Theology of the poor Brazilian Voices

Brazilian Voices of Liberation


[from interviews and writings. Notice the types of social, political, and economic criticisms these liberation theologians make.]

Document 1: Clodovis Boff [Servite priest and theologian, living in Rio de Janeiro. In 1964, he and other young seminarians prayed their rosaries in the streets to thank the military government for saving them from communism and anarchy. After studying in Europe, where he met exiled students, workers and political prisoners, Clodovis returned to Brazil, passionately opposed to the military dictatorship. He studied, he reflected, he learned. He and his brother Leonardo became two of Brazil’s leading liberation theologians.]

“I began to reflect on the Bible, church tradition and dogmas starting from this optic of the poor. All of my thought became fermented by this massive, dark, heavy oppression of the poor. Really, the birthplace of liberation theology is the meeting of faith with poverty and oppression. It is when you, as a person of faith, meet the poor of the favelas and ask, “What’s the meaning of God here? What does it mean to be church?” From this collision of your faith and concrete reality, liberation theology is born! At the core, this is a very prophetic theology, carrying on the thinking of the prophets: “You

are oppressing the widow and orphan! Your hands are stained with blood!”

Once awake, you are sensitized intellectually and spiritually—your prayer, even religious life is marked by the cry of the poor, the hope for a new society. Now, this experience of the poor is nourished by and becomes rooted in real communities of poor persons. We’re bound with two knots—our alliance with the poor and our work at the base. After ten years of absorbing this, you no longer need ideological reasons to explain that the cause is Just. The reality of oppression began to be part of your blood and skin. A reason beyond all reasons! This is why, when you delve into this alliance, this option, you go unto death. Unto death. Until martyrdom.

The spirit of a revolutionary is born from this contrast between our ideals and the reality around us that doesn’t match them. This awareness of reality gives faith a courage to confront criticism, persecution, death threats, prison. Even within the community, the order or the church, people don’t understand you. They think

you’re crazy, sick, radical— even subversive! But you don’t let yourself be
bothered by this because the very cause takes hold of you. It sustains you.

This reality also gives faith a very incarnational, concrete meaning. You say, what do these poor people want? For them, the Reign of God means a piece of land, a piece of bread, even a simple literacy program. But, the people

also dream of a new world, a kind society, universal love. They hope and believe that the rich will convert and will help them.”

Document 2: Leonardo Boff [Perhaps the most published and certainly the most publicized Latin American liberation theologian. The Vatican silenced Leonardo from May 1985 until March of 1986 in response to his book, Church: Charism and Power. The silencing guaranteed him afar broader hearing than he ever imagined.]

This is what liberation theology is—the effort to reclaim and develop the political dimension of Gospel faith in order to reinforce the struggle of the poor. The poor were the first subscribers of the Gospel. Jesus became poor. Until now, the political dimension of Christianity has reinforced the established powers. The bishop was always allied with the governor, mayor and other authorities.

The core of liberation theology is profoundly “theologal”—that is, rooted in the very nature of God. You see, there’s an immediate relationship between God, oppression, liberation: God is in the poor who cry out. And God is the one who listens to the cry and liberates, so that the poor no longer need to cry out.

I tend more and more to use the category of “the one

who cries out” rather than “the poor.” Everyone cries out. A woman starting a new life, a marginalized black woman, a child who can’t go to school because of hunger—they’re all crying out! My question is: Who listens to the cry of the poor, to the cry of women, the cry of those who are suffering?

Liberation theology is born from this effort to listen to the cry of the oppressed— even the rich person who cries out because they’re in despair! The person who suffers from an empty life must also be liberated and listened to. God also listens to them! Jesus cried from the cross and God resurrected him. It is only passing through the cross, through the crying out, that God can say, “Everything is going to be OK.”

Being home to the Amazon and to liberation theology, do you believe that Brazil has a unique role in articulating the issue of ecology in a theological framework?

Brazil has an important role for two reasons. First, the Amazon is a global issue, and second, the Amazon isn’t empty—it’s inhabited by Indians! And the Indians are threatened with extinction. We discover among them the value of a people of God who have their own language and world vision, a way of being human that integrates men and women, people and nature. These values teach us how to live more richly as human beings. They also show us how to live in the tropical rainforest and extract resources without damaging the ecosystem. We can be friends to


In Latin America, our key contribution is to assert that the first ecological aggression is misery. Poverty is the most dangerous thing for the environment because poor persons pollute water and take down trees just to survive. At the roots, this is a conflict of power in the church: Who rules and what are the means of participation.

The grassroots of the church in Latin America, also in the U.S. and Africa, are becoming aware that they are the church, not merely customers. So they’re participating in liturgy and ministry and all of the sudden they say, “We want to participate in the decisions of the church as well!” Then the powers-that-be say, “You can’t because you are not priests. The bishops and priests decide in the church!”

The traditional theology of Rome says that the clerical institution is the well of Christ and is thus untouchable. So the clerical body retains all power in the church and administers this power “for” the lay people, never “with” the people. And the people don’t have the right to their own ecclesial projects and dreams! They have to dream what the clerics dream.

