Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Our God is a revolutionary God": An interview with Joaquim Melo

On the eve of the second round in the 2010 Brazilian presidential election, as considerable attention is being paid to liberation theology, we have an interview with João Joaquim de Melo Neto Segundo, a former Roman Catholic seminarian turned community organizer and banker to his country's poorest. Joaquim, who himself was born in a housing project, founded Banco Palmas, a "people's bank" that earned him election as an Ashoka fellow in 2004 (the Ashoka website has a good profile of Joaquim and his work in English). Last year, Joaquim published a book in French about his work, Viva Favela ! Quand les démunis prennent leur destin en main ("Viva Favela!: when the dispossessed take their destiny in hand"), in conjunction with Elodie Bécu and Carlos de Freitas (Editions Michel Lafon, 2009).

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.



  1. In the midst of the Catholic world, I often hear the expressions: “Serving God” or “Our God is a God o...f compassion”.
    About the first expression, I have to say that to me, serving God equals serving your fellow human been and being respectful and loving with Nature and all her creatures.

    We don’t serve God by going to church or by reading the Bible, we get close to God perhaps doing those things, but God is not an entity out there that is waiting for our servitude.
    I guess that all comes down to Jesus’ phrase: “What you do to others, you do to me”. This expression explains why the only way to serve God is to server our fellow human beings and this can be done in a milliard of ways and within the context or a Church or without. In a Christian country or in a non Christian country.
    Any ware. Anytime

    About the second expression…I am puzzle when I hear the expression: “Our God is…. “How many Gods are there?
    The appropriate expression should be: “Our concept and interpretation of God is…..”

    If not, the pride of being in a monotheistic religion…goes away!

  2. Este tipo creador de la TEOLOGÍA DE LA LIBERACIÓN, es un HEREJE!

    USTEDES NO SIGUEN A JESUCRISTO, SUS APOSTOLES Y SUCESORES (DOCTRINA CRISTIANA, TRADICIÓN Y SANTOS PADRES), sino a este hombre, y con el al infierno todos, ya que su doctrina no es la cristiana.

    Many poor people will be anyway in Heaven, that's the only thing that matters SALVATION. WE HAVE BEEN CREATED TO BE IN HEAVEN. Please GO BACK TO THE CATHOLIC TRADITION, TO NOE'S ARC!!!!!!!


  3. I don't know about you, Nicole, but I follow Jesus Christ. Punto final. Everything else is relative and I certainly don't "follow" Joaquim Melo in any religious sense of the word. I highlight his work and his thoughts about faith because I think he's doing good things that help the poor in Brazil. This blog is about these kinds of people and about liberation theology, which is now well-established within the Catholic tradition. Not even Pope Benedict XVI, in spite of his arguments with our line, would disagree with this assertion. Many liberation theologians are Catholic priests in good standing with the Church: Gutierrez, Sobrino, Comblin, Gonzalez Faus...