Friday, October 18, 2013

The tradition of Jesus versus the Christian religion

By Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Servicios Koinonia
October 18, 2013

To adequately understand Christianity, it is necessary to make distinctions that have been accepted by most scholars. Thus, it's important to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the faith. By the historical Jesus, we mean the preacher and prophet from Nazareth such as he existed in reality under Caesar Augustus and Herod. The Christ of the faith is the content of the preaching of his disciples who saw him as the Son of God and the Savior.

Another important distinction that must be made is between the Kingdom of God and the Church. The Kingdom of God is the universal message of Jesus. It means an absolute revolution, redefining the relationships of human beings with God (sons and daughters), with others (brothers and sisters all), with society (the central place of the poor), and the universe (the gestation of a new heaven and a new earth). The Church was possible because Jesus was rejected and, therefore, the Kingdom did not come about. It's a historical construct that is trying to carry out Jesus' cause in the different cultures and eras. Its dominant incarnation is in Western culture but it has also become incarnate in Oriental culture, in the Coptic one, and in others.

It's also important to distinguish between the tradition of Jesus and the Christian religion. The tradition of Jesus takes place before the writing of the Gospels, although it is contained in them. The Gospels were written 30 to 60 years after Jesus' execution. In the intervening time, communities and churches had already been organized with their tensions, internal conflicts, and forms of organization. The Gospels reflect and take sides within this situation. They don't claim to be historical books but books for edification and for the dissemination of the life and message of Jesus as Savior of the world.

Within this jumble, what does the tradition of Jesus mean? It's the hard core, the content that fits in a nutshell and represents Jesus' orginal intention and practice (ipsissima intentio et acta Jesu) before the interpretations that were made of it. It can be summed up in the following points: First comes Jesus' dream, the Kingdom of God, as an absolute revolution in history and the universe, a conflictive proposal since it was opposed to the reign of Caesar. Then his personal experience of God taht he transmitted to his disciples: God is Father (Abba), full of love and tenderness. His special trait is being merciful; He loves the ungrateful and the wicked. (Luke 6:35) Another important point is community. He chose twelve to live with him. That number twelve is symbolic. It represents the reunion of the 12 tribes of Isreael and the reconciliation of all peoples, made into the People of God. Last, the use of power. Its only legitimate use is for service to the community and power holders should always seek the last place.

This set of values and visions is the tradition of Jesus. As can be deduced, it's not an institution, a doctrine or a discipline. What Jesus wanted was to teach how to live, not create a new religion with pious institutional churchgoers. The tradition of Jesus is a good dream, a spiritual path that can take many forms, and that can also have followers outside of religion and the Church. The tradition of Jesus changed over history into a religion, the Christian religion -- a religious organization in the form of distinct denominations, the Roman Catholic Church in particular. The latter are characterized by being institutions with doctrines, disciplines, ethical determinations, ritual forms of worship, and legal canons. The Roman Catholic Church specifically was organized around sacred power (sacra potestas), concentrating it in the hands of a small elite, which is the hierarchy with the Pope at its head, excluding lay people and women. It holds the decision-making and monopoly on speech. It's hierarchical and creates great inequalities. It has been identified illegitimately with the tradition of Jesus.

This type of historical translation covered in ashes a large part of the originality and enchantment of the tradition of Jesus. That's why all the denominations are in crisis, since they are not "joy for all the people" (Luke 2:10) as they were at their beginning.

Jesus himself, perceiving this development, warned that it was of little use to observe the laws "and not worry about what is most important which is justice, mercy and faith; that is what's important, without neglecting the other." (Mt 23:23)

Bringing it up-to-date: Where does the fascination with the figure and speeches of Pope Francis lie? In that he links himself directly to the tradition of Jesus. He states that "love comes before dogma and service to the poor before doctrine" (Civiltà Cattolica). Without that inversion, Christianity loses "the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel," it is transformed into a religious ideology, and becomes a doctrinarian obsession.

