by C. Peter Wagner
No one questions that our world of today is an exciting place to live. It has been called by many names: the Age of Science, the Atomic Age, the Space Age, and even the Erotic Age.
No one questions that our world of today is an exciting place to live. It has been called by many names: the Age of Science, the Atomic Age, the Space Age, and even the Erotic Age. The old East-West struggle is taking on new dimensions. In Africa the day of the white man’s colonialism has come to an end. Satellites rocket into orbit without even making headlines any more. Surgeons can transplant human internal organs with increasing ease. And one of the most exciting features of our age is the blaze of a social revolution sweeping world-wide through the under developed countries.
This social revolution is perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the Latin American scene today. From Argentina to Cuba not a country is exempt from powerful revolutionary forces that threaten to rip asunder traditional social structures. Evangelical missions are caught in the surge. What to do in such an environment is the question of the day. Many observers feel that perhaps the Latin American social revolution will provide the finest opportunity in history for the spread of the Gospel.
It’s not easy for citizens of non-revolutionary countries like our Anglo-Saxon homelands to understand and sympathize with what is going on. The United States, for example, has risen to an economic affluence unprecedented in the history of the world through a gradual process of evolution in the framework of free enterprise. (Per capita income is $2200 compared to some $200 in Latin America.1) The most natural thought process for a gringo would be: "We didn’t need a social revolution to bet where we are – why should they?"
LATIN SOCIAL STRUCTURES
Well, why should they? A glance into history will show most clearly that social structures in Latin America developed along lines quite different from those of Anglo-Saxon lands.
Beginning with the great Indian civilizations, the Aztec Mayas in Central America and the Incas of the Andean region, the stage was preset for a feudal-type system. The Indian cultures were paternalistic, and the common man had little need to think for himself. Every phase of his life was ordered from above, and he was fully resigned to his situation. He became a fatalist and drew his only enjoyment of life from his recurring fiestas. Bolivian author Gustavo Adolfo Otero says, "The elimination of political thought in the Inca regime by means of a partriarchal, autarchic system killed all ambition and inhibited individual initiative."2
When the Spanish conquistadores came upon the scene they saw no reason to change things. The Spaniards took the place of the Indian emperors and kept the masses in subjection. Rule both before and after the wars of independence became concentrated in an oligarchy – a few powerful ruling families in each country that dominated the political scene for centuries. These Spanish and criollo families amassed fantastic riches, banked their money in Switzerland and other foreign countries, lived luxurious lives, and took virtually no interest in the social well-being of their people.
Sons of the wealthy families usually had their careers set for them by the order in which they were born. The first would take over the father’s estate. The second would enter the priesthood. This, coupled with deep traditions from Spain, tied the army and the church in closely with the oligarchy.
Separation of church and state was not a live option. The relation was so close that at times it was indistinguishable able; the result was that the church had an absolute monopoly on the souls of men. This went to such an extreme that at the same time Moya y Contreas of Mexico was viceroy, inquisitor general, and archbishop.3 So jealous was the church of this favored position that in the Spanish colonies the only criminal offence punishable by death was heresy. High-ranking officers in the army and navy often assumed political power. Most of Latin America’s strong-armed dictators havebeen military men; many countries today are under direct or indirect military control.
If we can picture Latin America as a huge meat pie, we can see the problem more clearly. The pie is full of a substance that represents the masses of the continent. But over the top of the masses is a thin, tough crust composed of the oligarchy, the church, and the military. Although this crust is thin, it is powerful and it holds the elements below it in complete subjection.
For the 450 years following the conquest, there were few problems. The masses were quiet, resigned to their fate as second-rate citizens and virtual slaves. Since they did not enjoy the luxury of education, they had little chance of discovering that elsewhere in the world people didn’t live as they did. With the church’s index of prohibited books, liberal and revolutionary ideas were effectively kept from disturbing the population.
But the twentieth century has seen a great change. Especially through mass communications media – newspapers, magazines, radio, moving pictures – the common people of Latin America have begun to awaken. Instead of being indifferent and fatalistic, they now see their inferior status as an example of gross social injustice. The masses are no longer inert; the pie is bubbling in some places violently, in others more quietly. But as the fire underneath increases through propaganda, through labor unions, through nationalism, through Marxist-oriented universities, the pressure against the upper crust builds up stronger and stronger.
When the pressure from the masses reaches a certain point, the upper crust has to give. This process is -called the social revolution. It has nothing in common with the numerous coups d’etat that under the name of "revolutions" have speckled the history of every Latin American country. Those have been simply power changes within the crust. They have done nothing to alter the basic semi-feudal social structure.
Only three Latin American countries have successfully carried out what are widely recognized as legitimate social revolutions: Mexico (1910-1917), Bolivia (1952), and Cuba (1959). In these countries the crust has been broken. But in the other eighteen republics the same pressures exist; it is only a matter of time until they burst forth.
