By Alexander Wilde, CLALS Research Fellow
Latin America today is one of the world’s most violent regions. It has been so for 50 years, although the character and agents of violence have changed considerably over time. The “old violence” of the 20th century was largely political, associated with revolutionary insurgencies and repressive regimes that systematically violated fundamental human rights. The “new violence” is largely criminal – illegal drug traffickers and urban gangs are among the leading perpetrators – but its consequences in many societies have been comparably lethal. Countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia have among the highest murder rates in the world. “Citizen security” is a leading issue in politics throughout the region.
Religion played a significant part in confronting the old violence. Human rights became a new cause for the Catholic Church, which in some cases helped legitimate peace settlements and democratic transitions. In the generation since then, Latin American Christianity has been transformed. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have achieved unprecedented growth. Catholicism has been reined in by Rome to curb the influence of Liberation Theology. More pietistic and spiritually-oriented theologies have flourished within both traditions. The result has been a tendency to turn away from the “political” ministries of the past – defending human rights and promoting social justice. The Christian churches, it is widely believed, have failed to address the widespread violence of today.
Fresh research, however, is revealing ways in which – although less visible at the national level – they remain a vital force in violence-plagued societies. A two-year project at American University has produced studies of religiously based shelters for Central American migrants in Mexico, a 15-year Jesuit program of peace building and development in Colombia, and an Evangelical prison ministry in Rio de Janeiro, among a dozen pieces of new research. They identify particularly the significance of an active church presence among poor and marginalized populations, who suffer disproportionately from violence. This “accompaniment” appears to be motivated by Biblically-based beliefs about Christian love, the redemptive power of God and the direct experience of living with these populations in perilous, threatening conditions. Another emerging theme in project research is the potential significance of supportive national and international allies – who clearly contributed to the defense of human rights in the past and remain important in our changed, globalized world.
Violence in Latin America today reflects the wrenching changes these societies have undergone in the last half-century, and religion has been a dynamic dimension of those changes. In the region’s civil societies and the lives of its citizens, Catholic and Evangelical Christianity remains a potent and creative presence. Where it is willing to work and live in situations of conflict and violence, it could find a new role in bringing about more stable, peaceful and just societies.