There's no other way to regain the credibility the Church has lost except going back to the tradition of Jesus, as Pope Francis is wisely doing.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Do we still believe in justice?

by José Antonio Pagola (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Buenas Noticias: Blog de Jose Antonio Pagola
October 20, 2013

Luke 18:1-8

Luke narrates a brief parable, mentioning that Jesus told it to explain to his disciples "how they had to pray always without becoming weary." This subject is very dear to the evangelist who repeats the same idea on various occasions. Naturally, the parable has almost always been read as an invitation to tend to the perseverance of our prayer to God.

However, if we observe the content of the tale and the conclusion of Jesus himself, we see that the key to the parable is the thirst for justice. The expression "doing justice" is repeated four times. More than a model of prayer, the widow in the story is an admirable example of the fight for justice in the midst of a corrupt society that abuses the weakest.

The first person of the parable is a judge who "neither fears God nor cares about human beings." He's the exact embodiment of the corruption that the prophets repeatedly denounced -- the powerful don't fear God's justice, nor do they respect the dignity and rights of the poor. They aren't isolated cases. The prophets denounced the judicial system in Israel and the sexist structure of that patriarchal society.

The second person is a defenseless widow in an unjust society. On the one hand, she is suffering the abuses of an "adversary" more powerful than her. On the other, she's the victim of a judge who couldn't care less about her or her suffering. That's how millions of women have lived in every time and most places.

At the end of the parable, Jesus doesn't talk about prayer. First of all, he asks for trust in God's justice: "Will not God do justice for his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?". These chosen ones are not "the members of the Church" but the poor everywhere who cry out, asking for justice. Theirs is the Kingdom of God.

Then Jesus asks a question that's a challenge for his disciples: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" He's not thinking of faith as doctrinal adherence, but the faith that inspires the actions of the widow, a model of outrage, active resistance, and the courage to demand justice from the corrupt.

Is this the faith and prayer of satisfied Christians in well-off societies? Surely J.B. Metz is right when he complains that in Christian spirituality there are too many canticles and too few cries of indignation, too much complacency and too little nostalgia for a more humane world, too much consolation and too little hunger for justice.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A theological "giant": An interview with Gustavo Gutierrez

by Mauro Castagnaro (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Jesus (Italiano/Português)
No. 10, October 2013

He was one of the fathers of liberation theology and, as such, he was in the Vatican's sights a long time. Now that Gustavo Gutierrez has been received by Pope Francis and his work has been reevaluated, he takes stock of the past serenely and outlines future challenges.

Seeing him so small and feeble, stumbling as he walks, leaning on a stick in the cloisters of the Archdiocesan Seminary of Seveso, Province of Milan, it is hard to think that Father Gustavo Gutiérrez is the source of a theological movement that, over the last four decades, has motivated the participation of thousands of Christians in the struggle for social justice, has disturbed the sleep of the powerful (enough to merit study by conservative centers in the United States and special conferences by armies throughout the Americas), and has sparked controversy in the church institution itself, mainly because of its supposed dependence on Marxism. But when this 85-year-old priest opens his mouth, then it is understood that we are facing a "giant" of Christian thought.

The "father" of liberation theology has come to Italy to participate in the 23rd National Congress of the Italian Theological Association (ITA) and present, with Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the book they wrote together titled Dalla parte dei poveri [On the side of the poor] at the Mantua Literary Festival.

This dialogue with Dom Müller and the later meeting, on September 12th, with Pope Francis in Santa Marta, were rightly defined as "historic" events, because in past decades, on the contrary, the organ of the Roman Curia responsible for monitoring orthodoxy has not shown much understanding regarding the liberation theologians, issuing two generally quite critical instructions in 1984 and in 1986, and censoring in various ways and to varying extents some authors, such as the Brazilians Leonardo Boff and Ivone Gebara, and the Spanish-born Salvadoran Jon Sobrino.