Along with this is a theological problem. I believe that Rome is afraid of God— afraid of the free God of the

poor, a Trinitarian God. The model of the Trinity allows the church, in fidelity to itself, to incorporate the people and adopt a democratic, participative way of being. For me, this crisis of fear will decide if the church is going to be a fortification of authoritarianism, machismo and exclusivism, or if it will be a church

open to women, laity and the poor.

Now, for the past thirty years a certain journey has profoundly transformed the Latin American church and the bishops. That is, the ecclesiastical authorities who wield power have become pastors, walking with their people, suffering,
persecuted, denounced, some killed. They earned a great moral authority alongside the people. They allowed themselves to be evangelized by the people.

Rome sees that this process is more and more irreversible. So either the whole church will begin to change in response to this journey, or this “heretical” process has to be sectioned off in order to preserve the institution as it is. So, for example, they condemned me and my book on the church as a “praxis that induces the people to act heretically.” They don’t analyze the doctrines, they only pay attention to the change in praxis, in participation, which can change the structure of the church. Ultimately, this is a problem of power.”

Document 3 by Mev Puleo 1963 [“The struggle is one: voices and visions of liberation”. This document offers some historical background and information on the Church conflicts inspired by Liberation Theology.]

“In this Brazil we find tens of thousands of base ecclesial communities (comunidades eclesiais de base—known in Brazil as “CEBs”), where women and men reflect on the Word of God, which empowers them in their struggle to make the Reign of God a reality here and now. Here we find scores of prolific, committed liberation theologians reflecting on questions of faith starting from the reality of their people who are impoverished and oppressed. Here we find the National Brazilian Bishops Conference (known as the “CNBB”), second in size only to that of the U.S. For twenty years the CNBB has issued documents defending the people’s rights to land, food and political participation. Most strikingly, this is a church that has experienced profound conversion, a church whose authenticity is proved by the blood of its many martyrs.

Brazil’s military takeover in 1964 inspired nuns and priests to take to the streets, praying the rosary in gratitude and carrying banners that said, “The Church thanks God that the military saved us from communism!” Within a few years, however, the severity of government-sponsored repression provoked an outcry from the church hierarchy. Not unlike other military dictatorships in

South America in the 1960s and 70s, Brazil’s military government carried out the torture, ‘disappearances’ and summary executions of thousands of dissidents and grassroots activists during these decades. Church workers and community animators (lay ministers who organize grassroots communities) appeared on death lists because of their work with students, farmers, Indians and workers. The blood of nuns, priests and lay catechists soon mingled with that of lawyers,
unionists, students and peasants committed to the struggle for justice.

For the next twenty years under military rule, the Catholic church provided the country’s only relatively safe space for community organizing, since labor, student and political movements were outlawed or crushed. Championing the cause of human rights, the church took up the prophetic tasks of denouncing the injustice and abuses, and announcing the Reign of God—not an otherworldly kingdom, but a Reign that takes root in the soil of human community, equality and dignity.

This was an era of conversion and commitment for the whole of Latin America. During the 1968 Latin American Episcopal Conference (Conferencia General del Espiscopado Latinoamericano, generally known as “CELAM”) in Medellin, Colombia, the conttnent’s Catholic bishops made the historic declaration of a preferential option for the poor. This option, theologically based on a

belief in the God of life who draws close to those in the grip of death, was reaffirmed at the 1979 CELAM gathering in Puebla, Mexico, and has been echoed since then by the World Council of Churches and many other religious bodies and congregations. In 1971, Peru’s mestizo pastor and theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, published the ground-breaking A Theology of Liberation, which was followed by hundreds of theological and pastoral works from the liberationist perspective, many from Brazilians, both Catholic and Protestant.

This line of pastoral practice and academic reflection has disrupted the status quo of both church and state. While Pope John Paul II has affirmed the preferential option for the poor (which he also calls the preferential “love” for the poor), the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has issued two instructions warning of certain dangers in liberation theology (1984, 1986). Moreover, the Vatican has given warnings to more than a dozen Latin American theologians and bishops and has criticized the CEBs for subverting the proper authority structure of the church. The CDF also silenced Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff [see interview below] from May 9, 1985, until March 29, 1986, in reaction to his provocative critique of

Vatican power, Church: Charism and Power. After seven more years of relentless harassment and censorship, Boff, finally left the Franciscan priesthood, but not the church, to teach and write without constraint.

The Vatican trend of suspicion, criticism and censure continues in the appointments of conservative bishops throughout Latin America; the 1989
closing of a seminary that was committed to the option for the poor in Recife, Brazil; the 1989 division of the archdiocese of Sao Paulo, a severe blow to the advanced network of CEBs; the censoring of the “Word-Life” project which was publishing interpretations of the Bible informed by poor communities; and repeated interventions to both censor and control the Latin American Conference of Religious (CLAR).

These struggles are not won alone, but in communion with God and in community with one another. In their struggle for life the people of God are one— peasants, poets, professors, bishops, great-grandmothers. One in their passion for God, one in their risking of death for the cause of justice. One with us as we take up the same struggle for life, against death in all its forms. For this book also seeks to be a bridge between peoples North and South, companions in the struggle, fellow followers of the way.

