World Council of Churches: for peace, against sanctions, and sexuality talks continue

From this small city in southwest Germany, impacts of the WCC Assembly may be felt from Cape Town (9,284 km) to to Phnom Penh (9,519 km).

KARLSRUHE – As sometimes happens in large gatherings, I found myself on a single track in this Assembly of the World Council of Churches. For several years, I have participated in Rainbow Pilgrims of Faith, a global coalition that has accompanied the WCC work on sexuality (specifically) and gender justice (generally). 

Here in Karlsruhe, I led the group’s media work: blog posts, news releases and a few interviews. My colleagues managed more direct forms of engagement with delegates and other participants through an information booth and in various panels and workshops. 

At the same time, 660 delegates and more than 2,000 other participants from all parts of the world worked to shape ecumenical priorities for the next eight years or so.

Signs are positive that WCC will continue work on sexuality (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression), but that was just one thread in a tapestry of concerns addressed here.

There are many documents and scores of news releases to pour over, but two stand out for me. 

One, the more theological or spiritual of the two, is A Call to Act Together. For inspiration, it drew from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, and its themes of human suffering at work in the world: war, death, disease, and famine. “We were conscious of their manifestations in the world today. In their wake come injustice and discrimination, where those who have power often use it to oppress others rather than to build inclusion, justice, and peace.”

The message continues: “As the climate emergency accelerates, so does the suffering experienced by impoverished and marginalized people.”*

A sign of peace in Toronto’s distillery district.

The second document, The Things That Make For Peace, is also worthy of attention. It is longer and more focused on policy options.

“We understand that making peace involves addressing racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, hate speech and other forms of hatred of the other (all of which have increased and intensified during these years, in large part encouraged by populist nationalist movements); crisis and competition for essential resources for life; economic injustice and inequality in the marketplace; interstate conflicts and re-emergence of war; and the raising of the spectre of nuclear war.”

It is specific about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other armed conflicts – from Colombia to Eritrea and Ethiopia – calling for a global ceasefire “as an urgent moral imperative.”

Particularly close to my heart are sections that call for “support for the churches and peoples of Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe in the midst of oppression due to international sanctions that affect these populations’ human rights and dignity.” 

Syria is an important case in point, the document says. “International and unilateral sanctions are contributing to worsening the humanitarian situation, harming a civilian population already made vulnerable by war. Moreover, sanctions are damaging the historical multicultural and multi-religious fabric of the Syrian society, forcing Christians and other indigenous groups to flee the country.”

The document calls for the removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism and to “accompany the churches as prophetic voices of peace, hope, cooperation and mutual respect.”

* There is a third, equally-impressive document that I found later: The Living Planet: Seeking a Just and Sustainable Global Community. The document calls governments to “practical actions… to meet the pressing need to avert ecological disaster.”

At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala

Fernando Us (left) and Mónica Chub (right).

As my 15-day visit in Guatemala came to an end in early May, I had the chance to meet Fernando Us, Maya Kiché human rights defender and self-described sexual dissident. Fernando hails from a village in Uspantán municipality, Quiché department, that is not far (though accessed via a different road) from the had village I visited in the company of a team from Breaking The Silence and the Highlands Committee of Peasant Farmers (CCDA).

Fernando, who among other activities is a Mayan spiritual leader, met me on a Sunday afternoon in a downtown café located between the National Palace and the San Sebastian church where Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated in 1998. Religion and politics would become prominent themes in our friendship: fundamentalist religious groups very nearly scored a victory with an anti-LGBTI “life and family law,” but after an international outcry, congress finally voted in March to table the bill

Back home in Toronto two days after I had met Fernando, I was trying to catch up on news from CCDA. I came across a news article that quoted people from CCDA and Mónica Chub, a Trans woman and Maya Q’eqchi’ rights defender with whom Fernando and I would be working just a few weeks later. CCDA leaders and Mónica had attended a demonstration May 11 in Cobán, capital of the Alta Verapaz department, demanding freedom for prisoners accused of crimes they could not have committed. At the same time, high levels of violence against Trans women persist in Guatemala.

In early June, in partnership with Dignity Network and InterPares, I had the privilege of accompanying Mónica and Fernando during their days in Toronto. Together with Olowaili Green, an Indigenous film-maker from northern Colombia who is lesbian, their visit to Toronto followed participation in the Canada Pride Human Rights Conference, held in Winnipeg May 27-June 5.

In Toronto, there were public presentations at Glad Day Books and the San Lorenzo Church (an Anglican parish serving mostly Spanish-speaking people). At San Lorenzo, part of the conversation was about spirituality and the churches.

