Economic and political upheaval dominate the news streaming out of Venezuela. The nation verges on the brink of widespread violence as it weathers a worsening economic crisis. Amid this turmoil, basic freedoms have come under attack, according to political dissidents like those who recently presented at the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD). Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, was technically elected democratically, but shares more in common with a “dictator” according to his political opponents.
Discussion with Young Venezuelan Dissidents
Earlier this month, the Catholic Church echoed this cry. Archbishop Diego Padron, the president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, accused Maduro of attempted to create “a military, socialist, Marxist and communist dictatorship.” As Providence intern Matthew Allen reported on July 19, even Pope Francis attempted to intervene in Venezuela’s crisis, but to no avail:
In his attempts to hold onto his dwindling power, Maduro has increasingly sided with the privileged classes who can keep him in power, and turned to increasingly authoritarian measures. There aren’t any obvious solutions. Negotiations have been planned to go ahead numerous times, with the Pope offering to mediate, yet they have all been called off…
But one must wonder if these efforts by Padron and Francis represent too little, too late from the Catholic Church. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church failed to address problems faced by the vast majority of Venezuelans. Author and social scientist Rodney Stark wrote in The Triumph of Faith (ISI, 2015):
During the centuries of Spanish rule, the Catholic Church in Latin America was, for all practical purposes, a branch of government. … The Church did not, however, seize these opportunities to make devout Catholics of the masses. It was unwilling to expend its resources beyond educating the urban sons and daughters of privilege. As Chesnut explained, in the judgement of the bishops “it simply made no sense to expand scarce ecclesiastical resources on the masses of impoverished laity who had no capital or real estate to donate to church coffers. … [The monopoly] church could afford to leave the financially improvised masses to their own spiritual devices…since there was no real competition.”
Later, in the 1950s, the Catholic Church began propagating liberation theology in Latin America in response to increased Protestant competition. This philosophy endorsed Marxist revolution as a solution to the social ills faced by Latin Americans, especially those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet the movement met with little long-term success.
So the Catholic Church has a poor track record of meaningfully promoting human flourishing in Venezuela. In the meantime, Protestants have made some inroads into Latin America. This has resulted in significant revitalization of both Protestantism and Catholicism in other countries. But progress has occurred slowly in Venezuela. Stark notes that Venezuela remains 87 percent Roman Catholic, while Protestants represent only 8 percent of the population. (The rest belong to other religions or identify as “secular”.)
Perhaps this lack or Protestant influence has resulted in a lack of meaningful moral self-critique in Venezuela. IRD President Mark Tooley reflected on a parallel scenario for Providence. Unlike America, Tooley noted that majority-Orthodox Russia has “never typically has been very openly transparent about its national flaws and sins.” He observed:
Nearly always American spirituality has identified with the Old Testament prophets and their jeremiads against sinful populations and rulers. There is plenty of brooding self-reflection in Russian spirituality too. But its historical archetypes, in relation to rulers and state, typically counsel submission or tight collaboration. There aren’t similar strong models of prophetic denunciation, much less political resistance, as found with Puritans overthrowing a king, stoking revolution, or fomenting civil war in quest of national righteousness.
Perhaps like Russia, where the Church-State monopoly on religious discourse has long prevailed, Venezuela’s capacity for self-criticism remains stunted. Yet perhaps that can begin to change as new religious traditions make inroad in Venezuela.
The World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Ambassador Brian Stiller wrote in June 2016 for The Christian Post – where he serves a senior editorial adviser – about his experience visiting the Venezuelan Church amid the nation’s ongoing saga of upheaval. Stiller said Christians he met with knew, “literally, that their physical lives are in danger, in need of his surveying protection.” Despite these dangers, Catholic and Protestant leaders alike advocate for justice and humanitarian relief in their nation.
Meanwhile, the Church flourishes spiritually, including churches rooted in Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions. Stiller noted “here the people of God acted in ways which replicate early church faith.” He added that “the Spirit is at work in lives” across Venezuela.
Hopefully Christians in Venezuela will be able to speak with a growing prophetic voice in these troubling times. May fellow Christian brothers and sisters around the world lift the Venezuelan Church up in our prayers!Google+