Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 22, 2001
Guatemala's oppression led to religious upheaval
The overwhelming vote for the Alliance Party in the West caused some concern in mainline Christian churches about the rise of fundamentalism. It is a global phenomenon apparent in predominantly Muslim, Jewish and Hindu countries as well.
Historically, religious sects experience a period of growth in times of uncertainty and change. During the week before Christmas we had a visit from Father Gerry LeStrat who has been a missionary in Guatemala for almost 15 years. This brought to mind the enormous political influence the influx of Protestant sects has had on this Central American country. Most of the more than 200 sects in Guatemala have their origin in the U.S.
Long regarded as the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church, the religious landscape in Latin America has changed enormously in the last 50 years. In the case of Guatemala, we can trace the beginnings to some 100 years ago when the Liberals defeated the land-owning Conservatives.
Liberal President Rufino Barrios wished to stimulate the lucrative coffee production by inviting U.S. investors. Along with the business interests came the Protestants who served as a counterbalance to the Catholic Church which was the greatest property owner, but which had failed to use its land holdings productively.
Private initiative, the Protestant work ethic, individualism and personal responsibility for your own prosperity, even at the expense of others if need be, are the hallmarks of U.S. success. This seemed to dovetail with the emphasis among the various sects on individual efforts to be saved.
The urban middle class population of small entrepreneurs was thus the first sector to be converted. Among the Mayan rural peoples however, the sense of community was too strong and traditional native spirituality was still practised in many regions.
Where Catholicism had made inroads, the Church had preached an obedient acceptance of one's lot as the way to reap eternal rewards. The emphasis was on the permanent divine order of things rather than on change or transformation.
But in the last 50 years change was forced on Guatemalans from the outside, because of its fertile plantation climate and the subsequent banana trade, as well as the rich deposits of oil and other raw materials.
The wealth taken out of the country by foreigners also meant growing poverty among the local people, oppression as a means to control the population and disruption of traditional values.
The Church changed as well. Historically aligned with the great landowners, a growing number of priests, nuns and religious began to side with the oppressed campesinos and the emerging revolutionary organizations.
Perhaps it is paradoxical, but the poverty and oppression that gave rise to the revolutionary movements also facilitated the spread of fundamentalism. From their opposing positions, both the advocates of liberation and the proponents of conservative fundamentalism preach an evangelical message containing the promise of a better life.
On one hand, groups like the Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah Witnesses were often able to make good on their promise with easy money from the U.S. The new religions offered both spiritual, material and political security.
On the other hand, Catholics who had taken up the banner of justice, began to be regarded as subversives. Opposing the regime became mortally dangerous. Scores of priests and hundreds of catechists were murdered by the military, which forced large sectors of the Church into exile.
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