Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"God is the absolute and the poor are co-absolute": a special interview with Jon Sobrino

This pre-Congresso interview with theologian Jon Sobrino is available in Portuguese on the Unisinos website and in a loose Spanish translation on the Jesuitas Centroamérica site.

It's now the 40th anniversary of liberation theology and doubt remains regarding the reasons why it is so criticized, persecuted, vilified by the world powers, including the hierarchy of the Church. Here to help us understand this is the renowned Salvadoran Jesuit theologian, originally from Spain, Jon Sobrino, who has agreed to the following interview with IHU On-Line by e-mail, who says that answering this question doesn't require sophisticated study, nor discernment before God. Such persecution occurs "either through ill will or through ignorance", because this theology "was seen as a threat." He explains that it "certainly threatens capitalism, hence the reaction of Rockefeller in 1969 and Reagan's aides in 1980. And it threatens national security, hence the reactions of the generals in the 1980s. Also within the Church, because of ignorance, fear of losing power and the stubbornness of not wanting to acknowledge the truth with which it responded to criticism."

Sobrino thinks that, at Vatican II, "the church felt the impulse to humanize the world and to be humanized along with it, without being ashamed before the modern world and to use what is modern to make the Christian God more credible." And the theologian believes that what is called liberation theology "may contribute to both rationalizing faith in a world of injustice and offering a cleaner image of God, one not stained with the filth of the deities who deal death to the poor."

Jon Sobrino is a professor at the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, with a doctorate in Theology from the Hochschule Sankt Georgen, Frankfurt (Germany), and editor of the Revista Latinoamericana de Teología ("Latin American Journal of Theology") and the Cartas a las iglesias ("Letters to the Churches") newsletter.

Among many other books, he's the author of Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach (Wipf & Stock Pub, 2002). He is going to participate in the Continental Theology Congress at Unisinos in an inaugural event titled "Another Congress and a New Congress."

IHU On-Line: For you, what is the significance of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council and the 40th anniversary of the publication of Gustavo Gutiérrez's book, A Theology of Liberation? What perspectives might emerge from the Continental Theology Congress?

Jon Sobrino: In those years -- from 1966 to 1974 -- I was in Frankfurt studying theology. I heard about the Council, but only partially. Through Medellin and Gustavo Gutiérrez's book, I just got interested in 1974 with my arrival in El Salvador. By this I mean that, unlike many of my generation, I was ignorant about what was happening and obviously wasn't at all passionate about it. Then, everything changed. More than what happened, I think it was the Salvadoran situation of the poor and the compañeros who were giving themselves to them that led me to appreciate the events that had occurred and read the writings of bishops and theologians who accompanied them. This clarification may help to understand the answers that I give below. You ask what the significance is of celebrating, and I think that if we take the question seriously, each one will have his own answer.

Of the events mentioned, I'm still celebrating that they were deep and humanizing ruptures in the history of the Church. They made us breathe. Thinking of the Council, "the impossible became possible." Thinking of Medellín, Gustavo Gutiérrez and then Archbishop Romero, the Church decided to return to the poor and Jesus. And it gave "ultimacy" to justice and the hope that it might be possible "that the rich not triumph over the poor, nor the executioner over the victim." In this task, the God of Jesus loomed clearly. And if I focus more on Medellín than on the Council, it's because I know it better.

Another Christianity is possible

This produced joy and hope that, as we say today -- I don't know if too facilely, another church, another faith, another Christianity "is possible", and it was because "it was real." Today we celebrate the awakening from "the nightmare of centuries of cruel inhumanity," as Montesinos asked for, the decision to work for the poor and their liberation, and cast our lot with them. We celebrated the hard conversion and the new that was coming: liturgy, catechesis, popular music, poetry, a new theology -- Gustavo's, an unheard of commitment and a fight against idols. And, above all, the giving of their lives of hundreds and thousands of faithful Christians. Of bishops and priests. In life and death, they were like Jesus. The achievements are obvious. Dom Pedro Casaldáliga wrote "Saint Romero of America, our pastor and martyr," although several Roman curias don't know what to do with those martyrs, There are so many of them. The regulations to which they must be faithful are not designed to accept what is evident.

Today, on the continent, some things have changed, but there is still poverty, the structures of injustice and oppression, and the cruelty of migration has increased.

Things changed more in the Church. From Puebla on, it slid down a slope without Aparecida preventing it significantly. There are good and innovatively good things, but it's no longer the one of the past. There was institutional integrity, abundant or at least enough, along with real, vigorous and considered denunciation against the horror of the poor, a utopia for which to work and fight, pastoral letters that recalled Bartolomé de las Casas and the science of Vitoria, prophetic homilies of priests, bold theologies ... Now it's not clear. They presented a more Latin American, poor, hopeful, liberating and crucified God. And they gave back to the continent and its churches a Jesus who had been held hostage for centuries.

