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The Church We Imagine for Latin America:

Faith and Identity in Todays Globalized World1


Nicols Panotto
When we speak of identity, we are far from referring to an easily recognizable entity, much less
to a measurable group of elements that make this something identifiable. In speaking of
identity, rather, we refer to a specific period of time with a past, a present, and a future; to an
experience that relates to a particular person or group of people and their environment; to a
history that is made up of many histories; and to a context that is subject to all of the above.
We must keep this broad description in mind when we speak of our continent. The term Latin
America, which is the most commonly used descriptor for our region, does not mean only a
geographic area. It also implies a reference to a history with many changing manifestations, to a
context that is continually in flux, to the accumulated experiences of the men and women who
are a part of it and who name it, among many other elements. On the other hand, it involves
adhering to perceptions: individuals and communities (however that individual or community
perceives itself), in spite of reading written history and analyzing its socioanthropologic context
in a deep academic way, will always see it from their own singular perspective and viewpoint.
On that topic, Alan Rouqui succinctly expresses the following:
So we use this comfortable term [Latin America], but knowingly, that is, without
ignoring its limitations and ambiguities. Latin America exists, but only by opposition and
from the outside. This signifies that Latin Americans, in any category, do not represent
any tangible reality beyond vague extrapolations or cowardly generalizations.2
This quote leads us to consider some central aspects required to understand our region: What is
it? What was it? What will it be? Latin America is a continent whose identity was and is
constructed by a collection of elements that do not only reflect internal aspects but also
narratives, intentions, and dynamics that spill over its borders.3 In other words, Latin America is
constructed as an otherness. By making this statement, we do not want to fall into a
Manicheism that separates reality into perpetrators and victims, from a simplistic dualistic
point of view. Nor do we want to say that the perpetrators are outside of us and that here there
are only recipients and victims of the behavior of these others.
When we say from the outside or from the others, we are not referring only to specific
people who are alien to the continent (though of course such do exist). Rather we are referring to
systems, narratives, values, ideals, and cultural norms, among other elements, which erupted
abruptly in the history of Latin America only a few centuries ago and which, since that time,
have reconfigured the current cultures and identities, at least as they have been developing since
then. Here the useful category of historical actualization proposed by Darcy Ribeiro can be used
1

Published in Journal of Latin American Theology. V.14, N.2, 2014, 139-157


Alan Rouqui, Amrica Latina: introduccin al Extremo Occidente (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1989), 3.
3
Edward Said applies the same thesis in the case of the Orient in Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
2

to describe those [Latin American] people who, suffering the impact of societies with more
highly developed technology, become subject to these, losing their autonomy and running the
risk of seeing their culture traumatized and their ethnic profile defaced.4 In summary, this
historical upgrading represented by the process of colonialization and the terms subsequently
introduced (conquest, invasion, death, Europeanization, exploitation, etc.) were events that, far
from simply being dead facts from centuries ago, form, on the contrary, part of Latin American
genetics until the present time.
Because of all this, it is essential to return to the Latin America imagined by all the actors in the
play. Regarding imagination we turn to Benedict Anderson, who defined nation as an
imagined political community that tries to carve out its place using a series of identifying
borders but which, precisely because of this attempt, is in reality fallible and self-imposed.5
Therefore we use the term imagination as a formative dynamic that refers to the heterogeneous
contexts and the temporary nature of definitions. It is in the imagination where worlds are
created, where realities are woven from the threads of experiences. Imagination is not the same
thing as a fantasy or a dream, though it may be like these. We utilize this term principally to
emphasize that there is not one Latin America. There are as many images of Latin America as
there are men and women who coexist and relate to one another sharing those symbols, stories,
and narratives with which they construct what they intuit to be reality; that is, the Latin
American realities.
How Do We Imagine Latin American Identity?
To carry out this exercise, which we all do daily, we must keep some things in mind. We never
imagine out of nothingness. We always do it within a framework, through experiences we have
had as subjects and shared with those around us; from a context made up of social, economic,
religious, political, and cultural elements. Essentially, we imagine out of that vital space in which
we experience our daily life surrounded by men and women who share our culture, with whom
we partake of a particular economic system, ruled by a political framework that is founded and
shaped by a variety of social and cultural norms (either by election or by imposition).
From this place we could mention a series of central elements within this Latin American
space from which each of us gives free rein to our imagination and answers existential
questions as basic as Who am I?, Where am I?, Where am I going? And for all of these
reasons, we can say that the viewpoint we will propose next is precisely a singular snippet, which
we will find is shared by many others but which can also lack (and certainly does lack!) certain
elements.
A Heterogeneous Identity
Todorov Tzvetan says, Unless grasping [understanding] is accompanied by a full
acknowledgment of the other as subject, it risks being used for purposes of exploitation, of
taking; knowledge will be subordinated to power.6 This is what occurred on our continent: a
clash of cultures, as we say, which, far from being a cordial event, implied dominance of one
4

