A faith that does justice

The Risen Christ: Detail from the central mural of the Iglesia Santa Maria de los Angeles en el Barrio Riguero, Managua (Jim Hodgson, 1984)

Things that have been different in the past can be different again in the future.

If, like me, you are distressed by actions of religious extremists and their allies among Canada’s bishops against global partners of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P), then it is useful to remember how some forward-looking people were inspired by the Second Vatican Council and by social and political change in the global South to create the organization back in the 1960s.

Today I share with you the text of an interview I did in February 1989 with Bill Smith, a Scarboro Missions priest who had just finished 15 years of service as D&P’s Central America project officer. Bill died less than three months later, just after arriving in Brazil. 

I share Bill’s words to me that day in Montreal 32 years ago as a sign of what has been possible, and of what can be possible yet again. 

The interview was published in Scarboro Missions magazine, September 1989, pp. 4-7.

Bill: I was 50 years old last November, so I begin by saying this is quite a remarkable phenomenon to have lived so long in a world where the majority of people do not even attain early adolescence. It is not at all remarkable in the North American continent but it is very remarkable if set in the framework of what we traditionally refer to as the Third World.

To place in context where I am and the journey that I have made, we would have to go back almost 30 years to Vatican II. A revolutionary process was underway in Christianity by the early 1960s. Women and men in the Church had become identified and involved in life and death struggles of primarily peasant farm peoples with whom they had been working, and with the struggles of oppressed people. Out of this context emerges later on in history what they refer to as the theology of liberation. This theology denounces injustice and announces that the gospel is involved in bringing about change and justice. Vatican II was a moment in this century when the Catholic church which over a period of hundreds of years had distanced itself from the radical message of the gospel, got in touch with its roots again, and that has made a profound change throughout Christianity and throughout secular society as well. It certainly made a profound change in myself.

The articulation of that “new vision” of society and the now famous encyclical of Paul VI, The Progress of Peoples, state that the Church does not have economic answers, nor does the church have any particular model of society, but only suggests that men and women working together must build a society based on the logic of the poor majority. There was also the serious question of the absolute right to private property on which our North American society is based.

We witness this radical change in the thinking and the living of the gospel message because the Catholic Church is no long a white, middle-class Western and European church but is a peripheral church made up of men and women who are not attached to the status-quo of the present economic system that we see primarily in the West called Capitalism, but who are looking for and demanding, in the name of their faith, a radical change in the structures of society.

So today, I no long think that mission is primarily the proclamation of a message that is assented to in faith, but today it is an evangelization based on a faith that does justice. So mission is no longer considered as only the work of missionaries, who leave their country to proclaim the gospel in distant lands.

When I first went to Brazil, I thought that mission would be working in the Amazon. But what I had originally thought, in my simplicity, that there were frontiers and barriers between countries, was again part of a mythology. I discovered that there was a social, economic and ecological vision of men and women that was being imposed by the powerful over the weak. I have also witnessed a church that has done a self-critique and had realized that it does not own the gospel, and does not own the historical Jesus. I have seen the Magnificat lived in the sense of the ‘great’ being questioned and pushed to the wall by the ‘small’ who have been lifted up. I think that is amply illustrated in the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Despite literally millions of dollars per day being put into machines of death, the men and women of Nicaragua and El Salvador are building a society precisely that comes out of this new awareness of social justice. These are poor people, suffering people, who are the victims of an unjust and aggressive war. 

A different era of North-South cooperation: Bishop Bernard Hubert, Longueuil;  Fr. Bill Smith, SFM; Bishop Remi de Roo, Victoria; Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, São Paulo.

I would say that the major changes that I discovered in working in Central America over the last few years has been primarily a tremendous awareness of people, of men and women and peasant farmers who are capable of seeing very clearly what is going on. Where is the creativity taking place in the world today? Men and women in the Third World see clearly and understand that there is a structure that has been put in place. And that poor housing and lack of schools and lack of health facilities and lack of education is no indication of any kind of inferiority. But it is a provoked phenomenon. It is something that is determined. What I get very excited about is this tremendous creativity where poor people are looking a life and asking, Why can’t everybody have a decent life? Why can’t we build an economy in which people don’t have to be destroyed through pesticides? Why can we not build a society where justice applies to all, and where women are not chattels and objects but full human beings with all the rights that men have? And why cannot religion, instead of being something that suffocates and destroys creativity, be the source of new energy, integration and wholesomeness?

