After the lost decade, after the so-called collapse of socialism, after the setback of revol-utionary processes and popular movements, after we have awakened to a new era in which all that we were thinking and feeling until recently now appears so distant and so filled with ingenuousness and over-simplification, after all of this, we ask ourselves: what remains of the Option for the Poor? What remains of all that we have lived and proclaimed with such passion and fervour, of all the hopes for which so many of our brothers and sisters have given their lives? Does there remain an utopian ideal? Or are the only things that remain disappointment, the awakening from a dream, the bitter taste of a flight into the new empire of individualism and neo-liberal exclusion? Does anything remain?
There are many who while they do not answer explicitly, do so implicitly in the very way thay now live their lives. In asking the question, "does anything remain?", they affirm that now almost nothing in fact does remain. In my Nicaraguan homeland, we have seen this with total clarity. The international volunteers have gone; they did not "remain". The missionaries have also gone. The revolutionary dream has ended, including the dream of a Church of the Poor. Realism has imposed itself; the crudeness of a bitter awakening after a moment in which we seemed to have touched heaven. What remains?
Starting with Reality
I will take as my point of departure a statement of the "facts" as they so often appear in the media:
The era of the Cold War has ended: we have reached a unipolar world, one in which there is no rival.
The cycle of anti-imperial revolutions has ended. We must live with the Empire. It no longer makes sense to talk of "empire" and "anti-imperialism".
Socialism as experienced in 20th century history has crumbled. There is no alternative to capitalism. Outside of capitalism there is no salvation.
We have reached the end point of history. Whatever may come in the future has to be more of the same, evolved, improved but always within the confines of the system. There is no ideological alternative; there is no other economic starting point. All others have fallen apart. Neo-liberalism remains alone, victorious.
That which was experienced in the past decades was an ideological dream, a revolutionary romanticism devoid of foundation which at this juncture has been shown to be simply unfeasible.
Facing all of this, what meaning does the preferential option for the poor have? It is more than a beautiful theory which cannot be implemented in practice? Can the people fashion their own history? Or does the future course of history lie more in the hands of the middle class and the powerful? Is the notion of people as agents of history a myth without foundation that we ought to abandon?
The Second Defeat
These uninterpreted statements of the bare "facts" are a balance sheet of the "defeat" of the people's cause. But we know well that it is not the whole story, for a "second defeat" results from this political "defeat": the moral, psychological and spiritual defeat of the people.
In Nicaragua, we have experienced quite clearly this phenomenon and what we have experienced is, perhaps, a reflection of what is happening in a similar way in all of the South. In Nicaragua, first there was fright and confusion, the inability to accept the electoral "defeat" of the revolution. Then there were tears and anxiety. Later the search for those who were to blame. Still later came self-blame, followed by demobilisation, a break-down, flight, bitterness. And, last of all, there was reinterpretation.
According to this reinterpretation of the past, everything which we lived through during this past decade turned out to be an irrational struggle over ideas brought to the fore by the political forces of the country. This reinterpretation has as its objective the creation of a new space for living and for forgetting, for justifying the change of direction: the abdication of those principles which were once considered sacred and absolute.
The best way to break with those revolutionary principles, now uncomfortable, is to proclaim that a radically new era has begun, one in which we feel ourselves exempt from the ethical demands of those principles and which disqualifies all those values as belonging to a world of dreams and idealism. To reduce the struggle, the passion, the extravagant witness and heroism of revolutionary fighters of ideas is a means of pardoning our collective historical amnesia and easing the remorse we feel at having abandoned the radical demands of the past.
This is the élite and intellectual middle class speaking, those who stood with the poor only while it was easy for them to do so, and who, now that the horizon has been closed, abandon the ranks and attempt to rationalise their betrayal. The "second defeat" that is happening is worse than the first. The first defeat took place from outside; the second defeat kills the very soul.
Post-modernism in Latin America
Latin Americans do not speak of "postmodernism" but this does not mean that we do not experience it in our own particular way. Post-modernism, threatening to enslave us, is arriving at this very hour, not as an intellectual import from the North but rather as a native product which is born here in relation to our past. This is why we do not know it by its Northern name.
Here also, as has happened in the intellectual world of modern times, a process of disenchantment and disillusionment has taken place. Here also people have ceased believing in progress, not classical modern "progress", but rather progress as the capacity of humanity to take control of history, or, more concretely, the capacity to overcome age-old injustice and poverty. The most dizzying euphoria has been replaced by the worst disenchantment: there is no way out.
If indeed there is now no way out, if all the mysticism and the utopia for which we have fought and for which so many brothers and sisters died, have been crushed by the war that the powerful have waged against us, what Cause remains for us to live for, to die for? Thus, Latin American post-modernism spreads, both in society and in the Churches.