Darcy Ribeiro, Las amricas y la civilizacin (Buenos Aires: CEAL, 1972), 34.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso,
2006), 6.
6
Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (Norma, OK: University of Oklahoma,
1999), 132.
5

group over another; or rather, a group of local communities found themselves dominated by a
much smaller group of Western European nations.
Frequently this historical event is diluted under certain ideological flags (certainly not by those
who raise them but by those who reside on the other side), such as indigenous, such and
such movements, etc. A whole series of labels (which are certainly legitimate in themselves) are
seen as simple viewpoints rather than as perspectives that defend the memory of concrete
historical events; that is, the conquest and invasion of the continent in 1492, carried out in such a
brutal and bloody manner, which is the event that marked the life of this continent. We cannot
flee from this fact. What of the indigenous groups that were equally cruel toward other sister
communities? It is true. What of the many who accompanied the conquerors yet repented
midway and ended up as stalwart defenders of the unfortunate ones? It is also true. Yet neither of
these facts softens the atrocity of the history that was suffered, as some attempt to imply. This
historical event, of which we are all a part since our multiform cultural heritage that stems from
it is undeniable, marked the continent in a way thatwe must not forgetstill exerts a powerful
influence on Latin Americas current situation.
In this regard, Catherine Walsh7 summarizes four areas within colonialism that remain valid in
our day and age, demonstrating the complex beginnings of the conquest, which, as we said, still
persist today. First, the colonialism of power refers to the creation of a social system of
classification based on racial and sexual hierarchism, through the creation of steps between
social identities. Second, the colonialism of knowledge posits Eurocentrism as the only source of
knowledge. Third, the colonialism of being exerts its influence through making others inferior,
subordination, and dehumanization. And lastly, the colonialism of nature, especially in the
dynamic produced by the sharp separation between nature and society, disregards other logical
ways of defining the interrelationship between context and society (religion being one way). In
summary, colonialism is presented as a framework that affects the most obvious instances in the
social field, from social and political institutions to the imaginary and to individual and
collective discourses.
However we may view our reality (from the viewpoint of injustice, inequality, oppression,
opulence, singularities, heterogeneities, etc.), we will always hearken back to this past that is still
present and bleeding. We can explain this by drawing once more on the concept of historical
upgrading presented by Ribeiro, who adds that this (imposed) cultural process intrinsically
requires a deculturalization of the current patterns and an assimilation to the invading culture. It
is out of this complex process that the heterogeneous Latin America was created, where Creole
groups, indigenous people, immigrants, rich, poor, and an unstable middle class, etc., all live
together. The accelerated course of history does precisely this: cut off the supposed natural
process of every human group in the development of its identity through the eruption of a whole
series of foreign elements which, beyond taking on the mission of creating homogeneity (which,
as we know, is always illusory, since any imagination or narrative that attempts such a state will
never be able to completely destroy its basic heterogeneity), shatters what exists, separating it
into small fragments and creating both new spaces and new elements that are different from the
rest, as well as walls that separate the resulting groups even more.
7

Catherine Walsh, Interculturalidad, plurinacionalidad y decolonialidad: las insurgencias poltico-epistmicas de


refundar el Estado, Tabula Rasa (Colombia) 9 (2008): 131152.

