Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
July 19, 1999
Faith only blooms on edge of despair
Father Gerardo Santiago Thyssen was one of many foreign missionaries who volunteered to work in Latin America after the Second Vatican Council. It was a hopeful time, full of the visions of new beginnings.
Some eight years ago I met Santiago at a popular solidarity dance in Cuernevaca, Mexico. He was older now, sobered by his experiences and disillusioned about too many broken dreams.
In Chile he had been the founder of Christians for Socialism. He was also a farm labourer and a factory worker like France's priest workers of the 1950s. After the military coup in 1973 he was expelled and settled in Mexico where he worked in base Christian communities.
Inspired by his experience, he saw the possibility of a world turned upside down where the rich would learn from the poor, the North would listen to the South and the powerful would seek the wisdom of the meek.
This was not some wild utopian fantasy, but a reality towards which some people devote their lives based on the promise of the Gospels. It is the hope that enlivens the popular Christian movement.
This faith in a just God stands in stark contrast to the idolatry of capitalism and the "culture of death." Death, hunger and poverty as the result of slavery and exploitation are daily experiences in most of Latin America.
At the same time the people are filled with hope and joy and a sense of being on the right side of justice. Surrounded by death, people rejoice in signs of life.
In base communities, the congregation analyzes the causes of death and the path to liberation. In community they discover that God is in solidarity with the poor, that he is biased in favour of them and against the exploiters.
They know that the historical God is not a neutral God, but one who takes the side of the poor and the outcasts and who lays down his life in solidarity.
This God of the Bible who takes his place alongside the downtrodden is not the same distant deity worshipped by many North Americans. Nicaraguans used to call this "the idol of empires."
"More and more," Santiago said, "are we becoming convinced of the sinfulness and inhumanity of the capitalist system. It resembles indeed an idolatrous cult which claims the sacrifice of millions of people. In its lust for domination it tries to control all of Christendom and in many countries in Latin America it is succeeding."
Whether a Christian can be a Marxist or a revolutionary is no longer asked, but in the 1960s, '70s and even '80s, there were serious efforts at dialogue among these groups.
Latin American bishops especially asked themselves this question, sometimes with concern that the faithful might opt in favour of the poor and thereby disturb the law and order of the capitalist society and the ruling military regimes.
Other bishops openly encouraged people to use both the Bible and Marxism as sociological tools to critically examine the unjust status quo.
Unfortunately, as an institution the Church tended to embrace the company of established power structures. So the necessary changes had to come from the bottom up.
Santiago was critical of some of the newly-appointed bishops who favoured the institution over its mission to the people.
"Faith in a God who wants to make his love come true in the liberating actions of his people, in which you want to and have to participate, is very difficult," said Santiago. "This faith which gives meaning and joy to life can, at any moment, turn to despair and violence."
"Still," he said, "I am more convinced now than ever that this faith only exists and blooms on the edge of despair and fear."
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