Fidel & Religion: in His Own Words

fidel-on-rel

“I don’t understand why Fidel doesn’t allow free elections in Cuba. After all, he’d win hands down every time.”

I remember how astonished I was when the young spokesperson at the U.S. Intersection in Havana pronounced those words about 20 years ago. But I had heard her correctly. Despite being a U.S. diplomat, she was admitting that Fidel Castro was extremely popular with Cubans. Her concession contradicted the official U.S. position repeated incessantly since 1959 – and regurgitated mindlessly by U.S. commentators last weekend on the announcement of the comandante’s passing.

The young diplomat’s recognition of Fidel’s popularity was confirmed for me again and again as I visited Cuba repeatedly since 1997. That was the year of my first trip there with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a colleague led a group of Berea College students to the island for a month-long January Short Term study of the African Diaspora in Cuba. Subsequently, while teaching in a Latin American Studies program sponsored by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, I visited the island perhaps eight times as the term-abroad program for U.S. students brought them there each fall and spring. Then three years ago, I returned to Cuba to teach a Berea College summer term there. I’ll return with a similar program next May.

All that experience has given me a love for Cuba and Cubans – and a deep appreciation for the Fidel Castro as one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. Few (outside the United States) would disagree with that evaluation.

But there’s another dimension of Fidel’s person that strikes me as important in these days of widespread religious fundamentalism. As a theologian, I have come to see him as the era’s most theologically sensitive political leader. (My evaluation includes people like Jimmy Carter. Of the two, Fidel was far better informed.) As such he calls friends of revolution everywhere to take theology seriously as an instrument of human liberation from narrow Christian supremacist understandings of faith.

That particular observation is based on a close reading of Dominican Friar, Frei Betto’s book Fidel and Religion (F&R) published in 1987. The volume was a product of interviews between Betto and Fidel carried on over a period of 23 hours in the 1980s. On its publication, F&R sold more copies in Cuba than any previous publication.

In Betto’s work, Fidel highlights the convergence of communism and Christian doctrine. He also expresses his appreciation of liberation theology, and explains the superiority of Cuban democracy to that practiced in the United States. His observations give the lie to our young diplomat’s claim that Cuba lacks free and democratic elections.

Fidel on Communism & Christianity

Read for yourself what the comandante says about coincidences between communism and Christianity. (All page references are to Frei Betto’s F&R. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc. 1987).

  • “There are 10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism” (33).
  • “I believe that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount” (271).
  • “. . . (F)rom the political point of view, religion is not, in itself, an opiate or a miraculous remedy. It may become an opiate or a wonderful cure if it is used or applied to defend oppressors and exploiters or the oppressed and the exploited, depending on the approach adopted toward the political, social or material problems of the human beings who, aside from theology or religious belief, are born and must live in this world” (276).
  • “. . . (I)f (the Catholic bishops) organized a state in accord with Christian precepts, they’d create one similar to ours. . . All those things we’ve fought against, all those problems we’ve solved, are the same ones the Church would try to solve if it were to organize a civil state in keeping with its Christian precepts” (225).
  • (Referring to Catholic nuns) “The things they do are the things we want Communists to do. When they take care of people with leprosy, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, they are doing what we want Communists to do. . . In fact, I’ve said it quite publicly. . . that the nuns were model Communists. . . I think they have all the qualities we’d like our Party members to have” (227-8).

Fidel on Liberation Theology

  • “I now have almost all of Boff’s and Gutierrez’s works” (214).
  • “I could define the Liberation Church, or Liberation Theology, as Christianity’s going back to its roots, its most beautiful, attractive, heroic and glorious history.” (245)
  • “It’s so important that it forces all of the Latin American left to take notice of it as one of the most important events of our time” (245).
  • “We can describe it as such because it can deprive the exploiters, the conquerors, the oppressors, the interventionists, the plunderers of our peoples, and those who keep us in ignorance, illness, and poverty of the most important tool they have for confusing, deceiving and alienating the masses and continuing to exploit them” (245).
  • “He who betrays the poor betrays Christ” (274).