Looking Back

So what does it mean, years later, to celebrate the Council, Gustavo Gutierrez's book, Medellin, the martyrdom of Archbishop Romero? What happened was very good and very humanizing. Today, it no longer abounds. And so you need to look back, though the words don't sound politically correct. Certainly we must continue with new theological thinking: women, indigenous peoples, the denominations, sister earth, the utopia of other "possible" worlds, churches, democracies. But we need to be careful not to fall into Jeremiah's threat: "They have forsaken me, the source of living waters; they have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." (Jer 2:13). What we mentioned earlier are fountains of living water to this day. And they will be more so if we return to them actively and creatively. Admittedly, "the Spirit moves us forward." But such as we are, the less we can forget that "the Spirit leads us to Jesus of Nazareth," eternal source of living water.

IHU On-Line: What does it mean to do and think about theology from the reality of Latin America and the Caribbean ?

Jon Sobrino: Theology is not the first thing to consider. The first is the reality and, in the case of theology, absolute reality. With his usual acuity, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, referring to the absolute, says that "everything is relative, except God and hunger." The absolute is God, and the poor are co-absolute. So doing theology is helping, from thinking, God to be more real in history, and the poor -- hunger -- to cease being so. So that thought can help in this task, let's recall what Ellacuría meant by intellectively knowing reality. He explained it in three steps:

The first is "assuming reality", or simply, grasping what and how things are. In 2006, looking at the world universe, Casaldáliga wrote: "Today, there is more wealth on earth, but there is more injustice. Two and a half million people survive on Earth with less than two euros per day, and 25,000 people die directly from starvation, according to the FAO. Desertification threatens the lives of 1.2 million people in one hundred countries. Migrants are denied fraternity, the ground under their feet. The United States is building a 1,500 km wall against Latin America. And in Europe, in southern Spain, a fence is being raised against Africa. All that, as well as being iniquitous, is programmed." The present doesn't belie this.

The second step is to "taking responsibility for reality." Its purpose isn't simply to make knowledge grow, however necessary and good that may be, but to make reality grow. And in a certain direction: that of salvation, compassion, mercy and love. Theology is intellectus amoris.

The third step is to "bear the reality," and a reality that is heavy. Underneath it live the anawim of Scripture, those who are bent over. The load that could even deprive someone of life. Theologians have suffered persecution, and some ended as martyrs. This can happen when doing theology is permeated with an ethical attitude.

We usually add a fourth step: "let yourself be borne by reality." Thus, the work and suffering might also be grace for those who do theology. So the theologian knows he or she is part of the poor, not on the outside of them. They know that they are led by them and receive the thanks of the poor. Doing theology is then "a heavy burden that is light," as Rahner used to say, which is the Gospel.

IHU On-Line: How do you analyze the current cultural, socioeconomic and political world situation from the Latin American vista? In this context, what are the challenges and tasks involving theology?

Jon Sobrino: I think that nowadays there are many faces of God in Latin America. Some emerged in the past and stayed there. They go on keeping many people alive and with dignity -- although with the limitation of not encouraging commitment. Others coexist with dehumanizing superstition. Today new churches and movements of all kinds proliferate, mostly charismatic and Pentecostal, with their new faces of God. Personally, I understand and sometimes appreciate the kindness of the people who worship in them because, in part, it's due to long periods of ecclesial abandonment. But it's not always easy for me to put them alongside the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospel. Among intellectuals and former revolutionaries, there are agnostics and some atheists. They're a minority, but they're growing. I believe that, in a few places, the face of a crucified God that Moltmann talks about, emerged, but I don't believe in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala it's possible, in the long run, to accept a God that doesn't affect their suffering, that God himself suffers in His crucified sons and daughters. Among these faces, I think the biggest news is the dual formulation Puebla made in 1979. Positively, God is essentially a liberating God. He defends and loves the poor - and in that order - by the mere fact of being within them. Whatever their personal moral condition. Dialectically, God is essentially a God of life against the deities of death. Puebla examined this carefully and presented the idols according to a hierarchy: the idol of wealth, power, weapons ... Archbishop Romero, along with Ignacio Ellacuría, explained it admirably for the Salvadoran situation.

IHU On-Line: What is the face of God that emerges from Latin American reality? And how has the Church taken on this face?

Jon Sobrino: It's important to ask them that, and for us not to take their place. But we can say something. In Morazán, amid the atrocities of the war of the peasants, they asked the priest who accompanied them, "Father, if God is a God of life, why is all this happening to us?". It's the question of Job and Epicurus . To answer this question, contents or reasons didn't occur to me, but attitudes did. The first was to speak to them "with closeness." And not just any closeness, but that of Archbishop Romero: "I ask the Lord throughout the week, as I'm taking in the cry of the people and their pain from so much crime, the ignominy of so much violence, to give me the appropriate words to console, to denounce, to call to repentance." The second is to talk "with credibility". And, again, not just any credibility, but that of Archbishop Romero: "I don't want security while they don't give it to my people." The bishop didn't respond by appealing to heavenly miracles, but by showing earthly love in his own flesh. What the peasants who were suffering and questioning felt in their hearts, belongs to their mystery. Those who saw it from the outside believe that the bishop told them of God's love. And that his words were good news. It remains for the intellectuals to dialogue with Epicurus and Dostoevsky, entertaining Paul and Moltmann. And it's not an idle task. But, between us, what resonates most is the closeness and the credibility of the archbishop.

