George Monbiot writes: ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” So said the Brazilian archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara. His adage exposes one of the great fissures in the Catholic church, and the emptiness of the new pope’s claim to be on the side of the poor.
The bravest people I have met are all Catholic priests. Working in West Papua and then in Brazil, I met men who were prepared repeatedly to risk death for the sake of others. When I first knocked on the door of the friary in Bacabal, in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, the priest who opened it thought I had been sent to kill him. That morning he had received the latest in a series of death threats from the local ranchers’ union. Yet still he opened the door.
Inside the friary was a group of peasants – some crying and trembling – whose bodies were covered in bruises made by rifle butts, and whose wrists bore the marks of rope burns. They were among thousands of people the priests were trying to protect, as expansionist landlords – supported by police, local politicians and a corrupt judiciary – burned their houses, drove them off their land, and tortured or killed those who resisted.
I learned something of the fear in which the priests lived when I was beaten and nearly shot by the military police. But unlike them, I could move on. They stayed to defend people whose struggles to keep their land were often a matter of life or death: expulsion meant malnutrition, disease and murder in the slums or the goldmines.
The priests belonged to a movement that had swept across Latin America, after the publication of A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez in 1971. Liberation theologists not only put themselves between the poor and the killers, they also mobilised their flocks to resist dispossession, learn their rights and see their struggle as part of a long history of resistance, beginning with the flight of the Israelites from Egypt.
By the time I joined them, in 1989, seven Brazilian priests had been murdered; many others across the continent had been arrested, tortured and killed; Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, had been shot dead. But dictators, landlords, police and gunmen were not their only enemies. Seven years after I first worked in Bacabal, I returned and met the priest who had opened the door. He couldn’t talk to me. He had been silenced, as part of the church’s great purge of dissenting voices. The lions of God were led by donkeys. The peasants had lost their protection. [Continue reading…]