Growth takes place when people begin to come to grips with the real issues in society, when we get beyond the guilt of feeling responsible for what has happened in the Third World, to where we feel we are co-responsible for transforming our Third World here in Canada and all the other Third Worlds. People are coming together and trying to understand, moving beyond mythology to an understanding of society. That is what I see having happened in this period for the past 30 years.

I think that Development and Peace has fundamentally held on to this meaning of the encyclical The Progress of Peoples and realized quite prophetically that social change is fundamentally all about empowering people and not about technology or funds or even personnel, that transformation takes place when people begin to come together and share. Solidarity, so beautifully stated in Nicaragua, is the tenderness of peoples. So that if you are going to have social change then you have to have the empowerment of people who are going to bring about change.

Q: Who are the major actors to bring about change in society in Central America?

It is the majority of people who are the peasant farmers. Women and men involved in alternate forms of education for the ordinary people, since to be ‘educated’ has been primarily reserved to the elite. What Development and Peace does, and I think does well and with a great deal of respect is to accompany groups, communities and other popular organizations in Central America who are involved in the very democratic process of resolving their own problems through new forms of popular education. So we don’t tell them what to do. They present projects to Development and Peace for financial help. So that is one leg. Development and Peace walks on two legs. Its other leg is here in Canada because it has to be involved in what is happening here. If you are not, what kind of credibility can you have by being in another country? Thus, Development and Peace has to conscientize or educate us Canadians here in Canada. This happens by bringing peoples, spokespersons, men and women to be with us. It is those two legs or accompaniments that make for an exciting development journey.

We must note, however, that the people in the Third World are no longer talking about development. They are talking about liberation and they are talking about liberation in a broader context—social, economic, political and religious liberation. And so the evangelist goes out and ends up being evangelized. The teacher becomes the student. The Third World peoples do need us as we need them to walk together, to listen to each other, to be strengthened, to be empowered mutually, to bring about precisely this vast change that we need in our own Canadian society. St. Augustine says Hope had two beautiful daughters: one of them called Anger because of the way things are and the other called Courage to work to change things, to bring about change.

That is what I have learned, what the Third World has taught me, and I would hope that at the end of all of this, if indeed there are any titles left to be handed out, I and others would be entitled to the name Companion. I think that is what Development and Peace is, I think that is what Scarboro is and it is something that I aspire to as well.

Q: What did you do in Central America?

I was a bridge, a contact between farmers’ groups, unions, women’s groups, health groups, popular education groups, human rights groups and Canadians. Solidarity has to be personalized. I mean people have to sit down and break bread together. That is what Companion means, and that is when Jesus was recognized on the road to Emmaus. He walked with them, he talked with them but it was when they broke bread they knew Him.

What is important is the quality of life here and in the Third World and the exchanges and dialogue that takes place. I carry in my heart so many wonderful people and I think that is what is important. So much so that now I can go back to Brazil in a totally renewed, energized way and do exactly the same thing. Nothing but to be present, which is to accompany, and to come back to my own people once in a while and say, “You know folks there are really doing some tremendous things right now,” in São Paulo or wherever it is one happens to be.

Q: What were some of the successes you experienced?

Well, I think that the beautiful successes are the struggles of the people in Guatemala, people in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, people who have been faithful to their commitment to bring about social justice. Part of the work, it seems to me, is to bring people to another level of awareness that life is precious and that there are things that we can do. We are not helpless. Also at home, to denounce the violations of human rights; to open our borders to receive people who are driven from their homes; to be courageous enough to denounce international terrorism; to be courageous enough to make available sources of information so as to counter the lies that are put forward in the press. The important thing, I’ve learned, is that we are not helpless. And as Nicaraguans have taught us, those who struggle never die. They are always present. We will be remembered because we are part of a process. A process that did not begin with us, a process that does not end with us. The responsibility we have is handing on that mandate to others.

Q: What do you think Canadians can learn from your experience?

That we are not to be paralyzed or overcome with guilty but we must begin to work here. It is to the degree that we are involved in our own community here in Canada that we can understand what other people are doing. There is communion that is possible. We can understand each other because we have had the same experience. There is, and very much so, a new awareness and commitment in Canada to come to grips with the real issues in society, to repair the damage that has been done. So there is a great deal of hope, that is what’s so exciting.

