto when it comes to leaders influenced by liberation theology -- you will always find very strong processes of mobilization and organization. However, the old form, with the CEBs, has clearly lost ground. For two reasons: the priests of liberation theology have become extinct naturally, little by little, and the younger ones, because of the persecution by the Vatican, have received a priestly formation which departs more and more from the true theology.
Might the elections have caused a resurgence of interest in this ideological movement?
When Lula won the elections in 2002, there was great hope. Our entire generation lived just for that day, that dream that we would come to power and, once there, would ensure the necessary transformations. This was perhaps our biggest mistake. Our generation has been waiting for something that did not happen. To the point that Frei Betto and other figures of liberation theology have participated in the government to try to effect change from within. It was our strategy. But they left ... Frei Betto has released a book titled Calendário do poder ["The Calendar of Power"], where he comes very clearly to this conclusion: the change we are waiting for cannot come from the government. We need to find our own path. Obviously, this will be different because the times and people have changed. But regardless of the outcome of the elections, whether or not Lula is followed by Dilma Rousseff, I think we're going through a completely different decade, in which we will regain a foothold in the social movements. The fight will be that of the favelas again. We are one example.
- Associative Community Banks in Brazil by João Joaquim de Melo Neto Segundo, WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, March 2010
- Microcredit and innovative local development in Fortaleza, Brazil: the case of Banco Palmas, Martin Jayo et al., Canadian Journal of Regional Science, 3/22/2009
- Interview with João Joaquim de Melo Neto Segundo, Projeto: Memórias dos Brasileiros, Museu da Pessoa (in Portuguese)