The War in Ukraine, a Shattered Trust

Liberation Theology and the Struggle for Justice

Peter McLaren and Ernesto Cardenal (Caracas Venezuela, c. 2005)

We can acknowledge the wariness sown in the Russian state after NATO’s dangerous incursion into Eastern Europe and the Baltics since 1991, in clear violation of a commitment given to Russia’s leaders as the Soviet Union was crumbling into a dark vortex of disassembly. This incursion on the part of NATO was a great tragedy and a crime. But was there not also a violation of trust sown in Ukraine after Yeltsin signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 (along with the US and Britain) but failed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for Ukraine’s agreement to give up its nuclear arsenal, at that time the third-largest in the world? By 1996, Ukraine became one of the only countries in the world to relinquish its nuclear weapons. So, is it not accurate to describe Russia’s imposed annexation of Crimea and menacing threats against eastern Ukraine as acts of imperial aggression on the part of a fascist leader enticed by the withering siren song of neo-Stalinism?

Is Putin’s goal to reclaim parts of the lost Soviet Union by invoking in speeches the Great Patriotic War against the German Reich, or does he want to travel deeper into historical time beyond the founding of Moscow and reconstitute the Russian Empire by taking back what he believes to be Russian land and setting up Russian-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics? Vladimir Putin, ruler of Eurasia! That certainly has a ring to it. Sounds like the kind of nationalism that comes from a long history of Tsarist rule, doesn’t it? It would be inconceivable for Putin to try to integrate Eurasia into its sphere of influence without Ukraine because of the importance of the city of Kyiv to Russian nationalist mythology. Russia already has the Belarusians under its iron thumb but needs Ukraine turned into a federalized state in order to firm up the idea of Russia as a unity of three eastern Slavic peoples. Does this former KGB Slavophile loathe Ukrainian sovereignty to the extent that he is willing to go to war to amalgamate this pan-Slavic empire? Putin is searching for his legacy; that much is clear. Would a Russian victory invigorate autocrats and fascist leaders, including Donald Trump, who decry liberalism and celebrate the persistent downturn of Western democracy, which they see as ineffectual and weak?

We don’t yet know the answer to these questions, but I am leaning towards a ‘yes’ with regard to the last question. Should Ukraine have agreed to a ‘non-bloc’ status? Even if it meant becoming a puppet regime of Russia? Should Ukraine have willingly withdrawn from the EU Association Agreement and DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement)? Should Ukraine have happily joined the Eurasian Economic Union? The Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity gave us the answer to those questions. Will Western Ukraine become the site of Ukraine’s government-in-exile? It may well turn out to be the case. Very likely, Putin will not try to control western Ukraine, where the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought against the Soviet Union until the early 1950s. But will US-backed Ukrainian partisans be fighting Russian forces in a long, protracted civil war? And will the quest for democracy in Ukraine be lost forever? Will Ukraine become known more for its Azov Battalion than for its courageous pro-democracy struggle, as it fights a guerrilla war that could last for decades or even longer? For scholars of liberation theology, these are not easy questions.

Liberation Theology became a powerful movement for social justice within the Catholic Church in the 1970s and 1980s, brushing against the grain of traditional Catholic catechesis. For decades the Catholic Church had been extremely averse to social justice movements involving members of its ecclesiastic ranks, often associating such movements with communism. This was made clear as early as the anti-Communist encyclical, Divini Redemptoris, written by Pope Pius XI in 1937 that formalized the Vatican’s inevitable opposition against Left-Wing social movements, such as Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement (ironically, Dorothy Day has recently been named ‘Servant of God’ by the Vatican and seems destined for sainthood). Numerous and disparate expositions have revealed Liberation Theology to be, first and foremost, a call to Christians and members of other religious traditions to serve the world’s poor and beleaguered populations even if that meant that they remain allied to Leftist causes.

