This is a recent interview with Jesuit liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino.
by Asteko Elkarrizketa (English translation by Rebel Girl)
They tell me - in jest -- that you're angry with the world and I've also heard more than once that you want to be able to live without feeling ashamed of human beings ... Why?
Sometimes I feel ashamed. For example, are we really interested in Haiti? Obviously it raised interest in the beginning, and there have been some serious responses. But time goes by and it doesn't matter ... Another example I've told other times: in one soccer game of elite teams playing in the Champions League, I calculated that on the field, between the 22 players, there was twice the budget of Chad ... That angers and embarrasses me. Something very profound has to change in this world ...
Where are neoliberalism and globalization taking us?
The disaster is such that, in large part, it has led some to respond humanely: volunteers, NGOs, many churches -- Catholic and Protestant, other religions ... But I think the so-called First World -- one quarter of humanity -- continues to put the meaning of history in accumulation and the enjoyment that accumulation allows. Entertainment, for example, is a multinational mega-industry -- elite sports, tourism ...
Ellacuría called this the "civilization of capital", which produces a very sick society, in a fateful and fatal trance. And I used to say that the solution is to turn it around, so I concocted the term that we need a "civilization of poverty". Ellacuría was stubborn about this: it must be turned around; the engine of history can not be accumulating but solving the basic needs of 6.5 billion human beings, and the meaning of history is spirited solidarity.
In our society, it's common for large companies to hold very mediagenic "solidarity campaigns" with charity events, sponsorships, sending aid, etc ... Is the concept of solidarity being distorted?
I understand the question, but I think both things happen. On the one hand, a certain well-being and material affluence make it easier to give aid, and if one doesn't have a heart of stone, as the prophet Ezekiel said, it becomes somewhat of a heart of flesh and one helps. I think part of that solidarity is authentic.
However, such solidarity is also often used to hide the shame of the lack of a greater and more fundamental solidarity, and not only that, but also the oppression of the great powers over small countries.
Maybe it serves to mask the roots of the problems?
It can be used this way, although, ironically, many of the NGOs exist precisely to tell the truth -- though they don't pay much attention to them -- not just to help financially, but also to defend human rights. I see it as complex and each situation must be analyzed. It's clear that power subjects the whole world, but everyone must push the car of history as they can. Certainly, what we are being offered as solutions makes me indignant and sad.
Does the average citizen in the developed world have some responsibility for the poverty, oppression and wars that plague the planet?
Objectively, yes. Who declares the great wars? Governments, driven by oligarchies, but elected by the citizens. When governments offer war directly, some elect them and others not, but I don't hear of a leader offering to live worse off, at a lower level, so that many others might rise somewhat. In that sense, objectively we are co-responsible. The world is divided between oppressors and oppressed, there's no getting around it ...
In 2006, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a "Notificatio" in which it deems that you distort the figure of the historical Jesus to emphasize His humanity too much at the expense of His divinity. It's the argument of the old heresy ...
What I'm saying is that through the human reality of Jesus of Nazareth, God has made Himself present. But they tell me that I don't end up really saying He is God, and that I speak of Jesus of Nazareth too specifically, and even that I turn Him into a politician, and, in general, the authorities of the Roman curia and the diocesan ones too, don't tend to like that. It happened to several theologians; in my case, it began in 1976.
In the Notificatio, they said two of my books contained dangerous misstatements. Earlier, they had been given to seven serious theologians to read and none of them told me there was any problem of possibility of heresy ... I think Jesus of Nazareth always disturbs us. God disturbs us less because He is so untouchable, so unpalpable ... I think we have a tendency in the Church to distance ourselves from Jesus of Nazareth. It doesn't mean we don't speak of Christ, but Christ is "the anointed one", an adjective.
I think the most dangerous thing is to ignore the fact that Jesus did not just die, but they executed Him, and they killed Him because He stood up to the power of the chief priests and, indirectly, to the Roman powers. Clearly, Jesus didn't just do that; He preached very beautiful and very difficult things: the Beatitudes, mercy towards people, prayer to the Father ... It's nice to see Jesus, but it's something serious too, and if anyone wants to follow the way of Jesus, it's going to cost them ... So I think that, overall, the Church often distances itself from Him so as not to be bothered. But, thank God, there are people and groups who are drawn to Jesus. I've seen it in El Salvador, especially among the poor and their advocates.