And it's with the subject of his friendship with Dom Müller that Father Gutierrez's long conversation with the journal Jesus begins:

"I met him in 1988," he explains, "when Father Josef Sayer, who was a missionary in Lima at the time and, later, director until last year of Misereor (an agency of the German Bishops' Conference that deals with cooperation for development), invited a group of German professors to a seminar in which I was asked to participate. Professor Müller, who taught dogmatic theology in Munich, told me at the end of the meeting that the discussion had reminded him of the importance of practice, a reason why he proposed coming periodically to Peru to lend a hand as professor. For 15 years, he always spent three or four weeks of his annual holidays teaching in the Cuzco seminary, whose students where indigenous people with a very low level of education, and devoting weekends to pastoral work in the rural areas. I haven't seen many European professors spending their holidays that way! Naturally, when he became bishop, he could only return to Peru for briefer periods. Over the years, our friendship grew. To sum it up, I though he was someone who was very open intellectually, who had the simplicity and courage to say that the liberation perspective changed his way of conceiving theology."

Here is the interview.

Do you think that Dom Müller's positive assessment is limited to your writings or does it also extend to liberation theology as a whole?

I never asked him, and indeed, when he talks about liberation theology, he just quotes me. But I can imagine, without being too wrong, that his assessment doesn't relate only to my reflections, because the positions of us liberation theologians are essentially the same, and I've never heard him criticize another author.

Liberation theology tried to interpret the Gospel message and Christian reflection "from the perspective of the poor." In recent decades, theological branches have been born from its trunk that are trying to do the same thing, but "from the perspective of women", "of indigenous people", "of homosexuals", etc ... What do you think of it?

It has always seemed important to me to have a comprehensive concept, which for me was "insignificance", because it is possible to be insignificant due to lack of money, but also due to skin color or the fact of not speaking the dominant language of a country well, like occurs in Peru with the indigenous half of the population. When I speak of "the poor", I'm not just referring to those who have a low income, but also to "those who don't count, who have no social weight," those who are marginalized or forgotten.

Already in the book A Theology of Liberation, I spoke about the despised ethnic groups and cultures too, and especially since 1975, about women -- so much so that the final document of the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, held in Puebla in Mexico in 1979, took up one of my texts that speaks of them as "doubly oppressed, as poor people and as women." I haven't deepened this reflection much because women theologians in particular have done it, and it wasn't necessary to repeat what they've said. Feminist theology derives from the experience of women, and this seems important to me, it interests me greatly. But it's not a theology only for women, because it has a universal dimension.

Frei Betto often emphasizes that, in the last decade, in Latin America, government leaders have come to power who are ideologically linked to the "option for the poor" and liberation theology. What do you think of this statement?

I strongly distrust these identifications. Certainly, the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who has a Christian education, having studied at Louvain with Father François Houtart, knows our world and has made reference to it. At the same time, he's an economist with his ideas. And the head of state of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, has often mentioned Archbishop Romero, who is also a symbol for the whole country. Political leaders have every right to quote these references, because it means that, for them, they're significant, and this makes me happy.

The Church -- I speak of the Church, because the ideas that are attributed to liberation theology are also present in the documents of the Latin American bishops -- motivated, but not by itself, interest in policies for the poor, justice, human rights, and many people have identified with liberation theology, but it's not a club or a political party in which we enroll! So I don't think you can say that a president is linked to it. I have no doubt - and I like that - that the Church in Latin America over the past 40 years has greatly influenced society.

And, on the other hand, how much government repression was based on the fight against liberation theology! Therefore, it is present in the political environment, for better or worse, but there are other factors that have influence. Many years ago, a journalist from Barcelona asked my opinion about the Sandinista revolution that had triumphed in Nicaragua, defining it as "the work of people connected to liberation theology." I objected, saying I thought there were more important elements than liberation theology. If there was a revolution in Nicaragua, it was due, above all, to the violence and injustice of the Somoza dictatorship. We must not lose our sense of proportion! Liberation theology has certainly motivated many people, but you can't attribute all actions to it. I rejoice that it has had an influence -- theology is done to change the world! But it's not true that Latin America has changed because of it.

