Re-membering the Reign of God (Review)

Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo and Laurel Marshal Potter’s new book provides a moving portrait of the liberatory praxis of El Salvador’s popular church, but its engagement with decolonial theory falls short.

December 23, 2022

In their new book, Re-Membering the Reign of God. The Decolonial Witness of El Salvador’s Church of the Poor, theologians Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo and Laurel Marshal Potter engage Catholic Liberation Theology in dialogue with decolonial theory in a tribute to El Salvador’s Christian Base Communities (CEBs, in Spanish). Using a framework guided largely by Aníbal Quijano’s colonial matrix of power—in which Christianity and the Catholic Church are a central agent—they ask, “Is an-other church possible?”

The authors, who identify as “Christians who benefit from coloniality,” critique institutional Roman Catholic discourse, “which too often centers the generosity and good intentions of the affluent and powerful in the church at the expense of the agency and dignity of the poor and oppressed.” In this spirit, the study expands its inquiry beyond Liberation Theology’s “first generation of iconic, male, ordained theologians, many (if not most) of whom are of predominantly European descent,” including celebrated martyrs like Ignacio Ellacuría and Óscar Romero. Instead, their analysis centers the CEBs—Bible study groups that enact Christian principles through consciousness-raising and collective organizing—and their self-expression as the rightful protagonists of El Salvador’s church of the poor.

This bold, creative work makes thoughtful interventions into debates in both theology and decolonial theory, providing a moving portrait of the liberatory praxis of El Salvador’s popular church. The CEBs remain an uncomfortable object of decolonial analysis, however, at once illuminating this approach’s uses and limitations.

Fulfilling the Reign of God in El Salvador

In an opening series of “libritos of Salvadoran Salvation history,” Gandolfo and Potter combine oral histories, secondary accounts, and folk songs tied to militant popular traditions. Each “sacred story” is printed in a two-column biblical format, starting with Colonio-Genesis: “in the beginning there was the land.” The story casts as expressions of divinity the frequent popular uprisings that have marked the territory’s history since the conquest. “Libritos of Salvadoran prophets” profile dissidents from 1832 Nonualco rebellion leader Anastasio Aquino and visionary feminist Prudencia Ayala, to communist rebel Farabundo Martí and Archbishop Romero.

The authors stress the complicity of the Church in celebrating repression and supporting dictatorship, serving “the gods of power and wealth.” The book’s story of Nuevo-Exodus frames the ecclesial transformations initiated with the Second Vatican Council in 1965 as a “partial exodus from coloniality.” In El Salvador, the reception of the teachings that “the plight of the poor was not inevitable nor sanctioned by God” was fraught, torn between conversative, even hostile leadership and those eager to implement the radical new doctrine.

El Salvador’s first CEB was established in the working-class Zacamil neighborhood in 1969, the year after the Medellin Conference of Latin American bishops formalized liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor.” Gandolfo and Potter craft a series of Gospels according to various CEBs, telling the often bloody history of their inception and persecution. The 1979 assassination of Padre Octavio Ortíz, together with four young men in his San Antonio Abad parish, is relayed from the Zacamil. From Suchitoto, the authors excerpt Padre José Inocencio “Chencho” Alas, who trained campesino lay leaders before being forced into hiding and exile; Padre Rutilio Grande was killed in neighboring Aguilares in 1977. From Morazán, Belgian priest Rogelio Ponselle, who ministered to FMLN guerillas and civilians in rebel-held territory during the civil war, describes the communal relations inspired by the lay ministries.

Targeted by state repression in the form of harassment, assassinations, and scorched earth military campaigns, El Salvador’s CEBs were driven into exile. They were “reborn as refugees” in UN camps in Honduras, where they organized to return to their homeland, later caravanning back to resettle abandoned villages and build collective, democratic communities.

The CEBs were much diminished across Latin America following the defeat of the revolutionary movements to which they contributed. “It’s important to note that, at some point the sense was lost of the need for critical analysis of structures that generate death and poverty for the people,” observes one member. The “third generation” of CEBs, from the 2000s to the present, has been marked in many instances by divorce from the parish, together with contemporary problems of violence, migration, and ecological destruction. In another series of libritos, everyday prophets like 14-year-old José Adonay Pérez of a CEB in northeastern Morazán and María Ángela Domínguez Pérez, a social worker raised in a repopulated community, reflect on these struggles.