Fernando, whose father was a Catholic lay catechist murdered by a death squad in 1980, called on churches to distance themselves from those fundamentalist churches that “demonize” Mayan spiritual leaders

In June 2020 in Petén department, Domingo Choc Che, 55, a Maya Q’eqchi’ expert on traditional herbal medicine, was tortured and burned alive by people who accused him of witchcraft. In June this year, Adela Choc Cuz, a member of the Q’eqchi’ Maya Ancestral Council of the El Estor municipality, Izabal department, was kidnapped with her daughter. They too were accused of witchcraft, but both were released.

On their final day in Toronto, I talked more with Fernando and Mónica about the intersections of Indigenous and LGBTIQ+ identities in Guatemala.

Fernando: I think there is a sort of accumulation of oppressions within the structural racism that is found in Latin America – all of America – racism as an ideology of racial superiority that has permeated since the time to the Spanish conquest and is maintained to this day. 

What does that mean for Indigenous people? Displacement, loss of land, situations of poverty. In a country like Guatemala, there is a lot of cultural diversity and also biodiversity. The Indigenous people live on land that is not as good for cultivation. We have less access to running water and to education, and therefore less access to good jobs.

In that context, to be gay, or to be a person of diverse sexuality or queer, means another form of oppression and vulnerability. In the face of racism, you have fewer opportunities, but if you are part of that sexual diversity, your possibilities and conditions of life are even more limited.

Mónica: When we talk about inclusion in social struggles, we’re talking about many different struggles. When we talk about LGBTIQ+ rights where we live, it’s like we’re talking about the territories from which we struggles in ways that are separate from other struggles, like those going on in the cities. We realize that these social struggles are connected, but what we live in our territories is what we embody collectively, the theft our Q’eqchi’ land, the criminalization of land defenders: those events make us reflect and embody together with all our companions. There are members of our community who face repression, but we realize we are in a difficult context, one of vulnerability, racism and discrimination. 

Part of our community is hidden, and needs to hide. But to confront that situation, some of us have to be visible.

Jim: These situations of criminalization of land defenders, the political prisoners: what is going on now in the struggles for land?

Mónica: We embody those situations. As defenders, we too are diverse. Think of the people who are criminalized and condemned to years in prison. In any moment, they could criminalize us, we who are defenders of diversity, imprison us, persecute us. It’s very important to have solidarity. The colour of our organizational flag doesn’t matter. This is collective humanitarian work.

Fernando: The claims for land and natural resources are historic. The Indigenous people have built their claims around land issues. In Guatemala, Indigenous peoples have been forced from their land, or they have land that is not good for cultivation, and the conditions in which the land was taken are not very clear in legal terms. In effect, in recent years, the aggression and attacks against those who reclaim the land have increased.

I am from a village in Uspantán that is called Macalajau, more up in the mountains. Even though I have not lived there, I maintain a relationship with the community. It feels like a town that is growing. There’s more business, and it’s more culturally diverse now. But I think that outside the village, conditions of access to water are limited. There’s malnutrition. Access to primary education is still a problem, especially for Indigenous children. And because of lack of opportunities, some people, especially young people, migrate to the United States.

Mónica: Our people are being forced from their homes and communities. Why? Because our presence is not convenient for the land-owners, the ranchers, the hydro-electricity developers who want to take over Mother Nature and the ancestral lands of our communities. What they do is to force our people out. They’re forced to flee, risking their lives, walking to another place to seek refuge. We continue to see this. They criminalize people who defend their land, condemning them unjustly. That’s what is going on in the territory from which I come.

San Miguel de Uspantán, Quiché

My posts about people and issues in Guatemala, May through August 2022, are in different spaces. Here they are in chronological order:

Unwrapping Development:

Breaking The Silence:

Unwrapping Development

  • At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala [above]

Fifty years of A Theology of Liberation

Jim Hodgson

My background is in journalism (not theology), but I made a sort of career at the intersections of journalism, religion and Latin America. I have been close to conversations about and actions deriving from liberation theology for about 40 years. I am a follower of Jesus formed in liberation theologies that I learned alongside sugar-cane cutters, Indigenous communities, queer and trans people—folks who struggle for liberation the world over. Theirs are the stories I try to share.

Liberation theology is a method of doing theology, not a topic, Elsa Támez has said. It begins with a situation of repression and God’s call to transform that situation. Theology then is a reflection on God’s action in history. In the mid-1980s, however, Pope John Paul II and his head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), made liberation theology a topic of heated debate. As a young journalist, I covered that debate (see the items at the bottom of this post), but over time, I concentrated more on the stories of the people who worked for change.

This year, we celebrate the publication 50 years ago of Teología de la Liberación, Perspectivas, the book that brought together a series of reflections on the practice of ministry, or the praxis of liberation, among the impoverished people of Latin America. The English translation, A Theology of Liberation (Orbis), appeared two years later. His second chapter is a critique of what was wrong with development in Latin America in the 1960s that remains valid today.