The Desertion of the Militant Christian
In the first half of the 20th century the Church became an uninhabitable space for the politicised worker and for the honourable intellectual. The workers and intellectuals did not so much desert or abandon the Church, rather the Church abandoned and expelled them. So too, today, in the context of Latin America, we can speak of the "desertion of militant Christians". We are not accustomed to speak of this because we do not want to open our eyes to its painful reality. We would much prefer to think that the fertile and practical cooperation of Christianity with the people's movement which we experienced in Latin America is still a full reality. But it is the time for truth and realism. If, indeed, it is certain that there are still a vast number of militants who continue to believe in God and that this faith leads them to a commitment to the people's Cause, we likewise have to recognise that there are also many militant Christians who no longer "practice". These militants no longer practice because they are disillusioned by the attitude which the Church has adopted in the last few years with regard to the Cause of the Poor. Many militant Christians and non-Christians have come to the conclusion that the experience of a Church truly involved in the Cause of the Poor was a mirage, a dream from which they have now awakened. It is true that these militants continue to believe in Liberation Theology (which has clearly been ruled out by the Church), in Leonardo Boff (who had to leave the priesthood) in Bishops like Pedro Casaldáliga (who is the exception that proves the rule), and in members of religious congregations who are challenged by the official Church.
Many militants are now incapable of trusting the institutional Church. The Church has scandalised them. What we have experienced has been too much: blood stains, a growing stubbornness against the cause of the poor, blasphemies against the God of the poor and the people's Church. This is a lost generation for the Church, lost by the Church. It will take many generations to regain that confidence. What remains of the Church of the poor? The People's Church has been half destroyed (they have destroyed it). But perhaps there remains a dispersed people of God, a people's Christianity, de-ecclesiastisized. What remains? In whose name will it be possible to unite those who seem to be immune to the Church's call for togetherness.
The Triumph of Capitalism
The triumph of capitalism is presented as a fact but it is rather a deceptive triumph which really is not a triumph at all.
What we in the South experience is not a triumph of capitalism but rather its complete failure: the constant increase of poverty and exploitation in every area where it has exercised its influence. It is a wonder the situation does not explode. Post-modernism, constructed from individualism, indifference, apathy, disenchantment, resignation, renunciation, laziness, lack of hope, acts as the best ally of neo-liberalism in keeping the population indifferent and passive. Post-modernism compels the poor of the South to accept conditions of life in which the mere use of the word "triumph" should be forbidden so as not to offend their remaining dignity.
How can we accept capitalism's imposition of itself as triumph when the opposite is true?
For now utopia has been made an impossibility and that which moves groups of people is the motivational force of egoism in which homo homini lupus, man as wolf, is the best regulator of human economic relationships.
It is indeed sad that after so much historical effort, there seem to be no new men and women who care for the group with more love than they care for themselves; who seek to produce communal property with as great interest as they bring to producing private property; and who can commit themselves with a freely given love far above considerations of economic remuneration.
We do not recognise that as a triumph but rather as a complete defeat, a defeat not only of society but also of human nature and, ultimately, of God. We think that it has not been shown beyond doubt that there is no salvation outside of capitalism. Rather, we think that it has been shown that it is not yet possible to take that necessary step, that humanity is not yet mature. On the contrary, we must struggle to make that process of maturation possible. The transformation of society and its structures depends also on the heart of humanity reaching maturity.
We do not accept this failure as definitive, because we do not accept the failure of God. We cannot resign ourselves to the ethic of the wolves.
Was the People's Project Really Unfeasible?
Many people say to us: with these global changes, it is becoming clear that the people's project was unfeasible. It failed.
Here too, we are dealing with a deceptive failure. There is a valid parallelism with the conquest of the 16th century: did the historical project of the indigenous people fail? Their culture, their understanding of the world, their utopia, their hope, did these fail? It is a euphemism to say simply that their project failed; what indeed happened was that it was crushed. It is incorrect to say that the indigenous empires of Abya Yala collapsed; they were destroyed. They failed, true, but only in the face of the hostility of the most powerful empire of that time; they were massacred.
Does this mean that the world view and the project of the indigenous people were really unfeasible, impossible, verging on inevitable failure? By no means. We are still rediscovering and seeking to recover their values. Nor have the projects of liberation of the Latin American peoples failed in themselves. Rather, they waged a valiant battle against the greatest empire of the earth, and in that battle, with fewer means, arms, and technology, as was the case with the indigenous people of the 16th century, they were crushed. Neither does what happened during this last part of the 20th century provide evidence that the project of the poor in Latin America was unfeasible, leaning necessarily towards defeat. What happened shows simply that the project did not have the force necessary to confront the sustained and pitiless attack of international capitalism.
The project of the poor is an external factual infeasibility in this hour of history; it is not an intrinsic impossibility in itself, or by its very nature.
It is not that we are not able but rather that we are prevented. It is impossible at this time, but it is possible, it can be done. And if it is not impossible, then there is an obligation to wait actively.
The Dark Night of the Poor A Light from History
A number of times I have already referred to the conquest of the 16th century because I think that that historical reality has a close parallel with the present situation.
The indigenous people also failed in the face of the Europeans in the 16th century. But did they really fail? I want to be clear: from the point of view of Right, of Truth, of a global view of history who really failed, who was ethically mistaken, who was mistaken before God and history?