IHU On-Line: How do you talk about God from the reality of the suffering experienced by the excluded, those who are on the margins of privileged society?

Jon Sobrino: Theologies don't grow, last or decay as formal systems of thought, uncontaminated by what is real. Liberation theology rigorously and vigorously expressed that in Exodus God "freed the slaves", that in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus "set the captives free." What, how, and how much of it guided thinking in these 40 years is something to be analyzed. I have told you that this happened more in the past than now. Since then, liberation theology hasn't been fashionable. But I don't think it's correct to blame that on what started with Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, Ignacio Ellacuria and with Dom Helder Camara, Leonidas Proaño, Angelelli and Romero. It's important to keep thanking the people mentioned who, for those 40 years, remained promoters of liberating theology and expanded into new areas, such as gender, religion, mother earth ... And those of goodwill who lament the fall of liberation theology, let them return to the God of Exodus and Jesus of Nazareth. Undoubtedly, there were limitations, errors, exaggerations. There may have been anti-intellectual reductionism in favor of praxis, intellectual laziness in the face of writings such as those of Juan Luis Segundo or Ellacuría, glimpses of demagoguery against the scientific thinking from other origins, ignorance of criticism or arrogance in the face of it. But personally, I don't think that a more humane, fruitful, gospel-centered and Latin American theological impulse has come up than the one that emerged 40 years ago.

IHU On-Line: How do you analyze these forty years of liberation theology? Why was it so criticized, persecuted, vilified by world powers, including the hierarchy of the Church?

Jon Sobrino: Another thing is the lower quality in the production of liberation theology. It's not easy to duplicate the generation of founders, although new theologians of quality have emerged. And we can't forget that something similar is happening today in other schools, movements and traditions of theology. The Barths, Rahners, de Lubacs, von Balthasars, Bultmanns, Käsemanns don't have many successors of that caliber.

The answer to the second question doesn't require any sophisticated study, or discernment before God. Either through ill will or ignorance, this theology was seen as a threat. Certainly, it threatens capitalism, and hence the reactions of Rockefeller in 1969 and Reagan's aides in 1980. And it threatens national security, hence the reactions of the generals in the 1980s. Also within the Church, because of ignorance, fear of losing power, or stubbornness of not wanting to acknowledge the truth with which it responded to criticism. Remember Don López Trujillo and various bishops and cardinals. And the 1984 instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, without the 1986 one managing to completely fix the former one.

IHU On-Line: What's the theological and anthropological meaning of the term "liberation" in the Latin American context? How is this theological perspective involved in the current context of society and of the Church?

Jon Sobrino: If I remember correctly, the concept of "liberation" was used to go beyond the concept of "development", the solution that the Western world proposed to overcome poverty. In the Church, it was rediscovered as a key term in Exodus and Luke to express salvation. It seems important to remember that "liberation" was rediscovered in Latin America, the so-called Third World, because of being a continent that wasn't only backward and underdeveloped, but also oppressed and enslaved by the First World, Europeans and North Americans. And the churches, if not oppressed by the European ones, were heavily dependent on them. The term "liberation" referred very importantly to oppression and repression, ie, the unjust and cruel deprivation of life, which remains even to this day. Another thing is that, fortunately, the concept was extended in its theological sense to designate liberation from indignity, from gender oppression, from the despotism of a denomination ... And it must also be remembered that liberation theology, unlike other theologies and ideologies, gives priority to the "people" over "individualism", and "openness to transcendence" over "positivism," as Ellacuría said in a meeting of the Abrahamic religions. In any case, despite the massive return to spiritual individualism, liberation theology introduced the religious dimension of the humane in the sphere of the outside world. It became present in social reality in its own right and it can't be easily ignored. It's a political religion, akin to that of Metz, which is of no small benefit.

IHU On-Line: Remembering Archbishop Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria and companions, among many other faces who were murdered because they took up the cause of the poor and marginalized, what does it mean to be Church today on the threshold of the 21st century?

Jon Sobrino: I'll mention two sentences. Ignacio Ellacuria, at the funeral held at the UCA, said that "with Archbishop Romero, God visited El Salvador." Being Church is working simply and decisively so that God visits this inhuman world. And, for the non-believer, working so that solidarity and dignity, the best of man, visit this world, which despite being more secular, remains inhuman. Archbishop Romero, at the University of Louvain, on February 2, 1980, a few days before being murdered, said that "the glory of God is that the poor live."

To be Church is to work for the glory of God. And, for the non-believer, "the glory of humanity is that the poor live, coming to be part of the human family." Therefore, work is required. And I'll end with something that makes me think. I think that at the Council, the Church felt the impulse to humanize the world and to be humanized along with it, without being ashamed before the modern world and to use what is modern to make the Christian God more credible. The goal is magnificent. In Medellín, the Church felt the urge to not be ashamed of the poor and to not hear the rebuke of Scripture: "The name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of you." And it humbly began to "cleanse the face of God." I believe that what is called liberation theology can contribute to both rationalizing faith in a world of injustice and offering a cleaner image of God, one not stained with the filth of the deities who deal death to the poor.

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