An Indebted Identity
Foreign debt is a concern that has reached the forefront in political, social, and economic
discussions. In recent years, several nations in Latin America have done everything possible to
eliminate their debt. Why such a hurry to do this? The answer lies in the past. When we analyze
the beginnings of the history of debts, we discover several important elements. First, the
delivery of credit and capital on the part of the central nations and world financial institutions to
our countries was part of the commercial and productive machinery of these nations and
institutions, which demanded the growth of exports and success in selling their own surplus
products. Second, this matter of credit was organized as one of the largest interest-earning
businesses ever for the nations that administered it. Interest rates were, as they are today, beyond
all logic. Third, the negotiation of debt repayment serves as a tool of dominance, as in the saying,
Cash is king.
Because of all this, these nations and corporations managed to exert influence (sometimes even
directly through armed incursions and encouraging coups dtat) on the social and economic
policies of the Latin American countries. It is worthwhile to call attention to a slogan that is
being heard: the idea that foreign debt is not a matter of economics but of ethics. The debt that
clobbers our region, and which has increased even more since the dictatorial governments of the
70s and the neoliberal governments of the 90s, has resulted in more poverty, less development,
and more dependence on wealthy nations. Because of this we must take the bull by the horns
and address this topic with the complexity that it requires.
A Peripheral Identity
We must clarify some points regarding this term, the meaning of which can allude to certain
approaches which, though they are valid, need to be re-approached. First, this categorization, at
least in this essay, is used strictly in terms of the economy, with all that this implies. Second, this
separation between central and peripheral countries, a reality that out of common sense we
cannot deny, must be understood within the polycentric situation in which we find ourselves: the
current global world makes us see reality in a more complex way than a simple bipolar divide.
Within the central countries as well as the peripheral nations, we find groups that hold the power
and others that are excluded. In other words, there is a logic that encompasses both the central
and the peripheral countries. Therefore, a geopolitical reading requires greater complexity of
vision in regard to the relationships, pluralities, and tensions that comprise them. In our nations
we have power groups allied with global economic powers. This last observation leads us to
consider that, in reality, economic power is currently much more virtual than in other historical
periods. For this reason, its manifestations are much more suspicious and varied according to the
concrete configuration it acquires in the different areas of the world.
In speaking of a peripheral region, then, we refer to the reality in which the most relevant
decisions having to do with the economy are not made exclusively in these places. Latin
American countries possess a peripheral place within the production of goods but a central one in
the exportation of natural resources, keeping in mind the international division of labor (a
situation that has deepened thanks to the decreased production and increased debt in times of
dictatorship and neoliberal governments). This causes the nations of our continent to possess few
tools (which are not the same as means, which they do possess) with which to supply themselves

and occupy a place of competence within the global market. The result of this is plain to see:
greater poverty, greater inequality, less independence, more exploitation.
A Battered Identity
Ours is a continent that has been battered on several fronts. One area that has been bruised the
most is democracy. Latin America has encountered and suffered repeated military takeovers,
especially since the 70s. The doctrine of national security, the persecution of subversives, the
restoration of order, Operation Condor, and the construction of a Western Christian culture
are some of the foundational slogans of this ordeal. Chernausky explains the significance of the
doctrine of national security in the following way:
The doctrine of national security constitutes the cover and the pretext of every repressive
policy that destroys all individual and social rights and warranties in pursuit of a
supposed national or state interest and a defense against a supposed external or internal
enemy. Its objective is no other than the maintenance of security and the national interest
of the very imperialist powers, especially the United States, and the facilitation of the
depredations of transnational businesses, to the detriment of the economy and natural
resources of Latin American nations and other zones of influence.8
Some aspects of this series of events are worth highlighting. First, in line with what is promoted
by some human rights organizations, the establishment of military takeovers signified the
implementation of a neoliberal economic system. In this way, the military takeover was the
means for creating a system that benefited (and still benefits) certain groups and nations at the
cost of our own resources. For this reason, there is a strong connection between military
takeovers and certain central countries (especially the United States). It was from these takeovers
that the regional foreign debt, from the perspective that we analyzed previously, increased
considerably. In addition, the coups influenced the devastation of local economies and the
creation of mechanisms that furthered dependence and deepened poverty.
Second, the military dictatorships cut short an entire generation that was either disappeared or
sent into exile. These men and women were victims of persecution and torture because of their
commitment to justice or simply because they thought differently than the establishment. Third,
and in relation to the general framework we are using to follow these clues, the military
takeovers are not just one more event in history. On the contrary, they were events that have
marked us and whose wounds are still open and bleeding. We continue to suffer the
consequences of the economic system that they imposed, the lack of justice applied in the trials
of the oppressors, the effects produced at the social and cultural levels on the thousands of
disappeared people and those who cared for them, and the symbolism that lamentably persists
in our society which is manifest in the expression: At least with the military we were safer.
A Globalized Identity
The globalization of identity is not limited to the Latin American continent. We mention it as it is
at the root of the major changes produced by globalization, the geopolitical framework which
certainly transforms the direction of our analysis. The understanding of this reality glimmers
from different images: telecommunications, which in a thousandth of a second connect one
8

Moiss Chernausky, Doctrina de la Seguridad Nacional (Buenos Aires: APDH, 1985), 3.

