Reflecting on Liberation Theology during a Global Pandemic

Over the past 15 months, most of the world has been radically transformed by COVID-19, which has killed more than 3.7 million people worldwide.  The pandemic has uncovered the inequalities inherent in current systems in the United States and throughout the world.  As we reflect on these situations, as people of faith, we are looking at what theologies are available to us to help process the framework that exacerbated so much of the suffering resulting from the pandemic.  I think severe reflection and revising of Liberation Theologies like the one developed by Gustavo Gutierrez can provide us key hallmarks for creating a more empathic and responsive church.

In 1971 Peruvian Catholic Scholar and Priest Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote “A Theology of Liberation.”  This groundbreaking work helped many rekindle the original message of Jesus Christ in America through its focus on the impoverished. Gutiérrez developed his theology as an option for the poor in response to the rampant suffering and poverty.  Theology proposes a concrete way to dismantle systems of oppression and injustice. He challenged the concepts brought by European invaders who led the Catholic Church to convert the “pagans” or to kill them. Gutiérrez wrote, “the salvation of the pagans was raised at the time of ‘discovery of peoples’ belonging to other religions and living in areas far from those where the Church has been traditionally rooted.” 

Gutiérrez uncovers the church’s role as a regular part of the levers of oppression, complicit with both colonizers and the era of independent republics throughout the Continent. This analysis focuses his attention on how systematic oppression and injustice work to keep the native population and their descendants in poverty.

To make this theological and logical connection, Gutiérrez exposes a critical theological reflection on Christian praxis. “Only authentic solidarity with the poor and a genuine protest against the poverty of our time can provide the concrete, vital context necessary for a theological discussion of poverty.”

To understand his theological discussion and the option for the poor, we must consider the solidarity and protest he urges. In Gutiérrez’s work, he provides precise definitions of the words he uses to ensure no ambiguity. He wrote, “poverty is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity; therefore, contrary to the will of God,” spiritual poverty is an attitude of openness to God and spiritual childhood; moreover, “poverty as a commitment of solidarity and protest.” 

For Gutiérrez, poverty is a scandalous condition because it shows society’s systematic problems and values. Through exclusionary laws, individuals are not permitted to leave the state of poverty, and that is injustice; this system should be antithetical to followers of Christ. However, Gutiérrez provides an option for the individual and society, a real commitment to solidarity with the impoverished population. Gutiérrez calls the preferential option for the poor as the decision for us to respond to the system that provides us with privileges, money, opportunities, and supremacy.  Instead, we have the choice to be on the side that God is concerned for. 

As groundbreaking as his text was in 1971, unfortunately, theology does have shortcomings. Specifically, Gutiérrez does not address or reflects on the primary individuals who live impoverished conditions – women and children. He fails to indicate that most oppressed and most vulnerable individuals seem to find no voice in his work. This oversight is likely due to him being a product of his time but is still a significant oversight. 

It is scandalous to know that millions of individuals, even working more than 40 hours a week, get a salary that is not enough to live a decent life. Gutiérrez’s writings are about scandalous conditions in America continental territories (Abya Yala) and in all societies where the church and the rich are in power while the poor are marginalized. This contrasts with Jesus’ message in which the marginalized and the poor are at the center. 

During the current global COVID-19 pandemic, the impoverished and those living on the margins of society are more profoundly seen. Individuals who work long hours can barely survive, while on the other hand, rich people make more money today by taking advantage of people’s desperation. Can we say that the system is working for those in need? Suppose we continue to accept systems that maintain the status of a few due to the oppression of others. If we opt for the comfort of the few and at the expense of all we know we are doing wrong, it shows we are far from understanding liberation. Working for equality and inclusion needs to be one of our priorities. 

Is the church ready to believe and practice liberation theology?

Reconocer el trauma para desmantelar el racismo

El trauma es una palabra que viene del griego que significa herida, es una ruptura que lastima y es aterradora al mismo tiempo porque contiene los momentos y experiencias dolorosas que deseamos olvidar. La forma en que las personas interactúan y lidian con el trauma causado por la discriminación, la brutalidad policial y el racismo es única para cada persona, pero va generando en la comunidad un dolor profundo. 

