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Liberation theology at Canisius 
(Filmmakers’ notebook #3 Sea Change/ paradigm shift)
- realmedia stream rmdownload winmedia vid

We got a call from our friend Marie in Buffalo: "Do you want to shoot video of a Jesuit priest who replaced one of the six murdered priests in El Salvador?" We jumped at the chance, driving the 130 miles round trip, and have posted, with pleasure, our video of his talk. 

  The priest spoke to about 70 people (students and faculty, mostly) at Canisius, one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. Listening to Dean Brackley, SJ, parish priest and professor in El Salvador (Universidad Centroamericana/ UCA), we couldn’t help thinking of Canadian philosopher John McMurtry, whom we’d interviewed a few days earlier. Their ideas and words uncannily overlapped. Philosophy was meeting religion; the value system analysis was in sync. McMurtry and Brackley are streaming on our website. 

Probably Brackley's audience came expecting a discussion of El Salvador. After all, he’s been there since 1989, including the last three years of the twelve-year civil war. U.S. taxpayers paid $6 billion for the war; Salvadorans fought back, costing them 75,000 dead, the same 100 Salvadoran families in power, and the "state still used, as historically, for their enrichment and privilege while the left is immobilized by classic divisions. The police were deliberately infiltrated by the ultra right [and] death squads contributing to the terrible problem of crime which has stagnated the country…" 

Canisius College is shy of too overtly associating itself with the thoughts of Dean Brackley, though they gave him a big room to speak in, and post-speech refreshments, and probably paid for his round-trip bus ticket from John Carrol University in Cleveland. In contrast, Canisius heralded with expensive Buffalo News ads the week-later talk by celebrity columnist Mark Shields, liberal voice and true believer. Fr. Brackley’s talk was not even mentioned on the school’s website. If the school took the priest seriously, they’d have his remarks transcribed for the Internet, at least. 

Brackley didn’t spend much time talking about El Salvador, but launched a soft-spoken but searing critique of higher education, and in the gentlest of ways, tried to get the attention of those who design university curriculum: "…I don’t mean injustice should be the exclusive focus of study, but failing to put it and its solutions at the center of our search for truth means relegating them to the periphery [and] conducting a partial search for truth, omitting large chunks of what we need to learn. And partial also in the sense that the university’s search would be driven by interests other than the authentic formation of our people and their desire to know." 

"How can we responsibly graduate students who don’t know how many are poor and hungry in the world – and why? who don’t understand what the IMF…and World Bank do and don’t do?" A university that does that, the priest suggested, "accepts the division of the world into important people and unimportant people." 

Putting the problems in context, Brackley offered good news and bad news scenarios: THE BAD NEWS: "…growing gap between rich and poor, ecological destruction; families, communities and egos crumbling – and a growing recognition that it is pointless to look at governments and political parties to solve the problems of poverty and violence." THE GOOD NEWS: "…change is coming from the bottom up; those with hope look to civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), human rights groups, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, churches – or rather some churches, or parts of churches." 

"How is it possible," Brackley asked, "that people of good will can debate such matters as the war in Afghanistan, abortion, [Ashcroft’s] immigration policy and come away without having convinced the other?" His answer: "rational discourse rarely leads us beyond the philosophic and theological positions that each of us holds…" His deeper answer is to respond to the dictum of St. Augustine ("believe in order to understand") with: "love that we may understand." 

Dean Brackley fleshed out the pedagogical insight: "Ignacio Ellacuria, the rector of our university, who was murdered [by U.S.-trained assassins in 1989], defended his university’s partiality for the poor." The priest quoted the church martyr: "‘We learn from them, and their reality. We take this stand with them in order to be able to find the truth that all of us must be seeking and building together.’" 

"We only get to live once…we want to make it count; there are forceful currents in our society [the exploitation of] individualism, consumerism, that lead many of our people to sleep through life, to remain kids in toyland forever, and often highly destructive kids, at that." 

Brackley challenged what he called the "masters of suspicion," Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, for trying to access reality with reason alone.** But the priest’s point, though, is that access to understanding is not simply an intellectual process, but is driven by an informed, i.e., internationalist compassion, or love. . Dean Brackley told his audience: "…rational discourse rarely leads us beyond the philosophical and theological positions each of us holds – to question the largely unconscious myths, assumptions and attitudes that underlie and ground our rational activity. These basic myths and assumptions are what establish the horizon which permits some questions to arise, and forbid others from arising. These basic anthropological, cosmological and moral assumptions are less the product of our reasoning than of our interaction with our earliest family environment, and with the value-bearing institutions of our society. In the end, they are imbedded in our identity, so to question my basic assumptions is to question me – my identity – and to shake the foundations of my world. This is what happens to people when they visit a place like El Salvador."** 

Brackley outlined the wholesome disorientation that occurs when many humanitarian (and, presumably, religious) North Americans spend time with the poor who’ve suffered decades of war, torture, lost children and loved ones [a consequence of U.S. policy]: "…they begin to see their reflection in their hosts’ eyes…they fear they are losing their grip, but the world is losing its grip on them…" the acceptable dichotomy between "important people like themselves, and the unimportant people like their hosts" is shattered. They come to realize that "the poor are the majority on our planet, a world far worse than they dared to imagine" and that our way of life with its high-speed culture "and low grade confusion is more on the fringe, and the poor are in the center." The priest’s words are more eloquent and precise than our attempt to paraphrase them – but are accessible on our website. 