corner of the planet with another; fashions that flow from one region to another, creating
particularized mixtures; the ease of transportation that leads to different types of citizenship;
multinational businesses that operate in different parts of the world, etc.
What do these images imply for the daily life of Latin America, from which, as we said, the web
of reality is woven? Allow me to stress certain aspects. First, the idea of location is transformed.
For this reason, some already speak of glocal cultures (Ulrich Beck9). The notion of location
changes in the sense that everything we could call local or native contains elements that are
foreign to its supposed cultural and geographic area. This has a direct relationship to the
understanding of identities: they are not homogeneous frames of reference but a group of
representations circumscribed within a particular locus, which, precisely because of this,
experience constant change. Our worlds are much more complex in this day and age. This brings
us to the conclusion that Latin American identity, as with every cultural identity, is defined in its
interaction with the other continents. As expressed by Nstor Garca Canclini, It is necessary to
think of the common space of Latin Americans also as a Euro-American space and as an interAmerican space.10
A second aspect that jumps out is that this opening in the analysis of social phenomena within
our continent through the framework of globalization leads us to abandon certain criteria of
dualistic or Manichean analyses (such as, without discounting them since they still have value,
existed during the 60s and 70s) toward a more complex reading, or one which at least tries to be,
of the stories, narratives and symbols that frame the realities represented on our continent.
Nstor Garca Canclinic synthesizes this in the following way:
Metaphors and narratives, which create the imaginary, produce knowledge in their
attempt to grasp what becomes fleeting in the global disorder, that which cannot be
delimited by borders but rather crosses them, or believes that it crosses them but sees
them reappear a little farther on, in the barriers of discrimination. Metaphors tend to
figure, to make visible that which moves, combines, or mixes. Narratives seek to trace an
order amid the profusion of travels and communications, in the diversity of others.11
This last and very meaty quote, together with what has been discussed previously, takes us to
certain modest conclusions in regard to the topic of this paper about Latin American Identity:
1. There is no single identity but rather a Latin American common space where a varied
combination of identities, realities, perceptions, and complex symbols all come together.
2. These identities are not accidental and gratuitous combinations ordered at the whim of
destiny but rather are the result of an entire history, a social-political context, an
economic environment, and the accumulated memories that give meaning to our
experiences, all elements that confirm the genetics of our common space.
3. The way to perceive these identities within the Latin American commonality is through
the daily expressions of the Latin American people. The great systems and ideologies that
spout universal truths ought to learn and redefine themselves from the basis of these
small stories and experiences that describe what the people perceive as reality.
9

Ulrich Beck, What is Globalization? Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000


Nstor Garca Canclini, Imagined Globalization, trans. George Ydice (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2014), 74.
11
Ibid., 35.
10

4. The concept of historical acceleration shows us that this eruption, deculturalization, and
assimilation that our continent lived through opened wounds that are yet unclosed, and
with them began a process of socialization that remains ongoing and has been
internalized with very deep roots in the mechanisms of construction of identity within the
continent.
How Do We Imagine the Latin American Church?
At this point, we could say that two realities or sensibilities exist that defy the religious or
ecclesiastic field in its understanding of what is Latin American. In the first place is a sense of
reality. This could be a very evident element, but it is not. In bringing this aspect to the forefront,
we must bear in mind two central instances. First, sensitivity to the complex dynamics of our
contexts implies a deconstruction of preconceptions that reside in our theological, dogmatic, and
practical edifices. To affirm such means that we start with the fact that every discourse and
practice pertains to a context, and, therefore, we should be sensitive to the changes that are
taking place and revisit the meaning of being church and being Christian in the light of current
landscapes. Second, the sense of reality also carries with it a consciousness and practice that is
committed to the avatars of our contexts. Just as we should be self-critical with the narratives
that bring us to our faith, in the same way this dimension should take us to what Jung Mo Sung
calls ethical indignation toward the problems within our contexts.12
In second place, we need a sensitivity toward the heterogeneous. This idea is tied to the former,
especially keeping in mind all that has developed up to this point. We live in a plural context in
many ways: cultural expressions, social worldviews, socio-political perspectives, life stories, and
religious expressions, among many other elements that cross over our subjectivity, our
immediate context, and our wider context. If we start from the fact that our theological
perspective mediates our way of seeing reality (and vice-versa), then we must construct an
understanding of faith and theology that is not homogeneous and particular in pursuit of a
sensitivity toward the diverse possibilities of the expression of the divine in reality. This strictly
theological element carries with it, as we can see, an intrinsically pastoral and missiological
instance, in the sense of how we understand the Christian praxis of our societies.
Therefore the question addressed in this paper should become a little more complex: How do we
imagine the churches, the religious discourses, and the spiritual practices from the diverse
senses existing throughout our Latin America? We could respond through the following
considerations:
1. A church that rethinks its theological systems that tend toward totalization and
homogenization from an understanding of the daily experiences of men and women of the
continent. This aspect, as we mentioned, holds a strong pastoral mandate. Our current
times help us to struggle even more against that division between pure reason and
practical reason that still prevails in our churches, where the traditional theological
systems are placed above the experiences of the people. These boundaries, which have a
direct relationship with our ways of understanding faith, should give up the totalizing
vices that make particular perspectives absolute within a closed sense of divine action
and should move toward dialogue and openness to the voices of men and women who
12

