For the last 30 years, Phil McManus has been actively engaged in promoting peace, justice and active nonviolence in Latin America and in U.S.-Latin America relations, working with a number of different organizations, including the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation. He is the Latin America Program Officer for the Appleton Foundation, and with Gerald Schlabach, co-editor of Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America (available from Wipf and Stock Publishers). He is an Oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA, and a member of the Redwood Nonviolence Community, an intentional community based in Santa Cruz, CA.
In our conversation, Philip and I discuss his experiences in Latin America working for nonviolent social change in the context of often brutal repression and injustice. In particular, we discuss the widespread phenomenon of Christian base communities, which continue today but flourished especially for several decades after Vatican II (1962-65). Prompted by Vatican II’s emphasis on the church as servant to the poor, sensitive to reading the ‘signs of the times’ as the lens through which the gospel message is received and acted upon, the Conference of Latin American Bishops met in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia, to discern what this entailed for Latin America. Taking serious stock of the Latin American social, economic, and political landscape, the Conference took the unprecedented step of urging a ‘preferential option for the poor’ for their churches, posing a strong challenge to 500 years of the Catholic Church’s virtual collusion with the economic and political elite of the region. Amid this ferment, Christian base communities arose in astounding numbers, comprised of mostly poor, disenfranchised people who read, studied, and acted upon scripture from the reality of their own experience, perceptions, needs, and challenges.
Philip speaks of how his own Christian faith has been nourished and transformed as he encountered fresh, challenging readings of scripture from the “base”; that is, from within the collective struggles of those at the bottom of the social pyramid striving to realize the reign of love Jesus taught and inaugurated. This form of reading and responding to scripture challenges North American prerogatives in at least four ways: first, social conditions illuminate the meaning of scripture and vice versa, which is to say that the truths of scripture do not float above history but rather dynamically address our common needs and concerns today, and what God intends therein; secondly, the reading of scripture is a communal rather than individual undertaking; third, the poor and marginalized, as the victims of social systems that glorify wealth, power, and prestige, occupy a privileged position from which to understand Jesus’ message; and fourth, the gospel cannot be understood apart from action—through a cycle of action and reflection, the community interiorizes and actualizes the gospel message as an ongoing transformative process. These basic tenets pose a stark contrast to the common tendency to privatize the gospel message as primarily concerned with individual salvation, independent of social, economic, and political realities.
I was eager to include Philip’s thoughts here because of his ability to communicate, from a particular perspective, a theme I encounter over and over again. From Parish Collective’s insistence upon doing theology in the context of rootedness in one’s neighborhood, to New Monasticism’s provocative first mark (“relocation to the abandoned places of Empire”), to Servants Vancouver’s incarnational approach to mission, each share the insight that context and community matter. The concrete needs of our neighbors lay claim on us as disciples of Jesus Christ, and this requires some understanding of the social, economic, and political systems in which we’re embedded. From a Catholic perspective, this “method” was profoundly enfleshed amid the liberation movements of Latin America during the time period alluded to above.
For many of us Christians in North America, formed in a fragmented culture, habituated to an illusion of self-sufficiency, taught a gospel of individual and more often than not unearthly salvation, the habits of communal living don’t necessarily come easily. Hence, lessons gleaned from people on the margins, who are inescapably sensitive to their dependence on God and one another, can be indispensable to our own growth in community.
Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.