Standing up for gender justice: the case of Development and Peace

As I write on Monday, March 29, I am listening to world leaders and heads of international financial institutions talking about the need for lasting solutions to foreign debt, which constitutes a severe impediment to pandemic recovery and the potential to live better in the world’s so-called “developing” countries.

I remember with pride the collaboration among churches and their development agencies in the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative in the late 1990s as they gathered 640,000 signatures to demand cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries.

Among that campaign’s enthusiasts were the people of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP, or D&P). Over many years, I have worked alongside D&P staff, volunteers and partners in Canada, Africa and Latin America to seek justice for people who affirm that another world is possible. 

It was collaboration with D&P staff in the wake of their support for communities in Honduras affected by a gold mine that engaged me more deeply in similar struggles in Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere. D&P continues to work with other allies in the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) to ensure that Canadian mining companies may be held accountable here for their actions overseas.

I write with full appreciation for all of these compañer@s.

But a small band of religious extremists has pressed Canada’s Catholic bishops and D&P leadership into breaking relations with some of D&P’s global south partners.

Since 2009, a far-right “news” site (banned recently by YouTube for posting fake reports about COVID vaccines) has published allegations about some D&P partners. The accusations came from people with no experience of North-South collaboration or of work in coalitions, and tended to focus on groups that empower women or that work in coalitions with women’s organizations. Subsequent developments have been well-covered in French-language media (especially Présence Information Réligieuse). In recent weeks, a stream of news releases and commentaries have also appeared in English, and I will provide some links below.

On Feb. 25, the CCCB and D&P released a news release summarising their review of D&P’s international partners. From a total of 205 global partners, 63 were examined. Of those, funding will be discontinued for 24 groups. Partnerships with 19 others had either ended or was about to end.

Decisions to cut the 24 partners were based on “a lack of clarification to resolve serious questions regarding support for positions or actions in conflict with the Church’s social and moral teachings,” the report said. Names of the groups affected were not divulged.

On March 8, Présence-Info published more detail about the methodology that was used to decide which groups would be cut. 

“The issue of abortion and the sexual health of women, as well as fear of scandal, were the principle reasons that pushed D&P to delist 24 of its international partners,” said Présence-Info after reviewing dozens of pages of internal documents. The partners were pressed to “justify themselves on questions that touched exclusively on sexual morality, particularly concerning women.” No questions were asked about corruption, racism, complicity with violent groups, or other development or solidarity issues.

On March 17, the Canadian Religious Conference (the body that represents members of religious orders) called on D&P to respond the Présence-Info report: 

“Is that what happened? If not, what happened? Development and Peace’s continued silence would be harmful to its credibility, which is already undermined by this lengthy partner review process.”

Canadian Jesuits published a statement of their own on March 22. “We are deeply saddened to learn that so many CCODP partners are losing this vital support from CCODP. We regret that the process to arrive to this decision was not marked by the transparency and collaboration that the Church knows are key virtues to witnessing to the Good News and to becoming a synodal Church,” the statement said.

“It appears that a review was undertaken with the purpose of judging the partners on their adherence to the Church’s teachings on sexual matters.  We believe,  however that the partners should be viewed with gratitude for their demonstrated and consistent commitment to the core richness of the Church’s social teachings. If consulted, lay people and the Religious of Canada, many of whom have worked in the Global South and who personally know many of these organizations and their contexts, could have provided more accurate information on the partners under review.”

On March 24, the Christian feminist collective L’autre Parole said the situation was unacceptable. It has had “particularly harmful repercussions for women in the Global South” and is “contrary to elementary principles of law and social justice.”

Over the years, some groups were targeted by the fake-news outlet, and others came forward themselves to say that they were under investigation. Among them are Radio Progreso, a Jesuit-backed community station in Progreso, Honduras, that I visited in 2009 a few weeks after the coup. Another is Famn Deside, a women’s group (founded in the late 80s by nuns, the Soeurs du Bon-Conseil) in Jacmel, Haiti. I had planned to visit them in February last year, but civil unrest and the pandemic prevented me from travelling. A March 25 article in Présence-Info describes both groups.