Jung Mo Sung, The Subject, Capitalism, and Religion: Horizons of Hope in Complex Societies (New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 29.

construct this reality daily. Hugo Assmann, deeply and critically refocusing his
pilgrimage through Latin American theologies and the great utopian enterprise that was
proposed in his timewhich, though valid, often did not permit analysis of the
complexity of the situationsays the following:
What I would say as synthesis is this: there are several theologies of the inevitable
with different and contradictory ideologies, but any theology of the inevitable is
reactionary. As are those that try to be a shout of indignation, because they
paralyze the best human energies; in other words, the energies that make us enjoy
this world and our precarious and finite lives.13
2. A church that learns to read reality in the key of subject. We have seen that the
framework of analysis of the Latin American situation has mutated throughout time. And
this is not because of an academic vice but because circumstances call for it. The church
should also learn from this challenge, since its theological pilgrimage takes place in
history and, therefore, from a vision of the same, using the current tools of analysis. In
line with the proposition that we are developing, a contribution can come from an
analysis from the notion of subject. This does not imply a return to a romantic
anthropocentrism, nor much less a turn toward a certain pseudo-postmodern
individualism. On the contrary, it is the understanding of a framework in which
individuals and social systems are analyzed deeply, with the intention of delving into the
complexity of analysis and the variety of the existing images. The words of Nstor
Mguez are helpful:
The experiences of real socialism have shown, once again, the impossibility of
drawing the society of the future on a designers chalkboard. If this belated
capitalism is to have alternatives, they will not come out of a social engineering
that is equally globalizing but out of the experiences of community construction
that are the fruit of resistance as much as of hope.... That is, that which contributes
to the transformations that we envision, more than the result of architectural
encumbrances upon the world of the future, have to do with the building blocks of
subjectivity, and, fundamentally, with relational subjectivity: in the face of the
dehumanization of human relations and the waste product that the market
considers us, to affirm the relational dimension of love and justice as the possible
center of subjectivity.14
3. A church that is involved with the evils of Latin American genetics. We have seen that
these genetics are comprised of a long history, of a complex context situated in a space
that is configured politically and economically in various ways, of daily experiences that
are determined and determining, as well as of events that erupted in our history and
whose sound waves still reverberate. The church should be conscious of these events
and of the complexity of forming identities out of these frameworks, which also are
13

Hugo Assmann, Por una teologa humanamente saludable. Fragmentos de memoria personal, in Juan Jos
Tamayo and Juan Bosch, eds., Panorama de la teologa latinoamericana (Estella: Verbo Divino, 2001), 151.
14
Nestor Mguez, Hacer teologa latinoamericana en el tiempo de la globalizacin, in Guillermo Hansen, ed., El
silbo ecumnico del Espritu: homenaje a Jos Mguez Bonino en sus 80 aos (Buenos Aires: ISEDET, 2005), 93.

spreading throughout our continent from a complicated sociological morass. Some of the
challenges before us being faithful to the reconstruction of our memories, claiming real
justice for the clarification of what has occurred in our history, struggling for greater
equality of opportunity, and analyzing the impact of events that were and that continue to
be. Above all else is the arduous task of discernment, a term that is so powerful for our
faith, our situations, our history, and the stories that make Latin American men and
women. This discernment takes place in community and in a genuine dialogue with our
history, our tradition, our context, and our people.
4. A church that seeks spirituality with honor. Jon Sobrino proposes three key elements as
the basis for the construction of a spirituality from the relationship between subject and
reality that will serve as the foundation for understanding the place of faith within a sense
of reality, of complexity, and of heterogeneity. First, honoring reality implies seeing the
possibility that reality can reflect the presence and action of God. Second, this honesty
results in faithfulness to what is real, which recognizes and assumes its negative
elements, in order to transform them into positive ones through hope in the divine
movement. Last, this challenges us to be swept by the more of reality, that is, by the
hope and the promise that reside in it through the movement of the Spirit. This last
comment implies understanding that the heterogeneity and complexity of existence do
not represent an evil or a simple contingency that is alien to faith. On the contrary, they
represent the landscape in which God is manifested, and it is in this possibility-of-being
of reality in such a divine creationin other words, in its possibility of transcendence
that the church can build a dynamic theological discourse, an understanding of faith that
is pertinent, and a spirituality that is sensitive to the diversity of the context where
Christian praxis plays out.