Here is where the two great world powers come on the scene. Both Russia and the United States see what is happening, but they do not agree about how the problems should be solved. The dialectic of communism contends that a violent revolution of the proletariat is the most effective way of dealing with the situation. The United States (presently through the Alliance for Progress) holds that not revolution but peaceful evolution is the answer. Tempting as it might be, this is not the place to comment on the completing ideologies and their respective realism or idealism, as the case may be. But it should be mentioned that many of today’s Latin Americans are not prepared to embrace either communism a-la-Moscow or capitalism a-la-Washington. They are searching for a third way, a solution to their problem that has roots in their own soil.
The population explosion throws an aura of urgency over the whole matter. In 1900 there were only sixty-three million people in Latin America. Today there are 200 million, in 1975 there will be 300 million, and at the turn of the century 600 million. Growth here is the most rapid in the world: 2.6 per cent. Somehow the new additions will have to eat, go to school, live in houses, find jobs – none of which are anywhere near adequate even for today’s population. Decisive action can he postponed no longer. Ex-President Jose Figueres of Costa Rica, a moderate, says, "Time is short. Latin America is in a revolutionary mood. It has a great deal to change. It is far too late for a slow-paced revolution."4
THE CHRISTIAN ATTITUDE
What is a Christian to make of all this? The Bible, especially through the prophets, speaks out strongly against social injustice (e.g., Ezekiel 22:23-29 and Amos 8:4-8 ). If we have a just God, he cannot be pleased to see a land owner make $50,000 a year while his 100 workers don’t even earn $1000 among them all. No Christian can fail to be disturbed by such conditions.
In our time there have been two rather extreme reactions among missionaries to the social revolution. On the one hand fundamentalists have tended to establish a sort of Protestant monasticism, refusing to participate at all in the problems of the day. They have not seen texts like John 17:18, "As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world," as a reference to their social responsibility. In reaction against the social gospel they have become almost antisocial.
On the other hand liberals have tended to swing too far the other way in identifying themselves with the world. At the December, 1963, meeting of the World Council of Churches Commission on World Mission and Evangelism in Mexico City, the trend became so obvious that even liberal Christian Century sounded a warning note. "In their eagerness to eschew pietist escapism and to affirm Christ’s lordship over all areas of life, the `beyond Bonhoeffer’ contingent seemed to counsel a kind of Dionysian immersion in the secular world, as if secularism were an unqualified good and temporal history of ultimate validity and value."5 They tend to skip over texts such as 1 John 2:15, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him."
Certainly Bonhoeffer has a point when he says, "The `philanthropy’ of God (Titus 3:4 ) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love towards all on earth that bears the name of man."6 We need to imitate Christ in his incarnation, as Phillipians 2:5 clearly indicates when it commands, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus," introducing the central biblical passage on the incarnation. As we strive to incarnate ourselves in the affairs of this world, however, we must at all costs avoid participating in its sin.
If today’s missionary, then, is to incarnate himself somehow in the world of a social revolution, he should be careful to be informed about the new conditions emerging from it. In Latin America he should be particularly aware of three developments:
1. The new Latin America. No longer is the Latin American the stereotyped fat man with a big mustache, reclining against an adobe wall, sound asleep under his huge sombrero.
He’s wide awake, alert, and often knows much more about the world than his gringo counterpart. Latin university students, for example, buy the daily papers and read them, quite unlike our typical "Joe College." The new Latin American is not only informed, he is also angry. He was raised by illiterate parents in a mud hovel out in the country, or in a vermininfested city slum. But he refuses to bring up his own children that way, and he intends to do something about it. He is also strongly nationalistic. He feels that his country has been unjustly exploited by foreign interests for centuries, and now it is high time that he and his countrymen take matters into their own hands and attempt to solve their own problems. That’s why he paints "Yankee go home" on his walls.
2. The new society. As these men take positions of leadership they cry out for land reform, public education for all, higher standards of living. They form themselves into labor unions that wield more and more power. They move from the country to the cities, contribute to the serious problem of urban explosion, and then demand adequate housing, plumbing, electricity, and employment.
3. The new economy. In the face of these rapid social changes, one conclusion has been generally reached. If theeconomy is to hope to keep up with them it must be planned. This means that the role of the state is infinitely more important than in the affluent, capitalistic countries. A state-planned economy means, of course, socialism. But one must not fall into the error of identifying socialism with communism. In fact, as Robert Alexander observes, "Political democracy can be solidly established in most of these countries only if the social and economic revolution becomes an accomplished fact."7
One-party politics is the rule; usually the revolutionary party rejects capitalism as strongly as communism. But because it is socialistic our gringo tendency is to "describe them as `leftist’ or even as ‘Red-lining,"’ as Radler puts it. But he continues, "We must learn to live with them; indeed we must be prepared to support them, if we are not to lose the friendship of Latin American governments."8
ROLE OF MISSIONS
What is the role of evangelical missions in such a continent of ferment? The built-in conservatism of most evangelicals militates against an active participation, or at times even recognition of, the changing conditions. But missionary strategy even of the 1950’s will not suffice for an effective ministry to day. The social revolution is pushing missionaries and mission boards into a serious rethinking of their place in Latin Amerca can life.