The authors highlight the CEBs’ multiform “decolonial creativity.” This includes using songs from the nueva trova of the 1960s and the Central American popular Masses of the 1970s and 80s—deeply tied to the national liberation movements of the period—as well as the decommodification of sacraments, women’s religious leadership, and celebrating the eucharist with tortillas, pupusas, or tamales.

Organizing remains central to CEB “decolonial power.” Gandolfo and Potter spotlight internal economic solidarity in the form of cooperatives and mutual aid, together with participation in national struggles against dollarization, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and privatizations, and in favor of food sovereignty and the human right to water. Most CEB members maintained some degree of affiliation or affinity with the FMLN. These personal militancies do not render their organizations partisan, but they do reflect the enduring political commitments of the CEB project in El Salvador, where the “reign of God” is both a utopian horizon and a lived experience of communal care.

The Gods of Wealth and Power

In contrast with the strong institutional relations maintained by CEBs in Guatemala, Honduras or Brazil, in El Salvador “the chuch of lxs pobres has only ever existed as persecuted, liminal, de lucha.” In response, CEBs advance “trenchant critiques of clericalism and a deliberate commitment to communal autonomy.”

Vatican II (1962-1965) opened up space for “empowering lay ecclesial movements,” but it did not break with the hierarchy’s monopoly. To this day, the Church, which never officially revoked the Doctrine of Discovery, affirms the clergy as essentially distinct from Christian laity. “The CEBs, however,” the authors write, “refuse to accept the ontological designation of passive and dependent recipients of divine life.” Instead, they “decolonize the lay-clergy binary” and serve as “priests in everyday life.”

The authors describe “a totally divided Salvadoran church at the beatification of Romero” in 2015, which for CEBs was merely “a recognition of the declaration of the people that have made Romero a saint since the day of his assassination” in 1980. They recount incidents like a 2016 showdown between a Bajo Lempa CEB and a bishop who moved to appropriate the community’s properties in the wake of their priest’s death. By the time of Romero’s 2018 canonization, San Salvador Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas had made conciliatory moves, and CEBs were included in planning the celebrations. The authors’ optimism regarding Alas’s conversion, however, has likely been tempered since he appeared to publicly sanction authoritarian president Nayib Bukele’s unconstitutional reelection bid.

The Question of Solidarity

Addressing a presumed audience of mostly white, North American Christians, Gandolfo and Potter interrogate the coloniality reproduced in the relations between these “privileged Christians” and their Salvadoran counterparts. This discussion draws on the writings of Pope Francis, but it does not spare him: “despite the decolonial impulses in Francis’s understanding of solidarity, the overriding approach to the poor in his papacy too often tends to minimize rather than highlight the historical subjectivity of impoverished and colonized peoples who come together in organized solidarity with one another for the sake of transforming history.” Directed to more affluent and powerful Christians and casting the poor as “passive sufferers,” “the solidarity encouraged here does not move the church toward becoming an iglesia de lxs pobres—a church of the poor—but rather runs the risk of reinscribing a colonial church for the poor.”

Gandolfo and Potter reference groups like Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ), forged in the struggles against U.S. counterrevolutionary violence in the 1980s, which builds sistering relationships between U.S. churches and CEBs. Through the Salvadoran non-profit FUNDAHMER, which functions as the CEBs’ legal face, CEBs work to counter the pernicious tendencies of the “short term mission” model, which can devolve into little more than “religious tourism.” The authors reflect on their own experiences of messiness across cultural, racial, national, and class lines, and the ambiguity of such strategies in the face of persisting structural inequities.

In another example, the authors criticize the 2010 move of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ), a Catholic social justice conference, to Washington, DC from its prior setting at the annual School of the Americas Watch gathering outside the notorious Fort Benning military training center. This shift “eliminated so many important moments of discomfort, of challenge, and of encounter with the world of lxs pobres that happened outside the gates of Fort Benning.” After substituting protest and communion for Jesuit student-led legislative advocacy, the IFTJ's “dialogue is now more of a monologue.”

Decolonial Dilemmas

At its best, the decolonial framework provides a fresh lens through which to examine the anti-patriarchal, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and fundamentally democratic forms of being, building, and struggle in El Salvador’s popular church. But ultimately, it’s not clear what is gained for CEB members by repackaging their theology in terms acceptable to decolonial theory. In the primary and secondary source material gathered by the authors, the CEBs speak eloquently for themselves.

