[A version of this paper was presented at the College Theology Society Annual Meeting on June 1, 2018 at St. Catherine’s University in Minneapolis, MN.]

In Latin America, 1968 saw not only the CELAM Medellin Conference and the eventual birth of liberation theology, but also the Mexican student movements and government-led massacres that followed in an effort to repress these growing protests. In 2014, an eerily similar incident occurred when 43 student protestors went missing in Iguala. Both narco-traffickers and government officials are suspected of being responsible. Hundreds of thousands more have been killed and disappeared in the U.S.-Mexico drug war since 2006, and 2017 was the most violent year in the conflict’s history.

In 2011, five years into the drug war escalation in Mexico, Juan Francisco was found in Cuernavaca bound and suffocated along with six friends. Juan was the 24-year-old son of the famed Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia. It is unclear what led Juan and his friends to this end, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.[i] Javier Sicilia is one of Mexico’s most well-known writers, and someone who speaks with great moral authority. Rubén Martinez says in a documentary about Sicilia entitled, El Poeta, that “people listen to poets in Latin America.”[ii] Sicilia announced publicly that, in what would be his last poem, “there is nothing else to say; the world is not worthy of the word.”[iii]

Six weeks later, Sicilia started El Movimiento por La Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (MPJD) and led a march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, igniting a movement of protest and garnering support along the way with growing numbers to fill the capital’s Zocalo Square.

People in the march carried photos of their relatives who had been killed. It began with two hundred people and grew to include more than 100,000.  The caravan then toured with approximately 120 people around the South of Mexico before planning its route that would take this group of people to 29 U.S. cities. Those on the tour were mostly the family members of Mexicans murdered and disappeared during the drug war. This generated much local and some limited national coverage in most of the major media channels in the U.S. and Mexico. The “caravaneros” spoke of their obligation to transform their sufferings and losses into moral criticism and compassionate action. They were also joined by some drug war victims north of the border who sought an end to not only the violence in Mexico, but especially the consequences of drug prohibition, such as mass incarceration and militarized police-force presence in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

Mexico has a long history of political mobilization dating back since its revolution to the demonstrations of 1968 and the Zapatista uprising of 1994. The political opponent in the case of the drug war is less obvious and less visible, however, so finding the right audience and confronting the appropriate officials proved more difficult than in previous movements.[iv] In order to gain momentum, Sicilia knew he had to “reach the middle class and place the deaths and disappearances in the national consciousness — make visible the face of our national pain.”[v] Sicilia was concerned that the drug war statistics were meaningless if they remained impersonal, and that the conventional wisdom of the media and society would continue to say that those who were being killed were just criminals.[vi] He also understood that the connection had to be drawn between the violence of the drug war, the economic conditions that were breeding the criminality, and the impunity at the state level.[vii]

Along its journey, the Caravan spoke critically and used creative, non-violent but nonetheless disruptive actions to dramatize the issues while also trying to find common ground on which to build the difficult, bi-national consensus for peace.[viii] Parents of victims on both sides of the border found solidarity in their shared experience of loss, anger and mourning.[ix] The message of the caravaneros was proclaimed to crowds in public parks, city council chambers, worship services, state capitols, on college campuses, and even in the halls of congress.[x] In total, the caravaneros spoke to tens of thousands of people – not including those who were reached by the coverage of the media.

The collective moral rhetoric of the movement was crafted to elevate popular awareness and energy around four major areas of legislative reform: 1) drug policy reform (e.g., decriminalization and/or legalization of marijuana, as a start), 2) opposition to the militarization of the drug war, 3) an end to the arms trade to Mexico, 4) and a criticism of NAFTA policy with respect to its effects on wages, native industries in Mexico, and job growth.[xi] In the U.S., the international human rights organization, Global Exchange, which does advocacy work for social, economic and environmental justice issues in the Americas and beyond, helped the Caravan collaborate with leaders of the cause for drug policy and criminal justice reform with organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance, the NAACP, the ACLU, the National Latino Congreso, and many others.[xii] At end of its run, there were more than 200 organizations that had partnered with the Caravan, including dozens of churches. A call was heard from social movement leaders, people of faith, families of victims and organizations across the U.S. and Latin America for a discussion of a comprehensive regional initiative that would put an end to the current paradigm for combating the drug trade.