The late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s had been especially brutal years for campesinos, workers, activists, teachers, and revolutionaries throughout Latin America, especially in the Southern Cone. The industrial developmental model that had been undertaken in Latin America since the 1950s was dependent upon richer nations and utilized a form of import substitution that gave advantages to the middle classes and some sectors of the urban proletariat but was overwhelmingly devastating to the peasantry. These countries – which were leaning populist politically – were not so much underdeveloped as they were overexploited by the industrial powerhouses of North America and European imperialist regimes. This unequal development that greatly disadvantaged the Latin American countries of the peripheral and so-called Third World contributed mightily to the overabundance that flowed into the coffers of the rich capitalist regimes of the centre and so-called First World. Before the military regime came to power in 1970s El Salvador, several Jesuits there had begun rethinking and repivoting their work in a concerted attempt to embrace fully the ‘preferential option for the poor’ that emerged from the conference in Medellin, Colombia, and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and heart-to-heart with the poor and powerless campesinos. They understood this to mean actively supporting the rights of campesinos and civilian movements promoting social, economic, and political reform. Over time, liberation theologians began to call for‘the reorganization of social, governmental, and economic structures so that the poor are not merely cared for, but brought into the fullness of human flourishing.’ Catholic Christology, ecclesiology and spirituality shifted prominently towards a pastoral concern for those who live in the countries of the periphery. Paulo Freire, a Catholic, was called upon to make contributions to the development of liberation theology. And protestant theologians such as Emilio Castro; Julio de Santa Ana, Rubem Alves; and José Míguez Bonino made significant contributions to the theology of liberation.

The progressive ideas of the Jesuits had greatly influenced meetings of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, such as the idea that God identifies with the oppressed and that Christians should not only actively fight the oppression of the poor and powerless but also seek to create a society where economic exploitation and inequality cease to exist. According to supporters of Liberation Theology, the Bible should be experienced from the perspective of the poor, and the Catholic Church should support those who are denied their rights as human beings. The late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, a self-declared Christian and supporter of Liberation Theology, went so far as to ask Pope Benedict to apologizeon behalf of the Catholic Church for supporting the genocide of indigenous peoples in Latin America during the colonial era in which the Church forced indigenous peoples to become Christians. or be tortured or killed. Chavez also ‘accused the Vatican’s former representative in Venezuela, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, of allying himself with the country’s “rancid oligarchy.”’ Memorably, Chávez suggested that priests such as Castillo Lara ought to subject themselves to an exorcism because ‘the devil has snuck into their clerical robes.’

Liberation Theology’s critique of the Catholic Church establishment led to supporters of Liberation Theology becoming the target of ceaseless opprobrium by the establishment forces within the Vatican. Travelling along the interminable road of critical inquiry with its reservoir of dialectical insights, revolutionary ruptures and ‘untested feasibilities’ (Freire’s term) was not a path esteemed by the Church nor the state oligarchs that it served.

[The above remarks on liberation theology are taken from McLaren, P. (2022). Liberation theology. In A. Maisuria (Ed.),Encyclopaedia of Marxism and Education (pp. 373–386). Brill.]

Recently, Eduardo Campos Lima (2022) interviewed several liberation theologians about their attitudes towards the war in Ukraine for America: The Jesuit Review. What follows are some of the comments.

Theologian Father Codina, S.J., believes that dialogue could have solved this problem years ago and sees the conflict as having economic motivations at its base. Unsurprisingly Father Codina and other theologians denounced the invasion by Russia but were unwilling to place the blame solely on Putin. Codina remarked: ‘The only ones who have something to gain are the gun manufacturers.’