Nuestro cuerpo, así como nuestro comportamiento muestra nuestras profundas heridas. Sin embargo, es necesario sentarse con el pasado y lidiar con nuestros traumas para superar estos recuerdos dolorosos que nos lleven a la curación y la liberación.

A partir del trabajo de investigación de Heijmans publicado en la Academia Nacional de Ciencia, es bien sabido que los eventos traumáticos pueden tener efectos duraderos en el epigenoma. Esencialmente, el impacto del trauma pasado continúa en nuestro ADN y puede manifestarse en las generaciones futuras.

El especialista en trauma Resmaa Menakem un abolicionista somático señala que “las respuestas al trauma nunca son razonables. Son protectoras y reflexivas.” El desafío que tenemos por delante es alcanzar la curación de esta generación. Para aquellos que sus familias han sufrido siglos de opresión, colonización, esclavitud, violación, abuso y otros tratamientos inhumanos el trauma continua vigente.

Como seres humanos tenemos la capacidad de desarrollar nuevas habilidades para sobre llevar el dolor, especialmente para la supervivencia, pero eso no hace que desaparezca el dolor, sino que continua con nosotros cada dia. 

¿Cómo podemos hacer el camino para sanar nuestra mente y cuerpo de la discriminación y racismo por el color de nuestra piel y etnicidad?

Nuestro cuerpo experimenta dolor y sufrimiento, incluso nuestro tono de voz y las contorsiones del cuerpo, reflejan cómo procesamos y sentimos las cosas en el interior. Esas son las marcas psicológicas que se convierten en parte de las marcas físicas que llevamos en nuestro cuerpo. Sabemos que no es fácil manejar esas emociones que provienen de lo más profundo de nuestro ser por lo cual necesitamos de especialistas en trauma así como apoyo familiar y de la comunidad.Conocer nuestra historia familiar nos llevará a comprender el dolor causado por un pasado traumático y asumir el presente con mayor fortaleza. Sabemos bien que como seres humanos tenemos la capacidad de curar.

La curación no es fácil, pero podemos tomar de la resistencia grandes lecciones, somos producto de una colonización tan desigual y brutal que nuestra mera existencia es un ejemplo de vida y esperanza. La resiliencia nos ayuda a sostenernos y podemos usarla para desarrollar y fortalecer herramientas en las cuales podamos enfrentar nuestro dolor y traumas pasados. Para lograr esta curación, debemos comenzar a hablar más libremente sobre ellos. 

Para los descendientes de la población originaria en el continente, nuestro trauma por el despojo de nuestra tierra, el trauma de la violación, abusados y esclavizados sistemáticamente aún persiste, la pérdida de la cultura, el idioma impacta incluso nuestra propia identidad. El dolor de ser considerados “animales” “indios sin alma” por la iglesia cristiana por siglos sigue presente. La descolonización es un trabajo en proceso necesario y nos trae preguntas desafiantes ¿Cómo podemos procesar el trauma generacional cuando seguimos siendo discriminados?

Reconocer el trauma es necesario para juntos desmantelar el racismo que tanto daño a causado y sigue causando a las nuevas generaciones ya que ataca nuestra identidad, nuestro ser y existencia. Reconocer nuestros miedos y nuestras historias familiares nos dará fortaleza para enfrentar con valentía un sistema opresivo y construir uno de liberación.

Recognize Trauma…Dismantle Racism

Trauma is a loaded word and scary at the same time because it obscures pains from the past that we wish to forget. However, despite our efforts to forget and move on, history continues to follow us in our lived experiences. How people interact and deal with the trauma is unique for each person. Our bodies and psyches reveal who we are, and our behavior shows our deep wounds. When these wounds are systemic across entire groups of people due to discrimination, police brutality, and racism, it is necessary to deal with the trauma and triggers on both personal and communal levels. Coming to grips with this type of trauma is to sit with the past and mentally to reflect and exercise these painful memories for healing, liberation, and ultimately dismantling racism. 