You've been working on the issue of religious pluralism for some time. What's your position on it?

It's a very important subject on which I've been reflecting for years. I participated in various meetings on interfaith dialogue, but I never saw representatives of the African animist religions so widespread on that continent, or of the indigenous peoples of Amazonia, but just the "great world religions," -- i.e. Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism, Judaism, which has relatively few adherents but is very important, and so on. This doesn't seem right to me if we want to build a scientific hypothesis about religions that is convincing. Interreligious dialogue is very interesting, but to participate in it, having respect for others is enough.

The real problem with respect to the theology of religions is the one of the status of Christ as the unique and universal savior. I'm sorry to say it, but I think that no theory developed so far by the theological community is satisfactory, and it strikes me that Paul Knitter, whom I know well and who has reflected and written about it more than I, says more or less the same thing in his latest book, ie, that what we have produced up to now are still approximations, and the current hypotheses have only dispelled the fog a bit.

In particular, the tripartite division "exclusivism - inclusivism - pluralism", which was helpful at a certain moment, seems outdated to me, because existing positions among theologians can no longer be attributable to these three categories. You have to have the modesty to admit that we need to delve deeper still into the theme on the theological level which, however, is not a precondition for dialogue with other religions, essential for getting to know one another. I also spoke about all this with Father Jacques Dupuis, whom I saw suffer from being misunderstood by the Church. Dupuis died sadly, after being treated very badly ... "

Mistreated like you...

Yes, me too, at one time. But then I learned that you don't need to lose your sense of humor, a virtue that helps us not to feel like the center of the world or a perpetual exile, not to take ourselves too seriously, and that keeps us from becoming bitter. I like to laugh a lot and I think this has helped me in difficult times. One should move forward, without feeling indispensable, because theological reflection would go on without me too. However, I was never the subject a process [by the CDF] but of a dialogue -- even though I became aware of it after it had already started!

What was your spirit during those times when you felt the hierarchy's mistrust of you?

It's unpleasant to hear that you're defined as "someone who has infiltrated the Church to destroy it." It's normal for someone to say they don't agree with you, but that accusation was crazy! The controversy also had a strong media dimension in Peru; bishops and politicians became involved in it. I had a lot of conversations. I didn't persuade anyone of my positions, but maybe they realized that what they believed about me wasn't true. In Rome, where they're more educated, they understood more and asked me about Marxism only the first time. Then they focused on more precisely theological issues.

It was a case that lasted several years until, in 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a brief text to say that the dialogue had concluded satisfactorily. They hadn't found anything erroneous. It was a bad time, not only because of the relationship with Rome, but also because of the situation in Peru. But I'm stubborn and I constantly tried to get them to explain the criticisms, because that also serves others, rather than submitting without discussion or breaking off the dialogue.

The election of Pope Francis and his wish for a "poor Church for the poor" led many to talk about the "revenge" of liberation theology. What do you think? And what are the challenges facing the new pope in your opinion?

The Pope loves the poor because he has read the Gospel and understood it. It may even be that he knows liberation theology, and if it helped him avail himself of this important Christian perspective, so much the better! But the challenge of the poor has been present a long time on the Church's horizons, otherwise the martyrdom that we have experienced in Latin America, starting with bishops such as Enrique Angelelli in Argentina, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and Juan Gerardi in Guatemala could not be understood. Building this "poor Church for the poor" is a great move.

And what consequences does it have?

