Religion, the Catholic Church, and Peace in Colombia

By: Matthew Carnes

November 10, 2016

Religion in Colombia: Negotiating the FARC Peace Processes

On October 2, Colombian voters rejected a peace deal that would have ended the decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC). Father Matthew Carnes, S.J., an associate professor in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service and the director of the Center for Latin American Studies, reflects on the role religion has played in the conflict and peace processes in Colombia.

The Catholic Church has played a large role in other Latin American civil conflicts, such as those in Guatemala and El Salvador, and 90 percent of Colombians identify as Catholic. What role is the Catholic Church playing, officially or unofficially, in Colombia?

A number of religious actors have been important in Colombia, but among them the Jesuit organization Center for Research and Popular Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular) have been some of the best researchers on documenting violence and the peace processes. One of the former directors of the center, Francisco de Roux, S.J., was the provincial of the Jesuits and continues to be a major actor in negotiating and working with the government and FARC. He is someone who has the credibility, in part because he is a priest and a Jesuit, to bring together people from both sides. His religious identity makes a real difference.

Liberation theology was established in response mostly to Latin American conflict. Has liberation theology helped or hurt the peace processes in Colombia?

Liberation theology calls on people to read the Gospel and scriptures in light of the experience of those who have been oppressed or have suffered. Rather than a top-down approach, looking at what God gives to people, it’s comes from below, from the people. Liberation theology empowers and prioritizes local conversations, and says that the voice of God is most obviously heard in the activity of the poor and marginalized. By paying attention when the poor and marginalized talk about their systematic exclusion, repression, and violence, we can understand their call for justice. Remarkably, that idea, which began as radical, is now part of mainstream thinking.

Recently, we hosted Ambassador Pinzon, the former foreign minister of defense of Colombia, at Georgetown. He said the only way forward is if justice, especially economic justice, is at the core of the peace process. That’s a radical idea. Fifty years ago, people would have claimed it’s not their responsibility to care for the poor. But now, this idea of liberation theology, paying attention to what the poor and they most need, has been around for long enough that you hear it in the mainstream.

Speaking of liberation theology, the Colombian conflict is not just between FARC and the Colombian state—it also involves other groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), which was founded by militants espousing a radical form of liberation theology. Can you speak a bit to the intersection of liberation theology as empowering the poor but also taking up arms?

At several points in history, groups have justified acts of violence in pursuit of justice. This is where some people parted ways with liberation theology to go a step beyond it, and this thinking was often tinged with Marxism. This added-in Marxism says that people can justly oppose oppression and have the right to change it, sometimes through violent means. The ELN is one group that has used this justification. But now it seems the mainstream believes a broader, non-violent campaign for inclusion and equality has merit, which is very promising.

Is there any way religion has impacted the peace processes in Colombia negatively?

Some religious actors, mainly conservative evangelical groups, but also some Catholics, are opposed the peace accords. In constructing the accords, there was an effort to be incredibly inclusive, and some religious actors felt that stepped on their toes about what is permissible. One of the parts of the extensive accords discusses the rights of people, and it uses language that could leave space for things like same-sex marriage. Some religious actors felt this was too far, so they opposed the accords on those grounds. Because the vote was so close, it wouldn’t take that many people to reject the accords because of a specific reason. The “no” campaign certainly capitalized on that, and put out the message: “If you’re voting for peace, you’re also voting for things like same-sex marriage,” which some people were opposed to.

Should religion play a role in shaping a post-conflict Colombia, and, if so, what should it be?

My hope is that religion promotes new opportunities for understanding and for a sense of shared purpose. Sometimes it can seem the peace process negotiation is just “that group just wants to get ahead, so they want peace now” or “that group thinks they’ll benefit most from the post-conflict situation.” Here, I think there’s an opportunity for religion to give people a sense of a shared purpose. The many events that were held around signing the peace accords were not explicitly religious, but had a religious aspect to them. That can be incredibly inspiring to people, so I think there’s a real opportunity there.
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