Between Religión and Revolution...
As Nicaraguans from all sectors of society celebrated ten years of revolution this July, the religious community was no exception. Christians added their voices with two quite different yet complementary events: a week-long conference examining the role of religion in Nicaragua today, and an all-night vigil held by base-level Christians. Adding an important international dimension, Nicaragua also hosted the VIII Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Solidarity Meeting on July 23-30. It was attended by 350 delegates from Christian organizations in 26 countries.
A theological saluteThe fate of Christian base communities (CEBs) and the so-called Church of the Poor were among the topics discussed at the conference "Nicaragua: A Week of Theology After 10 Years of Revolution," sponsored by the Antonio Valdivieso Ecumenical Center (CAV) July 10-14. The event also marked the 10th anniversary of the founding of the center (named after a 16th century bishop who was an advocate for indigenous rights in Nicaragua) as a place for religious reflection and development projects in the new Nicaragua. Besides hearing presentations by clergy, theologians and social scientists, participants visited a CEB in Managua's Barrio Larreynaga and were treated to a reading by Father Ernesto Cardenal from his latest poem titled "Cánticos Cósmicos."
As a context for the discussions, Minister of the Presidency René Núñez analyzed the current political and economic situation and laid out three strategies for defending the achievements of the revolution: internal political dialogue guided by economic considerations, economic concertation guided by political considerations, and the continued advancement of revolutionary programs. In the question and answer segment, CAV Director Father Uriel Molina proposed that a group of religious leaders from international church organizations spend two months observing the electoral process.
Father Juan Hernández Pico, of the Central American Historical Institute (IHCA), followed with theological reflections on Religión and revolution in Nicaragua.* He stressed that the "bursting into history of great masses of people" who are both "believers and oppressed" has not been accompanied by a loss of religious identity. In Nicaragua, the Christian faith of the people has rather been at the heart of the revolutionary project. While the Church as an institution is not directly involved, both the CEBs and centers for theological reflection such as CAV and IHCA have taken on the task of constructing "new men and women within the revolutionary process and critical support for this process at diverse levels."
*Published as "Religión y Revolución en Nicaragua" in Cuadernos de Sociología. Managua, Nicaragua: Universidad Centroamericano. Nos. 9-10, January-June 1989, pp. 69-90.
The Church hierarchy has been more tolerant of charismatic lay movements that look to rewards in the afterlife (which also tend to be anti-Sandinista), while clashing with the more progressive current that would challenge the earthly status quo. Father Pico outlined three reasons for this conflict based on the institutional Church's fears: neo-Christian values adopted by the revolution threaten the loss of the Church's role; the dialogue between Marxism and Christianity threatens to place a materialist emphasis on the saving of bodies rather than souls; and secular Sandinista values threaten to infiltrate the Church.
Several panels emphasized the status of women in Nicaragua, including one by the Women's Ecumenical Movement on abuse. Some conclusions were that while legal rights and recourse and economic opportunity for women with middle-class backgrounds are increasing, the revolution has a ways to go in curbing women's physical and psychological abuse by men. Changing hundreds of years of machista culture in Nicaragua will require not only a change of social and legal structures, but a change in basic perceptions. Christian groups as well as women's groups need to push this project to the front of the revolution's social agenda and participate in an educational process.
In a discussion of morals and revolution, the problem of relations between the sexes and double standards figured prominently. Writer Sofía Montenegro, citing the statistic that 80% of Nicaraguan women are abused, stated that the revolutionary "new man engaged in political praxis" must start in his own home.
The Church of the PoorOne of the livelier discussions was "The Future of the Church of the Poor." Father Arnaldo Zenteno, an active leader in the Christian base community movement, emphasized that its future rested in the poor themselves. To survive, the Church of the poor had several tasks: maintain links to poor people's movements, personify the poor directly in the Church, continue to be insurrectional and prophetic, emphasize ecumenism and integrate youth, mainly through the integration in practice of Marxism and Christianity.
Renowned Chilean theologian Pablo Richard agreed, adding that "the Church of the Poor does not represent a power alternative in the interior of the Catholic Church," but a new model of Church that is necessary whenever there is a new historical situation. This occurred when Catholicism became the official Religion of the Roman Empire, as well as after the Protestant Reformation, and needs to occur now that poor people are becoming the dominant force in history: "There are new historical subjects, the people of the Third World who are decolonizing, who are energizing themselves with a new culture, with a new vision of Religión and God...." He added, however, that the traditional Church has the historical alternative of changing to incorporate the Church of the poor and the peoples of the Third World, or disappearing.
This change, Richard argued, will not come through direct confrontation with the Vatican, a tactic that has historically proven self-defeating, but "in building where our strength is: in the people who have assumed an historical project in popular movements, such as campesinos, Afro-Americans, women, indigenous peoples." This strategy was contested by Father Ubaldo Gervasoni, a priest working in the northern Nicaraguan war zone of Waslala who has ignored orders by his bishop to leave Nicaragua after making militant statements. He believes that confrontation is necessary to defend against the disappearance of progressive priests from poor areas. Pablo Richard and other speakers maintained that the Church of the Poor does not yet have sufficient institutional power to challenge the Vatican, although letters of protest and solidarity campaigns can have minimal influence.
Ecumenism was a recurrent note throughout the week so it was fitting that it ended with an ecumenical religious service. This included the reading of poetry and excerpts from Exodus, music from the misa campesina by Norma Gadea and the Galo Family, and a sharing of corn-based chicha and corn cakes rather than a communion of bread and wine.
A popular celebrationEven though it took place in the stadium of the University of Central America, the vigil held by the National Permanent Committee of Christian base communities (CNP) on July 8 had a popular rather than intellectual flavor. Speakers did not hesitate to call the event a salute to the 10th anniversary of the Sandinista Popular Revolution. The symbol for the event was a red and black heart (the Sandinista symbol for the 10th anniversary) carrying a dove inside and a wooden cross behind it.
Christian base communities have been active in Nicaragua for the past 23 years. They are made up of small groups of lay people, usually Catholics, who use Bible readings as a point of departure for reflecting on immediate social conditions, raising their consciousness, criticizing these conditions and taking steps to change them. As such, these communities were active in the years leading up to the revolution, organizing boycotts and hunger strikes, providing support and sanctuary for the Sandinista guerrillas and sometimes taking up arms to join the struggle. They have since integrated themselves into the revolutionary process by aiding in reconstruction, health and education in their own neighborhoods.
Several thousand workers and peasants, representing CEBs from all parts of the country, filled the stadium to capacity. They came in trucks and buses, often announcing their arrival with chants, songs or marching bands. Some banners displayed their origin: Palacagüina, RIo San Juan, Jinotega, Masaya, different neighborhoods of Managua. Others had slogans such as: God is with us/10 years of life/A future of hope.
Each region presented a cultural event featuring music, folk dance or theater. One play depicted a contra attack on a community in which militiaman David topples contra Goliath. This was followed by a procession that passed through the barrios of 14 de Junio and Riguero, both of which have active CEBs.
Around midnight a Mass was co-celebrated by 18 priests and ministers as well as retired bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico, Sergio Méndez Arceo. People were invited to give testimonials which were often moving accounts of their experience of religious faith and the revolution. Offerings given at the altar consisted of typical products and crafts from each region: ceramics and sculpture, a hammock, a machete, coffee, a basket of corn. The Mass ended with prayers for the survival of the revolutionary process and the vigil continued with a popular fiesta until five in the morning.