The priest cautioned that some visitors to "places like El Salvador," whose previous world view screened out seeing the devastating consequences of the global market system, when they experience value-system shift (part of the "sea change"), tend to become disoriented by feelings of guilt. He reminds them of Jesus’ encounter with "the Phoenician woman." Jesus, the Brackley said, was bound by some of the prejudices and blind spots of his time. "The idea is not to get a complex about them [but] find the courage to understand who is suffering, and why. What are the causes of that suffering? what are the structures that produce it? who, today, are the crucified people?" 

Brackley’s critique of Catholic religious university priorities was insightful, but didn’t get to the heart of the matter, in this reporter’s view. The reigning value system of the church is expressed by Pope John Paul II who says, "When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been satisfied, "as McMurtry points out: "Profit," as used by the Holy Father, "is good by definition. It uses ‘property’ and it ‘satisfies needs’ by the necessity of its authoritative declaration. The norm is the fact. What the Pope says is, in principle, just what is presupposed by professional economists and others who assume this value program as the social good." (John McMurtry, Unequal Freedoms: the global market as an ethical system). 

During a question and-answer-session, Dean Brackley called for the closing of the School of Americas/WHISC, the U.S. training base (Ft. Benning, GA) for many of the men who commanded troops committing the most heinous acts of barbarism in El Salvador. Another question prompted Brackley to note that while the social democratic left and the Marxists, two factions of the oppositional FMLN party. are at odds with each other, power might be shifting to the country’s mayors. Some in the FMLN are reluctant to assume responsibility for national government, preferring to consolidate their growing control of municipal governments. The progressive mayor of San Salvador may win the presidency. "If he wins, the state would be used less as a tool for the enrichment of the rich. He might be able to clean up some of the corruption, and could also defend space for environmental groups, women’s groups, the co-operatives – defend space for the growth and consolidation of a popular movement in society. And that would not be trivial. But you are not going to have a revolution in El Salvador soon; no one is going to implement a socialist program. U.S. tax dollars would swing quickly into operation there. It would simply not be allowed, and everybody knows that." 

They "know that" because of places like Nicaragua where an experiment with democracy was obliterated by the U.S. Brackley’s comment makes clear what must be obvious to the overwhelming majority of Central, Caribbean and Latin American peoples: except for the military might of the U.S., there would be populist, democratic governments in those places; and quickly. 

"People in poor countries are looking for allies," Brackley concluded. "International solidarity is indispensable for addressing the problems of poverty, violence and environmental destruction today…We have to make this the century of international solidarity. As the powerful extend their power through globalized markets and communications, our only hope is to globalize solidarity – to globalize the practice of love." The secular philosopher would agree. 

Large numbers of secular and ecumenical activists, young and old, whom we’ve interviewed over the past year are attuned to what some have called a sea change of consciousness. While the religious fundamentalists are trying to abolish the separation between church and state (see H.R.7 via the website www.pfaw.org for details), liberation theology and philosophy are merging in their mutual objective of examining value systems, or value programs (programming). 

That the present stage of capitalism is widely accepted, when posed, as a cancer rapidly metastacizing is itself illustrative of the sea change in consciousness. Our response, Dean Brackley reminds us, must be: globalize solidarity, and quickly.

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* Freud, through fear of isolation and its consequences, turned his back on one of his greatest insights due not to reason, but emotion (fear); Nietzsche’s emotional retreat into insanity was probably triggered by his powerlessness to confront human cruelty; and for those who’ve read Marx closely, is it reasonable to say he was not motivated by love as well as a hatred of injustice? But Marx’s social philosophy is marred by his "uncritical presumptions…human chauvinism, blindness to the totalitarian disenfranchisements of the young, Euro-supremacism, and his conception of ever more social centralization and machine technology as laws of development not subject to choice" as McMurtry notes in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism 

** Brackley’s priestly assignment before El Salvador was Ft. Apache, the Bronx. The Paul Newman movie (1981) is rated R for violence. To get up to speed on the priest’s current parish, start with the film Salvador (Oliver Stone’s first flick), or Romero (Raul Julia), and William Blum’s books Rogue State and Killing Hope. 

This article first appeared in Buffalo Alt. 

updated Nov 2002