`REVOLUTIONARY CHRISTIANITY' SHAKES UP THE STATUS QUO
LUIS AGUIRRE, dressed in a red Harlem Wizards T-shirt, looked weary at the end of a daylong workshop in Managua on how to grow and make food from soybeans, one of several projects sponsored by the ``base community'' program he helps coordinate. ``We are different from other church movements,'' Mr. Aguirre explained. ``We live ourselves as the people live. We don't want the church to merely stay inside the temple, but to work alongside its people.''Skip to next paragraph
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``Base communities'' focus on rediscovering and applying the Bible in daily life and on the politics of poverty. But the ``movement,'' as it is known in America, is not trying just to promote self-help among the poor. Its goal is also to transform society and, in effect, change the status quo in religion and politics.
The base community concept and the ``liberation theology'' that has grown up alongside it amount to ``revolutionary Christianity,'' which could herald a new ``post-modern era'' in which religion will be central to all aspects of life and politics, according to Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox. Theologians and social scientists in New Delhi, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Managua also contend that religion will have a far-reaching impact in the next historic era.
The movement in Latin America reflects the increasing dynamism of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, visible in different forms and over different issues also in Poland, the Philippines, Haiti, and South Korea. Latin American Catholicism was indeed one of the first widely visible religious movements in contemporary politics, and it has grown increasingly active in recent years.
In Chile, the Bishops Conference blasted the right-wing regime in March for political excesses and economic inadequacies. Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte said angrily he thought he was reading about ``the creation of a new political party.''
In Nicaragua, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo first gained prominence for the church's role in the 1979 revolution. He later said, ``We incited to rebellion. We justified armed struggle. The only thing we did not do was take up a rifle and kill national guardsmen.'' Yet he has also been so critical of the Sandinista regime that the foreign minister last year called the cardinal ``the principal accomplice of aggression against our people.'' Because of his criticism, the cardinal was named last Thursday as a mediator between the contra rebels and the government.
The Brazilian church was a key agitator against the former military regime and remains a pivotal catalyst on land-reform and trade-union issues. El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated in 1980, the day after his radio broadcast condemning the government for ``reforms stained with so much blood [that they] are worth nothing'' and calling for a military revolt.
Catholic scholars date the emergence of activism - which varies widely in application within Latin America - to the 1962-65 Vatican II Council. Bishops were granted greater autonomy from central Vatican authority to provide local leadership on social and economic issues. The climate created by these reforms has marked a dramatic shift in Latin America after five centuries (with isolated exceptions) of church quiescence or cooperation with colonial powers and postcolonial dictatorships or oligarchies.
But the status quo has been shaken even more deeply by the subsequent emergence of base communities and liberation theology which have:
Reversed the traditional order of leadership.
Expanded the Catholic agenda to encompass more than just religious issues.
The movement within Catholicism is more amorphous than in other faiths, since it does not operate within territorial borders as in Israel, or have well-defined political strictures as in Islam.
Growing activism, however, is manifested in several ways. Base communities, which first evolved in Brazil and Panama in the 1960s, were initially an attempt to provide a forum for poor parishes unserved due to the shortage of priests.
They have since become bases for organizing social, political, and economic alternatives. ``People gain the courage to take action from discussion of the scriptures,'' said Tom Quigley of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The impact is evident in Brazil, which is now estimated to have about 80,000 base communities, and in Nicaragua, where activities include sewing collectives, farm cooperatives, natural medicine workshops, and discussions of the Bible as a basis for political engagement.