After the "Notificatio" you sent a letter to the Jesuit General Peter Hans Kolvenbach, which stated that various theologians didn't find any incompatibility with Church doctrine, that the campaign against you and liberation theology came from 30 years ago and that Ratzinger, in his time as cardinal, had already taken your thoughts and expressions out of context. I gather that there's premeditated harassment against you ...
I wouldn't call it harassment, but bias against me and many others. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict XVI], in an article in 1984-85, criticized me on five points, but also criticized Gustavo Gutiérrez, Ignacio Ellacuría and Hugo Assmann, the four us were in the current that was called liberation theology. Ratzinger was already against this current. If I meet him someday, I hope we can talk as friends...
By the way, one doesn't hear much talk of liberation theology now. Has something changed, perhaps?
Liberation theology was born some fifty years ago in Latin America, a continent of great poverty and Christian faith. Something burst forth there. Something exploded. What erupted? The truth of the poor, which was the reality for centuries. The Church had seen them and had helped them in various ways, but ... when something is so real and explodes, it affects you, shakes you and encourages you to do something.
Thus began the so-called liberation theology, which intended that the poor have life, justice and dignity. For Christian churches, that was God's main will. And in that sense God also "exploded". And then there were two reactions. One, outside the churches. U.S. Vice President [Nelson] Rockefeller, was traveling through Latin America in the seventies and said, among other things: "If what the bishops in Medellin [the 1968 Bishops' Conference, where liberation theology took ecclesial shape] are saying is realized, our interests are endangered." Within the institutional church there was also a backlash from some bishops and cardinals. So liberation theology was born and confrontations ensued. All this led to something unique in the history of Latin America. They wanted to stop it in different ways; one was by killing. They killed dozens of priests, men and women religious, and four bishops. Two others were saved by mistake. And what's less well known: thousands of lay people, most of them poor.
Liberation theology triggered a lifestyle based on compassion, then materialized in forms of justice, based on love for the poor. This now has dropped at the level of the Church and bishops who advocate that line.
Monsignor Romero [Archbishop of San Salvador] said weeks before he was killed in 1980 that "a Christian who sides with the oppressor is not a true Christian" ...
Obviously. To identify with the oppressor means belonging to that group of human beings that is oppressing and taking the lives of others, slowly, through poverty and repression. That person is not Christian. How does he look like Jesus if he is just the opposite? And moreover, he isn't humane. Monsignor Romero was right.
Recently, at a conference of Christian thinkers, you said, paraphrasing the theologian José María Díez Alegría, that "the Church has betrayed Jesus", "this Church is not what Jesus wanted". Where is the Catholic Church's hierarchy leading it?
I didn't paraphrase Díez Alegría, but rather quoted him literally. He said that "overall, the Catholic Church has betrayed Jesus," and I think it's an important reflection. Obviously, not all the Church. I think he is saying that Jesus of Nazareth is disturbing, and so the Church betrays Him. José Antonio Pagola says: what is most needed today is "to mobilize ourselves and join forces urgently to focus the Church more truly and rapidly on the person of Jesus and His plan of the kingdom of God." According to Christian belief, the kingdom of God is the will of God for this world that there be life for all, starting with the poor. And Pagola ended with these words: "Many things will have to be done in the Catholic Church, but none is more crucial than this conversion."
I love the use of the word "conversion" -- it's a radical change. I see nothing more important than returning to this Jesus because we tend to separate from Him, not always, not everyone, not in all ways, but ...
To put it quite simply: when one hears Christian men and women, priests, bishops and non bishops, one rarely hears them talking about Jesus of Nazareth, telling what He said and what He did ... We are losing the essence of Jesus, that's what I meant at the conference. In Latin America it was very present in Don Helder Camara, in Don Pedro Casaldaliga, in many others ... But there's also the temptation to say, like the Grand Inquisitor in the novel "The Brothers Karamazov": "Go and never come back ..."
Even dramatically ... I remember the slogan of the extreme right and the army at the time of repression and war in El Salvador, "be a patriot, kill a priest." Why did they persecute them so cruelly?
They didn't just persecute us, priests and Christian groups, but above all the peasants ... With the Medellin Conference of Bishops of 1968, there was a big change, a breakthrough, and Jesus of Nazareth was present. Being a Christian was following the life of this Jesus, being with the victims, the poor, and, to defend them, confronting the powerful. The oligarchy didn't tolerate this, much less that it came from well-known people of the Church. We priests might be better or worse, but we were an important symbol in the country. That Church that they wanted to have on their side got away from them, so they killed the first priest, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit, a great friend, on March 12, 1977. A great commotion arose and Romero made a very important decision: he denounced it, he said he would never appear in public civil activities until the crime was solved. And on the Sunday of the funeral, he ordered that there only be a single mass. The people with money, the oligarchy, got angrier: "We have killed one of their priests and they continue ..." They continued to kill priests and distributed leaflets with this sentence: "Be a patriot, kill a priest." In June, they gave us Jesuits a month to leave the country or they would kill us all ... We left. They continued to kill priests and nuns, and especially peasants ...
