Religion and Revolution: The Role of Christian Base Communities (ECBs) in Community Organizing
Suffering under the military rule, El Salvador underwent a decade-long civil war and revolutionary struggles. A key component which led to people's mobilization is liberation theology, a theology which calls for the liberation of the poor and oppressed. Rather than telling people to endure all sufferings on earth and wait till the glory of afterlife, it emphasized upon the preferential treatment of the poor, teaching that the church must take an active stance against social injustices and stand on the side of the masses. Its teachings were materialized into the Christian Base Communities (ECBs), Catholic communities which were run by lay, ordinary folks who not only conducted bible studies, but took their messages and drew connections to their social realities, empowering everyday people to organize among themselves and believe in their power to enable social changes.
The Roman Catholic Church, a dominant religious institution of Latin America, plays an influential but prominent role as a cultural and sociopolitical institution, along with its primary role as a spiritual apparatus. Along with the Crown, the Church serves an instrumental role in institutionalizing socio-economic inequalities in the colonies. Following rapid urbanization of the 50s and the rise of repressive military regimes during the 60s and onward, the gaps of haves and the have nots have further expanded, further enriching the elites while throwing the poor into deeper holes of impoverishment. With Christian Base Communities (ECBs), which found inspiration through liberation theology, the Church’s involvement in popular education and organizing of the Salvadoran people plays a foundational factor towards the rise of revolutionary leaders and organizations as the lay people became active in organizing their communities to stand up against oppression.
Despite initial and subsequent clashes with the Crown and its viceroyalties, the Catholic Church serves as a key figure in institutionalizing inequalities on the basis of socioeconomic and racial inequalities, well known as the casta system. Quite contrary to the Biblical teaching that all children of God are equal, the Church acts in accordance with the mandates of colonial hierarchy, favoring those in positions of privilege. Furthermore, the Church justifies the conquest of the Americas by claiming that economic-political inequalities on earth are constructs of heaven, rendering any human efforts to alter them futile, thus rationalizing the need to seek their ideal paradise in the afterlife rather than to attempt changes on earth (Peterson 44). And for the unknowing and the have-nots, they fault them for their own ignorance, and are told that they are incapable of making changes to their dismal positions for themselves and generations to come after them. As for their impoverishment, the Church would inculcate the concept of sin, declaring that they will receive punishment for their sinful acts of laziness by God, thus criminalizing their state of poverty while overlooking the institutional roles behind their impoverishment (Hammond 72). Overall, they are taught that whatever positions they are born into are determined by God and nature which one cannot alter, thereby obliging them to obey social hierarchies without question.
The acts of shaming and demonizing of those who are at a disadvantage on socioeconomic and ethno-racial levels continue in the age of neoliberalism, a legacy of colonialism which enforces class differences on the basis of socioeconomic disparities, stemming from ethno-racial contrasts of the casta system. With the privatization of public goods and infrastructure, residents begin to face significant difficulties with acquiring daily needs, joined by low wage salaries and the high cost of having a roof over one’s head (Garcia and Martinez 1).
With the societal expectation to pull themselves by the bootstraps, they work countless hours in low wage labor in maquilas and monocrop plantations, mainly focusing on agricultural export crops such as banana, sugar, coffee, and cotton (Garcia and Martinez 2). Despite their daily struggles to make it through the mundane, gruesome days of toil and tears, their frugal acts of labor are far below sufficient for them to have what one may consider a decent standard of living. And when they fail to meet the end, the government can label them as incompetent, lazy beings, parallel to how the church and the state refers to the poor and those who live in margins of society, replacing concepts of “the public good” and “community” with “individual responsibility” (Garcia and Martinez 1).
"The acts of shaming and demonizing of those who are at a disadvantage on socioeconomic and ethno-racial levels continue in the age of neoliberalism, a legacy of colonialism which enforces class differences on the basis of socioeconomic disparities, stemming from ethno-racial contrasts of the casta system."
Years of institutional criminalization against the indigenous, poor, and/or illiterate began to unravel with popular education by Christian Base Communities. Catholic communities which are run by most lay people, a stark contrast to the early days where they had little to no involvement in the Church beyond mass attendance. With nuns and priests as figures of guidance, the lay people convert from, passive attendants of weekly masses and recipients of seven sacraments, to those with active involvement in community works of the church. This signifies their starting point of empowerment as active agents of revolutionary changes in their communities and beyond (Hammond 73).
First and foremost, the language of the mass became a translation from Latin to Spanish, a language of the masses, in words and phrases most relatable to the masses. The discussion of Bible study and their relevance to their socio-political situations, along with training of lay people “as catechists of as lay preachers,” well known as “delegates of the word” who play instrumental roles in forming base communities (Peterson 51). Such changes represent the bridging of gaps between the church and the people, enabling their integration into community life, rather than to draw absolute separations of realm between the ecclesiastical and civilian boundaries.
Despite the significant role and contribution by Christian Base Communities (ECBs) in educating and mobilizing the people, the original reason behind its founding was anti-revolutionary in origin. With its long tradition of support for the status quo, the Church is afraid of the enlightenment of the people, displaying its unwillingness and lack of preparation to encounter a radical, profound change within its respective societies. Although the CELAM and the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (or simply known as Vatican II) receive credit as decisive meetings for the founding of liberation theology, its motive compares to the founding of the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s (Kearney 5).
Like the Marshall Plan in post-WWII Europe preventing Communist takeover, John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress prevented revolutionary outbreak. The organization became a response to the success of Cuban Revolution, evoking paranoia for the United States ,the next door neighbor of the island, witnessing the rise of revolutionary movements in Latin America (Kearney 5).