Feminist theologian Sister Gebara (who had once been silenced by the Vatican because of her views on abortion) emphasized that this war is not a Hollywood drama and viewed the war as a ‘male-centred spectacle of death’ that has no heroic warriors. She continued: ‘The real rescuers are the women, who have been taking care of the elderly people and the children. Such a domestic salvation – the fact that women are improvising small places of care, schools for the refugees’ children, and are taking care of the collective survival – does not seem to attract the attention of the destroyers of lives who are engaging in war.’ The attempt to transform some of them into saviours and some into sinners is an effort to portray the war as a Hollywoodian drama. Sister Gebara described the war in Ukraine as ‘a reproduction of all wars that we daily face in poor neighbourhoods and favelas that do not appear on TV.’

Father Codina remarked on the differences in the way that politicians and the media treat the war in Ukraine in contrast to the wars in Africa and the Middle East. He said: ‘I see a great disproportion in the political, economic and media reaction to [Ukraine] and to the wars in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, African countries, Israel’s aggressiveness against Palestine, etc. Why is Switzerland not freezing the assets of other dictators?

Jorge Costadoat, S.J., a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, describes the invasion of Ukraine as a violation of international law, ‘something as serious as the 2003 attacks of the United States against Iraq. Everybody now demonizes Putin, but the United States did the same thing back then. […] To simply condemn Putin as if he were a devil will not bring any solution.’ In Father Costadoat’s view, the current conflict is a consequence of major geopolitical shifts emerging out of the conclusion of the Cold War that went unresolved for too long: ‘The end of the Cold War generated a complex geopolitical situation,’ he said. ‘The victorious bloc should have established the necessary order since then, and I do not know that it did so.’

The German-born theologian Paulo Suess, a major liberation theology thinker in Brazil, specializing in missiology, who has spent decades working with Indigenous groups, offered a practical response to the war, including a rethinking of Ukraine’s desire to join NATO: ‘Heroism will lead to more deaths. How many lives can be spared if both parties give in and negotiate…. They have to negotiate with Putin, despite all problems and risks involved, to save lives.’

The Latin American left has been fighting US imperialist assaults on their countries, but this became especially deadly during the 1970s and 1980s, and leftists today are rightly suspicious of US geopolitical motivations in Ukraine and elsewhere. But Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the director of the Pontifical Catholic University’s Faith and Culture Centre, believes that liberation theologians today are not very willing to criticize Putin because liberation theologians were historically supportive of communist dictatorships (a point that I feel is exaggerated, since guerrilla movements, while often supportive of communism, were not supportive of dictatorships – since that was what they were fighting – dictatorships!). Father Nieto notes: ‘For them, dictators were not responsible for their atrocities; [the atrocities] were, in fact, the result of the pressure exerted by Western democracies and counter-revolutionary forces against the implementation of socialism. It is the same logic.’ (I would rather put it this way – liberation theologians were fighting Latin American dictatorships who were supported by the US and whose death squads were often trained in the US – in Fort Benning, Georgia, to be precise).

Father Nieto claims that the Brazilian Catholic Church does not support Putin and that they are mostly critical of the West because of its history of colonization in Brazil. He explains: ‘The hegemonic position among Catholics in Brazil is the same as Pope Francis, who considers the war a human failure and blames Putin for the invasion, even if the act of blaming him is not always verbalized. In a way, Putin is not condemned more often by the Brazilian Catholics simply because his guilt is considered obvious.’

The Korean-born Catholic theologian Jung Mo Sung, a religious studies professor at the Methodist University of São Paulo and a liberation theology thinker, believes that it is inadvisable to take sides: ‘I am against Putin’s actions the same way I am against NATO’s move. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a condemnable act, and NATO’s intention of encircling Russia is also condemnable. There are no innocents [among political leaders] in a situation like that,’ he said. ‘Equally, there is no devil either. When you demonize your opponent, you are assuming that war is a necessity, that killing is a necessity. […] I am against Putin’s actions the same way I am against NATO’s move. […] The Western thinking is too hasty. Putin has been preparing his move for years. He wants to recuperate ‘Mother Russia.’ A wild beast, like a wolf or a bear, should not be cornered because it gets even more ferocious. NATO’s expansion in the region was a form of cornering Russia. […] In Latin America, colonization has been the major element of our formation. That is why we tend to be critical of the West.’

