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The Gospel in Solentiname - and Obama


Yesterday, I wrote my last post for February Blogging. It was fun to write about Norway but I have other things to catch up on! Mexico, for instance. However, today I felt like writing about a wonderful book called The Gospel in Solentiname, by Ernesto Cardenal. I hadn't picked up the book in a while, but today I was reminded of it. I had book club today, and we were reading President Obama's book "Dreams from my Father." I had been very disorganized this month (maybe blogging was taking too much time!) and just bought the book on Friday. By noon today I had read only 140 pages, but it was still nice to discuss it. (And it was from his book that I got the idea for yesterday's post as well. He doesn't actually use the words "white privilege" but that was what it made me think of, which again made me think of white privilege among foreigners living in the US.)

Testing imagesAfter book club, I continued reading, and I am now at the part where Obama decides he wants to be a community organizer - without even really knowing what a community organizer does! Reading this made me feel so grateful that the country I live in, although it is not my country, has a president who when he was only 22 years old knew that he wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor, that he wanted to live among them and do what he could to help.

This reminded me of liberation theology, which again reminded me of The Gospel in Solentiname.

Liberation theology is a school of theology within Christianity, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. It emphasizes the Christian mission to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, particularly through political activism. Its theologians consider sin the root source of poverty, recognizing sin as exploitive capitalism and class war by the rich against the poor. (Wikipedia.)

Testing imagesLiberation Theology was especially prominent in Latin America during the time of the military dictatorships, as a counter to the violence and the atrocious human rights violations that were taking place in countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Argentina. It was born in Brazil in 1955 and became an important current in Latin American Catholicism. However, the Vatican did not like this Socialist-sounding trend, and especially Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, condemned it harshly as Marxist, although most would define as more similar to Social Democrat ideas. Ratzinger especially criticized what he saw as an encouragement to class struggle, which could lead to rejection of hierarchy.

It is easy to see why the Vatican would feel threatened by this, but in my interpretation, Liberation Theology means standing with the poor, not advocating a revolution. What the Liberation Theologists understood, however, was that there could not be real freedom from poverty and oppression unless there was a change in political structures. A central concept in Liberation Theology is the preferential option for the poor:

This concept expresses a special concern in distributive justice for poor and vulnerable persons. The "poor" includes but is not limited to those who are economically deprived. The principle is rooted in the biblical notion of justice, where God calls us to be advocates for the voiceless and the powerless among us (e.g., "the widows and the orphans"), and where right relationships are restored. Regardless of the reasons, those who are in any way deprived or who are particularly vulnerable have a special moral claim on the community.

Testing imagesLiberation Theology priests were some of the strongest supporters of the poor and oppressed in the dictatorships. A famous example is Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. When he was first appointed, many left-leaning priests were disappointed. However, Romero had a change of heart when his friend, progressive Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, was killed for his work. Romero later stated: "When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought: if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path". He became radicalized and started speaking out against oppression, social injustice, violence and torture. He contacted Jimmy Carter asking him to stop military aid to El Salvador's right wing government and paramilitary groups.

In Romero's three years as archbishop, six priests were killed, and fifty were attacked and harassed.

Romero was killed by a shot to the heart on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called "La Divina Providencia" the day after a sermon where he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, he was shot while holding up the Eucharist.

It is believed that the assassins were members of Salvadoran death squads. This view was supported in 1993 by an official U.N. report, which identified the man who ordered the killing as former Major Roberto D'Aubuisson. He had also planned to overthrow the government in a coup. Later he founded the political party Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and organized death squads that systematically carried out politically-motivated assassinations and other human rights abuses in El Salvador.

ARENA has had the presidency in El Salvador since 1989.

Since I have spent a lot of time in Central America, the story of Archbishop Romero and many others like him are very powerful to me. He was taking the Church away from the rich, privileged oppressors and giving it back to the masses - but the oppressors could not tolerate this. The US continued supporting dictators and murderers, all in the name of anti-Communism. George W. Bush had direct links to all of this, not just because of his father, but because he hired Negroponte and others like him who had been directly involved in the human rights abuses in Central America. With Obama, this is finally completely over!

So my stream of consciousness has taken me back to Obama, and to his preferential option for the poor. I think he, as the Liberation Theologists, have showed us that charity is not enough - empathy and solidarity are necessary. Charity is not a solution - charities fulfill important functions but are often based on the idea of the "deserving poor". There need to be structures and programs that prevent people from needing charity - the powerful have to see the powerless. The current recession is a good example; charities are getting a lot less donations and are struggling to help those they are supposed to help.

Testing imagesNow to Solentiname! Ernesto Cardenal was a Nicaraguan Liberation Theology priest and a Sandinista (although he later left the party.) He is a poet and served as culture minister. One of his most important legacies, however, is the primitivist art community he founded on the island of Solentiname. When he was ordained as a priest in 1965, he went to live in the archipelago of Solentiname, where he stayed for 12 years, founding a lay monastery and then the art community, which lasts to this day. He met a community of poor peasants and fishermen and wanted them to take an active part in their own religious life. Instead of homilies, the people themselves would comment on the scripture readings of the day. The book is a powerful testament to true solidarity and community.

This was a looong and winding post, showing how I feel the connection between the radical priests of Latin America and Obama's past as an organizer. A US president that believes in a preferential option for the poor (although he might call it something else) is very powerful! (And since I talked about Nicaragua I get to classify it as travel!)

Comments (10)


Excellent post. I need to go back now and reread it slowly so that I can absorb.

Excellent post,Chiocciola.
I have not read Obama's book yet, but I do listen very closely to his words, and I do like what I hear.

Fascinating post. Did the art in your photos come from Solentiname? Have you visited that community?

God bless Obama (I say it everyday).


What an interesting. This is the first time that I have heard of this... I need to look into this more.... fascinating.

Thanks everybody! Re-reading it I realize there is not a lot of connection, mainly me wanting to connect two things when Obama's book reminded me of Liberation theology.

Yes, the art is from Solentiname, but I have never visited. I hope to, though!


I have to ditto Jane, this is going to require another, more serious read, but I have it bookmarked in my head - thanks for sharing with us.


Really interesting post, Chiocciola, thanks! I never knew what Liberation Theology actually was. I know a United Church minister (not my own minister Valerie) who includes LT in her religious views on facebook. Having read your entry, it seems odd to me that she would have settled in a small, affluent NS community to preach.

Fascinating and informative post! Like others have said, I will come back and read it again (and again).

While reading I was reminded of an order of nuns in my neighborhood who after being in charge of an all-girl Catholic school for many decades, decided to close the school and dedicate their work to the poor. They began by helping young men who were on rehab for drug abuse. I was a teacher at that school the year before they decided to close it and the nuns were already doing double duty, running the school and doing the counseling in the evening. In the religious circle this order of nuns were thought to be socialists, a term considered taboo on an island with a high number of Cuban emigre. After reading this post, I wonder if they were into Liberation Theology. The school was closed in 1978.

Interesting comments - Maria, I can only assume that the nuns were influenced by Liberation Theology, especially because of their "reputation", but I guess they could just have felt that the need was greater with the rehab than with the school?

Excellent post! I really think you should be on Obama's staff! I am so impressed with your insight. How interesting that Bush and others have covered up their contributions to oppression and social injustice making look like they were doing the right thing by stopping Communism. I am so thankful Obama is in office now.

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