Many people have heard various accounts of the facts and figures about the drug war. The movement sparked by Sicilia is one that sought to make these abstract numbers concrete and particular. LA Times reporter Robert Lloyd called Sicilia himself a “compelling figure: worn but not weary, soft-spoken in a way that betokens strength. He radiates a kind of moral melancholy that does not indicate a lack of resolve.”[xiii] Like the leader himself, the caravan tried to send a poetic message to people just as much as a political one. They did this by showcasing the faces of the victims and giving platform to their surviving friends and family members through “candlelight vigils, massed crowds, flowered shrines, handmade signs [and] so forth . . . images underscored with long floating chords that feel at once elegiac and anxious.”[xiv] The function of aesthetics, art, drama and engaging people’s sense was prominent.

Because of the widespread attention generated by the protest march in Mexico City, Sicilia also had the chance to speak to then President Felipe Calderón directly and said, “You are responsible, together with the state governments, for thousands of dead, thousands of disappeared and thousands of orphans . . . You are obliged to ask the nation for forgiveness.”[xv] At one moment during the caravan’s pass through Chapúltepec Castle, President Calderón agreed to hear from several of the surviving family members and met a woman named María Elena Herrera from Calderón’s home state of Michoacán. Her four sons disappeared after being abducted by cartel members. Sicilia reports that when the President hugged her, he was noticeably shaken by her experience. Sicilia said, “I saw his recognition that the victims are human beings and not statistics. I saw his face of pain, and in that moment the President himself became more humanized to me.”[xvi]

While Sicilia’s influence is notable, the true impact of the movement and Sicilia’s activism is difficult to determine. If the only standard of measurement is the current status of the on-going violence, insecurity, impunity and somewhat dismal economic outlook, then it would appear that Sicilia’s efforts have so far failed to produce their desired outcome. When questioned about the effectiveness of the movement, however, Sicilia responded by quoting a disciple of Gandhi: “it doesn’t matter if we’ve reached the tree and picked the fruit. What matters is having walked toward it.”[xvii] He also said that “if anything, I think we helped Mexico take a big step toward reclaiming that public space for us and not the criminals.”[xviii]

What is more, the extent to which Sicilia’s faith informed his actions is considerable. He speaks about this in El Poeta, and Sicilia wrote and delivered a letter to the Pope in Rome before his visit to Mexico in March of 2012. It was written, Sicilia said, “on behalf of all those parents who had suffered loss, just as God the Father himself suffered the loss of his Son, remembered by us on the Good Friday then approaching.”[xix] Though not a theologian, Sicilia obviously recognized the significance of God’s solidarity with humanity’s suffering in Christ and thereby God’s solidarity with the violence endured by the Mexican people. But Sicilia also demonstrates a keen awareness of the complex political and economic factors on both sides of the border that have led the crisis to where it is. He expresses this in the following excerpt from his letter to then Pope Benedict:

“Mexico and Central America, Beloved Benedict, are at this moment the body of Christ abandoned in the Garden of Gethsemane and crucified between two thieves. A body, like that of Our Lord, on which has fallen all the force of delinquency, the omissions and grave corruptions of the State and its governments, the prohibition of drug consumption in the United States, their manufacturing of arms which pass illegally to our country to arm the criminals, money laundering making available huge sums, a hierarchical Church which, with its exceptions and its best face in its religiosity, maintains the silence of an accomplice; and of a world – the American way of life – which has reduced everything to production, the consumer society and money.”[xx]

Due to government corruption at every level, Sicilia encouraged his followers not to vote in the 2012 presidential election — not even for the most progressive candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of El Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD).[xxi] Sicilia explains that at several points there were attempts by leftist political groups to hijack the movement for their own particular agendas.[xxii] He says that “this threatened to drain the force of the movement,”  — not because these groups were necessarily wrong in what they were demanding, but because he realized that “a [movement] can’t be overly ideological if it’s going to be successful.”[xxiii]