From the research work of Heijmans et al. published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, it has been shown that traumatic events from famine to war can lead to lasting effects on the epigenome. Essentially the impact of past trauma continues in our DNA and can be manifested in future generations. 

Trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem, a somatic abolitionist, notes that “trauma responses are never reasonable. They are protective and reflexive.” Healing begins by finding the roots of these traumas and seeking first to understand and begin to process instead of burying away the past.

For native American descendants in the continent, our collective trauma of being disposed of our land, our grandparents systematically raped, abused, and enslaved still lingers. The loss of culture, identity, and language cause trauma to this day, further heightened by misappropriation of imagery and names in racist tropes and mascots. From a theological perspective, the pain of being considered “animals” and “Indians without souls” by the Christian Church is still present. How can we process our generational trauma when European descendants in America do not see the native people as part of society? 

The challenge we are faced in the country with white supremacy ideology rules and attacks on African Americans has a long history of brutal violence. Still, today, as people of color, we demand as individuals and collectively to embrace opportunities to remember the suffering and heal the country for all their crimes.

How can we make the pathway to healing our hearts and bodies from suffer discrimination, abuse, and oppression?

Dismantling racism is a step towards that, seeking healing, although it is a painful process. It is not easy to handle those emotions that come from the inner depths of our being. We develop resilience by learning and nature, and we can use it to develop and strengthen to confront our pain and past traumas. To achieve this healing, we must begin to speak more freely about them. For those who have suffered centuries of oppression, colonization, slavery, rape, abuse, and other inhume treatment from white supremacy ideologies, it is not easy to leave it, but we can transform the rage and pain into societal changes. Moreover, our body has that capacity as well; it is a connection between body and mind that leads us to develop new abilities, especially that of survivorship. On a communal level, there is a need for broader society to listen, accept and respond to individuals that their ancestors may have harmed.

Knowing our family history will lead us to understand the painful scars on our psyche, and that past becomes part of the physical marks that we carry on our body. Healing is not easy. Somehow, we are the product of colonization so unequal and so brutal that our sheer existence is an example of life and hope. 

Dismantling racism is an invitation to consider God amid challenging history and difficult conversations. For the Christian message for healing – salvation is not an abstract concept; it is a state of being with deliverance. Let us begin this journey towards healing together, in the full knowledge that our faith will lead us to recover. 

We start this process by first allowing ourselves empathy, grace, and freedom to go to our inner selves and acknowledge our fears and our stories. Second in the process is to reconnect with our ancestors, grandmothers, and elders. We must listen to their stories, which is our story, and in this way, we can better understand the present. By naming our pain and trauma, we become stronger.

Violencia policial y asesinato de Adam Toledo

Los Estados Unidos tienen una larga historia de violencia policial y brutalidad hacia personas de color. Debemos recordar que el actual sistema policial está vinculado a las patrullas organizadas por europeos que migraron a Estados Unidos y que ejercieron control sobre los africanos y nativo americanos forzados a trabajar en condiciones inhumanas y en esclavitud durante siglos. 

En el período colonial, un hombre blanco pobre a menudo no tenía la riqueza para esclavizar a otros, pero se unía al servicio en las Patrullas que controlaban y restringían el movimiento de los que eran considerados inferiores. A pesar de la abolición de la esclavitud hace más de 160 años, el legado y los impactos todavía están con nosotros hoy en día. Esta violencia policial se ha convertido en otras formas de terror contra las personas de color. 

El 29 de marzo, Adam Toledo, un estudiante de séptimo grado de 13 años de la escuela Primaria Gary, que vivía en La Villita de Chicago, se convirtió en una de las personas más jóvenes asesinadas de la ciudad. Un oficial de policía de Chicago mató a Adam sustentando que el adolescente tenia un arma. Adam no solo era “latino” – etiqueta que colocan a toda persona con nombre y apellido en idioma español-, sino que Adam además, era un joven nativo americano descendiente, posición que se invisibiliza y denigra, en una sociedad que solo valora a los europeos descendientes, como legado colonial. 

