Stephen Chan: From the 1960s onwards, there was a new phenomenon, or at least it was noticed as new at that point in time, which has been called “liberation theology.” It began in Latin America. It began with Catholic priests wanting to take a stand against injustice and corruption, and particularly on behalf of the poorest citizens in Latin American countries. These were often very senior churchmen. You had people who wrote about the need for liberation theology in scholarly terms. People like Gutiérrez. And you had people who preached it in such a way that it discomfitted those who were exploiting society. And they were targeted for persecution, and in the case of Oscar Romero, assassination.
The assassination of Romero, who was the archbishop in El Salvador, sparked outrage around the world, but at the same time was seen as a warning sign to many many in the Catholic faith who had been disquieted by the advent of liberation theology. Not because it preached comfort and justice for those at the bottom of the heap. Not because of its Christological message that you had to look after the poor, and that when you were treating them with justice it was as if you were treating Christ with justice.
What the conservative element, the broad conservative wing of the Catholic Church, was aggrieved about was the great similarity in terms of this new liberation theology and Marxist outlooks upon economic injustice in the world. There was a very very broad correlation between the care for the working class, the care for those immiserated, and the care for those at the very bottom of a long line of dependencies in international capital that resonated with new currents in Marxist or Neo-Marxist thought, much of which also had Latin American origins, or Latin American case examples. The work of German political economists like Andre Gunder Frank, the beginnings of the Dependencia school of political economy, all spoke a congruent language to liberation theology.
And of course what this meant by means of a concentration on the immiserated majority at the bottom of the heap was an emphasis on their material condition. So not only was it Marxist or Neo-Marxist or seeming so, it seemed also that the material was being prioritized above the spiritual. Never mind that the Christological example of caring for the material needs of those most impoverished actually led to the spiritual upliftment of the person doing the caring. The resonances at that point in time as the 60s advanced was such that as the world in general, as the new younger postwar generation came of age in general, and began their agitations around the developed world—in the United States the Berkeley uprising; in Europe the Paris uprising—all of these things spoke to a new form of looking at the world which was disquieting to more conservative elements, not least in the Catholic Church.
But far from being subdued, liberation theology carried on. It spread to continents like Africa, where people like Canaan Banana who was the first ceremonial president of Zimbabwe wrote a superb book called The Gospel According to the Ghetto in which he outlined a program of liberation theology for those who were at the very poorest level in African society.
Once again this was disquieting to church elders of a conservative bent. Because what Canaan Banana was writing resonated with the work of people like Frantz Fanon, people who were considered revolutionary, to the extent that the writings of liberation theologists started to seem almost heretical. It was not yet time, as far as the Catholic Church at that moment was concerned, for this kind of emergence of theology into a liberation that engaged with the world and its material concerns as material deprivations.
Where the Catholic Church came of age was in fact some years later in being able to transact on a face-to-face basis the terrible conditions caused by poverty and war. And this was in Mozambique. Mozambique came to independence very late, 1975, after prolonged colonial rule by Portugal. It alarmed South Africa, then still underneath Apartheid. And then when other states in the region also shook off minority white rule, particularly Zimbabwe in 1980, the response of the South Africans was militarized. Each country in the region was attacked, but in a different way, using a doctrine called “Total Strategy.”
And Mozambique was torn apart by a rebel movement sponsored and equipped and trained by South Africa, leading to a bitter civil war in which the government forces found it very difficult to hold ground. This was the advent of two things: the modern phenomenon of the child soldier bearing assault rifles. Therefore one child capable of mass destruction. And also the advent of atrocity. The idea was that you literally blooded into loyalty to the side that had inducted or conscripted you, killing people in your own village so you could never have a place to which you could go back. So that the great psychological trauma caused to the children who were inducted or conscripted to fight, for instance inducting them by means of making them commit atrocity, became a marker of this terrible conflict in Mozambique. It was only right towards the end of the 1980s, when Total Strategy had run its course, when the south African Apartheid military machine had been defeated in Angola, that there seemed to be a chance for a negotiated settlement.
But how do you negotiate with those who are atrocious? With what means would you negotiate? With what inducements would you negotiate? This is where there was a very very interesting mediation in Mozambique led by the archbishop of Beira. He contacted the rebel groups and said, “It’s time for you to come in out of the cold. Your patron, your sponsors in South Africa are themselves facing up to a new reality. You too must do this. However, we know that because of the terrible atrocities caused by this war there are going to have to be all kinds of very difficult things to be transacted and negotiated. We the Catholic Church will lead the way and vouchsafe your safety during the process of negotiations.” Which then also involved neighboring countries in particular Zimbabwe, led by Robert Mugabe at that point in time, who met with the rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama.
But it was the Catholic church who made all of the running in terms of material progress in these negotiations. The archbishop of Beira handed over the process to the monastery of Santo Egidio just outside Rome, a very liberal, far-sighted monastic community who slowly, stage by stage, conducted negotiations, induced the rebels to come to Rome for talks, induced them to take these talks seriously by involvement—gradually—of the Vatican itself, and then through the Vatican of the Italian government. Then a combination of work by the Italian government and the Zimbabwean government finally led to the treaty of Rome in 1992, and a peace—of sorts—was signed for Mozambique which did allow sufficient stability for the country to come through to this present moment as something able at least to develop, even if on a tentative foundation.
But the grappling of the issue by the monastery of Santo Egidio, the realpolitik that the priests employed, the complete lack of illusion that they were able to field into the negotiations, the hardheadedness with which they conducted all the interchanges, spoke of something which was not spiritual in any way except the desire for peace. Or at least a desire for less violence. It had nothing to do with punishing the wicked. It had nothing to do with retribution. It was entirely promoted for the desire of an end to violence, but dealing with people who had committed violence. So the worldliness of this, for all of the moral questioning that needs to be posed according to this process, was not what we would call liberation theology. It was a theology which came to a moment of liberation by grappling with terrible realities. But it was a liberation that was freed of spiritual constraints.
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