My Study of Liberation Theology in Brazil (10th in a series on critical thinking)

Dom Helder

My study in Brazil initiated a profound change in my understanding of critical thinking. It led me to see that liberation theology itself amounted to a Global South version of that discipline. However, the critical thinking I encountered in Brazil didn’t concern itself with abstract dilemmas and logical fallacies. Instead the Brazilian version addressed problems confronted in the very lives of its protagonists – hunger, poverty, dictatorships, imprisonment, torture, police raids, and the reasons for widespread hunger in an extremely rich and rather thinly populated country.

Neither did critical thinking in Brazil worry about neutrality and balance or with giving equal time to capitalists and their working class opponents. In the minds of its teachers, those problems had long since been settled. After all, in 1964, defenders of capitalism had overthrown Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1960s that had been the case throughout the region. In Brazil it meant that by 1984 the country had completed its second decade of a military dictatorship fully supported by the United States. Over those years, vast numbers of priests and nuns, union organizers, university professors, social workers, lawyers, and simple peasants had been routinely imprisoned, tortured and often murdered. Their crimes?  They had demanded land reform, higher wages, health care, education, freedom of speech, and ability to speak freely and organize. No, capitalism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had clearly shown itself to be the enemy of the people.

All of that became very clear for me when, to begin with, I connected with the legendary Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire’s methodology for teaching literacy had exercised strong influence on liberation theology, and especially on “Base Christian Communities” (BCCs) which following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) proliferated throughout the country. My intention was to research those communities as part of my sabbatical assignment.

At the same time, my wife, Peggy was working on her doctoral dissertation on Freire’s work. So she worked in his center every day and every week with literacy teachers implementing his method in Sao Paulo’s favelas. On our fifth wedding anniversary, we had supper with Paulo and his wife, Elsa, in their apartment. Afterwards, he read aloud Peggy’s latest dissertation chapter. I remember him pausing at one point after reading a quotation from his own Education for Critical Consciousness; he said, “Right now I am loving these words!” He was wonderful.

While in Recife, our whole family twice visited Dom Helder Camara, the famous “Red Archbishop” of that huge city in the northern part of the country. I phoned his office to set up the appointment. He answered the phone himself!

Considered a saint even before his death in 1999, Dom Helder was also called the “Archbishop of the Poor.” He once famously observed “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” With those words, this patron of liberation theology expressed the central question of critical thinking in the Global South: Why are people so poor in the midst of so much abundance?

I informed Dom Helder of my intention to experience liberation theology’s BCCs in Recife. That was during our first visit in his office, while he held our four-year-old daughter, Maggie, in his lap. (I later told her she had been embraced by a saint!) I asked the archbishop to share his thoughts about those communities. He told me, “It would be better for me not to say anything at this point. Why don’t you do your research first? Experience those communities, and then at the end of your visit come back and tell me what you found. Then I might tell you what I think.”

So I followed the saint’s advice. During our family’s weeks in Recife, I participated in several BCC meetings. There I witnessed the kind of critical thinking referenced above. It was the same process that had been prescribed for teaching literacy years earlier by Paulo Freire in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I had read while still in Rome.

I consistently found all of that inspiring. Here were absolute giants in the field of critical thought, centralizing their fundamental identities as spiritual beings in order to address in practical terms genuine problems of politics, economy, and personal life. I found such embrace of human political spirituality absent not only in the standard approach to critical thinking familiar to me, but even in the churches of my own experience.

I wanted to know more about the underpinnings of that approach to critical thinking.

To that end, I enrolled in a semester-long seminar taught by liberation theologians, philosophers and scripture scholars I had been reading for years – figures like Argentina’s Enrique Dussel, Chile’s Pablo Richard, Belgium’s Francois Houtart and Brazil’s own Frei Gilberto Gorgulho and Ana Flora Anderson. In the course of the experience, I was also introduced to the work of Chilean economist and theologian, Franz Hinkelammert, who would become for me an extremely important mentor. Significantly, Franz was to later found the international Grupo de Pensamiento Critico (the Critical Thinking Group).