The struggle is both individual and social. For many in the First World, death may wear the mask of alcoholism, cut-throat competition or an inner emptiness in the midst of material abundance. Here, life may be fostered by support groups, solitude and simpler lifestyles. Yet these

individual afflictions are reinforced by social structures, the same structures that oppress the poor.

For the growing number of disenfranchised in the North and the masses of marginalized abroad, death comes in the form of hunger, joblessness, systemic oppression. Here, life is won in the victories of community organizing, political pressure, strikes and demonstrations. Yet the exploited poor and social activists also have hungers of the heart—hungers for intimacy, meaning and consolation when social projects fail.

For holistic liberation, the struggle must reach both the individual and the

societal, it must embrace the personal and the political. As Bible scholar Carlos Mesters says, “We may start at different points, but we arrive together. The struggle is one struggle.”

Document 4: Maria de Silva Miguel [a great-grandmother to six young children, two of whom live with her. She started writing poetry when she was sixty-five, and now writes songs for her church and for political demonstrations. A national Brazilian religious magazine recently published one of her songs of struggle, ”The People is Poet.” Maria is active in the land movement, the health movement, the local Bible study group and is passionately involved in local
women’s groups. Born of slaves, Maria is deeply concerned about the continuing

oppression of blacks in Brazil. Roughly fifty percent of Brazil’s population is black, most of them descendents of slaves. Brazil officially abolished slavery in 1888.]

“The People is Poet” By Maria da Silva Miguel

“One day a woman cried, “I am a Warrior!”

and the echo of her voice was heard beyond the borders.

I am Woman-Mother and Warrior,

the stove is no longer my limit.

I am called queen of the home,

but I am greater than ocean and sea.

I am Mother, I give life,

I am a Woman, Pain.

I am a Warrior, a Bird—I sing!

I raise up my people and pull them out of slavery,

my name is Liberation!

Whoever wants to find me, I’m not only in the home,

I’m in the struggle, I’m a Warrior!

I am Black, I am Poor, I am Old and nearly Illiterate,

Everyone knows me—

I am the remnant who dreams of happiness and love I am merely Maria Miguel!”

Document 5: Salome Costa [A feminist and free thinker, longs to study theology and, if the Catholic church allowed, would seek to become a priest. Like many other people of faith with few material resources, her education comes mostly from Bible meetings, grassroots

workshops and seminars. Salome is very active in the church community of the eastern part of Sao Paulo’s periphery. Many feminist theologians in Latin America, the US, and elsewhere, have taken inspiration from Liberation Theology.]

“I’ve been involved with the church for twenty-five years—that’s half of my life! Not just attending mass, which I’ve done since I was a child, but participating, especially in the small communities. I lead Bible meetings and liturgies, and participate in the formation of lay ministers. I also work with the grassroots movements—especially the struggle for health care, day care and women’s groups. In the CEBs we don’t just listen to the priest preach, but we participate in
the Word. That is, we can’t stay just praying inside of the church.

Some churches, especially the Pentecostals, tell the people not to participate in the grassroots struggle! They think that the church alone is everything, that the Reign of God is only within, that life is only praying, only spiritual. No, we have to have action. We have to go outside of the church to search for life! This is in the Gospel.

“The struggle” is the survival of the people. Through the struggle we discover the strength we have. We are

searching for life. For survival. And no one is going to “donate” this life to us. If we sit around waiting for it, it will come too late. We have to search for it and claim it!

You see, a small group of people dominate our system—the business people with all the wealth in their hands. And the great masses of poor people aren’t aware! Once we discover that we’re important as persons, we’ll begin to struggle. That’s how we’ll get out of poverty!

We call our Bible meetings “street groups.” We go out of the church and into the streets to gather families and reflect on the Bible in the light of our lives. And the situation of our lives is horrible! In the favela [urban slum], one tiny hut has twelve or fifteen people living in it. It’s awful! To have food, the mother has to work, and many women are single mothers because the men leave them, so she has to leave her children unattended, and then the children get into trouble with drugs and street life. These are really big problems.

In the Word of God you discover that these things aren’t right. For example, you discover your street isn’t paved. So, the street group animates the neighborhood people to struggle for this improvement. We don’t only pray with the families, but we do things—together. You see, when you discover faith, you’re involved in politics. That is,

when you are searching for life, you’re engaged in a political act.

The poor are so marginalized and exploited by the politics of the government! So, the church should be involved in politics in this sense: walking with the people who are searching to improve their lives, searching for the life of God. Reading
the Gospels has always encouraged me. In the Gospels we discover that God is always on the side of the poorest, the most marginalized, those who don’t have any value in society’s eyes. Jesus testified to this with his whole life. This is what happens in the church!

In the small community of poor people we feel the presence of God because we know each others’ lives and struggles. We can continue without getting discouraged. My hope is that we always dwell in this faith. In this struggle. Faith and struggle. The church provides the communion we need to go out and struggle for what we need to live.”