Según las imágenes registradas en el video de la cámara corporal del oficial, se observa al policía cuando le grita repetidamente al joven Toledo: “¡Policía! ¡Detente! ¡Para ahora mismo! ¡Manos! ¡Manos! ¡Muéstrame tus manos!”. Adam Toledo: se da la vuelta y levanta las manos. 

Es allí cuando el oficial Eric Stillman, de 34 años, dispara su arma y asesina a Adam, 20 segundos después de salir de su patrulla. El mismo video también muestra cuando la oficial estira las piernas de Adam, levantándole la camisa para comenzar a buscar un arma. Pero ¿por qué buscar un arma, si el oficial afirma que realizó el disparo al ver un arma en las manos de Adam? 

El asesinato de Adam refleja la realidad de los nativos americanos y visibiliza la verdad de que en la “comunidad latina”, la piel más morena y los descendientes nativos están excluidos y tienen más probabilidades de sufrir tiroteos y violencia relacionados con la policía. El año pasado, Andrés Guardado, de 18 años, murió luego de recibir cinco disparos en la espalda por parte de la policía en California; Carlos López, de 27 años, murió bajo custodia policial en Tucson.

Las manifestaciones en los Estados Unidos denuncian la brutalidad policial y exigen que los presupuestos de la policía se destinen a programas comunitarios. “No necesitamos oficiales enojados. Necesitamos trabajadores sociales y psicólogos que nos ayuden a superar el trauma social”, es la petición de las comunidades cansadas de la violencia sancionada por el Estado. Los agentes de policía reciben entrenamiento y equipo militar para responder a una situación de guerra y no asegurar ni proteger a las comunidades en las que vivimos. 

Estados Unidos tiene un problema de racismo normalizado y un profundo complejo de superioridad blanca. Muchos líderes eclesiásticos y políticos blancos afirman: “Esto no es lo que somos”; en respuesta a cada tiroteo policial o un acto de supremacía blanca. Desafortunadamente, la brutalidad policial es un fiel reflejo de quiénes somos como país. 

Estos atroces asesinatos son el resultado de una larga historia de vigilancia, control y destrucción de las vidas de nativos americanos y descendientes africanos. Hasta que responsabilicemos a todos los individuos que con traje policial se encubren para cometer asesinatos de odio y racismo, nunca podremos cambiar el rol de la policía que desde sus inicios tiene en su centro mantener la ideología de la supremacía blanca y terror en la comunidad.

Police Brutality and the Murder of Adam Toledo

The United States has been traumatized by a long history of police violence and brutality against non-European descendants for decades. We need to remember that the country’s creation is linked to Slave Patrols that exerted control over enslaved Africans and Native Americans for centuries. In the colonial period, a poor white man often did not have the wealth to enslave others but joined into a white supremacist through service on Slave Patrols.  Despite abolishing slavery over 160 years ago, the legacy and impacts are still with us today and have only evolved into other forms of terror against non-white people. 

On March 29, Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Gary Elementary School who lived in Chicago’s Little Village, became one of the youngest people killed on the city’s West Side.  A Chicago Police officer killed Adam while he was running away. Adam was not only Latino; but he was a native American descendant who once again is a victim of police brutality. 

The officer repeatedly shouts at Toledo on the video from the body camera, “Police! Stop! Stop right now! Hands! Hands! Show me your hands!”. Adam Toledo – turns around and raises his hands. The white police officer fires his weapon and murders Adam – 20 seconds after exiting his squad car.

Officer Eric Stillman, 34 years old, fired the fatal shot officer, heard on the body camera asking for an ambulance. The video also shows the officer straightening Toledo’s legs, raising his shirt to start searching for a gun. But why looking for a gun, he claims later was in Adam’s hands?

Adam’s killing reflects Native American’s reality and visibilize the truth that in the “Latin community,” the browner skin and native descendants are excluded and are more likely than Euro-Americans to experience police-related shootings and violence. Just last year, Andres Guardado, 18, died after being shot five times in the back by law enforcement in California; Carlos Ingram Lopez, 27, died in police custody in Tucson.

