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The Poor in Latin America: Caught Between Ideologies and Politics


Steve Schlackman

Rafael F. Luciani - published on 02/22/15

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In Jesus Christ we see a very clear and unique option for society’s poorest. As Pope Francis insists, Jesus does not approach the poor to make them dependent but to liberate them and bring power into their lives. Nor does he make them participants in a political ideology, as could have been the case if St. Peter’s hopes for a Davidic messianism had been fulfilled.

In the governments of Latin America, one can appreciate an important increase in concern for the poor, but they have also been manipulated and even converted, in many cases, into objects of ideas, ways of life and political adherence on which they base all their hopes.

Speeches and public policies for the poor are not enough. It is important that the whole of society begins to understand that it ought to assume the cause of the poor, because we can only grow as societies when we all fight against the conditions that produce dependence, poverty and authoritarianism.

In political history there have always been people with messianic ambitions or great leaders who have dominated the life of a whole country for many years, by exercising political authority and the total control of all the institutions of the State. However, to this socio-political phenomenon there is added in our times a new pseudo-religious element. That someone who has been named a so-called (political) messiah is now being turned into an object of worship and religious submission.

This is the case of Hugo Chavez, to whom the current president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, swore, in the name of all his followers, absolute adherence such as extends beyond his death and has called him the Christ of the poor.

This was also the case with Eva Perón in Argentina.

When the whole life of an individual, beginning with his most essential expectations and beliefs, including economic development and religious practice, revolve around the existence of a historical subject or ideological project, it is easy to convert it into an object of worship. What we Christians know as idolatry is translated here under the form of a cult of political messianism, with the aim of maintaining the continuity of authoritarian regimes by making use of the consciences and religious beliefs of the poorest and neediest.

This new phenomenon of a postmortem cult of a political figure has become translated into religious practices which are fused with elements proper to Santeria (a popular form of religious beliefs and cult of death) and witchcraft, while mixing them with Eucharistic celebrations and community prayers presided over by members of the Catholic community and of other religious denominations. All this is required to be propagated by the social media of state radio and television, with the purpose of creating an imaginary popular religious alternative, with purely political ends, where the syncretism is such that the manipulation behind it all cannot be clearly discerned.

How could this come to be in a continent that is, at least nominally, majority Catholic? Could it be that the Church, as well as Christian communities in general, has not known for a long time how to teach that God is the Father of all and that He is the only Person to whom we owe adherence in an absolute way? Have we been properly taught that Jesus is the only Messiah and that no other Christ is possible, because He is the only Son and Lord? Perhaps we ought to remember that choice which Jesus posed with such clarity: “either God or Caesar,” " God or money." To whom do we owe absolute adherence? Where are our hearts? To whom do we pray? How do we use our money?

This union of political messianism and pseudo-religious speeches, these religious alternatives, will keep on appearing as long as there is poverty and we do not take up the cause of the poor and as long as we do not recognize that in Jesus`s humanity — his concrete words and deeds towards the poor and his prophetic criticism of the powerful — we encounter the unique mediator of salvation, and not in a politician, a parish priest or a mere social figure of this world.

Rafael Luciani is professor of Systematic Theology and Christology at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas and Pontificia Università Salesiana in Rome and a Fellow Professor at Boston College. Twitter @rafluciani or

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