Now with this movement in mind, I turn to consider part of Miguel A. De La Torre’s work, The Politics of Jesús: A Hispanic Political Theology, in which he wrestles with the question of what the relationship is between victims and those who victimize: “We may argue that Jesus abhors violence, but it would be simplistic to argue that he was a pacifist. He calls his disciples to become the recipients of violence, calling them to radical solidarity with a bloody cross. Violence can never be accepted as a necessary evil as per some revolutionaries, nor rejected as antithetical to Jesus as per pacifists . . .”[xxiv] The best example provided in the gospels of this is perhaps Jesus’s own action taken to cleanse temple – not for the purpose of harming anyone, but rather, filled with righteous indication, to forcefully expose the idolatry and greed of the moneychangers, shedding light on their intentions and purifying the Jewish worship space. In this same spirit, De La Torre also argues that:

History demonstrates the futility of [merely] denouncing unjust social structures, for those whom the structures privilege will never willingly abdicate what they consider to be their birthright. Not all violence is the same. The violence employed by the marginalized to overcome oppression is in reality self-defense to the oppressor’s violent employment of terror to maintain their subjugation.[xxv]

Moreover, Jesus’s coercive actions were intended to protect the weak and the vulnerable in this case, not himself. Admittedly, this action was probably performed for symbolic reasons rather than for political efficacy, and for the purpose of witnessing to another way of being in the world. Still, De La Torre is mostly correct, I suggest, to recognize that unconditional love for the least of these and non-persons might lead to the unselfish act of standing in solidarity with the oppressed in their likely very conflictual struggle for self-preservation.[xxvi] And does not the oppressor have a vested interest in insisting on non-violence as the only legitimate resistance on the part of oppressed subjects?[xxvii] Can there be, therefore, a liberationist ethical praxis, committed to non-violence, but not for the purpose of effectiveness or piety per se, but rather for the sake of witness to God’s presence with subjugated peoples, who lack the physical or military power to overcome oppression?

So De La Torre may be signaling toward another option, by which resistance arises out of love for oppressors rather than vengeance or spite. And yet, such resistance is still intended to demand justice, disrupt the status quo and hold perpetrators accountable. De La Torre contends that to disrupt in the case of resistance, protest and the like, is an act of love toward oppressors. It is not done out of vengeance or spite.[xxviii] Rather, it is intended to hold them accountable to their own rhetoric.[xxix] Thus, De La Torre agrees with those like Jon Sobrino and Jurgen Moltmann, for example, who maintain that oppressors are victims as well, of the very structures that give them privilege, because they simultaneously rob them of their humanity.[xxx]

Now I think De La Torre’s position still has some shortcomings, particularly with respect to the absence of any well-developed ecclesiology. To fill in the gap, here, I turn finally to the work of Oscar Garcia-Johnson, with his book The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology. After discussing the relevance of liberationist methodologies for Latino/a theology, Garcia-Johnson states the following:

Latino/a theology . . . acknowledges certain limitations of liberationist methodologies, however noble and committed their attempts toward economic-political liberation. A Latino/a theology of the Spirit sees the nature and consequences of sin—both personal and structural—as too serious to be overcome on anthropological grounds alone. Although welcoming liberationists’ claim that solution rests on the right praxis or orthopraxis, Latino/a theology of the Spirit asserts that such a praxis is embodied in the praxis of Jesus Christ in and through his body [i.e., the church] . . . We reaffirm, therefore, that if Latino/a theology is to transform Latino/a communities, then Latino/a theology must become a critical discourse that discloses a cultural praxis that witnesses to Jesus.[xxxi]

The stress for Garcia-Johnson, when it comes to building a truly transforming community, is on witness, and specifically a critical discourse and praxis that witnesses to Jesus. He continues:

Jesus’ presence in the Christian community is as concrete as the physical and relates to us as a “compañero/a de sufrimiento” (companion in suffering). [And] aesthetics becomes analogia relationis, the way to know God in the concrete. [Finally,] the church (not the state or other power structure) is [then regarded as the] place of empowerment, social transformation, and liberation . . . Empowerment, social transformation, and ultimately liberation are implicit cultural products of the aesthetic participation in community, as the people reaffirm their identities in the praxis of (non-violent) resistance toward dominant cultural pressures of assimilation.[xxxii]

