Monday, August 15, 2022

Daniel Bruno: The Challenges for Methodism in Latin America in Times of Neoliberalism

Today's post is by Rev. Lic. Daniel A. Bruno. Rev. Bruno is a pastor of the Argentina Methodist Church and Professor of Church History. It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) and appears here in translation with the author's permission.

The context
About fifty years ago, it was decided by the centers of world economic power that Latin America should not continue down the path of economic growth and development, of expanding the middle class and industrialization. It was necessary to implement a plan to redirect the wealth. Instead of benefiting the majority and achieving equitable development, the "think tanks" of the new economic model called neoliberalism began to outline plans so that this wealth would drain away and accumulate in a few hands. The first tests of this plan were through the coups d'état that added up in Latin America starting in 1971.

All these violent democratic interruptions had a single purpose: to implement economic models that would allow a redirection of resources and money from the majority to the Latin American elites and their international partners and to repress popular resistance. That model of coups d'état exhausted itself in the mid-1980s. They generated a lot of resistance and, in the long run, were rejected by the population.

The plan was adjusted and now the model is much more subtle.

Economic power acquired the principal mass media of the continent; great economic emporiums now model the subjectivity of the population; and in this way, coups d'état are no longer necessary to discipline the population by force of arms. Media manipulation of subjectivities achieves this effect without generating resistance.

In this way today, in all the countries of the continent, the real power, which goes beyond the shifting governments, is mechanized through three specialized spheres: the economic-financial power, the concentrated mass media, and the judicial powers. This three-pronged pincer is the one that for approximately twenty years has been executing synchronously on the continent a model of exclusion, poverty, deindustrialization, and accumulation of wealth in a few hands that increasingly deteriorates the quality of life of the population. Judicial powers, meanwhile, imprison opponents, and population is deceived by the media, generating false disputes and dividing the peoples to achieve their objectives.

This situation is increasingly cruel, neoliberalism or neocolonialism, is destroying the expectations of life, of the future, and of the development of millions of Latin Americans. And the possibilities of resistance are becoming ever more difficult to implement and more stigmatized by the media.

This oppression and manipulation of subjectivities operates on consciences, managing to dilute the capacity of resistance of the masses. This is one of the most dangerous facets of neoliberalism since it affects the self-awareness of human beings, deceives about their options, and permeates deeper into false beliefs, preventing the possibility of visualizing the real causes that cause their postponement.

A recurring phrase of the Argentine economist Bernardo Kliksberg helps us to understand the consequences of this model. He says: "Latin America is not the poorest continent, but it is the most inequitable." A continent rich in natural resources, it has almost forty percent of its population below the poverty line. How is it possible? This is the result of a model of accumulation for the elites and the active contributing role of the hegemonic media and the judiciary that favor this situation. Now, to this phrase by Kliksberg, we can add… but Latin America is the most Christian continent. How can we understand this?

And the church?
At this point we must recognize that religion has also been co-opted to join this model of new post-modern oppression. Certain evangelical groups have been the most receptive and functional. Due to Latin America’s Christian layers, neoliberalism needed Christian language and symbology to penetrate the population. Indeed, this neocolonial siren song has formatted the theological profile of various evangelical expressions. How? Perhaps one of the best-known examples is that of the prosperity gospel, a theological version of neoliberal capitalism, where the one who “invests” more with money, receives more blessings from “God.”

However, this theological neoliberal culture has managed to impact not only these extravagant phenomena, but also historical Protestant expressions with a wide presence of testimony on the continent.

Anti-ecumenism, for example, has penetrated Protestant traditions that until quite recently had a fruitful dialogue with other traditions. This attitude of reactionary withdrawal is explained by the penetration of conservative fundamentalist currents that have been eroding the more liberal and progressive positions of the historical churches. Already in 1973, the well-known Rockefeller report advised and suggested to the government of Richard Nixon that, in order to curb the most protesting and progressive expressions of the Latin American churches, both Catholic and Protestant, money and programs should be invested to foment the penetration of individualistic theologies, of personal salvation, with contempt for the historical-social views and that fed conservative positions. Undoubtedly, these programs have been successful and the result is in sight.

Today, the vast majority of the Protestant camp has been transformed into a conservative force both theologically and politically, offering its votes to right-wing parties and coalitions in exchange for perks and favors, also acting as a shock force against any attempt at progressive change in Latin American societies.

Methodism in Latin America is not exempt from these temptations
Methodism, as part of the Protestant field in Latin America, has been and is seduced by this model. There are currently many attempts by conservative sectors of North American Methodism to finance projects of this type. A great temptation for churches with meager budgets such as the Latin American Methodists! The imminent breakup of the United Methodist Church in the United States frees some economically powerful groups that seek to finance and co-opt Latin American Methodist churches, in order to turn them into conservative forces in their countries.

This would be a sad end to a Methodism that was at the forefront of the struggle for secular laws and individual liberties at the end of the 19th century; a pioneer in the ecumenical movement in the mid-20th century; creators, along with other denominations, of movements such as FALJE (Federación Argentina de Ligas Juveniles Evangélicas – Argentine Federation of Evangelical Youth), and its later version of ULAJE (Unión Latinoamericana de Juventudes Ecuménicas – Latin American Union of Ecumenical Youth), mobilizing Protestant youth to a deep commitment to unite the good news of the gospel with the historical demands of the Latin American peoples; participation in ISAL (Iglesia y Sociedad en América Latina – Church and Society in Latin America); the fight against dictatorships and the defense of human rights in the 70s, 80s; etc.

We trust that this will not be the case and that Methodism in Latin America will know how to preserve these values. We trust that we are not going to sell our birthright, that is, our fidelity to the gospel embodied in the history of our peoples, for a plate of lentils poisoned with coins from Caesar. For this, it is essential to revisit the origins of our movement with Latin American eyes. To look critically at the cultural clothing with which that tradition came to us in the 19th century, after passing through the religious-cultural atmosphere present in the United States.

We appreciate those missions that made our presence here possible, but today more than ever, it is necessary that the autonomies declared in the 1930s and 60s finish taking root to free the evangelical power of a movement that changed a nation and now, in our context, must change ours.

During August, the Evangelical Methodist Church Argentina through its Methodist Center of Wesleyan Studies is going deeper into these issues through a series of posts. For my part, I will point out briefly in a next post some aspects that deserve to be debated to glimpse a new horizon and a possible future for our Methodist churches.

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