Gandolfo and Potter engage the contradictions between these conceptual traditions. They rebut decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo’s flat-out rejection of liberation theology as irredeemably Western, affirming that “when the CEBs of El Salvador proclaim and practice the reign of God today, they subvert the colonial myths of European/U.S. supremacy, capitalist accumulation, and Roman Catholic triumphalism.” But where they deploy a decisive, radical critique against the Catholic Church, the authors hesitate to interrogate the decolonial categories that they impose on El Salvador’s church of the poor.

Early on, Gandolfo and Potter note that the CEBs do not use the language of coloniality, nor do they identify their praxis as “decolonial.” In parentheses, they admit that CEBs “understand themselves first and foremost as Christian communities.” Often, CEB members use the unfashionable language of anti-imperialism. In that slippage from anti- to de-, something is lost.

In fact, what appears no more than a discursive gesture displaces the materiality of collective mobilization and struggle in history in favor of academic rumination. This elision is commonplace across present-day readings of decolonial favorite Frantz Fanon, which, as Muriam Haleh Davis observes, suppress the internationalist militancies so central to his revolutionary thinking. For all its professions of praxis, decolonial theory is fundamentally preoccupied with epistemics and affects, metaphysics and ontologies. Decoloniality seeks to “unsettle” rather than overthrow. It’s a “turn,” not a movement.

From its academic perch, what Neil Larsen calls the “jargon of decoloniality” threatens to strip decolonization of its revolutionary history and reduce it to an esoteric, even elite intellectual exercise. This is far from Gandolfo and Potter’s intent. “The decolonial epistemology and creativity of El Salvador’s church of lxs pobres…are oriented toward committed action for social transformation, understood theologically as the construction of God’s reign in human history, here and now,” they emphasize. Their closing arguments, however, return to a decidedly interiorizing and discursive framework.

“We hope that the insights we have learned from the CEBs can be helpful for anyone crossing lines of power and privilege to enter into solidarity with persons and communities whose subjectivity has been violated by the coloniality of power,” Gandolfo and Potter conclude. Readers are invited to “resign” from the “overrepresentation of one’s subjectivity.” The authors call for “cultivating the foundational ‘convictions and habits’ that result in delinking from the colonial paradigm of extractivism and capital accumulation.” They prescribe an “undoing of our categories” and forging a “new grammar.” But the social relations of extractivism and capital accumulation do not spring from the minds and mouths of philosophers. Like resignation, this delinking is an individual psychic act. Unlike abolition, these terms imply mentally disconnecting from a system that remains otherwise intact.

Workers of the World

Gandolfo and Potter insist that CEB commitments to salvation do not represent a claim to the universality so forcefully disavowed by decolonial theorists. Yet the tension remains. The class-based category of the poor radiates universal aspirations, weaving through lines of race, nationality, gender, and sexuality to unite “lxs pobres” in a common emancipatory project. “There was a strike that paralyzed all of San Salvador,” remembers CEB member Miguel Zepeda Santos. “If all of us, los pobres, take off the colors of our political parties, if we take off the colors of the Catholic Church, of the evangelicals, and we got out there in the same struggle in the street, then yes, we would put an end to this corruption.”

Rather than embracing these possibilities, the decolonial framework tends toward enforcing a fixed, transhistorical binary between colonized/colonizer. A class-centered appeal might recognize a potential for solidarity of a sort not explored in the text: one based on shared material interests between the dispossessed of the center and periphery of the world system. Instead, Gandolfo and Potter retreat to preparing readers to face the “anxiety” and “fear” that “beneficiaries of coloniality” experience when faced with a real or perceived threat to their privilege.

This analysis presumes that “we” have something fundamental to lose. Instead, we might consider what those suffering from precaritization, privatization, and oppression on the U.S. side of the border could stand to gain from the everyday politics of love and liberation modeled by El Salvador’s Christian base communities, whose radical promise permeates Gandolfo and Potter’s artful tribute. In such an undertaking, decolonial theory may obscure more than it illuminates.

Hilary Goodfriend is a postdoctoral fellow with the Latino and Latin American Studies Research Center at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). She is a member of the NACLA editorial board and holds a phd in Latin American Studies from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

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