Liberation theology: from Iowa to Mexico and back

Our delegation of 12 Iowa Lutherans traveled to Mexico last fall for a weeklong program inspired by the Christian liberation theology movement in Central America. The program, sponsored by the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, caused many of us return to Iowa with our eyes newly opened to the possibilities for social change in America.

We now have human faces for the corporate globalization process that has consigned many to marginalization, economic insecurity and poverty. We visited the simple home of Maria. Her family is active in a local Christian “base community.” As we sat in her small, cramped concrete home in a squatter settlement in Mexico City called La Estacion, one of our delegation members, Sheri, was particularly moved by Maria’s involvement in the Christian movement for radical social change. We learned that Maria’s base community, like many of these communities throughout Latin America, functions like a typical Christian parish and worships on a weekly basis in addition to providing extensive material and emotional support for its members.

We learned that Maria’s Christian base community is also committed to working for a different, better world where women do not have to wonder how to feed their children. I think it was the strength and depth of Maria’s religious faith and commitment to struggle for social justice that moved Sheri. Sheri’s own faith has undergone a profound and deepening change. Since her time in Mexico, she has visited other Lutheran congregations and has given a presentation of her trip to her home congregation’s adult Sunday school class. Sheri voted for George Bush. Now she affirms that her Christian faith calls her to work for a different world for the poor and marginalized in Iowa.

In this trip, we learned about liberation theology, a global movement among Christians that sees the gospel as a message and a task for this world in which believers work for justice, peace and eradication of poverty and exploitation. While traditional Christian theology, including the variety articulated and practiced by George Bush’s Christian-right base, offers hope for the next world, liberation theology clearly calls for social justice this side of the grave. In Mexico, we caught a glimpse of what this kind of Christianity might look like.

For instance, while the Christian right in America calls for workers to wait for the next life for a better life, Christians who are part of the “liberation base communities” like the ones we met in Mexico advocate for social justice and workers’ rights today.

Iowa pastor Dave and I stayed in a worker’s home in the Santa Fe neighborhood of Cuernavaca, and learned about his family and his situation in the globalized economy.

During our dinner conversation the first evening, Antonio spoke with pride about his job, which is to make steel grille doors. He pointed with pride to one of his company’s doors at the front of his small home. I sensed that Antonio’s job was a relatively good one for a working-class Mexican family. Even so, it occurred to me that, in many ways, Antonio is the face of working people throughout the newly globalized, corporate-dominated economy. He works long hours, with little or no time off. He has no benefits and can be terminated at any time. With rapid global changes in the market demand for the product he makes, his job security can easily be subject to quickly changing, up and down market forces of the new global economy.

Later, we learned how the Mexican government is essentially captive to the same large corporate forces that control Antonio’s life, and of the nonexistence of credible unions in Mexico that will actually fight for workers’ rights and living wage jobs for all workers and their families.

Initially, Dave resisted some of the analysis we heard. But in subsequent meetings, Dave shared with our travel group how he had begun to incorporate themes of injustice and God’s will for justice in this world. He told how he had begun to raise concerns in sermons of how affordable housing and living wages in his Iowa community were not realities. He seemed comfortable with this dramatic shift in his working theology. He had profoundly changed his approach to being an ordained Lutheran pastor.

And so, with two Mexican people, Maria and Antonio, who have been marginalized by capitalism’s drive for more and more profits worldwide, we all had our awareness raised.

Yet, in spite of the reality of this corporate-dominated globalization process which daily creates more misery, despair and poverty, we also heard, in the same stories of these same people, hopefulness, empowerment and a vision for a better world. Several of our delegation members have returned to Iowa with new commitments to share in the struggles of the marginalized in Mexico (and other places as well) by working here in Iowa for a better, more just world.

Paul Nelson (larnel@peoplepc.com) is an ordained Lutheran pastor in Ames, Iowa.