In stark contrast to the Trump-worshipping ranks of pro-Putin cheerleaders found among the evangelical community in the US, liberation theologians today express a viewpoint that is much more nuanced and critical – and dialectical. The Catholic Church has a role to play in the conflict and shouldn’t take a backseat role. It must side with the oppressed. And, in doing so, it would do well to listen to its liberation theologians. I am old enough to remember my father talking about his visit to the Vatican in the last days of the Second World War (he was a member of the Royal Canadian Engineers in the Canadian army who fought the Nazis in various locations in Italy and the Netherlands). I was a teenager at the time and wondered why I was attending an Anglican Church when my father was raised Presbyterian, and my mother was raised a devout Catholic. Later I learned that the Catholic Church had just gone through a difficult time during the Second World War, yes, but it had placated the Nazis, and even helped some of them escape to Latin America. In fact, many Nazis were welcomed into German communities that had settled in Latin America prior to WWII. Do the names Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Walter Rauff, Franz Stangl, Josef Schwammberger, Erich Priebke, and Gerhard Bohne sound familiar?

Pius XII’s legacy is still being debated. But we can celebrate the actions of priests such as Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who courageously stood by his people as Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador and risked his life in calling for an end to the violence perpetrated by the government of El Salvador, whose weapons of death (both ideological and material) were supplied by the United States (many death squad members were trained in Fort Benning, Georgia). So powerful was Romero’s voice that he was gunned down by an assassin while saying Mass. For those who may look to liberation theology for inspiration, I recommend reading the works of six Jesuits murdered by the Salvadoran Army on November 16, 1989, gunned down on the campus of Central American University, San Salvador, El Salvador, along with two others, the caretaker’s wife and daughter. They are

Ignacio Ellacuría BeascoecheaS.J., the rector of the university;

  • Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., vice-rector of the university, a leading expert on Salvadoran public opinion;
  • Segundo Montes, S.J., dean of the department of social sciences;
  • Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.;
  • Joaquín López y López, S.J.;
  • Amando López, S.J.;
  • Elba Ramos, their housekeeper; and
  • Celina Ramos, her sixteen-year-old daughter.

As democracy falters and as we reel from the effects of state capitalist opprobrium, we need not countenance rage and despair, plunge ourselves into dark cesspools of reactionary politics or remain content with neo-Scholastic journeys into abstraction that remove the flesh and blood from our veins, leaving us in a quagmire of dogmatic delineations and interpolations in which faith adheres to our shirt tails like an errant piece of scotch tape, or is fastened like glue to the soles of our shoes, not to the souls of our political conscience. We need a shift in the way we envision ourselves. The urban and rural poor continue to be under the heel of capitalist oligarchs. This must end. We must start a new trajectory in our relationship to the otherworldly that does not forfeit social justice, that does not stipulate a motivated amnesia towards the history of oppression inflicted upon the poor and powerless. We can read The Gospel in Solentiname along with our sweet memories of Ernesto Cardenal, poet and revolutionary who founded a community of peasants, poets and painters in 1966 that personified through artistic endeavour a trenchant opposition to fascism. Cardenal was suspended by the Catholic Church for more than three decades because of his political activism.

In our spiritual pursuits, we must not leave this world. Historical consciousness will not grant us a reprieve from our moral responsibilities in relation to the here and now. How we address the war in Ukraine may well serve as a referendum on how critical pedagogy is understood in the future. We can do this without a self-righteous arrogance that we are right. We can approach the struggles of our time by asking questions, by problem-posing pedagogies taught to us in the spirit of ‘armed love’ bequeathed to us by Paulo Freire, our beloved patron of Brazilian education.

May peace be with you.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). The War in Ukraine, a Shattered Trust: Liberation Theology and the Struggle for Justice. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.