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God and Man at the United Nations

26 May 2009

I hadn’t really thought about it, but one factor in more attention being paid to Latin American resource issues might be that the President of the United Nations General Assembly is a Nicaraguan, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann.  The largely ceremonial post of General Assembly President is rotated among various regional groups, and D’Escoto was the choice of the Latin American-Carribean nations for their turn at the job for the September 2008 to September 2009 term.  The President is using his post as a “bully pulpit” to push issues like sustainable development and the rights of rural and indigenous people.

Go ye therefore and teach all the nations (Mark 16:15)

Go ye therefore and teach all the nations (Mark 16:15)

A “pulpit” seems like a natural place for a guy like D’Escoto.  He is  a Catholic priest.  The route to the United Nations is not the usual career path for a Nicaraguan priest, but  Latin clerics have been called to take on tasks outside their usual duties before.  In the colonial era, it wasn’t unheard of for clerics to take on state administrative tasks (indeed, in Hapsburg Spain, joining the clergy was often the pathway to a bureaucratic career, and more than a few colonial bishops did double-duty as regional administrators or, very early in the history of Nueva Espagna, as even Viceroys.  The Mexican War of Independence was touched off by a priest’s sermon, and several priests were military leaders.

D’Escoso’s path to the United Nations is, in some ways, a reflection of both the tradition of educated clerics taking on bureaucratic positions and revolutionary politics.   A World Council of Churches official, he was one of the few Nicaraguans with foreign policy experience after the success of the Sandinista Revolution, not part of the discredited (and quite nasty) Somoza regime.  He served as his nation’s foreign minister, despite official Vatican admonishment (priests are not supposed to take political positions) from 1979 until 1990.

Following the 1990 Nicaraguan elections (won by the U.S. backed conservative “Liberal Alliance”… “liberal” meaning more or less “secular and capitalist” in Latin American political terms),  d’Escoto remained active in the Sandinista movement, and turned his energies to regional groups working on issues like rural agricultural, sustainable development and indigenous rights in Latin America.

While priests are not supposed to run for, or hold, political office, at the same time the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s reinterpreted the Church’s role and welcomed an engagement with the secular world.  Within Latin America, where the Church had often been on the side of the status quo, there was a rebirth of the traditional sense of the clergy as the protector of the powerless  against the state under the rubric of “Liberation Theology”.

The Liberationist’s philosophy has found its way into political discourse.  While the most obvious Liberationist in politics is Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo, who was a bishop before leaving the priesthood to run for President, there are several others.  Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa — who refers to himself as a “Christian of the left” — served in a mission community for a time;  Hugo Chavez often peppers his discourse with religious rhetoric and came by it naturally.  His parents were Catholic Church teachers in rural Venezuela and he grew up in a Liberationist family (as did many Venezuelan military officers).  Famously, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (who was a social worker in an indigenous community, but whose organization had ties to the Presbyterian Church) ran for President of Mexico as a coaltion candidate of a party whose name — “For the benefit of all, first the poor” — nicely sums up the Liberationist position.

Given that — as Madonna Louise Ciccone put it — “we all  live in a material world” — any “engagement” with the world meant mixing in the materialist philosophies by which we all live.  For Latin Americans the “material world” was based in Capitalism.  The only alternative available was Marxist movements, which at least in Latin American political discourse, offered more benefits and a more equitable treatment of the poor.  But in 1978,  with the election of John-Paul II, there was a  Pope from a country where countering the establishment meant taking an anti-Marxist stance.  John-Paul II (and the current Pope, Benedict XIV) both see Capitalism and Socialism as equally inadequate –based as they are in materialst and not spiritual ideals — but at the same time accept the uneven distribution of resources in the world, and tend to overlook the failures of capitalism to address these problems.  There was going to be trouble.  And there was.

One early victim of the anti-liberationist purge was Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan priest whose writing criticised hierarchal organizations that work against the interests of the people.  Among those heirachies Boff attacked are the Chuch itself… which led then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XIV) to “silence” Boff for a year in 1985.  Boff left the priesthood in 1992, but as a well-known philosopher, writer and educator, continues to voice crititism of what he calls “fundamentism” — including both capitialist theories like neo-liberalism (the basis of U.S. trade policy) and the Church hierachy.

D’Escoto managed to hold on to his priestly status, as did a few others.  With his election to the United Nations post, he appointed several “senior advisors”  that includes some suprising, and controversial (at least in the United States) figures like Noam Chomsky and Joseph Stiglitz, he also selected Brother David Andrews, (an monk who is Executive Director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference which provides support for fair trade and sustainable agricultural policies) and Boff.

Perhaps the old Pope was right, that the material and spiritual don’t mix.  The United States representative has called D’Escoto’s statements and concerns “increasingly bizarre”, to which Boff responds:

… there are representatives of rich countries that find the behavior of Padre Miguel very strange. Not long ago an article appeared in the Washington Post echoing this sentiment. The writer said that Miguel d’Escoto talks of very strange things that are never heard in the UNO, such as solidarity, cooperation and love. He greets everyone in his speeches as “Brothers and Sisters all.” Even more strange, says the writer, is the fact that many representatives and even heads of state, such as Sarkozy, are using the same strange language.

Good Lord! In which level of Dante’s hell are we? How can a society be built without solidarity, cooperation and love, deprived of the profound feelings expressed in the UN Human Rights Charter, that we are all equal, and because of that we are brothers and sisters?

For a society that has opted to transform everything into merchandise: the Earth, nature, water and life itself, and which puts making money and consumption as the supreme ideals above any other values, above human rights, democracy and respect for the environment, the attitudes of the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations must seem strange indeed. They are not found in the capitalist dictionary.

We must ask ourselves about the human and ethical qualities of such a society. It is simply an insult to everything that humanity has preached and attempted to live throughout the centuries. No wonder it is in crisis, and more than an economic and financial one, it is a crisis of humanity. It represents the worst that exists within us, our demonic side. It has proven to be unsustainable even financially, which is exactly its central point.

(Boff’s quotation is taken from a longer discourse, Does This Society Deserve to Survive?, translated into English by  Refugio del Rio Grande, Texas,  USA and published in Tlaxcala)

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