Saying that poverty is a major challenge for the Church implies making changes. For example, the need for the needs of the poor to be the main policy concern should be stated more forcefully in every country, even without proposing specific programs, because that's up to civil society and politics. And the problem of poverty can't be reduced to the economic aspect, but involves, for example, cultural diversity, as is evident in Peru where most of the population has indigenous roots. The problems vary from country to country and the proposals should be very specific. I'm convinced that assuming the perspective of the last and the least changes the behavior of Christians. We always speak of Latin America as a "Catholic continent" but this immense poverty puts that into question because our faith is not reduced to fulfilling some religious obligations that have little meaning if not accompanied by the struggle for justice. All Christians ought to share the commitment to human dignity, to human rights.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pope Francis and Liberation Theology: An Interview with Pablo Richard

by José Eduardo Mora (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Biblioteca Amerindia
September 27, 2013

NOTE: This interview was originally published in "Semanario Universidad", Costa Rica, Sept. 25 - Oct. 1, 2013.

After the long years of silence to which it was subjected by the powers of Rome, liberation theology has become a topic again within the Church. What are the first interpretations that can be drawn from this situation?

It's the ability to regain the memory of the past and the possibility of opening a public forum to assess the past 40 years of liberation theology. Pope Francis is opening this space for critical reflection, which also allows us to regain the memory of our martyrs who gave their lives for the Gospel.

To start with, it's important to reconstruct something of the historical memory of the 80's, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document "Libertatis Nuntius" (1984), from which we will quote only two short texts: "Impatience and a desire for results has led certain Christians, despairing of every other method, to turn to what they call 'Marxist analysis.'" (VII, 1). "The 'theologies of liberation', which deserve credit for restoring to a place of honor the great texts of the prophets and of the Gospel in defense of the poor, go on to a disastrous confusion between the 'poor' of the Scripture and the 'proletariat' of Marx." (IX, 10)

These complaints about Marxist influence in liberation theology largely legitimized the persecution of thousands of Christians, laity and priests, many killed for their witness to the Gospel and not for ideological reasons.

An event that would transform the historical memory of those 40 years would be if Pope Francis were to canonize Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop, prophet, and martyr of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered for proclaiming the Gospel on March 24, 1980.

Are we witnessing a momentous opportunity for liberation theology, in the sense that there may be a resurgence, after this option was "demonized" and fought hard against by the Vatican?

I believe that Pope Francis is giving a great opportunity for liberation theology to come into the limelight to provoke an open discussion about it. Pope Francis' meeting with Father Gustavo Gutierrez, chief inspirer of liberation theology over these 40 years, as well as the meeting with archbishop and theologian Gerhard Müller, now secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are signs of an irreversible change that will allow a resurgence of liberation theology in Latin America.

From John Paul II to Jorge Bergoglio, what are the main changes that have taken place within liberation theology over such a long period?

Liberation theology isn't a doctrine or a dogma, but a new way to do theology. The first thing is a practice of liberation -- theological reflection follows as "act two". The evolution of liberation theology isn't a purely theoretical evolution. What's changing is the practice of liberation, and in every period, a new subject emerges, a new critical awareness, a project, a utopia, a new hope for liberation that guides us where we are to walk. Liberation theology doesn't just hear the "cry of the poor," but also the "cry of the Earth." Liberation theology was a source that is ever new of "spirituality" and a new way of reading and interpreting the Bible. What's new with Pope Francis is that liberation theology will be present again in the "public and secular forum of modernity", and in "open dialogue" with all the economic, social, political and ecological sciences, and will participate in the defense of human rights in the area of forced migration, human trafficking, drugs, even in confronting "international organized violence". With Pope Francis, a new field of action has opened up, one that is more secular and autonomous from the ecclesiastical structures of power that are now becoming unsustainable. The "Gospel" is definitely going down new paths now.

We hope Pope Francis will help us break boundaries. Pope John XXIII, the pope we all want to be canonized as a saint, also taught us that.

ECLAC confirmed that poverty affected 167 million people in Latin America in 2012. One of the cores of liberation theology was that the governing structures of society should change. In that sense, could one argue that liberation theology is as necessary as at its inception?

As long as there's poverty and we are determined to fight against it, there will be liberation theology. "When the poor suffer, prophets are a necessity."

