Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Proclaiming Good News to the Poor" - Revival in Latin America

(Photo by Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SA)

There's an odd irony in the immigration debates raging among Christian conservatives in the United States. On one side, they see themselves as increasingly engaged in a "culture war" against the rising tide of secularism. And on another side, many of them seem deeply concerned about high levels of immigration from Latin America (which are not really as high as is sometimes assumed). The irony here is that immigration from Latin America, if embraced, would actually tend towards helping them in their ongoing "culture war." The Latin Americans who enter our country are often more family-oriented, faith-centered Christian influences than are the residents of the American cities they immigrate to. Adding more Latin Americans to the US would make the US a more Christian place. Because the truth is, there has been a broad and ongoing revival in Latin America throughout much of the twentieth century, and its pace appears to be accelerating. So while many Latin American countries struggle with issues of political instability, crime, and drug trade (much of it driven by US markets), they have nonetheless become one of the most powerful strongholds of contemporary Christianity in the entire world.

Latin America currently has more evangelical Christians than does the US and Canada, and in every single Latin American country, evangelicals are growing faster than the national population. In Brazil, where evangelicalism and neo-Pentecostalism are flourishing at the highest rates in the region, data from the national census indicates that evangelicals now constitute perhaps as much as a full quarter of the population, and, if growth rates maintain their robust strength, may claim fully half of Brazil's population within the foreseeable future

In many of these areas, the leading force of Protestant growth has been in Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal movements. These indigenous church movements, driven by a sense of the Holy Spirit's presence among them, are causing radical shifts in Latin American society. They have addressed issues of poverty and spiritual warfare in many more robust ways than their American counterparts to the north. The revivals in Brazil have directly addressed themselves to the challenges presented by syncretistic cults and have sought to bring the Kingdom of God to bear on the streets, barrios, bateys, and favelas of Latin America. They have gone fearlessly into those epicenters of poverty, crime, and drugs, and, in the words that Christ quoted from Isaiah 61, "proclaimed good news to the poor." My own experience, of visiting a church built in the center of a trash dump  in the Dominican Republic, showed the Christian community there to be both vast and fearlessly faithful. 

Even after saying all that, however, we still have barely scratched the surface of Christianity in Latin America. Why? Because none of the groups mentioned above are even close to being the dominant Christian force in that region. No, that would be the Roman Catholic church, which, since the days of early colonialism, has sunk deep roots into all levels of Latin American society. And while there certainly were many examples of colonial exploitation that went hand-in-hand with those early evangelizations of the New World, there were also very many conscientious and faithful Catholic missionaries, who truly loved the people that they served--perhaps most famously, the Jesuits who sought to teach and protect the native people of central South America (as immortalized in the movie The Mission), and Bartolome de Las Casas' tireless advocacy work on behalf of Native Americans--one of the highest heroes of the entire history of Christianity. Roman Catholicism in Latin America certainly struggles with perennial issues of adherents with merely nominal faith, and (in some areas) syncretism with native religious traditions. But it goes without saying that there are also many millions of faithful believers in Jesus Christ who are being nourished under the wings of the Roman Catholic church in Latin America. 

And, like its evangelical and Pentecostal counterparts, Latin American Catholicism is devoted to making sure that the Christian faith has an impact on all of life, including politics and economics. It has demonstrated a powerful commitment to the poor and the marginalized in society, perhaps best seen in its development of the (somewhat controversial, but immensely influential) school of Christian thought known as "liberation theology." It counts among its heroes such saints as Oscar Romero, the courageous priest from El Salvador who was martyred for his stand against poverty and injustice. The current pope, an Argentinian, has drunk deep from this well of Latin American Catholicism, with its abiding concern for the poor--a concern which is indeed proper, and perhaps even central, to the Christian proclamation. In the New Testament, Luke's Gospel regularly makes God's heart for the poor an outstanding concern of his portrayal of Jesus' life, and Latin American Christianity has offered the world of our faith a timely rebirth of Lukan theology in our day.

As is the case in Africa, so in Latin America: Christianity in the 21st century, far from being solely a Euro-American phenomenon (if it ever was at all!), is emerging as the faith of the global south, and it is these areas that will be the powerhouses from which the Gospel of the risen Lord continues its march. 

(Images - Top: Interior view of the crossing of the church and monastery of St. Francis in Quito, Ecuador, photo by Diego Delso; Upper inset left: Interior view of the entrance to the Basilica Catedral Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia in Higuey, Dominican Republic, photo by Matthew Burden; Middle inset right: "Bartolome de las Casas," artist unknown, 16th cent.; Lower inset left: Statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, photo by Dkoukoul, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)