Demonstrations across the US denounce police brutality and demand that the police budgets are diverted to community programs that aid the community. “We don’t need angry officers. We need social workers,” is the request from communities tired of state-sanctioned violence.  Police officers receive military training and equipment to respond to a war situation and not secure and protect the communities in which we live.

The United States has a problem of racism and white superiority complex. Many white church leaders and politicians claim, “This is not who we are;” whenever there is a police shooting or an act of white supremacy. Unfortunately, police brutality is an accurate reflection of who we are as a country.

These heinous murders are the outcome of a long history of policing, controlling, and destroying the bodies and lives of African and Native American descendants. Until we hold all individuals who murder others accountable, we will never be able to change the culture of hate in the country.

Uncovering Indigenous Identities in the Latin American Community

As a result of a long European colonization process, indigenous people and their descendants in America have been forced to erase their heritage, language, and culture. Indigenous people have been denied self-identification and self-determination, first by Spanish colonizers and then under English/ United States rules. 

Throughout the American continent, the indigenous cultures shared a vibrant trade and development from the Andes through to the Rockies. However, the encounter in 1492 with European invaders forever changed their ways of living. The continent was inhabitant by over 100 million people living in different nations and communities. The Europeans forced indigenous populations to change their languages, customs, and religions – through forced assimilation into what was considered “Western Christian Culture.”  The colonizers saw an opportunity for wealth, growth, and possession in the “new world”; for the native population, the result was genocide, slavery, rape, and trans-generational oppression. In history akin to magical realism, the entire indigenous population transformed into “Latin Americans” rather than Native Americans. 

In the United States, which practiced its distinct form of white normative supremacy of “Manifest Destiny,” the government decided westward expansion was God-ordained.  The expansion west came after the war with Mexico and the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which led to most of the West’s addition, including Arizona, California, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas. However, this acquired land was not empty, but the native population who lived under Spanish rules for over 300 years were incorporated.  

The United States forced another round of assimilation. Based on census records, government officials perpetuated one of the most insidious acts of disappearance through a “paper genocide,” native were labeled as black, mulatos, mustee, or colored to justify slavery and deny land claims. This classification created an administrative archive of false documents to support the disappearance of the native population and appropriation of the land, and the practice continues until this day.

According to the United States Census Bureau, one in five individuals is identified as “Latino,” almost 60 million. The question remains: How an amalgamation of different indigenous groups conquered by Europeans develops into one pan-ethnic group? In the United States, government, academics, and industry designed the various labels to create a commercial and political voting block for disparate groups to increase governmental and economic power.  The forced labeling as “Hispanic” or “Latino” fuels conversations about identity among people who trace their heritage to the region called “Latin America” or Spain – Europe. Breaking down these terms can help to understand all these labels.  

Hispanic: Descendant of Spanish or Spaniards’ people 

Latin: A person who speaks a language derived from Latin

Spanish: A language and person from Spain

In the last years, the different labels have become synonymous with economic issues and crime. “Latinos” work in construction and landscaping, clean houses, and likely crossed the border without “authorization aka illegal.” Similar to the colonial time when the Europeans saw indigenous- native Americans as uncivilized and wild people, their descendants are treated in the same way -through being detained, raped, or killed on the southern border. 

Today, more than ever, young generations are looking back to their family history to find out more about their native heritage and start a process of decolonization. For many “Latinos,” identifying as descendants of native Americans is more accurate. Labels such as Hispanics, Latin, and Latinx hide and attack those on the path towards their real identity and decolonizing oppressive labels.  

To start this process, we must considerer the first step toward decolonization:

  • Recognize that even after five centuries of colonization, Native Americans and their descendants have the right to self-identification and recognized where our ancestors lived and worshiped. 
  • We need to understand that the language we speak today and the names and last names we have are colonization results. Spanish or English is not our ethnicity but a reflection of assimilation.
  • Lastly, we need to be ready for the tough conversations that set the record right regarding land theft, slavery, physical and paper genocide.

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Yenny Delgado-Qullaw

Social psychologist and contextual theologian. She writes about the intersections between faith, ethnicity and politics. Twitter @Publicayenny