This is not to say that the missionary is no longer caller to preach the Gospel. The fulfillment of the Great Commission is still his primary task. But in order to reach a people with the Gospel he must communicate with them; as Eugene Nida ha frequently pointed out, identification is a vital aspect of communication If Latin Americans do not instinctively feel that we love and understand them in their social as well as their religious aspirations, they will not be too willing to listen to what we have to say.
Jesus’ command "go and do thou likewise" follows the parable of the Good Samaritan. We must be ready to bind up the wounds of the people to whom we minister. This mean social action, but not the social gospel. In Bolivia some mission:
began their work with social programs, hoping that from them churches would develop. They didn’t. So now they have changed and they are building churches around the preaching of the Gospel. Other missions began with evangelism, and they have the churches. But now they realize that they have neglected the social aspect of their Christian responsibility. Today we need to develop a balance. Gospel preaching will always demand first priority, but involvement in the social revolution will help prepare the ground for the message of salvation.
Nationalism puts the gringo missionary on the spot. Should the Yankee go home? Richard Shaull has one of the finest statements I have seen on the subject. He says,
This revolutionary situation demands, I believe, a new and unusual type of missionary. As the present trend develops, many of those who are now there will find themselves more and more insecure and frustrated as they are confronted with situations which they can neither understand nor relate to their Christian faith. The need at this moment is for people who are free to live in a situation of almost total insecurity, in which everything is in a state of flux; people who are able to understand why they are disliked as North Americans and live by the forgiveness of their sins in such an atmosphere. The present moment demands men and women who are able to understand the revolution sympathetically, and to deal imaginatively, in terms of Christian faith, with the issues and dilemmas which people face in it. For those who do not have these qualifications, it is simply better for all concerned that they not go there?
Old fashioned paternalism is one of the most odious features of gringo activity to a nationalistic Latin. If we have been treating the Indians like children in the past, wemust now come to terms with them as men. And we must be ready for an inevitable result of the social revolution: the nationals will soon be considering us as inferiors! Are we big enough to take it in stride?
I have heard a disturbed national leader call a missionary an "imperialist." This is one of the dirtiest words he could use. The outburst came at a time of tension, but the thing that had offended the national was that the missionary had made some important decisions without proper consultation. One of the great adjustments that modern missions has to make is to work with nationals on an equal basis. More and more responsibility must be placed in national hands. The Latin America Mission has developed what it calls a "Partnership Program" in a oncefor-all attempt to purge the Great White Father image.
Before heavy responsibilities can be placed in national hands, leadership must be trained. This is why, in my opinion, theological education must be given first priority in mission planning today. No effort should be spared to bring out every bit of the potential in our national Christian leaders. This will involve expansion of Bible institutes and seminaries, new facilities, concentration of top missionary personnel in centers of population, and scholarship programs. It also means encouraging young people to get as much training in secondary school and university as possible before studying for the ministry.
Then as nationals assume greater responsibilities, missionaries in turn must be ready and willing to reexamine every aspect of their traditional structures. They will be forced by nationals to reexamine relationships with other evangelical groups. They will be questioned about whether they are spending their money properly. They will have to take a second look at their liturgy. An extremely interesting statement comes from a pastor in Cuba: "Many North American ways of doing things have disappeared. Church services are freer and more spontaneous. Our light and senseless Gospel choruses have been abandoned. Singing is predominantly Latin American"10
All these things mean that if we are to keep up with the social revolution we will need to permit a revolution in our own thinking. But all in all we are living in times that could be extremely favorable to the growth the church. A well-known Uruguayan pastor puts this:
When a man begins to think of the possibilities of change; when the masses begin to wake up and want to want to shake off the yoke of time, this is the great opportunity we have to present a Gospel which itself is revolutionary. It is when men lose the fear of a taboos of yesterday’s society that they are open to receive the Gospel. This can be Latin America’s greatest opportunity. When structures change, when all is unsure, we can point to a o who can show us how to live in the midst of the most radical social canes with malice toward none and in a spirit of love.11
1. For a closer analysis see Samuel Shapiro, Invisible Latin America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963 Chapter 2.
2 Quoted by W. Stanley Rycroft, Religion and Faith in Latin America (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), p. 47.
3. J. Lloyd Mecham Church and State in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1934), p. 43.
4. Quoted by Shapiro, Invisible Latin America, p. 13.
5. Dean Peerman "Church and World," Christian Century, Jan. 22 1964, p. 104.
6 Detrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship. (New York: Macmillian, 1959), p. 272.
7. Robert J. Alexander, Prophets Prophets of the Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 3.
8. D. H. Radler, El Gringo: The Yankee Image in Latin America, (Philadelphia: Chilton, 1962), p. 141.
9. Richard Shaull, The Revolutionary Mood in Latin America (New York: CCLA, 1962). pp. 19, 20.
10. Wolfe Hansen "Desfallece la Iglesia en Cuba?" El Predicador Evangelico, Enero-Marzo, 1964.
11. Emilio Castro "Aspectos Ideologicos De solo Nuestro Continente." Unpublished paper presented at the Latin American Consultation on Life and Mission of the Methodist Church February 24-March 5, 1962.
EMQ, Jan. 1965, pp. 19-27. Copyright © 1965 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.