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Liberation theologians use Christianity as weapon in the fight for the poor. And in a way, even the pope is on their side.
While the important process of secularisation moves forward and the importance of the Church in Latin America is on the decline, the percentage of the population with a religious affiliation continues to play a key cultural and socio-political role today. Processes of migration, appropriation, creativity and opposition are all reflected in faith.
The history of Christianity in Latin America can trace its roots back to the Roman Catholic tradition. Protestant and evangelical religious communities are increasingly spreading on the continent today.
Religion in Latin America has also been influenced by indigenous, Spanish, Portuguese and African popular religious traditions. Indigenous elements are particularly important in countries with a large indigenous populations.
Andean, Amazonian and Central American religiousness is based on an animist worldview in which nature and the elements possess a spiritual essence. Belief in the holiness of a Catholic saint might be fused with that of a mountain (pre-Spanish deity), for example. This is often interpreted as alienated Christianity.
Liberation theology cannot be understood as purely religious.
This has led to a number of different interpretations of what the Church is and means over the years. Conservative schools of thought have tried to prevent the changes, appropriations and resistance emerging from the people, while more progressive church representatives have respected and supported these free interpretations.
In the context of ethnic and social injustice, these opposing positions are not insignificant, as they signal either an attempt at repression or the respectful approach to a wide range of worldviews in countries with a multiplicity of cultures. The liberation theology of the 1960s is most important movement that tried to reinterpret Catholicism in the Latin American context.
Liberation theology cannot be understood as purely religious. Religion and religiosity can both function to create identity and have the potential to construct meaning and symbolism. They are elements of culture practice and as such key to developing norms and modes of behaviour.
Liberation theology: the search for justice
An analysis of the historical, social, political and cultural reality of Latin America in the 20th century identifies liberation theology as one of the most important movements that delivered a sociocultural analysis and attempted to create a paradigm for a new society and historical project. It reflected the spirit of a time of modernization and renewal, the search for alternatives to the deplorable state of affairs in Latin America in the 20th century. These grievances arose from the ethnic and cultural discrimination, poverty and social inequality.
The Cuban Revolution, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and the Conference of Latin American Bishops held in Medellín were key events that led to the development of liberation theology.
The revolution in Cuba served as inspiration for transforming political paradigms. During the Second Vatican Council (1962), the Church responded to the new challenges of the time, which demanded it increase its involvement in social and political affairs. A theological code of social ethics was introduced and general principles of morality and equality were discussed. Latin American priests, bishops and laypeople demanded the Church become more actively involved in the fight against poverty and inequality. Liberation theology emerged from the Bishop Conference of Medellín.
The greatest challenge for the Latin American Church was pushing reformations through not just in the liturgical space, but also in the Church’s relationship to the poor and the state. Groups comprising priests and laypeople (comunidades rebeldes o proféticas) were created on the continent and worked to modernize the hierarchical structures and change the Church’s approach to oppressive power and social structures that had been legitimised by the pre-council Church.
The politicisation of liberation theology
The concepts of liberation theology are based on a dependence-theoretical interpretation of social relationships. It criticized consumer society, Eurocentrism, the lack of participation for large segments of the population in development processes, and the concept of linear development.
Parallels to the concept of sustainable development are clearly identifiable. “Liberation” is the key word and concept here, since only a revolutionary process, a radical break with the current state of affairs, an external and internal liberation can overcome the problems and injustices that persist.
Religion has to play a role in this process. Leonardo Boff, one of Brazil’s most important proponents of this movement, explains: “Religious fervour must be allowed to transform into holy wrath – piety into dedication to social justice.”
Liberation theology shaped Pope Francis.
The discourse of liberation theologians came to represent a break with the Roman-Catholic church, which had not radically opposed liberation theology by the end of the 1970s. In 1984 though, the Church began criticizing the methodology and socio-political analysis of liberation theology and the Vatican suspended and censored a number of priests.
The polarisation created by the Cold War shaped the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In Latin America, this spawned “preventative” dictatorships to counteract communism, backed and sometimes even established by the USA. Liberation theologians were sometimes classified as subversives.
Although liberation theology was reduced to a political, socialist party at the time, today its influence at the level of cultural and social critique is still recognisable. Many have asked where Pope Francis’ progressive ideas originated. Although he was not an official member of the movement, liberation theology helped shape him and he still expresses sympathy for the movement to this day.
The movement today: Leonardo Boff’s liberation theology
Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff has worked to modernize and expand liberation ideology for a number of years. He believes we must look for an option that works for the poor and to protect the environment as well.
The concept of environmental awareness included in this ideal is holistic, and comprehensively deals with a wide range of human and social dimensions. It is about more than strategic solutions and focuses on exploring structures as well.
According to Boff, the understanding that 80% of the world’s population has been unable to profit from “development” and the exploitation and destruction of nature is proof that the growth-based social and development model has failed. The effects are clearly being directly felt in developing countries. So discourse on the environment goes hand in hand with discourse on society.
This form of social criticism is about looking for a solution for the poor and the environment that can only be achieved through raising awareness of and changing our behaviour towards the impoverished majority and nature.
Utopia: ways for achieving an ecological culture and new society
This fusing of aspects is taking place on two fundemental levels. At the macro level, we have ecotechnology, which attempts to correct the excesses of the industrial project as it has been pursued thus far.
Ecopolitics aims to promote common welfare by creating an integrative, global politics with a power structure designed to ensure that development does not come at the cost of the ecosystem and nature is understood as a constitutive factor of capital.
Social ecology explores the interaction between historical social systems and environmental systems. The new society is intended to meet human need and protect the generations of the future without endangering the world in the process.
At the micro level, we have ecological ethics, which is ecocentric instead of anthropocentric and utilitarian like other schools of thought to date. Justice, equality and solidarity are foregrounded to guarantee harmonious co-existence and the support and advancement of the weakest in particular. The ecology of the spiritual approach views our current society and mentality as the cause of the earth’s increasing destruction. The roots of acts of violence against fellow human beings and nature lie in deeply rooted mental structures.
Liberation theology: a new understanding of the relationship between human beings and the environment
A new path towards spirituality, cosmic mysticism, seeks an all-encompassing shared experience to provide human beings with a different understanding of the universe, establish an emotional connection to nature, and experience entities in their entirety.
Religion plays a central role here. It creates a cosmology, a discourse about the world that is experienced through ritual, cult and doctrine. The ideal society aspired to is democracy built on the levels mentioned above.
In this holistic model in which interdependencies and responsibilities are closely interrelated, isolated solutions employing solely technical, political or economic methods are impossible and multiple levels of human life, such as spirit, spirituality, ethics, society, politics and technology, must be considered in the framework of the present, past and future.
Leonardo Boff’s ecological-social democracy takes a holistic perspective. Values such as solidarity, empathy and responsibility lie at its core. As such, the liberation discourse remains true to its search for justice, but distances itself from the radicalness of the 1960s.
In the revived discourse of liberation theology, Leonardo Boff places great value on democracy. This is perhaps a response to the most severe criticism of liberation theology based on its affinity for communism. With its basic principles of codetermination, cooperation and participation, democracy is intended to build a new society that accepts the right to live, is not anthropocentric, and retains the central tenet of a focus on relationships. Boff explains: “A democracy that expands its concept a citizen from just a human being to include all creatures of nature, especially the animate.”