Image from the tribute to Gutiérrez on the website of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP).

The book’s author, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, had been sharing his perspectives in conferences since the mid-60s, including in the summer of 1967 at the Faculty of Theology at the Université de Montréal.

He was never alone in those reflections, and others were working in similar or parallel veins. The African-American theologian James H. Cone published A Black Theology of Liberation in 1970 (Orbis). In Cuba during the 1960s, Sergio Arce developed a “theology in revolution,” which was about God in human history, especially in the revolution against poverty, exclusion and imperialism. In the 1960s and 70s, priests and other people of faith organized in new ways: Priests for the Third World in Argentina, the National Organization for Social Integration (ONIS) in Peru, the Golcanda group in Colombia, Christians for Socialism in Chile during the time of Salvador Allende.

Other contextual theologies emerged—Indigenous, feminist, womanist, queer, Minjung in South Korea—along with a wide spectrum of criticism, much of it helpful in adding “new subjects” that Gutiérrez had overlooked. But sometimes, the criticism was led directly to the persecution of the “church of the poor” and to countless murders and other violations of human rights. After the assassination in San Salvador in 1989 of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, proponents of liberation theology spoke instead of Latin American theology, a situation that persisted until the election of Pope Francis in 2013.

From top left: Enrique Dussel, Elsa Támez, Frei Betto and Leonardo Boff. 
Bottom left: Chung Hyun Kyung, Miguel Concha. 
Dussel, born in Argentina and living in Mexico, is a philosopher and historian. Támez, born in Mexico, works with the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica and with Indigenus biblical translators. Frei Betto is best known for exploring political implications of liberation theology, and Boff is a leading proponent of ecological perspectives in theology: they are shown during a presentation at the first World Forum on Theology and Liberation, held in days ahead of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2005.
In ecumenical circles, Chung is remembered for sparking good debate over Christian relations with other religions during and after the Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1993. Concha is shown during a news conference by social movements during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Mexico City in 1999. Jim Hodgson photos.

Miguel Concha, a Mexican priest of the Dominican religious order and columnist at La Jornada, wrote on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of first publication of Gutiérrez’s book:

“Liberation theology is not limited to helping the poor individually. Nor is it reformist, trying to improve a situation but leaving intact the types of social relations and basic structures of an unjust society. Beyond moving ethically in the face of collective misery, it considers impoverished people to be subjects of their own liberation, valuing in them their awareness of their rights and capacity for resistance, organization and transformation of their situation.”

In these 50 years, I think the formal presentation of Gutiérrez’s method has become melded in our imaginations with other processes: 

  • the outcomes of the II Vatican Council and several meetings of Latin American bishops (CELAM), especially the articulation of the church’s “preferential option for the poor” at the CELAM conferences in Medellín in 1968 and in Puebla in 1979; 
  • the pastoral action of certain church leaders (Sergio Mendes Arceo, Hélder Câmara, Oscar Romero, Samuel Ruíz, the Argentinean Methodist Federico Pagura, among many others), whether they identified explicitly with liberation theology or not; 
  • a mix of popular education and base Christian community experiences; and the political action of movements like the Sandinista Front In Nicaragua in the 70s and 80s, or that which propelled Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency of Haiti in 1990 and again in 2000.

During the last week of October, Fr. Gustavo, now 93 years of age, joined with scores of scholars and faithful for an online seminar to mark the anniversary. Videos of the presentations can be viewed (in Spanish) on the Facebook site of the Instituto Bartolomé de Las Casas.

I am appending here below parts of some to the articles I wrote in the mid-80s about the debates over liberation theology.

A thousand people attended a conference on liberation theology held at Simon Fraser University in February 1986. Among the speakers were Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny (now a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church) and Fr. Ronaldo Muñoz (not a Jesuit, but rather a priest of the Sacred Heart in Chile, who died in 2009). Muñoz said: “Liberation theology is telling of our experience of God in the context of our commitment to the struggle of the people: God in history, God in the Bible, in Jesus, in those who have been humiliated. The theologies of theologians, books, speeches, conferences in Vancouver, are in second place. Liberation theology seeks to be at the service of this struggle, this history of faith.”

Hélder Câmara (1909–1999) was the archbishop of Olinda and Recife, serving from 1964 to 1985. At the invitation of Youth Corps, a ministry of the archdiocese of Toronto, he participated events – “Circus of the Heart” and “Stories of the Heart” – in Toronto in 1985 and 1986. 
My first time “inside” the media bubble of accredited journalists on a papal visit. I remember the Vatican correspondents didn’t like me being on “their” bus around the Santo Domingo venues. Penny Lernoux (Cry of the People, 1980), Latin America correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, took me under her wing to meetings with several of the more progressive Latin American bishops.