Who directed the following words to the Indian population of southern Mexico?: "The disheartened world of field work, the laborers whose sweat waters their disheartened state as well, cannot wait any longer for their dignity to be recognized really and fully—a dignity no whit inferior to that of any other social sector."
The answer is not the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Nor is the answer Bishop Samuel Ruíz Garcia of San Cristobal, Chiapas. Nor is it one of the "liberationist" priests working with the indigenous peoples of that area. Pope John Paul II said those words in an address to campesinos in Oaxaca and Chiapas on January 29, 1979.
He went on in the same speech to confront wealthy landowners. "To you, responsible officials of the people, power-holding classes who sometimes keep your lands unproductive when they conceal the food that so many families are doing without....It is not just, it is not human, it is not Christian to continue certain situations that are clearly unjust."
So much for the charge that a "radical fringe" of clergy and other pastoral workers have fomented revolution in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and most recently southern Mexico—unless one chooses to believe that the conservative Polish pope belongs to such a group.
At the same time we need to look closer at the role liberation theology actually played in the rebellion. To poor people who listened to the pope’s denunciation 15 years ago, his words "cannot wait" must have sounded like a call to action.
Similarly potent was the October 1993 communication of several Mexican Catholic bishops regarding NAFTA. "Certain measures [placed] by the government in anticipation of NAFTA," the bishops said, "have augmented the breach between rich and poor." How could such words not stir up feelings of urgency in an oppressed population?
THE STATE of Chiapas is the poorest in Mexico. Illiteracy among adults is three times higher than the national level. Forty-two percent of the population dwells in housing without sewerage; 35 percent is without electricity—fertile terrain for revolution.
Yet contrary to all-too-common popular opinion, the practitioners of liberation theology do not set out to create uprisings. Much less do they have a set of blueprints for revolution. What this approach to theology does is critique present reality from the perspective of biblical teaching. In pointing sorrowfully to the "laborers [of Oaxaca and Chiapas] whose sweat waters their disheartened state," John Paul was simply echoing the words of Isaiah: "Woe to you who join house to house, who connect field with field, until no room remains."
True liberationists, like Bishop Samuel Ruíz in southern Mexico, do not concentrate as much on theory as on the issues of justice that confront their people. Ruíz pointed this out in an interview with Sojourners (facing page) when asked what he thought about liberation theology. "I don’t care about liberation theology," Ruíz said, "I care about liberation!"
What the theology of liberation cannot do is avoid pointing out the structural injustices imbedded in places like southern Mexico. To do so would be to heap the injustice of a halfway evangelization on a people already too long held captive by ignorance and avoidance. The churches, tragically, preached such a gospel for centuries.
As liberation theologians continue to bring biblical scrutiny to bear on social injustice, the methodology itself remains a target for unjust accusations. Many of the reports from Chiapas named Bishop Ruíz or other pastoral workers in the diocese as the intellectual authors of the revolution—when the "author," in many ways, is the biblical word itself. Situations of institutionalized violence will not long endure when victims become aware that such violence contravenes God’s will.
The indigenous peoples of Mexico—and everywhere!—have a right to the liberating knowledge that God demands justice as the minimum expression of love. This awareness has been the driving force behind pastoral work in that region for decades. Bishop Ruíz and the hundreds of others who have evangelized in Chiapas have shown the accuracy of what Jesus said centuries ago: "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free."