Alexander WILDE. Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016, pp. 498. pb. ISBN 9780268044312. Reviewed by James R. KELLY, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 11206.  


Religious Responses to Violence’s sixteen authors comprise an invaluable multidisciplinary (anthropology, sociology, history, political science) fruit of a two year exploratory project at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in Washington, DC. The book begins with the paradox that “modern Latin America is both notably violent and notably religious” and ends with the empirically based conclusion about “the unique qualities of religion as a social force against violence.”  

Religious Responses to Violence’s core analytical issues include: (1) Fresh perspectives on how the different churches viewed and powerfully magnified the human rights movement emerging in the 1970s; (2) While the original focus of the volume’s project was macro – institutional and structural factors relating to violence and response – the micro level of pastoral accompaniment emerged from the discussions as a key focus; (3) Because the region’s political transitions from dictatorship to varying degrees of democracy (or more accurately “uncivil democracies” where it’s difficult to distinguish between criminals and police-paramilitary collusion) have not led to diminished levels of violence, the contributors pay close attention to the local churches in the context of ongoing nonstate violence, such as gang warfare, homicide, drug cartels, criminal mafias, kidnapping and assaults on migrants,  femicide and the development of alternatives to hegemonic masculinities; (4) By interrelating the churches’ micro pastoral praxis and their institutional macro structural contributions,  Religious Responses to Violence enlarges “beyond the explanations of the social sciences as such … the unique qualities of religion as a social force against violence.”  

FROM COMPLICITY TO CHALLENGE: The Role of Catholicism.  Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the Catholic Church became a “major public actor in many Latin American Countries” critiquing both the violence of authoritarian regimes crushing all opposition and the violence of rebel guerrilla movements. There were intra Catholic divisions traceable to the pre-Vatican II international cold war and the United States’ open and covert interventions aimed at supporting US friendly dictators. This institutional complicity divided Catholics, with conservatives justifying state repression as a necessary anti-communism and progressives expressing sympathy with the justice intents of the guerrillas. The book’s overall thesis is that these conflicting intra Church left-right leanings gradually clustered around a post-Second Vatican Council centralizing emphasis on human rights that had and has hugely significant ecumenical and global significance.

 While the appeal to human rights is commonplace today, Wilder shows that “Only in the 1970s did the idea of human rights become a social cause and real factor in national politics and international diplomacy” and, in particular, that “Latin America, under harsh authoritarian rule, was a major focus for the emerging human rights movement.” In his chapter “Human Rights and Christian Responsibility” Kelly faults the “almost total lack of attention to the role of religious actors in the history of human rights and argues that in parts of Latin America “Christians developed a praxis of human rights that had never existed before.” In the 1970s and 80s violence in Latin America was mostly understood and justified by the two leading secular ideologies: Marxist class revolution and the National Security Doctrine, both ideologies employing violence as necessary and therefore just. 

Pre-Vatican II Catholicism, Daniel H. Levine notes in his “Theory and Practice of Rights in Latin American Catholicism,”  held that “Rights are subordinate to order and to the defense of the institutional Church, which is contingent on alliances with established power.” The post Vatican II Church redefined itself in relationship to the state, embracing in a John Courtney Murray fashion the interpenetrating independence of both in civil society. Vatican II aggiornamento entailed “interpreting the signs of the times” which to the 1968 gathering of Latin American Council of Bishops (CELAM) at Medellin, Columbia, meant extending the concept of sin by a recognition of “structural” and “institutional” evil and an “option for the poor, ” in an approach, with some controversy, termed “liberation theology”.  For the majority of Catholic hierarchy and laity the burgeoning global emphasis on human rights facilitated both ecclesial political transcendence and political involvement, especially as the church’s core moral doctrines of personal dignity and the value of life led to a constant expansion from the discrete legal and political rights of liberal individualism and neoliberal capitalist societies to the expanding capacious rights that included ever more decent standards of living encompassing cultural and social dimensions, such as slum clearance and land reform and, especially, the empowerment of the marginalized poor. The Church’s traditional “care of souls” took a  decided social turn towards pastoral “accompaniment” – some termed it “practical theology” – which entailed sharing the life of the poor in the specific circumstances of their lives, putting institutional resources at their disposal, and moving the churches, as one of the chapter headings puts it, “From Preaching to Listening”. Such listening in order to view and evaluate events from the standpoint of the marginalized – regarding local leaders as “social interpreters” – marked an “epistemological shift”. 

SOME VALUABLE DIFFERENT CATHOLIC – EVANGELICAL PROTESTANT EMPHASES.   Several of the chapters discuss the different overall emphases in the Roman Catholic and the Evangelical approaches to accompaniment. Institutional Catholicism continues with attempts to mediate truces on national or regional levels, joining, for example, negotiations for conclusions to civil wars, truth and reconciliation commissions, and lobbying for legislation that improves social solidarity; while, in most cases, the far more free-standing evangelical churches, often led by an indigenous pastor native to the locals, emphasize personal conversion and reconciliation between formerly violent combatants who must now live side-by-side as “intimate enemies.” This is an invaluable and vastly under reported contribution. Especially in the micropolitics of individual and social repair, religious actors play an ongoing and irreplaceable role in acting as an anti-dote to the universal hold of justice as a revenge seeking lex talionis that so far has been noticed by a few anthropological studies but not the public eye. 

Religious Responses to Violence is not an easy to read Primer. But it’s a necessary one.