Like all development agencies that receive public funding, D&P has a gender policy. It includes a statement from Pope Francis, who is also a target of attacks from the religious and political far-right.

“History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior…. There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of female emancipation. This is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism. The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity…. [W]e must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”

  • Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (2016)
  • L’autre Parole says that Famn Deside is still receiving its funding. “We are delighted. And we are convinced that the majority of recently excluded groups should regain their funding if the principles of social justice were applied in their assessment.”

    In coming days, I will share more about the vision and origins of Development and Peace. Their work provides lessons for all who strive to build North-South alliances of solidarity.

    Colombians ask: “Peace? What peace?”

    Lilia Solano, a human rights defender who was one of the organisers of Peace, What Peace?

    In recent days, I participated in a zoom-based conference with the Peace Commission of Colombia’s Senate. Since a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla army, the FARC, was signed in 2016, implementation has not gone well.

    By the end of 2020, at least 238 former fighters had been murdered—victims of targeted assassinations.

    Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of human rights defenders since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. Human rights defenders include community, small-farmer, women, LGBTI, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as activists for the rights of victims and their families.

    My own presentation followed those of some of my friends and heroes: 

    • Former Senator Piedad Córdoba, who led efforts to free people who had been captured by the FARC in years before the peace accords
    • The Portuguese activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who said that “what has prevailed until now is neoliberal peace” that only opens space for transnational corporations. What has to change are the conditions that led young people to join the guerrillas.
    • From ecumenical colleagues came the reminder that the struggle for peace with justice must be global. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria of the ACT Alliance noted the role of religion in the conflict in Colombia, warning that history will not forgive those who have “played with the peace processes.”

    In my remarks, I went a bit further regarding the questionable role of religious organizations in the search for peace.

    I was at the marvellous ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, in October 2016, when news came that a referendum to approve Colombia’s peace agreement had failed. It was quickly understood that fundamentalist Christians had intervened in the public debate, and rallied their bases to vote no by arguing that the peace agreement promoted “gender ideology” and would destroy the family. In reality, the FARC rebel army had acknowledged its crimes against women and LGBTI people, and apologized. Both sides pledged to do better on gender justice and the rights of LGBTI people.

    For me, having worked with faith-based organisations in Colombia and their allies abroad since 1993, the vote result and the reality that some Christians worked against peace, was a disappointment. I had seen people like Lilia Solano (pictured above), a Mennonite who works among human rights NGOs and in Colombia’s legislative branch, and Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit human rights defender and founder of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, risk their lives for peace. I thought of friends who are leaders of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches and Roman Catholic religious communities who would share my disappointment, together with people in organisations like the DiPaz inter-church peace coalition, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz, and the popular educators and trainers of community journalists at CEPALC.

    Their persistent witness guided me when I spoke the next morning to people who were gathered at the seminary to celebrate its 70th anniversary and to consider the future of ecumenical theological education in Latin America and the Caribbean, I said it seemed to me that the voices of moderate or progressive Christians were marginalised or discounted in a climate of fear generated by the shrill voices of the Christian right and their political backers. That day in Cuba, I said:

    “A good theological education, offers ways to read the bible, to interpret scripture, to understand the limits church authority in civil society. In a good theological school, one learns to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, to use the texts that we have of the teachings of Jesus about the love of God and of neighbour so as to understand other parts of the bible. Without good theological education—and, by extension, good Christian education within the churches—the public square is surrendered to the most retrograde and hate-filled voices of Christian fundamentalism, empty of love and forgiveness.”

    My remarks Thursday, March 18, to the Colombian Senate’s peace conference took up similar themes.

    “This increase of inequality and violence contrasts with the experience of churches and social movements that uphold fullness of life and defend the dignity of women and LGBTI people. They create spaces for mutual listening, weaving networks and planting seeds of peace and justice as they raise their voices for a world of greater solidarity.

    “Those of us who are too often the objects—and victims—of hate speech need your voices, you artisans of peace, and of religious leaders who promote an understanding of Christianity that is inclusive and respectful of diversity, who promote contextual and liberation theologies, who can join dialogue over differences and are reflections of the reality in which we live: who speak, in the end, of the love that should exist among all of us

    “In place of fear and prejudice, let us build alliances of solidarity across all borders.”