What would be the implications for liberation theology that the Vatican, at least, isn't openly fighting it as it did in the past?

The main problem isn't whether liberation theology is accepted or not by the Vatican. Liberation theology is legitimized in itself because of its liberating gospel strength. If liberation theology enters freely in the public forum of the Church, liberation theology could join all the new liberation currents, which are many. There is a "theology void" in the Church, above all as a result of past persecution.

As a vastly experienced theologian, do you think, from the signs the Pope has shown during his first six months, that Bergoglio has really made his commitment to the poor of the earth his main option?

I'm convinced he has, but a personal option of his is not enough, but rather an option as Bishop of Rome and as the highest authority in the Catholic Church, together with other denominations and faiths. It's not just the Pope's option for the poor, but his ability to reform the whole Church from the preferential option for the poor.

Francis said in the interview with La Civilittá Cattólica that you can't talk about poverty without experiencing it. Does that statement bring him closer to what liberation theology advocated in its time?

Certainly. It's not enough to make an option for the poor, but one has to be with them, give time to them and listen to them.

Moreover, the option for the poor is more and more an option for the "social movements" of the poor, and this requires "always being there." Historically, liberation theology was born in the "shantytowns", among the "marginal populations", in the "slums" and in the poorest and also the most dangerous places in Latin America. We live there, we are there, and we will always be there.

There has been enthusiasm, including from figures such as Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez, for this new pope. As a theologian and scholar, do you think Francis will contribute to significant changes in the Church?

I think so. The pope has put forward powerful signs and radical speeches (which go to the root of the problems). But we know that "papers" fly away, what remains are the "personal testimonies" and "structural changes." Pope Francis has already given many "prophetic testimonies", which are the beginning of more global structural changes in the Church.

For example: the reform of the Vatican Curia and the Vatican State. Some think that this change is so global and transcendent, it's possible that "they'll murder" him. It's possible. But I think something worse could happen to him: that they'll "set a trap for him," that they'll make his life impossible, an invisible and destructive war. There's an "international Catholic right" with ecclesiastical support, capable of anything. They won't allow the "bishop of Rome" to question the global economic and political system. In this "international Catholic right," we could include such powerful institutions as "Opus Dei", the "Legionaries of Christ" (whose founder, Father Maciel, has been the most evil pedophile priest protected by the highest authorities of the Vatican), and also other obscurantist and aggressive movements such as the "Heralds of the Gospel" ( a "military"-type organization recognized in 2001 by Pope John Paul II and that is a new version of the "Tradition, Family and Property" movement, the TFP). I can't imagine anything new.

Could Latin America experience, in the new context that has arisen with the new pope, a resurgence of its grassroots, from the communities that had been historically marginalized?

I think that's a real and possible hope. However, we should stress that the grassroots movements, like the base ecclesial communities and the Pastoral Bible Reading Movements, and many others live with the strength that is their own. The strength of being disciples of Jesus. They have been persecuted, they have decreased, and other conservative Catholic movements have emerged. But the Church isn't a "religious marketplace" where the quality of its "products" is measured by "sales success."

What "sells well" isn't necessarily what's "worth the most." We can't evaluate grassroots movements using "neoliberal" criteria. If in a neighborhood, for example, there are two or three base ecclesial communities and 50 or more Catholic movements, it doesn't mean that the latter are worth more than a few humble base ecclesial communities, which are inserted today in the most "dangerous" places on the continent.

What might liberation theology's contribution be to that Light of Faith that Francis talks about in his first encyclical?

If we're referring to the encyclical Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith), that's possibly a work constructed by the theologian Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. It doesn't represent the most genuine thinking of Pope Francis. It's also an overly long, dense, dogmatic encyclical that very few Catholics will be able to read. We understand that Pope Francis has already announced his own encyclical, "Beati Pauperes".

"Blessed are the poor with Spirit, because the possibility of building the Kingdom of God is in their hands." (Mt. 5:3) .