Fidel on Cuban Democracy

  • (Referring to the U.S. system) “I think that all that alleged democracy is nothing but a fraud, and I mean this literally” (289).
  • “It cannot be said of the so highly praised Western governments that they are generally backed by the majority of the people. . . Let’s take Reagan, for example. In his first election, only about fifty percent of the voters cast their votes. There were three candidates, and with the votes of less than 30 percent of the total number of U.S. voters, Reagan won the election. Half the people didn’t even vote. They don’t believe in it” (289).
  • “An election every four years! The people who elected Reagan . . . had no other say in U.S. policy . . . He could cause a world war without consulting with the people who voted for him, just by making one-man decisions” (290).
  • “In this country . . . the delegates who are elected at the grass-roots level are practically slaves of the people, because they have to work long, hard hours without receiving any pay except the wages they get from their regular jobs” (290).
  • “Every six months they have to report back to their voters on what they’ve done during that period. Any official in the country may be removed from office at any time by the people who elected him” (291).
  • “All this implies having the backing of most of the people. If the Revolution didn’t have the support of most of the people, revolutionary power couldn’t endure” (291).
  • “In other words, I believe – I’m being perfectly frank with you – that our system is a thousand times more democratic than the capitalist, imperialist system of the developed capitalist countries. . . really much fairer . . .” (292).
  • “I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody, but you force me to speak clearly and sincerely” (292).

Conclusion

But what about Fidel’s nearly 50-year reign as President of Cuba? And what about the puzzle of my diplomat-friend? If he’s so popular, why didn’t Castro run for president the way U.S. candidates do?

I asked my friend Dr. Cliff Durand about that when he recently visited our home. Cliff is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University, and the founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He has been leading trips to Cuba every year for the last twenty years, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. He’s the most informed USian I know about things Cuban.

Here’s what Cliff said:

  • The diplomat was correct: Castro was extremely popular with the majority of Cubans. He was regarded as the father of his country – like George Washington.
  • More accurately, he’s like Franklin Roosevelt who was elected four times here in the U.S.
  • Who can say how many times Roosevelt would have been re-elected had he not died, but had come to power as Castro did at 33 years of age?
  • Moreover, (as noted above) the U.S. electoral system doesn’t work so well. Most people don’t even vote. Campaigns are interminable and extremely costly and wasteful. And (as indicated by the recent U.S. election) their results often don’t even reflect the will of the majority of voters.
  • Cuba’s conclusion: there’s got to be a better way.
  • Cuba’s way (like that of Great Britain – and of the U.S. for that matter) is not to elect the head of state directly, but to have electors make the choice.
  • So elected members of parliament appoint Cuba’s president.
  • And (as my diplomat-friend indicated), they (election cycle after election cycle) chose their equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt.

My own conclusion is that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. He was an insightful (atheist) theologian of liberation. As a true Communist, he was more Christian than many popes. He was more democratic than most USians can begin to understand.

Studying Liberation Theology in Brazil: Realizing Hitler Won WWII (Personal Reflections XVI)

Nazis Won

Last week I wrote about Paulo Freire and the friendship Peggy and I formed with him in Brazil in 1984. Paulo had a huge influence on Liberation Theology which I first met during my graduate studies in Rome (1967-’72). There I had written my doctoral dissertation on Jurgen Moltmann, the great Reformed theologian who was the doyen of the Theology of Hope. As a member of a missionary society (Society of St. Columban) I tried to connect Moltmann’s concept of “mission” with the same category in the Second Vatican Council’s  Ad Gentes.

While finishing my work on that topic (at the Academia Alfonsiana – with Bernard Haring on my committee), I heard Gustavo Gutierrez speak. At the time, Gustavo was the leading voice in the theology of liberation, which emerged to prominence following the 1968 Medeillin Conference of Latin American Bishops in Colombia. Immediately I could see the connections between the two.

I got the opportunity to explore those connections while Peggy was working on her own dissertation with Freire. I enrolled in a seminar at the Santa Maria de Asuncao seminary in San Paulo. It had me sitting at the feet of a series of liberation theologians I had by that time been reading for years. Prominent among them was Enrique Dussel; so was Chilean scripture scholar, Pablo Richard who (because of the U.S.-supported Pinochet coup) was living in exile in Costa Rica. Dussel was an Argentinian philosopher of liberation. His home had been bombed by the Argentine military during its infamous “dirty war” supported by the United States. So he was then living in exile in Mexico.

He was a dynamic lecturer, but I found him puzzling. He used terms and made references that were new to me. For instance, instead of referring to World Wars I and II, he spoke of the First and Second Inter-capitalist Wars. I had never heard that before. But the phrases caused me to do some research. And sure enough: those wars were between capitalist powers who were struggling for supremacy and to achieve a position in the world very like the one enjoyed by the United States today.

