Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hélder Câmara and Liberation Theology 101: Where? When? Why? Who?

I'm grateful to DePaul University Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology (CWCIT) for a profoundly informative conference on Hélder Câmara these past several days.

I went hoping to learn a little more about "liberation theology" -- the events were entitled "The Sources and Future of Liberation Theology: The Legacy of Dom Hélder Câmara."

I came away something even better -- inspiration to think about how the work of popular resistance in Brazil in the 20th century can inform the work we are trying to do for justice in the U.S. in the 21st century.

Then and now (Rio, Chicago)

I learned that Dom Hélder -- someone I had never heard of before -- was an extremely well-known figure -- in Catholicism, in Latin American affairs, in the peace and justice movement. He is best known for his remark, ""When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."  He came to be known as the "archbishop of the favelas [slums]."

Hélder Câmara and community member
(From "A atualidade de D. Helder Câmara, 50 anos
depois, e as convergências com o papa Francisco"
He was thoroughly involved in the institutional life of the Church, with a close friendship with Pope Paul VI, and the height of his activism co-evolved with the period of renewal of thought known as Vatican II -- which happened to coincide with the period of great unrest in his home country of Brazil.

His focus was on the structures that cause suffering. By insisting that the structural failings of our society need to be spoken openly about, and that failed structures need to be changed, Dom Hélder identified a role for the Church that has many overlaps with other socially provocative and politically "dangerous" ways of being in the world.

This helped me recognize a unity between the mission that Dom Hélder defined for the Church and one that continues for us today, in places like Chicago -- a unity in the challenges (e.g. poverty, discrimination) that we are seeking to address, the means (e.g. popular mobilization), and the obstacles we must overcome (e.g. repression).

This also has me thinking about a kind of "liberation theology dance" (or capoeira?) in which the Church embraces its similarities to other movements -- and shared opposition to certain antagonists -- and gains energy and leverage from that embrace, while still cherishing its own particular point of view and way of working for liberation.

How deep does this go? ("Missa dos Quilombos")

Dom Hélder, I learned, went from serving at the center of Church power in Brazil -- in Rio de Janeiro -- to serving in the northeast city of Recife. The new assignment was part banishment, part liberation. It certainly allowed Dom Hélder to go "all in" in his advocacy on behalf of those still waiting for justice.

At the conference we were told about how Dom Hélder elected to live in Recife not in the usual archbishop's residence, but in a small room behind the sanctuary at the Iglesia de las Fronteras [Church of the Frontier].

At the DePaul conference, Prof. Cathy Ann Elias shared some of her research on the mass  commissioned by Dom Hélder -- "Missa dos Quilombos."

"Missa dos Quilombos" asked for forgiveness and sought healing for the legacy of slavery in Brazil. Quilombo is a word denoting communities of formerly enslaved (and otherwise oppressed) people in Brazil, and refers to a rich history of resistance and liberation from about 1600 onward.

A 2011 celebration of Missa dos Quilombos
(Source: afrokut)

A highlight of Prof. Elias' presentation was listening to a recording of Dom Hélder give the invocation for the "Missa dos Quilombos" on November 20, 1981 at an outdoor mass for thousands in Recife. (Prof. Elias has graciously agreed to allow me to share her translation of the invocation.)

Here are several versions on Youtube:

Missa dos Quilombos-remembered

I found this description of that celebration by someone who was there:

"At that time, the Brazil people were demanding amnesty for political prisoners and exiles. We wanted our lives and freedom of expression back. Dom Helder celebrated the Quilombo Mass. He said: "Mariama [Mother Mary], we aren't here to ask that today's slaves be tomorrow's slave masters. Enough of slaves! Enough of masters! We want liberty!" The beating of the drums was overpowering, they exploded like the screams of our souls! I was there. A lot of fire, torches, drumming (batuque). It was held in the tricolor soccer stadiumâ - in those days religious retreats were in stadiums. The cultural and political climate of the time required the entire population- all the sectors, cultural, religious, political. The people had had enough of that oppression, that situation. That was a very educational time for everyone, for me. Our group had to use the religious space to get together, to converse. We couldn't meet in the public squares because the police would disperse us. The only place we had in which to talk, to build relationships was inside the Catholic Church."

