IN the Mexican state of Chiapas, currently the scene of an Indian and peasant revolt, conservative opponents are reportedly blaming the local Catholic clergy for causing the uprising. This is not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that priests find themselves in the center of social unrest.
Christians from developed nations who have observed societies marked by enormous disparities between rich and poor have some understanding of the dilemmas facing church representatives in such conditions. The repetition by the clergy of the words of the prophets and Christ Jesus that express special concern for the poor leads to the question from parishioners: How do these apply to us? (``The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives,... to set at liberty those who are oppressed....'' Luke 4:18, Revised Standard Version) In the face of the contrast with wealthy and powerful oligarchies, words of simple faith may not suffice as an answer.
One answer that is undoubtedly known to the priests in Chiapas lies in ``liberation theology,'' the doctrine set forth in ``The Theology of Liberation,'' a book by a Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, in 1973. His writing can help one understand the problems and reactions of both the Vatican and many in the parish clergy. The Vatican faces governments that feel threatened by the involvement of priests and bishops in radical political and social action. The priests face the impatient poor.
Mr. Gutierrez's work draws on the Old and New Testaments and the concept of the creation of a ``new man'' in the French Revolution. He notes the liberation of the former colonial peoples in the 1950s and 1960s and the shift of the Catholic church to more liberal doctrines in Vatican II (1962-65). Finally, he draws heavily on the results of a Second Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968.
Gutierrez makes clear that he addresses primarily the conditions of the Latin American Indian; he is, himself, half Indian. To him one of the gravest sins is ``social injustice.'' Salvation from sin means salvation from injustice. Liberation is liberation from the oppression of oligarchical governments and their outside supporters, including the United States.
He endorses the effort of the Church to ``shake off the ambiguous protection provided by the beneficiaries of the unjust order which prevails on the continent.'' He does not advocate violence, but quotes from a Medellin conference document: ``In considering the problem of violence in Latin America, let us by all means avoid equating the unjust violence of the oppressors with the just violence of the oppressed.''
While sympathetic, many North American observers are troubled by Gutierrez's emphasis on revolution (``The theology of liberation ... is an insertion into the revolutionary political process''), and socialism (``Only a radical break from the status quo ... would allow for the change to a new society, a socialist society''). Beyond that, liberation theology offers no specific solutions to the region's desperate problems. A Rockefeller Report on the Americas in 1969 stated that the forces of revolutionary change in the Church may be ``in somewhat the same position as the young - with a profound idealism, but, as a result, in some cases, vulnerable to subversive penetration; ready to undertake a revolution if necessary to end injustice, but not clear either as to the ultimate nature of the revolution itself or as to the governmental system by which the justice it seeks can be realized.''
The contrast between the Scripture and the conditions of humankind is not new to Christianity - or to any of the other world's great religions. But the problems today have a special poignancy in the light of the growing impatience of much of the third world. Pulling down the house to make the Kingdom on Earth may not be the answer. But the clergy, deeply moved and troubled by the plights of their parishioners, will continue to prod governments to find answers that work.