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Brazilian Dialogue

February 25

We've heard often (and have, for the most part, hardened our hearts) the denunciation of the latifundios, the huge land holdings of a single owner that so bedevil the lives of millions of Brazilians.

And this column, too, has on occasion presented the denunciations of committed Christians like Bartolome de las Casas, from the very beginning of the Conquest, 500 years ago.

But large land holdings and all the injustices that accompany them have been denounced from the very beginning of Christianity and perhaps hearing some of these voices speak may soften our hearts.

St. Peter already described the church as "a pilgrim church," that is, a church made up of squatters who, expelled, moved on, a church made up of people with "no fixed address."

Gradually, middle class people and occasionally some of aristocratic descent joined the church and it acquired an urban dimension, but always convinced that "goods in common" or at least a generous sharing of goods was the only way for Christians to live.

The celebrated Egyptian Abbot Serapion gave his cloak to a shivering beggar. When a disciple saw him thus exposed to the cold he asked, "Venerable Abbot, who took your cloak?" The abbot pointed to the gospel he was reading and said, "There's the culprit. He took it."

But later that night the abbot encountered a man being dragged off to jail for a small debt he couldn't pay. The abbot promptly sold his Bible and paid the man's debt.

"God didn't create us rich and poor, heaping treasures on one and giving the next one nothing. And he gave everyone the same land to cultivate. So, if land is the common heritage of us all, how is it possible that one has so many hectares and the next one nothing?" (That was St. John Chrysostom talking, saying exactly what a Casaldaliga or Dom Helder might say.) "Mine," and "yours" are damaging words, writes St. Gregory of Nyssa. "They had no value in the beginning. All that came from God is free gift and a blessing."

But holding goods in common was the method of land holding in force among the various tribes that the Europeans conquered and enslaved.

No wonder that the Indians viewed the God of the Europeans with horror as a god of avarice and cruelty.

John Chrysostom again: "The owners of rural properties enrich themselves. But if one does a little research on how they treat their peasant labourers, you will uncover more wickedness than among barbarians. They feed them starvation rations, work them to death, use them like donkeys (to be the "burro" of society is still the principal metaphor the rural workers and slum people of Brazil use to this very day), give them no rest."

"To the hungry belongs the food you hoard! To the person in the rags belongs the clothing in your closets," says St. Basil. For St. Basil the problem is that we live in a state of systemic injustice and exploitation. And St. Basil taught that from such a system believers in the good news of Jesus Christ must distance themselves. But more than that, St. Basil also taught that believers must work to transform so unjust a system.

That brings us back to our own times and especially our own times in Latin America. Many Latin Americans, both home grown and those who came as foreign missionaries, did precisely what St. Basil taught, namely went to work trying to transform the unjust systems in place, beginning with land holdings.

There is where Liberation Theology as born, in Abbot Serapion reading the gospel and giving away his coat; and then, seeing a man being jailed for failure to pay a debt, selling the gospel book itself to pay the debt.

They say Liberation Theology is dead. Well, if it is, we can only repeat what Pope John Paul II once said at the beginning of his pontificate: "If it didn't exist, we'd have to invent it."

Our job, if it's dead, is to get busy reviving it, to reinvent it under another name, if necessary.

Al Gerwing