(See In The Shadow of Freire: Popular Educators and Literacy in Northeast Brazil by Peter Lownds, UCLA dissertation, 2005)

It made me think about the renewed civil rights movement in the U.S. today - recognizing the existence of a "New Jim Crow," a condition of mass incarceration and a shocking number of police shootings of black men, and the need for the Church to commit itself to anti-racism.

Who is part of this? (Church, people, arts)

As I listened to some excerpts of the music, I couldn't help thinking back to the 1970s, when, as a high school student in New Jersey, I participated as a trumpeter and guitarist in jazz and folk services at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Summit. Perhaps it is the effort in these popular liturgies to stretch for the elements of song -- canção -- that really open people's hearts that feels so important. "Yes, that was good," I said to myself.

Milton Nascimento, piano, Grammys
(Source: "Milton Nascimento homenageia
Dom Helder em Belo Horizonte"
The music for the "Missa dos Quilombos" was composed by the phenomenal Brazilian composer and performer, Milton Nascimento. (Nascimento happens to be familiar to me for his hauntingly beautiful song "Anima" -- with lyrics that deserve a blog post all their own. )

So, on the one hand, it is listening to this invocation -- listen to the waves of applause and cheering, and the ethereal chord progressions that seem to lift us to another level, and the read the words in Prof. Elias translation -- that is renewing in me the belief that liturgy and liturgical music is an essential form of creative resistance.

On the other hand, even beyond the thought and oratory of a great priest, it is the music-making that has be enthused about liturgy as the work of the people. There is work for all of us to do.

More broadly, this had me thinking about the need in our movements of resistance for an openness to a much greater diversity of approaches. We need to recognize that there are an enormous number of tools at our disposal, and gifted people who are trying to wield them for peace and justice, and there are thousands of ways for all of us to support these efforts.

Related posts

God's old covenant with his people -- the Old Testament -- looked like this: "Here's the deal: You be loyal to me, and I'll make sure the earth produces enough food for you." Jesus came along to say: "Here's the new deal: God loves you enough that there's enough for everybody, AND he's given you what you need to figure out how to share it." (Dios nos ama suficiente y hay suficiente para todos, y el nos hay dado lo que necesitamos pero nuestros tenemos que encontratr la manera de compartirio.) That is the new covenant -- the New Testament.

(See Occupy Food Justice!)

A campaign exists to bring about a democratically-elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) in Chicago. The campaign would involve the people in electing the watchers of the police, and put the ultimate control of (and responsibility for) the police in the hands of the citizens of Chicago.

(See Does a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) need to be part of a "new plan of Chicago"? )

Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )

"Invocation to Mariama" by D. Hélder Câmara
(translation by: Prof. Cathy Ann Elias, DePaul University)

Mariama, Our Lady, Mother of Christ and Mother of men!
Mariama, Mother of men of all races, of all colors, from all corners of the earth.
Ask your Son that this celebration not end here; it will be beautiful to experience the final march.
But it is important, Mariama, that the Church of thy Son not just say the words, not remain a cheering spectator.
It is not enough to ask forgiveness for the errors of yesterday.
We have to take the right steps today, regardless of what they will say.
Of course, they’ll say that it is politics, that it is subversion. It is the Gospel of Christ, Mariama.
Of course, we will not be tolerated.
Mariama, dear Mother, the problems of black people end up being connected to all great human problems.
Connected to all absurd things perpetrated against humanity, connected to all injustice and oppression.
Mariama, let it stop, really stop, the accursed production of weapons. What the world must produce is Peace.
Enough of all injustice!
Enough of having some who do not know what to do with all their land, and millions without a handful of land to live on.
Enough of some having to vomit to eat more and 50 million starving in a single year.
Enough of some having corporations spreading over the whole world, and millions not having a corner where they can earn their daily bread.
Mariama, Our Lady, dear Mother, no need to go as far as in your hymn.
No need for the rich to leave empty-handed, and the poor with their hands full. Neither poor nor rich.
Say no to today’s slave becoming tomorrow’s slave-master. Enough of slaves. A world without masters and without slaves. A world of brothers.
Brothers, not only in word, not false brothers. Brothers in truth, Mariama.