Although Christian Base Communities have taught and train rural peasants as “delegates of the Word” through the teaching of the Bible and its relevance to their socio-political realities, the original purpose of ECBs is to prevent the birth of revolution, not in training agents for change (Kearney 5). As far as social changes are of a concern, they entrust those in power to serve as agents of change, not from those who are being oppressed. Put in other words, the initial motive of episcopal conferences which birth liberation theology and ECBs become an interpretation of reactionary acts of desperation and hysteria by ecclesiastical authorities. Such concerns by those who fear the (over)politicization of church doctrines and theologies, in particular the incorporation of Marxist ideologies which reflect a staunch presence of anti-Communism, thus fearing “deep changes in the structure of capitalist society” (Boff and Boff 7). The reactionary skepticism of the Church is also apparent in its tumultuous relations with the Sandinistas, expressing the suspicions of passive and active oppositions that Sandinismo is Marxism in its ideology, exacerbating the invitation of Cubans in its literary campaigns (Williams 73 and 75-76).
"Put in other words, the initial motive of episcopal conferences which birth liberation theology and ECBs become an interpretation of reactionary acts of desperation and hysteria by ecclesiastical authorities."
Despite the original attempts of the Church to curtail revolutions, the CEBs play tremendous, unexchangeable roles in the enlightenment and empowerment of the people. Liberation theology, for example, broke the notion that God is an extra-universal being who simply judges the dead and sits on the throne in heaven, teaching that he is in fact an active entity and a driving force of liberation in human history. To help people understand God’s act of salvation in history, the book of Exodus is read as a call for emancipation of the people who are under oppression by sin and those in power, demonstrating God’s presence in the saving of his people (Peterson 51). Such active involvement of the church in communities were possible due to the Second Vatican Council, an ecumenical conference which allowed clergy to apply independent thinking to act in accordance to the socioeconomic and political turmoil of their communities, joint by interdisciplinary integration of Biblical teachings and secular knowledge (Boff and Boff 3).
As far as an exodus, Ignacio Ellacuria takes a step farther and warns people against limiting salvation to the pages of the Bible or regarding it as a mere award in an afterlife. In accordance with his thesis of salvation in history, Ellacuria proclaims Jesus to be a historical reality, urging christologies to regard and depict him as such (Ellacuria 155). Throughout his writing, he asserts that salvation serves as a driving force of history, urging people to actively engage in carrying out God’s work of salvation through community organizing with their liberation in mind.
His assertion of salvation in history also draws to Christology on images of Jesus which discusses Jesus the Crucified versus the Liberator, in his human form, rejecting the alienating image of Christ as an exclusive divine being in heaven (Sobrino 12). Throughout his introduction, Sobrino acknowledges that Christ the Crucified has been a symbolic reality of the oppression people are under in Latin America, particularly in El Salvador while planting a new hope that Jesus the Liberator plays as a driving force of liberation in their day and age, with the purpose of bringing “good news to the poor [and] to proclaim release to the captives,” a verse from Luke 4:18 (Sobrino 12).
With above christologies in place, one can understand the ultimate purpose and drive behind Christian Base Communities in El Salvador, the lay-orientated groups which focus on the mobilization of rural peasants as community organizers, carrying out the works of liberation of their pueblos from the oppressive regime. The church’s involvement in communities for the poor and the denouncing of military repression in El Salvador stem from the union of politics and spirituality, with the ultimate goal of liberation in mind, according to Gutierrez (Chiappari 49).
"To help people understand God’s act of salvation in history, the book of Exodus is read as a call for emancipation of the people who are under oppression by sin and those in power, demonstrating God’s presence in the saving of his people"
The literacy program of the church enables people to read and write, and to engage and analyze political texts and come to the realization of their impoverished state of being is neither natural nor God willed.Deconstructing the notion that they are inherently at fault for the socioeconomic status they are born into (Hammond 72). Out of three stages of liberation, the literacy program meets historical and political liberation as the revelation above sets them free from their own psychological limits while enabling them to organize and challenge the establishment (Chiappari 49). Their political literacy had further expands via community radios, discussing sociopolitical issues on a wider level and connecting them to the larger world while the literacy campaign enable Mayas to learn Spanish and expand their communication link with other Mayas and ladinos, overcoming the walls of monolingualism and its resulting language barriers which prevents their political mobilization in unification (Arias 232 and 239).
The Roman Catholic Church, a major religious institution of Latin America since colonial times, has historically been a supporter of those in power, starting with the Spanish Crown. Having once been at the forefront of justifying the conquest and criminalizing the poor and the indigenous, the birth of liberation theology emphasizes a call to side with the poor, resulting in Christian Base Communities (ECBs) which see active involvement of peasants in popular education via literacy and Bible Studies, connecting what they learn with their sociopolitical realities and seeking courses of actions.
In contrast to early times where peasants play passive roles in the church, the ECBs allow opportunities for lay people to take active roles in community organization and leadership, a basis which allows them to enlighten their neighbors and organize themselves into revolutionary vanguards in the face of increasing repression. By applying what they learn in ECBs’ popular education, the people of El Salvador demonstrate the concept of salvation in history, a concept where God and salvation serve as driving factors of history which are the acceptance of his people, manifesting into organizational actions in the isthmus. With revolutionary spirits blooming from education, the people of El Salvador will continue to fight for what is right for them and stand against social injustices, carrying forth the torch of human liberation.