Latin American Christians for Peace Print
Thursday, 02 December 2004 00:00

On October 30 this year in Bogot?, Colombia, there took place a rally of more than 2000 persons from about twenty countries gathered under the banner of a new Continental Movement of Christians for Peace with Justice and Dignity. The rally signalled a new spirit of ecumenical unity and dedication among a wide spectrum of Christians and organizations, both Catholic and Protestant, throughout Latin America. It also marked a revival of Liberation Theology. As it turned out, I was the only North American present.

Resistance to the United States' imposition of its own agenda upon Latin America is growing, even while U.S. activity in the area is increasing. The flagship of resistance at present is Venezuela, whose happy delegates at the rally spoke often of their "nice revolution" and of the failure of U.S. attempts to overthrow their President Hugo Chavez. Other countries whose governments are offering resistance at present include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and of course Cuba. Resistance movements among the people include almost all Latin American countries, notably Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. I conclude that unless the United States adopts a more enlightened Latin American policy, greater conflict lies ahead.

After the defeat of Nicaragua's revolutionary government in the elections of 1990 (which has been followed by Nicaragua's descent into some of the worst poverty in Latin America) a kind of cloud fell over Liberation Theology. It had always been opposed by Pope John Paul II, who appointed many bishops hostile to it. As the United States moved steadily toward the political right, one heard less and less about Liberation Theology in this country, while in Latin America the attention of progressive Christians shifted to such immediate concerns as poverty, human rights, the corporate globalization of markets, and bloody wars such as the one in Colombia. Since all of these problems were among those that had given rise to Liberation Theology in the first place, it was only a matter of time before its renewal would take place. That began to occur in Bogot? in October.

The large three-day rally that began on October 30 was preceded by a smaller, preparatory one that began on October 26 and also lasted three days. It included about 40 theologians, Bible scholars, and pastors from all over Latin America. Our task was to focus upon the salient issues facing Latin America at the present time and to prepare documents that could be presented to the larger rally. We fastened upon three main topics: 1) the need to return to the method of Liberation Theology, which is that of a mutually informing dialectic between action and reflection undertaken within the context of an imperative for social change; 2) the urgency of opposition to neoliberal (that is, corporate-led) economic policies, which are worsening the plight of the poor; and 3) the crisis of a growing militarism which attempts to combat social unrest with guns. These topics involved a severe condemnation of United States policies and actions. "No to imperialism!" was a constant theme.

We were billeted at the Franciscan House of Spiritual Exercises, a retreat center in Bosa, a working class suburb of Bogot?. At the beginning of the preparatory conference, I was one of only three North Americans present, not including Alice Winters, who has lived in Colombia for 28 years as a Presbyterian mission worker. The two other visitors from the U.S., who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear, were invited to give two of the four plenary addresses scheduled on the first day. The two morning lectures went very well. Camello Alvarez, former head of the Seminario Biblico (now the Biblical University) in Costa Rica, spoke trenchantly about the religious situation in the United States, which has, for the most part, given rise to the Bush administration and provides the rationalization for imperialist actions. Hugo Ruiz, a Paraguayan scholar who teaches in France, outlined the harsh economic realities in Latin America today along with their causes in exploitative practices both old and new.

The two afternoon lectures, devoted to United States policy toward Latin America, did not go as well. Both speakers were from a respected non-governmental organization in Washington, DC, which periodically publishes very good reports on what is happening throughout Latin America. The speakers' failure to connect with their audience was a dismaying surprise to everyone, including me. It bespoke, ironically, a kind of North American arrogance that was as unconscious as it was offensive. Neither speaker had bothered to do much preparation. Both exemplified an attitude of "Beltway-itis." One spent much of his time in an exercise of name-dropping that shed no light on U.S. policies. The other, whose extreme youth did not work to his advantage, chose to lecture his Latin American audience on how it might better incur the favor of the United States. The question periods, although polite, were extremely uncomfortable for the speakers, who decided to leave the conference the next day. Many eyes then turned to me, wondering what I thought of what had been said. There was considerable relief when I let my embarrassment and disagreement be known.

This story is worth telling only because it throws light on a number of realities that North Americans should keep in mind:
Ÿ that many people in Latin America are extremely well informed about the United States, which has a major influence upon their lives day by day;
Ÿ that Latin Americans make a clear distinction between citizens and their government, expecting far more understanding from the former than from the latter;
Ÿ that Latin Americans are hungry for support and solidarity from people in North America;
Ÿ that their gratitude for such support is profound and is often expressed with great feeling;
Ÿ that when they fail to receive it, their pain and resistance are both acute.

The rally took place in the stadium of a large school operated by the Claretians. It was attended, as I have said, by more than 2000 Christians. The list of 53 sponsoring organizations included 29 that are Catholic, 19 ecumenical, and 5 Protestant. The latter (at the time I saw the list) did not include Pentecostals, although a number of them were present and took leadership roles. Of the ten Colombian Catholic bishops who received personal invitations, two were present. Sponsoring denominations were Presbyterian, Baptist, and Mennonite. The nations represented (I have not seen an official list) included Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, and Venezuela.

The rally began with a parade of national flags, after which short greetings were given to the vast assembly by representatives of each country as a hand-held microphone was carried from one to another. I realized that as the sole visiting U.S. citizen present I would be asked to say something. Sure enough, I soon found myself facing a microphone. Camello Alvarez jumped up beside me and said, "You talk. I translate." While I gathered my thoughts, the crowd became very quiet. Then I said, "My name is Tom Driver. I am a citizen of the United States of America." [Pause. Deeper silence.] "President Bush did not send me here."

The crowd erupted in loud cheers. When it became quiet, I went on: "President Bush follows a God of war. I am here to represent those North Americans who try to follow a God of peace." There were more loud cheers and much applause. I continued: "We are in solidarity with those in Latin America who seek peace with justice and dignity. We pray for you in your struggle, and we seek to work in solidarity with you. Today I would like to ask you to pray for us, because we in the United States who seek peace rather than war need your prayers so very much. Thank you. God bless you."

It is too early to tell what result these two encuentros will have. Many small discussion groups were devoted to follow-up actions at the local level. On a wider scale, eyes are focused on a Global Week of Action on Trade that will occur in April. In Colombia that will include a Popular Referendum against the FTA (Free Trade in the Americas), which will be discussed at a follow-up meeting in Colombia on February 5 and 6, 2005. It is clear that the people of Latin America are not going to succumb to United States hegemony without a struggle.

-- Tom F. Driver
The Paul Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture Emeritus
Union Theological Seminary, New York
2 December 2004