How had I missed that, I wondered? The answer, of course, was that I had learned my history in the United States which conceals such obvious facts. I did more research and eventually wrote a long essay that I published in Spanish in Pasos, the journal of the Ecumenical Research Institute in Costa Rica – a liberation theology think tank. The essay was called “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”

Here it is summarized in the “Easy Essay” form coined by Peter Maurin, the founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker newspaper:

Following Germany’s defeat

in “the First Inter-Capitalist War,”

the system was in trouble in das Vaterland.

It also foundered world-wide

after the Crash of ‘29.

So Joseph Stalin

convoked a Congress of Victory

to celebrate the death of capitalism

and the End of History —

in 1934.

Both Hitler and F.D.R.

tried to revive the corpse.

They enacted similar measures:

government funds to stimulate private sector production,

astronomically increased defense spending,

nationalization of some enterprises,

while carefully keeping most in the hands of private individuals.

To prevent workers from embracing communism,

both enacted social programs otherwise distasteful to the Ruling Class,

but necessary to preserve their system:

legalized unions, minimum wage, shortened work days, safety regulation, social                     security . . .

Roosevelt called it a “New Deal;”

Hitler’s term was “National Socialism.”

Roosevelt used worker discontent

with their jobs and bosses

to get elected four times.

Meanwhile, Hitler successfully directed worker rage

away from the Krupps and Bayers

and towards the usual scapegoats:

Jews, communists, gays, blacks, foreigners and Gypsies.

He admired the American extermination of “Indians”

and used that model of starvation and internment

to guide his own program for eliminating undesirables

by hunger and concentrated slaughter.

Hitler strictly controlled national unions,

thus relieving the worries of the German elite.

In all of this,

he received the support of mainline churches.

Pius XII even praised der Führer  as

“an indispensable bulwark against the Russians.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the German “Confessing Church”

resisted Hitler’s program

of social Darwinism, patriotism and persecution of the undeserving.

Confessing faithful were critical of “religion”

which combined anti-Semitism, white supremacy, patriotism and xenophobia

with selected elements of Christianity.

They insisted on allegiance

to Jesus alone

who stood in judgment over soil, fatherland, flag and blood.

They even urged Christian patriots

to pray for their country’s defeat in war.

Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler

and explored the promise of

Christianity without “religion.”

Hitler initially enjoyed great popularity

with the powerful

outside of Germany,

in Europe and America.

He did!

Then as baseball magnate and used car saleswoman, Marge Schott, put it,

“He went too far.”

His crime, however, was not gassing Jews,

but trying to subordinate his betters in the club

of white, European, capitalist patriarchs.

He thus evoked their ire

and the “Second Inter-Capitalist War.”

Following the carnage,

the industrialists in other countries

embraced Hitlerism without Hitler.

They made sure that communists, socialists and other “partisans”

who bravely resisted German occupation

did not come to political power,

but that those who had cooperated with Nazis did.

Today, the entrepreneurial classes

still support Nazis, whenever necessary.

The “Hitlers” they championed have aliases

like D’Aubisson (El Salvador), Diem (Vietnam), Duvalier (Haiti), Franco (Spain),

Fujimori (Peru), Mobutu (Zaire), Montt (Guatemala), Noriega (Panama), Peron                         (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile), Resa Palavi (Iran), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Somoza                     (Nicaragua), Strossner (Paraguay), Suharto (Indonesia). . . .

The list is endless.

The global elite deflect worker hostility

away from themselves

towards communists, blacks, gays, immigrants and Muslims,

towards poor women who stay at home

and middle class women who leave home to work.

Today, Christians embrace social Darwinism

while vehemently rejecting evolution.

Standing on a ground of being

underpinning the world’s most prominent culture

of religious fundamentalism,

they long for Hoover,

and coalesce

with the right.

In all of this

is forgotten the Jesus of the New Testament

who was born a homeless person

to an unwed,

teenage mother,

was an immigrant in Egypt for a while,

came from the working poor,

was accused of being a drunkard,

a friend of sex workers,

irreligious,

possessed by demons

and condemned by the state

a victim of torture

and of capital punishment.

Does this make anyone wonder about Marge Schott,

the difference between Hitler’s system

and our own,

and also about “religion”

and how to be free of it,

about false Christs . . . .

And who won that war anyway?

(Next week: more about our experience in Brazil)

Dives & Lazarus: a liberation theology catechism (Sunday Homily)

Lazarus

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; ITM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092913.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s book, A Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating. The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.