The western media largely missed the significance of Pope Francis’s visit to the ‘Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas’ in the south of Mexico on the border with Guatemala in February 2016. He not only reiterated the message he bore elsewhere in Mexico, about the Church’s support for a social and cultural revolution in favour of greater equality, social justice and human rights.
Francis singled out the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, which had erupted in a short-lived rebellion on 1 January 1994 against the Mexican government’s attempt to privatise the communally owned land; this was the very day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. The issues of indigenous peoples and land rights are extremely sensitive in Mexico, yet Francis by visiting Chiapas was determined to highlight the problems and encourage solutions.
Famous for its ancient ruins from the Mayan era, Chiapas is a small state of 5.2 million people, with almost a third belonging to indigenous groups using 56 distinct languages. Nearly 60 percent of the population is Catholic, with another 27 percent of other Christian churches.
Samuel Ruiz, liberation theology and indigenous peoples
Though the Church did not support armed revolt, Catholic groups were inspired by the Second Vatican Council’s ‘option for the poor’ to struggle resolutely for social justice and human rights. They were led in Chiapas by Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia in the diocese of San Crisobal de Las Casas. Ruiz was determined throughout his life to see the indigenous people achieve their rights and participate fully in the life of Mexico, with their values and cultures honoured. He organised the first conference of indigenous peoples in 1974, the first grass-roots conference of its kind there at that time.
He also fought for the full participation of indigenous people in Church life, including indigenous liturgies and languages. He ordained married indigenous men as deacons, despite opposition from Roman officials.
Ruiz was a strong proponent of liberation theology, though some landowners called him a communist. He consistently promoted the renewed Catholic social teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and played a key mediating role in restraining armed conflict. He tried to reconcile opposed groups by working for practical and just social outcomes to benefit the most disadvantaged. He died in 2011 at the age of 86. Very pointedly, Pope Francis insisted on praying at his grave, signalling his endorsement of this non-violent form of liberation theology and social activism by the Church.
Land reform and neoliberalism
The background to the Pope’s visit to Chiapas is thus important. Land reform had been one of the major accomplishments of the Mexican revolution of 1917, and by 1992 about half the farmland was held in community ownership, called ejidos. Such land was held by the community in perpetuity, and could not be sold or privatised. But in 1992 the government abandoned land reform, and ended efforts by a huge backlog of claims to achieve this ejidos status.
The Mexican government and ruling groups wanted to ‘de-territorialise’ the 25 million campesinos, privatising ownership and so forcing them off the land to supply labour for the new giant factories, the maquiladoras, being built below the US border. Protesting against the neoliberal economic policies behind NAFTA, thousands of armed Zapatistas took control of major population centres and hundreds of ranches in Chiapas, though a ceasefire was quickly reached, with the aid of Ruiz, on 12 January.
However, in February 1995 the Mexican army occupied Chiapas, sending in 70,000 troops, a third of the entire army. The following year, a few days before Christmas, paramilitary groups massacred 45 members of a Catholic pacifist group during a prayer meeting. Ruiz spent Christmas saying funeral masses for the victims, most of whom were women and children.
The San Andres Accords were signed in 1996, but the government reneged; so the Zapatistas began to implement the Accords on their own initiative, emphasising cultural and economic development with autonomous self-government. The Zapatistas highlighted education, basic health care, participation and cooperative models of economic activity. Though proudly Mexican, the Zapatistas developed parallel functions to the government, managing their own economic arrangements, policing and judiciary.
Pope Francis did not claim that the Zapatistas provided a model for other places, but they show that with the right opportunities rural and indigenous peoples can organise and manage their own affairs, establishing stable and prosperous communities, especially with cooperatives.
Francis strongly encourages such real participation in social reform and land ownership, empowerment of local and regional communities to control their own affairs, ending the widespread corruption and encouraging greater transparency. As elsewhere in his writings and travels, he trumpets the right and need for the three ‘L’s – labour, land and lodging: the right to work and support families; access to productive land or other resources; and suitable accommodation with home ownership.
These are not utopian or romantic ideas about rural life, but resonate powerfully with the thinking of development economists today that improving the lives and conditions of small farmers is essential to eradicating hunger and gross poverty worldwide.
God insists on motivating social justice efforts
Francis stressed that the struggle for justice and human rights is fundamentally a religious one; God weeps at human suffering and distress. Speaking to thousands of people at the Mass with indigenous peoples in Chiapas on 15 February, he said that Jesus is the living embodiment of the Father calling us to embrace this yearning for justice and peace, and do all we can do to promote human wellbeing in our own circumstances.
Francis spelt out this message very powerfully when he spoke of the struggle of the indigenous people as like that of Moses leading the People of God out of slavery and oppression ‘to live in the freedom to which they are called.’
God hears the cry of his people, and is seen as a ‘Father who suffers as he sees the pain, mistreatment, and lack of justice for his children. His word, his law, thus becomes a symbol of freedom.’
Francis used a quote from the ancient Mexican text of the post-K’isha’ period (800-1000CE) with its account of creation and the human story, about how the dawn sun rises on all the tribes to heal the face of the earth. Francis continued:
In this expression, one hears the yearning to live in freedom, there is a longing which contemplates a promised land where oppression, mistreatment and humiliation are not the currency of the day. In the heart of humanity and in the memory of many of our peoples is imprinted this yearning for a land, for a time when human corruption will be overcome by fraternity, when injustice will be conquered by solidarity and when violence will be silenced by peace.
In Jesus ‘we discover the solidarity of the Father who walks by our side… he becomes the Life so that darkness may not have the last word and the dawn may not cease to rise on the lives of God’s sons and daughters.’
Francis continued that ‘there had been attempts to silence and dull this yearning’ and to ‘subdue and lull our children and young people into a kind of lassitude by suggesting that nothing can change, their dreams can never come true.’
Driving the liberation message home in Chiapas, he lamented that the indigenous peoples had been excluded and treated as inferior. ‘Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them. How sad this is! How worthwhile it would be for each of us to examine our conscience and learn to say, “Forgive me!”’
Finally, drawing from his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Francis said that creation itself was crying out in distress ‘among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail”.’ ‘We can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental crises in world history.’
Francis is not calling for armed revolt, but for a revolution of conscience and a determined commitment to the common good, of everyone, rich and poor, especially on behalf of those in most need. Far from urging people passively to accept their fate in the hope of heaven later, Francis insists that God wants a better life for all in this world. ‘We rejoice that Jesus continues to die and rise again in each gesture that we offer to the least of our brothers and sisters’, witnessing to both his Passion and Resurrection.
Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who lectures in social ethics at Yarra Theological Union within Melbourne’s University of Divinity. He is one of the founders of the ecumenical advocacy network, Social Policy Connections.