There have been many dark nights and many historical failures of the poor throughout the course of the centuries. Their liberating project was frequently blocked, suffocated, crushed. Likewise it was said that what they wanted to accomplish was impossible, unfeasible. The recognition of the freedom of the indigenous people seemed unfeasible just as the banning of slavery seemed unfeasible: "without slaves there is no sugar, and without sugar there is no Brazil". The project of the recognition of the dignity and rights of all people was judged unfeasible but continued to live, below the surface, awaiting the hour of realisation and concretisation, when humanity would reach a level of maturity and conscience that would make their realisation possible.
The dark nights of the poor have been many. The hours have been interminable in which they have heard the harangue of oligarchs, aristocrats, the middle class, or preachers insisting that their project of seeking liberty and of becoming historical protagonists was unfeasible. The powerful have exerted great effort in depriving the poor of that which is most valuable: Hope.
But the people retain an historical perspective, and they remember. In that remembrance appears the hopes of the indigenous people who did not yield, of the enslaved Black people who fled to the quilombos, of workers and peasants who became rebellious fighters. What was the night like for the indigenous people when they were conquered? What was the night like for the Black slaves who observed, aghast, the universal complicity (including Christianity's) in the crime of slavery. Can there be a night worse than that? But in every case they kept their hope, and the hope was realised in its day. Will not the history of dark nights teach us their lesson for our own night?
The Failure of the Cross Light from the Bible
The Bible is also marked by the internal rhythm of the hours of successive empires, which dominated by one or another type of violence and destroyed the hopes of the poor. This is a recurring theme in the Bible; it is like the cadence which marks the unmistakable rhythm of biblical history.
Take for example the exile in which Israel sees itself driven out of its own land, in which God seemed to have lost control of the world. The people experienced this as the end point of history, as the total triumph of empire over the poor, over the project of God. But history continued, borne forward on God's shoulders. God continued to choose the small and weak as collaborators in the history of salvation, because it was pleasing to underline the contrast between the littleness of Israel and the powerfulness of empires in order better to emphasise God's choice of people - God's preferential option.
And, in the New Testament, what greater defeat than that of Jesus? What greater end point of history. Everyone gave him up as finished. No one believed in him. They abandoned him - they fled. For those who fled, Jesus offered no explanations but only questions: Why have you abandoned me? Or, why have we come to defeat if we are right, if our Cause, the Kingdom, is what has value? At this point, in the darkness of the failure of the Cross, the project of the Kingdom presented itself to Jesus as unfeasible. The people as agents of history had failed him since he found himself without people, alone, democratically defeated. The empire, along with its ally religion, crushed him by force, they won. In the eyes of the great masses it seemed that empire had triumphed and that Jesus was disqualified from history, especially by the quasi-conspiratorial silence of God. It seemed that history was finished, definitively. But God came to the defense of Jesus, raised him up, and spoke the truth of all of Jesus' preaching about the Kingdom and the Good News for the poor. History had not reached its end.
Faith and Science: Some Theological Considerations
There were many who opted for the people as agents of history only when "science" or dialectical materialism also gave evidence for it. This secular option for the poor as agents was not a matter of faith but rather one of science. And today, when all of those certainties have been destroyed, there are now many who no longer opt for the people as agents of history because the agents that seem scientifically evident are the neo-liberal middle classes.
For us, the experience-of-God, or the faith based option for the poor includes an affirmation of the poor as the agents of history regardless of historical or socio-economic evidence to the contrary. While this affirmation is likewise an affirmation on the theological level, it is nonetheless real and explicit.
The End Point of History and The Failure of God
If it is true that what has happened in this hour is the failure of the poor and the triumph of capitalism, and that this failure is definitive and insuperable, from our faith we would have to conclude that the one who has failed is God. If the triumph of neo-liberalism is the end point of history this would likewise be the end point of God, the denial of God's sovereignty over history. Let us say it clearly and publicly: if this is the end point of history, human nature has failed, history itself has failed. God has failed and God's own project, the Kingdom, would have been shown to be unfeasible.
While the concept of the end point of history is theologically unacceptable to most Christians, there is a hidden or unconscious acceptance of this end point when Christians accept as fact the triumph of capitalism as something unsurpassable. Those who accept that progress can take place only in the framework of neo-liberal reform participate in a blasphemy against God, in so far as they deny God's Kingdom and God's sovereignty over history. Likewise, they join in blasphemy against the poor when, in speaking of the triumph of capitalism, they resign the poor to being mere objects, rather than the agents of history.
What Remains of the Option for the Poor?
God remains firm in the option for the poor. And the poor, for the present, are more numerous and poorer. Likewise, the Gospel remains the Good News for them and for all of us who share in the hope and in the Cause for the preferential option.
There remains, therefore, the same option for the poor as always, immutable and eternal.
Neo-liberalism is diametrically opposed to the preferential option and is therefore a sin, even if it is now the only practical possibility for the present. Christians can live in its presence only as in exile, as in a state of missionary evangelisation and prophecy, with the permanent obsession of not accommodating ourselves to this world.
Ref: Ladoc, - Vol. XXV Nov./Dec. 1994.