Peggy & I Study with Franz Hinkelammert in Costa Rica (12th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Franz & Peggy

The next stop on the critical thinking odyssey I’m outlining here was Costa Rica. There I finally met Franz Hinkelammert, whose Global South approach to critical thinking provided the theory I sought to make everything I had learned in Brazil come together. Recall that I had encountered his latest work while in Brazil. (Franz is pictured above with Peggy and me in 1992.)

Franz Hinkelammert is a German economist and theologian. After coming to Latin America in 1976, he lived and worked mostly in Chile. But then the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup removed the democratically-elected Socialist president of the country (Salvador Allende). The subsequent installation of a brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, made Chile extremely dangerous for people like Hinkelammert. So he fled to Costa Rica, where he, liberation theologian giant, Hugo Assmann and biblical scholar, Pablo Richard founded the Department of Ecumenical Research (DEI), a liberation theology think tank. The DEI specialized in preparing grassroots organizers to work for social change throughout Latin America. However, its emphasis was not on “training” for activism, but specifically on analysis and critical thought.

My opportunity to study with Franz came with my second sabbatical in 1992. Peggy and I applied and were accepted as the first North American participants in the DEI’s annual Workshop for Invited Researchers. The eight-week course hosted about 20 scholars from across Latin America. Each of us had a research project whose goal was publication in the DEI’s quarterly, Pasos. Not surprisingly, mine was on critical thinking.

During the workshop, Franz, Pablo Richard, and fellow Chilean, Helio Gallardo were the principal presenters and discussion leaders. In his own lectures, Franz emphasized what is for him an enduring key idea about critical thinking. It is expressed most clearly in his Critique of Utopic Reason and also in his Critique of Mythic Reason. In both, he highlighted the essentially utopian nature of critical thought. Its point, he says, is not simply to analyze arguments for logical fallacies. Instead, it is political. It is essentially utopian – to create a better world by imagining the best possible world. Hinkelammert’s argument runs as follows:

  1. If politics is the art of the possible,
  2. Then a utopian idea of the impossible, but at the same time desirable, is required
  3. Not necessarily as a goal to be implemented
  4. But as a “North Star”
  5. Guiding critical thought and action towards what indeed can be practically accomplished.
  6. No such goal can be arrived at without utopian ideas towards which critical thinking gestures.
  7. Utopian thought comes naturally to human beings.
  8. In fact, critical thought without utopian concepts is itself unconsciously utopian.

Franz illustrates his idea by pointing out that utopias are not at all merely the province of starry-eyed idealists. They are essential for any critical thought intent on beneficial social change. In that sense, Franz’s own North Star for critical thought is the simple idea later articulated by the Zapatista rebels in Mexico as a world with room for everyone. Meanwhile, the capitalist utopian ideal is of a completely free market governed only by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” That is the guiding constellation under whose direction all mainstream economic theory is fabricated.

Hinkelammert’s argument highlights the difference I’ve been trying to describe between critical thinking as taught in the United States and what I discovered in the Global South. In the Global South, critical thinking is concerned with the big picture – with entire systems, with social analysis of economic and political structures. As explained by Franz and others, it is by no means a matter ferreting out what is now called “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Such concern glosses over the lies embedded in the very parameters of perception which act as blinders for both students and their teachers. In that sense, the critical thinking I had become used to had been literally partial in its ignorance and denial of the experience of the world’s majority who live in the former colonies. From that viewpoint concentrating on logical inconsistencies or falsehoods in arguments divorced from the unexamined socio-economic matrix of capitalism only serves to normalize what should be completely unacceptable to human beings.

For Hinkelammert, that was the insight of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. Marx in particular was a humanist who saw critical thought as focusing on human emancipation from the chains imposed by capitalism and the colonialism on which it depended. Critical thinking, in Marx’s estimation, involved identifying those chains and the steps necessary to humanize all relationships between persons and with nature itself. In theological terms, the mandate is: “Do what God did; become a human being!” That is the project of the type of critical thinking I was now encountering.

That, in fact, became what I subsequently attempted to communicate my students. And I began right there in San Jose. There, by mere coincidence and chance, I began teaching in a Latin American Studies Program (LASP). It was a term abroad for Evangelical students from the United States whose institutions were affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Teaching fundamentalist Evangelicals about colonialism, U.S. intervention in the Third World, and the history of capitalism was a wonderful challenge. Even more so was helping them understand liberation theology.

We clashed, especially at the beginning of our semester-long encounters. And (in terms of the topic at hand) that was because I was coming from the world-centric perspective of liberation theology, while their standpoint was almost exclusively ethnocentric. For them, the United States could do no wrong, and the Bible was to be taken at face value. To criticize the U.S. or to interpret parts of the Bible as myth, legend, or poetry was simply unacceptable.

I, on the other hand, owned the world-centric approach I’m describing here. I took to heart international polls that consistently identified the United States as the greatest threat to world peace.[1] Moreover, my approach to the Bible was informed by the historical critical methodology of modern scripture scholarship.[2]

Such challenges however were mitigated by the reality check the LASP program provided each semester’s cadre of students. I’m referring to four days among the descendants of African slaves in Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, as well as two weeks each in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In each of those cases, we more or less followed the practice I had experienced in Nicaragua. In the midst of their studies, students lived with local families and received on-site presentations from indigenous tribal leaders, union organizers, politicians, historians, and church officials – most of whom were not ethno-centrists. Students uniformly described it all as life-transforming. And I’m sure that direct contact with the victims of what bell hooks calls “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” made them more thoughtful about their reactions to world-centric perspectives.

Additionally, at least for me, those LASP trips – especially to Cuba – provided opportunities to observe and judge attempts to implement what Hinkelammert would call critical utopian theory.

(Next week: My learnings in Cuba)

[1] Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Womp! This Country Was Named the Greatest Threat to World Peace.” The Huffington Post., 02 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

[2] “What Is the Historical-Critical Method?” The Historical-Critical Method. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

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,


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)