In this context came the killing of the six Jesuit priests and two women [9/16/1989] in the Central American University (UCA). You were also one of the targets of the military, but were saved by being in Thailand attending a conference. How do you remember those events?
A friend called me from London, he asked if I was sitting and if I had a pencil to write with. And he began: "They killed Ellacuría and ...". I felt like they had ripped my skin to shreds, but when I got angriest was when they told me they had killed the cook and her daughter. That they killed Ellacuría, he "had it coming" -- like Jesus of Nazareth. But killing a cook and her fifteen year-old daughter...!
I also remember that a Thai who had converted to Catholicism asked if in El Salvador, there were Catholics who killed priests. He understood well the horror that entailed. In El Salvador, killing priests now entailed not breaking the rules of good, but those of evil. Anything could happen. And it happened ...
Have you often feared for your life?
Yes and no ... Several times bombs exploded in the UCA and in our house. We were on the lists, Ellacuría first, and the others too. Sometimes in the newspapers, I was singled out too. But to think that what happened to Rutilio Grande, to Father Alfonso Navarro, to Archbishop Romero could happen to us... did not cause us to fear. They used to ask us why we didn't leave the country and we replied that we would be ashamed to go, we would be ashamed to say that we must be with people and then leave. I also taught classes on Christology and had to talk about the life of Jesus. How could I talk about Jesus if I left? And we didn't leave, above all, because we felt part of something larger, an entire people whom we loved and who loved us ... For me, it was a gift to have gone to El Salvador. I will be grateful for life.
You've been living there for over half a century. Some things have changed a lot in El Salvador, but poverty continues, the situation has even worsened with crime and youth gang violence ...
El Salvador, as is happening in Haiti, disappeared from the news. Peace treaties were signed and something important happened: two armies agreed not to continue to fight militarily. And that's very good. Furthermore, in the peace agreements it was decided to investigate serious human rights violations on both sides. The United Nations did a quite serious study about it. But what happened? Before the UN report came out, President Cristiani granted amnesty to those who appeared in it. Such an amnesty is not an act of reconciliation, of humanization: it served mainly so that it would not touch the government. Nobody has been convicted yet for the murder of Monsignor Romero -- nor has the Vatican canonized him...
Because of the short time framework, the agreements didn't sufficiently address the economy either, and that is still being felt. I'm not saying that with good agreements on the means of production, labor law, etc ... much would have changed. I'm not very optimistic but, by doing nothing, the unfair economic situation continues with no sign of a solution.
And there have been two other major negative things: Many Salvadorans -- two to three million -- go to the U.S. to find work, which brings many human problems, division of families, etc ... The other problem is the violence of the gangs, that have generated a kind of life in which young people find a sense of identity and are prepared to kill and be killed. And we must add the mafias, drug trafficking, kidnapping ... I wonder sometimes, tragically, why in El Salvador, and in similar countries, they have not decided on collective suicide. For many people, that is not living. But in the people, there is a greater force to move forward and face the most difficult problems. This force is expressed in the effort to survive, the attempts to organize. It is nurtured by many good people, the martyrs with Romero at the top. I think this is difficult to understand here.
I'm surprised how little Salvadoran accent you have ... In El Salvador do they still think of you as Basque?
Admittedly, I haven't changed accents. As far as what is Basque, I haven't lost my roots ... But nor is it an absolute ... Nor is it that I feel Salvadoran, although that is what I most feel I am. I think what has happened to me in El Salvador is a greater openness to all that is human, beyond localities ...
You've put aside coming back to Basque Country to stay ...
What's normal is not coming back to stay; if I come back, I will have to figure out what to do to help here. I would love to cooperate, do good, but I have no recipe. The change would be great. In El Salvador are the poor who don't take life for granted and have almost all the world powers against them. Here in Europe, life is taken for granted, and with much power in their favor. If I may say metaphysically: the poor are "those who are not real." Here we think we're what's real. Being in El Salvador means cooperating for all to live, and the dream of doing it as brothers and sisters. Here I would have to rethink it, though I see good people and things to which I could point.