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The Second Cooler as Liberation Theology

Delivered, DeSales University
October 28, 2013

“As many of you know, liberation theology is often said to have begun in Latin America in the 1960s. It began when pastors and theologians began to ask, “How can we be Christians in a world of catastrophic suffering and oppression?” They began to expand on a pastoral model that involves three things—seeing, analyzing and acting.

Rubem Alves
Rubem Alves


Ernesto Cardenal
Ernesto Cardenal

Brazil’s Rubem Alves and Leonardo Boff, Peru’s Gustavo Gutiérrez, Mexico’s Jon Sobrino, El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, Nicaragua’s Ernesto Cardenal and many others began really to see. They began to see the millions and hundreds of millions and billions of people in the world who are starving, whose life-expectancy is far lower than ours in the U. S., who live in absolute poverty, who have no work or only occasional work and a per capita annual income of a few hundred dollars a year, who are illiterate, who have no regular, dependable water supply. They began to really see the people who suffered from the U. S.-backed military dictatorships and torture then characteristic of Latin American politics.

They began to analyze. They began to conclude that economic developmentalism was one of the root causes of socioeconomic oppression. They began to conclude that developmentalism was closely tied to military dictatorships and to the national security state. Developmentalism, they concluded, caused significant industrial development and the development of great wealth, to be sure, but only for the very, very few.

The flip side of the coin was the development of massive poverty, especially as industrial development threw huge sectors of the peasantry into deeper rural marginalization or into sprawling urban shantytowns. When strong popular movements began to seek changes, military dictatorships and the national security state rose to safeguard the interests of capital through political repression and police control of public demonstrations. People who insisted on protesting anyway, including hundreds of priests and nuns, began to “disappear” in shocking numbers.

Liberation theologians began to conceptualize the structures of socioeconomic and political oppression in theological terms. They began to analyze oppression in terms of sin. They began to understand that systems which cause massive suffering and death are not the causes of sin nor are they the consequences of sin. Instead, liberation theologians began to conclude that developmentalism and the national security state are themselves “structural sin.” They began to conclude that if one of the themes of the Bible was the overcoming of sin, then structural sin needed to be overcome.

And this could not be accomplished through charity or through reforms. By charity, I mean what we do when we are moved by the sight of widespread destitution to offer aid to individuals—when we form agencies or organize projects. And by reforms I mean efforts to improve the situation of the poor, but within existing social relationships and the basic structuring of society. It’s true that reforms can lead to development in poorer nations, but almost always at the expense of the poor and rarely in their favor.

Liberation theologians began to re-read and re-think the Bible. They began to conclude that the central theme of the Bible and of Christianity is God’s radical identification with the “non-persons” of history, those whose basic dignity and rights are denied them. They began to say that the Church must make a “preferential option for the poor.” They began to speak in terms of crucifying socioeconomic and political systems and about the resurrection of those crucified persons in the here and now.

They also began to “conscientize” the poor. Conscientizing is not the same thing as consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising is when we become aware of the suffering of other people. But conscientizing means raising oppressed people’s awareness of their situation in the world—that it is not caused by God or their own shortcomings, but that it is caused by sinful systems that can and should be overcome.
So now we come to the subject of illegal immigration and my experience with it.

In June, 2006, I made my first trip to the US / Mexico border. I had begun to see increasing numbers of migrants in Alabama. I had begun to hear people discussing them, often using less than flattering words. Seeing and hearing, I understood that if I were to have a positive impact, I needed to engage in deep analysis. So, on what was basically an impulse, I went to the US / Mexico border.

One of the places I went to was the Center for Migrant Resources in Agua Priest, MX where a woman whose name was Hermila Vargas was documenting human rights abuses of migrants, often at the hands of the U. S. Border Patrol, so they tell her. There is a piece of paper she gives to people who come through. It has practical information on it like: “the distance between here and Tucson is 160 KM!” But it also tells them, “Because you are a human being, you have rights.” In other words, she is conscientizing them to realize that they are entitled to water if they are picked up by Border Patrol by virtue of the fact they are human beings.

One of the first persons I spoke with after I flew into Tucson was John Fife, a retired Presbyterian minister and former organizer of the Sanctuary Movement which in the 1980s smuggled Salvadorans and others out of Central America. He said that the root cause of illegal immigration is the North American Free Trade agreement which was signed in 1992 by U. S. and Mexican Presidents Bill Clinton and Carlos Salinas and by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He said that NAFTA, a type of economic developmentalism, had pushed at least 1 ½ million farmers in the corn and beans sectors of the Mexican agricultural economy into bankruptcy, off their lands and into illegal immigration.

When I went to the Center for Attention to Migrants in Exodus in Agua Prieta, MX, a shelter which ministers to illegal immigrants, a volunteer whose name is Catalina Ramírez-Medina said that the root cause of illegal immigration is the North American Free Trade Agreement which, she said, “spun Mexico 360 degrees,” making “the rich richer, the poor poorer and Mexico less safe and more miserable.”

And when I went to a coffee co-operative, which had been given a $20,000 micro-loan by a Presbyterian minister allowing farmers to relocate onto their lands, they talked about the North American Free Trade agreement creating Mexican “ghost towns.”

And when I went to the home of a laywoman in Nogales, MX who started a free-lunch program for the children of migrants, she said that by lowering local profits, the North American Free Trade Agreement adversely affected the ability of local small businesspeople to support her program.

I talked with Fife and others about the consequences of the militarization of the US / Mexico border which began in conjunction with NAFTA. And how around 5,000 migrant bodies or their remains had been recovered from the US borderlands. And how the US knew they were sending migrants, displaced by NAFTA, to their deaths in the hostile Sonora Desert in southern Arizona.

What impressed me about John Fife, Ramírez-Medina and the others was not that they cared about the suffering of the people of Mexico. Everybody cares about the suffering of the people of Mexico. What impressed me was that they were not content merely to offer charity, although they did offer charity. What impressed me was that they analyzed the suffering of the poor of Mexico and that they came to conclusions. When I asked them what I should say to people back in Alabama, not one asked me to ask for money, or goods, or short-term mission projects. A few did say we should see the faces of Christ in the poor. But mostly what they asked me to do was to tell you about NAFTA and about the catastrophic suffering it has caused. And that is what I have been doing since June, 2006. Having seen, having analyzed, having been asked to report, I began to act. I began by telling people with a power point presentation what I had learned on my trip. One thing led to another and in the summer of 2008, I began filming a documentary in order to try to reach a wider audience.

When you watch The Second Cooler, I hope you see it as liberation theology. Because that is what it is. It represents my having seen and analyzed human displacement. It is my way of acting. I want to to raise the consciences of people like the students at DeSales. I want to conscientize displaced Spanish speaking people who watch the movie in non-University settings.

But more than that, you will see that I emphasize the catastrophic impact of economic developmentalism on poor people and its relationship to militarism. You will meet John Fife and others I met 7 years ago at the border. You will hear the voice of actor Martin Sheen, who has been arrested numerous times for non-violent protest including protesting the operation of the School of the Americas, known for its role in training military dictators, in Columbus, GA. You will hear the music of Jordan Bullard, a young man who worked in the Center for Migrant Resources in Agua Prieta, Mexico. You will see former lay minister, Mike Wilson, a member of the Tohono O’Odham Tribal Nation talk about the overtly religious meaning of developmentalism and militarism. And you will notice that I’ve used religious imagery strategically.

I want to invite you to see and analyze with me. I want to invite you to act with me in changing the content of the conversation about immigration so that together we may be a presence for good in this broken world of ours.

Thank you.

©Ellin Jimmerson, 2013

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