Stephen Chan: Political thought on the just rebellion. We’ve talked earlier about the difference between revolt, rebellion, and revolution. We’ve talked about different theorists of revolution. People who talk about revolution in material terms like Theda Skocpol. People who talk about revolution in cultural terms, such as Fred Halliday. We’ve discussed very very much the tension that rides in between the thinking of two such thinkers. People like Ted Gurr talk about relative deprivations—there’s not just a want for material possession and material benefit, but a psychological need to have what someone else is perceived as having. The idea of absolute material deprivation is something which is very difficult to sustain.
Having said that, we’re going to have a brief excursion to one element of what Fred Halliday would’ve called “cultural conditions,” cultural thought that leads to rebellion. We’re going to have a look at liberation theology, and what that has to say about rebellion.
Try to put that into the context of a certain form of knowledge, a certain form of thought. Because of course one of the things that we need to bear in mind when we use this term “thought,” that we’re actually talking about often very different things. That thought could be a theology. That is a reasoned discussion about the nature of the universe and the nature of divinity. Which is different from divine command, or revelation, where thought does not enter the picture.
Thought could also come from philosophy as articulated by complex philosophers like Immanuel Kant. People like Hegel. Thought can come from theoretical sources, people like Skocpol and Halliday are themselves theorists. Thought can come from ideology. Someone like Karl Marx was an ideological writer. And certainly Lenin, in his wake, was an ideological writer.
So there are very many different forms of thought. In terms of theology and in terms of liberation theology, what you have however are two things. You have a reasoned return to basic foundation principles of Christianity. And the second thing is you have a refusal to accept an establishment view of what this Christianity should be. This was very very true in Latin America, for instance, where for several decades from the 1960s onwards, there was this commitment to liberation theology which cost the priests who were involved often very very dearly.
There were all kinds of foundation scripture that germinated in these priests the need to think what Christ would have wanted them to do. In some ways it was a christological vision that is in the footsteps of Christ, rather than something that was Christian in the form of an established church. And if you’re looking for a foundation scripture, then it probably comes from Matthew 25, verses 31 to 46. And this is the parable of Jesus when he comes again, separating the sheep from the goats. And he sends the goats into damnation, and he accepts the sheep into the splendid paradise of his new kingdom.
But he says to both the sheep and the goats, “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was poor and naked, you clothed me. When I was sick, you came to visit me. When I was in prison, you came to help me. Insofar as you do this to the least of my brothers and sisters, then you would have done this to me.”
So the idea of reaching out to the poor, to the deprived, and doing that as the true vocation of the church despite the opposition of dictatorial governments, and despite the reluctance of the established church to support such christological outreach to the poor, constituted the basic impulse behind liberation theology.
Now, this became very very much of a struggle right at the center of the church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. When you look at the role of the immediate past Pope, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger for instance, he was very very much the hound of God, as it were. He occupied the modern version of the Inquisitor General’s office. And he was very very much against the work of these liberation theologian priests. He called them Neo-Marxist. He was on the verge basically of declaring them an anathema to the Church.
And of course this kind of attitude gave governments that were dictatorial almost a license to persecute such priests. This was nowhere more conspicuous than in the case of Óscar Romero, who was the bishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. He became the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador. And he was assassinated in 1980. We still to this day are not totally certain who assassinated him. But certainly combinations of a right-wing government, its agents, and also agents of the CIA, are commonly depicted as being involved in the assassination of Óscar Romero. He is regarded as the unofficial saint of Latin America. Not even the current, more liberal Pope has moved to canonize him. But among ordinary people, among common people, among poor people, he is regarded very very much in saintly terms.
And the kind of outreach that he epitomized was taken up by somebody like Gustavo Gutiérrez. He was a Peruvian theologian, and he himself was of Peruvian Indian origin—a native American, if you like. And his famous book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, not only spoke of reaching out to the poor, but it spoke about the priest’s vocation of consisting also as living as if he were a poor person. In other words the righteous priest had to share in the poverty of those who were deprived. In other words, solidarity meant that a Christian, someone who followed in Christ’s footsteps, had to partake in the same lot of life that poor people partook in. So, Gutiérrez was very very much someone who wanted to lead by example.
You had people who became academics. People like Leonardo Boff in Brazil. And you had people who became fighters. And probably the prime example of this is Ernesto Cardenal, who was a worker priest. He was a fighter priest. He was, as it were, the priest who accompanied the Sandinistas in their liberation of Nicaragua. He was chastised face to face by the Pope. But he was also not only a fighter, and not only a priest to the rebels, but he was a considerable poet. And it’s probably very very much as a poet that he will be remembered. He became Minister of Culture after Nicaragua was liberated by the Sandinistas. But his poems rage against not only oppression of the poor, but they rage against the multinational companies. Companies that he names in his poems. He rails against international capital. He says that there is a world structure which is anti-Christian.
All of this turned into a certain theology, which says that God approves of the poor, because they are honest. That God approves of the struggle of the poor, because they fight against wickedness. And that God endorses those priests who take the side of the poor. And that those priests have got no choice but to take the side of the poor if they’re to follow the example of Christ and the parable of Jesus in his second coming separating the sheep from the goats.
Now, this kind of thinking was not confined to Latin America. There was a conspicuous example of it for instance in the work of the Zimbabwean priest Canaan Banana, who in fact became the first ceremonial president of Zimbabwean after that country’s independence, before he fell foul of the machinations of Robert Mugabe. But Canaan Banana wrote a series of books, The Gospel According to the Ghetto. He rewrote the Lord’s Prayer, in which he asks God to forgive us for our docility, our passivity, in the face of repression. And he was extremely active in the liberation struggle, and tried to mobilize people to fight.
We’re going to have a look as well at his work, often neglected, out of favor politically at home, often in the shadow of the Latin American liberation theologians, and try to discuss how this kind of theological thought in fact provides an international bedrock to forms of rebellion which even today have not been fully appreciated.