Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present

religiousresponcesEdited by Alexander Wilde. University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. 498 pages. $49/paperback; $7/30-day eBook.

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During many years as a researcher in and on Brazil, I met hundreds of human rights activists—priests, nuns, Catholic and Protestant laypeople, lawyers, urban and rural poor people, trade unionists, and indigenous people—who found themselves caught up in a struggle for social, environmental, and economic justice. Through my experiences there I absorbed the ethos and ideology of human rights.

Since I stopped doing research in Brazil in 2005, I have devoted my time and energy to international migration issues. But I have not left human rights behind. Permeating everything I do and think about, it is my religion.

When I heard about Alexander Wilde’s new book, Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present, I felt compelled to read it. He had encouraged me to work for Amnesty International in 1990. Thus I came to believe in and practice the religion of human rights with conviction and certitude. I hoped his book would help me understand the magnitude and significance of the movement I witnessed and participated in for almost 30 years.

Religious Responses to Violence contains 15 chapters by experts on Argentina, Brazil, Central America, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. They cover the history of Latin America from the mid-twentieth century to the present—roughly from Vatican II to Pope Francis and from the early development of Evangelical churches to their current prominence in communities and politics.

In his introduction, Wilde points out that from the 1960s through the 1980s the Catholic Church was a “major political actor,” and violence was seen as political. Much of the academic literature on Latin American religion focused on Catholic resistance to state repression. In the 1980s, liberation theology gave way to human rights as the ideological foundation of religious action. Only in the past 20 years have scholars paid attention to Evangelical movements as they have gained millions of followers and challenged Catholic dominance across the continent. In recent years violence has evolved, too, as non-state actors, including criminal mafias, youth gangs, and human and drug traffickers, have pushed the state aside.

These important changes raised many big questions for the authors of this book: How and why did religious responses to violence change or not change? What are the main factors that motivate constructive social action by religious groups? How has the nature of violence changed over time? Under what conditions do religious responses have the greatest impact?

Almost 500 pages long, the book includes complex historical and sociological arguments by writers who have intimate familiarity with the countries they analyze. Stories of diverse individuals and groups, from lawyers and pastors to farmworkers and refugees, bring the theorizing down to earth, where ordinary people struggle against powerful, often deadly obstacles for the right to live in peace.

As the authors point out, grassroots activists and church officials have used human rights beliefs to confront life-and-death dilemmas, first by opposing repressive state authority and then by countering generalized “ultra-violence” that threatens their societies. Hope comes from ordinary people seeking to create alternatives to violence by applying religious and moral values to everyday life. Religious leaders accompany them. New religious ideas and practices take hold. The exercise of religious authority changes in response to current conditions.

The book gives two examples of this evolution in Brazil. In “Religion Meets Legal Strategy,” Rafael Queiroz, a law professor, recounts the history of Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again). Produced clandestinely under the noses of police and military authorities, the book was a heroic collaboration between Brazilian bishops and lawyers that documented the dictatorship’s systematic use of torture over a 20-year period.

When Brazilian bishops and lawyers criticized the dictatorship’s excesses and defended its victims, they joined the ranks of the persecuted. The national bishops’ conference and the bar association used human rights language to gain international support. International pressure and dedicated, nonviolent mobilization inside Brazil helped end the dictatorship in 1985. Over the years the Catholic Church established pastoral agencies that still work with lawyers to defend the human rights of workers, landless people, street children, prisoners, and other marginalized groups.

In the essay “The Politics of Presence,” Andrew Johnson describes the role of Evangelical pastors in improving conditions in Brazil’s prisons. He reports that “Pentecostals’ choice to be there is a political act.” As a result, prisoners treat Pentecostal pastors with respect in every prison in Rio de Janeiro. Progressive Pentecostals are “on the front lines of efforts to address the consequences of poverty, war, drug addiction” and other social problems.

The pastors focus on helping individual prisoners and community residents. They call prisoners “brother” and acknowledge their basic dignity in a society that considers them subhuman. Johnson contends that their positive treatment of prisoners subverts the social order.

It is worthwhile to compare his characterization of Evangelical pastors with Queiroz’s depiction of Catholic clergy who aided dissidents and “terrorists” during the military dictatorship. Both acted out of unconditional love and charity, the equality of all humans in the sight of God, the inner light that gives everyone worth and dignity. These religious beliefs comprise part of the foundation of human rights.

Such essays helped me understand the development of a faith-tinged ideology of human rights in many Latin American countries, from the mid-twentieth century to the present. They enabled me to put my individual experiences into historical perspective—to remember that I was and am part of a continuing worldwide struggle for human dignity and justice. Anyone involved in that great movement will benefit from reading Religious Responses to Violence.

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