As I listened to these scholars describe history in ways I never had confidence enough to seriously entertain, I found myself wondering, “What is the key to all of this?” I mean, Enrique Dussel described World War II as the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.” What is he talking about? I wondered. Was Hitler really a capitalist? It was a completely foreign thought.

Meanwhile, Frei Gorgulho spoke of Cuba as “the envy of the Third World.” Pablo Richard had just returned from a trip to revolutionary Nicaragua and was full of stories about Anastasio Somoza, the history of U.S. oppression in the country, the Sandinistas, land reform, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionary Contras. The positive evaluation of Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution stood contrary to everything reported in the U.S.

Even more disturbingly, everyone constantly and negatively referenced highly destructive American military interventions in its “backyard” and throughout the world to defend colonialism and what was termed “neo-colonialism.” The whole seminar was scandalized by a picture in the Folha do Sao Paulo of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II sitting together in Rome – both of them smiling broadly. “That photo,” all agreed “will cost thousands of lives in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.” (It was because it implied that the pope endorsed Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America.)

None of these thoughts would ever be expressed in the United States. But here they were bandied about by these teachers of pensamiento critical as though they were perfectly obvious. And there was no objection from my classmates – most of them priests, nuns and lay theologians.

Again, I wondered, what is the analytic key to this sort of thought.

I later found it was the dependency theory of the German-American sociologist and historian, Andre Gunder Frank. Gunder Frank traced everything back to the history and structures of colonialism and neo-colonialism. I resolved to find out more about that; it seemed essential to this kind of critical thought. I asked for sources. Other than Gunder Frank’s works themselves, my seminar colleagues told me to read Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. For perspective on Africa, they recommended Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I immediately purchased the books and my education in critical thinking took another giant step forward.

To repeat: this was not the type of critical thinking I had become used to. Unlike its U.S. version, what I found in Brazil was politically committed, historically grounded, and deeply spiritual. In the United States, everything familiar to me was apolitical, historically uninformed, and entirely secular. That caused me to reflect once again on my own historical ignorance. I also wondered about neutrality and the stories about Nicaragua routinely disseminated back home. I could already see that those tales amounted to one-sided propaganda. As one of my Ten Rules would later express it, I was beginning to suspect that truly critical thought involved rejecting pretense of neutrality.

I resolved to visit Nicaragua as soon as possible. I did the following year.

(Next week: Nicaragua!)

My Journey towards World-Centric Consciousness Continues (9th in a series on critical thinking)

Berea College

 (In this series, I’ve been trying to explain my approach to “critical thinking” in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I addressed the fake news first, showing how it’s really an old problem well-addressed by Chomsky in the mid-80s in his “Necessary Illusions.” The question of alternative facts was suggested even longer ago by Plato in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Currently, I’m tracing my own experience with alternative facts, showing how my own set of convictions has changed from childhood, through my education in preparation for entry into the priesthood, and later during my graduate studies in Rome. This week, let me tell you about changes in consciousness that took place after I left the priesthood, working first for the Christian Appalachian Project, then teaching my first few years at Berea College, and via my first sabbatical in Brazil in 1984.The changes, I’m alleging, brought me through development stages identified by Ken Wilber as egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism. This week I continue my description of my evolving world-centric understanding. The hope is that my story might help you reflect on your own similar development as a critical thinker.)

After returning to the United States, with my doctoral degree in hand, I spent a “year of discernment” to decide whether or not to remain a Columban priest. Working as a priest for The Christian Appalachian Project in the foothills of Kentucky’s Cumberland mountains gave me first-hand experience of the poverty I had read about in Michael Harrington’s The Other America. It also introduced me to Berea College, where I would eventually spend the next 40 years teaching. Berea had been founded by Christian abolitionists in 1855. It retained its commitment to inter-racial justice, to the Appalachian region, and gradually accepted a revised and remarkably open understanding of Christian faith.

