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Liberation theology and the indigenous other in Guatemala

Liberation theology and the indigenous other in Guatemala

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Published by: Wuqu' Kawoq on Jul 29, 2012
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11/08/2012

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Liberation theology and the voice of the indigenousother in Guatemala
PETER ROHLOFF
Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA 02115, USA (e-mail: prohloff@partners.org)
The legacy of the liberation theology in Guatemala is complex. Although it mobilized progressive Catholic forces at times, it has not overcome reactionary and conservative church elements. Most importantly, it has not proven entirely capable of rising aboveelitism, nor has it moved beyond paternalism toward Maya culture
.Key words: Guatemala, Maya, indigeneity, liberationtheology, paternalismLa th´eologie de la lib´eration et la voix de l’alt´erit´e autochtone au Guatemala
La th´ eologie de la lib ´ eration a laiss ´ e au Guatemala un eritage complexe. Si en certaines occasions, elle ´ et ´ e en mesure de mobiliser les forces catholiques  progressistes, en revanche, elle n’a pas eussi `surmonter le courant r´eactionnaire et conservateude l’ ´ Eglise. Qui plus est, elle s’est av ´ er ´ ee incapable dese etacher enti`erement des ´elites ou de rompre avec une attitude paternaliste`a l’ ´ egard de la culturemaya.
Mots cl´es : Guatemala, Maya, autochtonie, th´eologiede la lib´eration, paternalisme
The Canadian Geographer / Le G´eographe canadien 00, no 00 (2010) 1–3DOI: 10.1111/j.1541-0064.2009.00295.x
C
/ Canadian Association of Geographers / L’Association canadienne des g´eographes
 
2 Peter Rohloff 
I read with interest the recent article publishedin your journal on ecclesial opposition to min-ing in Guatemala (Holden and Jacobson 2009). Iapplaud the authors’ attempt to revisit the sig-nificance of contemporary manifestations of lib-eration theology in this country. I found theirintroductory summary of the genesis of themovement in Latin America both succinct andaccurate.However, when the authors turn to a discus-sion of the emergence and continuing signifi-cance of the progressive church in Guatemala,several problems emerge. Chief among these isthe authors’ nearly exclusive reliance on offi-cial church documents to reconstruct a narrativeof the civil violence in Guatemala. As a conse-quence, what emerges is a partisan view of theGuatemalan Catholic Church’s historical and ac-tual social positions, which sweeps many histor-ical ambiguities and nuances aside. This can bethe only explanation for the endorsement of astatement such as that the Catholic Church has been Guatemala’s ‘moral conscience’ (Steinbergand Taylor 2003, 454 in Holden and Jacobson2009, 160).Although in many cases, as the authorsstate, Catholic missionaries were indeed ‘trans-formed by their relationships with peasantsfacing poverty on a daily basis’ (Holden and Ja-cobson 2009, 151), one cannot forget that theroots of Catholic Action were extremely conser-vative in nature, indeed serving in many cases‘[to] combat radical, Communist politics on a lo-cal level by providing an acceptable outlet forIndian frustration with social inequality’ (Fischer1996, 58). Indeed, for those of us who work inGuatemala, it is evident at nearly every turn thatthe progressive work of the Catholic Church re-mains deeply intertwined with these original con-servative leanings (e.g., Shiffman and Del Valle2006).Similarly, the writers claim that the successof evangelical churches in Guatemala was dueto military repression of the Catholic Churchfor its progressive tendencies, an assertion theymake by relying on an official publication of theArchdiocese of Guatemala (Recovery of HistoricalMemory Project 1999). But the reasons for thesuccess of evangelical and charismatic churchesin Guatemala have been debated in dozens of scholarly publications over the last 20 years (e.g.,Martin 1990; Stoll 1991; Garrard-Burnett 1998;Gooren 2001) and only a few would make sucha simplistic claim. Indeed, there is good evidencethat Protestantism was already on the rise well before the surge in civil violence (Annis 1987).Additionally, military violence was generally di-rected more indiscriminately against the indige-nous civic base than official Catholic sourceswould admit: ‘Though radical Catholic catechistssuffered
. . .
so equally did Protestants
. . .
(Martin1990, 254).More to the point, there is a malaise in liber-ation theology in Guatemala, although many of those invested in the movement are quick to dis-miss it. This malaise is historically deep-seatedand tied to a crucial failure to become a theol-ogy
of 
the people rather than simply a theology
about 
the people. This failure is in part due tothe fact that the church leadership has always been implicitly aligned with the upper classes of Guatemalan society, as they have routinely drawnmembership from each othersranks (e.g., thecase studies of Guatemalan priests in Hale 2006).As such, liberation theology in Guatemala hasalways been in danger of being reduced to a pa-ternalistic discussion among cultural elites abouta closely disciplined and circumscribed MayaOther. In her seminal analysis of interethnic re-lationships in northern Mexico, Martinez Novo(2006) demonstrates how paternalistic relation-ships are characterized by claims of ‘protectionfor indigenous people’, ‘the imposition of a cer-tain understanding of [indigenous] culture’, anda fixation on the ‘purity’ of that culture (pp.152–165). Church informants in the article underquestion reproduce these exact themes.This view of the Other, rooted in paternalism,is a view deeply imprinted by a prejudicial neobi-ologism. Therefore it is no accident that Holdenand Jacobson’s informants lead them quite nat-urally to an invocation of the human diversityliterature (e.g., Davis 2007), which analogises in-digenous cultures as ‘species of flora or fauna’(Holden and Jacobson 2009, 159). The diversityviewpoint tends to foster essentialism and exoti-cism. It leads to a certain nostalgia for groupsof persons who bury their umbilical cords inthe dirt—and not because the matter of theirposition as self-determining historical actors is
The Canadian Geographer / Le G´eographe canadien 00, no 00 (2010)

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