Those commitments required me to teach a first-year General Studies course called “Issues and Values.” And that meant learning about black history, women’s liberation, world religions, the environmental crisis, and the issue of world hunger. Faculty development seminars helped prepare us to teach texts including The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The Seneca Falls Resolutions,” the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, and Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. The course was life-changing for my students – and for me.

Even more so was a two semester Great Books course, “Religious and Historical Perspectives” (RH&P) which I began teaching my third year at Berea. Required of all sophomores, the course had a dozen or so sections staffed by professors recruited from across the curriculum. The unspoken rule among them seemed to be “Never admit that you don’t know everything.” This put me at a considerable disadvantage. For the truth is, though I had taken innumerable courses in (mostly Church) history, I still didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t see the pattern. To me, history was quite boring; it seemed like one damn thing after another – most of which I couldn’t remember.

All of that changed with RH&P. Like “Issues and Values,” the course centralized faculty development seminars in which colleagues from the fields of history, English, sociology, economics, biology, physics, religion, and political science spent the first three weeks of our summer vacations reading, studying, and discussing topics like the medieval period, the scientific revolution, Marxism, apocalyptic literature, and evolution. That prepared us to teach our students primary sources including the Bible and authors like Hesiod, Homer, Tacitus, Cicero, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Kant, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Swift, Mary Shelly, Einstein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was the best educational experience of my life. For the first time, I found myself understanding history and its patterns. In particular, my study of Marx and “The Communist Manifesto” made even clearer to me the ethnocentrism of my previous education. I began to realize that I had spent my life studying the rationalizers and defenders of the elite capitalist establishment. I had been taught to despise the philosophers and historians of the working class like Marx himself. My long years in the classroom had given me an understanding of the world alien to my own class roots.

I was gaining distance from my ethnocentrism. As I later would put it in my Ten Rules of Critical Thinking, I finally saw the value of respecting history. I was already nearly 30.


My insights from R&HP were deepened when in 1983-84 (at the age of 43) I took my first sabbatical and traveled to Brazil. My studies there did wonders for my personal growth and unfolding understanding of facts, truth and critical thinking as essentially relative to one’s stage of personal development.

My chosen task in Brazil had been to pursue post-doctoral studies in the field of liberation theology, which had become a central interest of mine. In Rome I had been introduced to the topic. It was part of what had begun broadening my horizons there.  I discovered it to be a strain of discourse about God as imagined by impoverished Christians in the former European colonies especially in Latin America, but also in Africa and South Asia. Liberation theology emerged from peasants, factory workers, students and housewives who found in the Bible a reflection of their own lives and an inspiration to work for social change. In the stories of the ancient Hebrews they saw people enslaved and colonized as they had been. They discovered in the Book of Exodus a God whose concern was to liberate such slaves and install them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Similarly, in Jesus the exploited found a champion who promised them a place in this-worldly Kingdom of God, where everything would be turned upside-down. The poor would become solvent, while the rich would be dethroned; the first would be last, while the last would be first. For liberation theologians, the Kingdom of God is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Moreover, in Jesus Latin America’s beggars, street people, women, peasants, factory workers, and students recognized a kindred spirit. Like them, he was poor and born under a cruel colonizing power. He was the son of an unwed teenage mother, brown-skinned and a friend of prostitutes and sinners. He was homeless at birth and an immigrant in Egypt in his early years. Later he became an enemy of the state. He experienced constant surveillance, and was considered a terrorist. Jesus finished, like so many of Brazil’s poor during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a victim of torture and capital punishment.

As we’ll see next week, liberation theology profoundly changed the “facts” of my spirituality. Joined with what I had learned about Appalachia and western history, it readied for even more profound transformations in consciousness that yet awaited me. My Third World travels had just begun. They would provide the catalyst.

(Next week: I sit at the feet of the liberation theologians I had been reading for years.)