I contend that the for the church to come alongside of a movement such as the Caravan for Peace led by Javier Sicilia fits squarely within this vision. In terms of its impact, as it turns out, what Sicilia started did indeed fan a flame that has not yet been extinguished. The same organization that partnered with him to lead the MPJD, Global Exchange, initiated yet another Caravan in the spring of 2016 that launched in Honduras and traveled through El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Texas, and finally to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs (UGASSD) in April.[xxxiii] It was called “The Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice.” Its stated purpose was to give voice to victims and visibility to the unacceptable cost of the drug war, as well as to further the global call for drug policy reform and contribute to the urgent construction of alternatives.[xxxiv]

In addition to carrying leaders from drug-war-affected families, also accompanying the Caravan on its route were policy experts, community organizers, religious leaders, students, artists, musicians, photographers, civil rights advocates and former law enforcement professionals. They held rallies, vigils, academic forums and press events at strategic locations along the way.[xxxv] This movement is now in its third wave under new leadership, striving to address issues that have arisen since the election of President Donald Trump — issues such as nationalism, anti-immigration and discrimination against undocumented persons, especially those seeking asylum with their children due to drug-trade-related violence and government corruption in Central America.

One example of the church’s participation in such advocacy for drug policy reform can be seen in Guatemala, where a network of churches called El Consejo Ecuménico Cristiano de Guatemala showed its support for the latest instantiation of the Caravan. These churches have come together to host and facilitate informative discussions and dialogue around the topic of “drug politics” as a human rights and public health issue that directly influences the wellbeing of the neighborhoods and communities of the countries of Central America.[xxxvi] The Reverend Vitalino Similox presides over El Consejo and has been involved for years in social and pastoral work with these churches to address the challenge of drug-trade-related violence.[xxxvii]

Similox has spoken about the importance of assembling every organization and force that is willing to promote peace in the region and defend human rights through non-violent means in the face of the economic and political power wielded by drug trafficking cartels and the politicians who collude with them.[xxxviii] Since 2011, when cartel violence broke out exponentially in Guatemala, El Consejo has invited Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist and Mayan religious leaders to partner with them in an effort to unify churches and faith communities in the region to form a consolidated front and protest against drug-trade-related crime. In addition to holding large memorial services together in opposition to recent surges in uninvestigated murders and disappearances, this group has also been able to demand greater transparency from the Guatemalan government in elections through public demonstrations, letters and meetings with government and church officials.[xxxix]

So as the Caravan and other movements birthed out of this recent history indicate, Christians and churches themselves can be vital partners in these efforts to lovingly resist violence and practice liberation. This does not mean that the church is always the primary actor, necessarily, or that it is even responsible for the direct execution of political and economic change. However, the church’s voice and presence in the struggle for justice in the midst of the drug war can allow the role of faith communities in such movements to be a leading and decisive one.

Non-violence as a strategic of activism is one thing, and its impact around the world in the 20th Century is well known.[xl] Nonetheless, the reason for Christians to resist violence is not so much because non-violence is more effective — though often it is — nor is non-violence itself even the goal. Rather, it is the obligatory means because it is judged by the witness of Jesus’s own life and ministry to be the better, more beautiful, and truer political path. But not in such a way that allows the powerful to dictate the terms of engagement. Hence, there is a paradox at the heart of how such a politic gets collectively incarnated. Because of its fidelity to the event of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, this posture must assume kenotic and self-sacrificial embodiment, which issues in strength and garners its epistemic authority through the very form of apparent weakness. This is to say, it is a praxis of liberation and loving resistance, and a forceful one, that is ecclesial and non-violent in shape.

[i] Robert Lloyd, “Dramatic, Inspiring ‘El Poeta’ Targets Mexico’s War on Drugs” (Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2015). Accessed Jan. 15, 2016. It may have had to do with a theft that took place in a gang-controlled nightclub they were visiting.

[ii] Ruben Martinez, El Poeta, PBS Frontline, directed by Duane De La Vega and Katie Galloway (San Francisco: Loteria Films, 2015), Medium.

[iii] Sicilia, El Poeta.

[iv] Tim Padgett, “Why I Protest: Javier Sicilia of Mexico – Person of the Year 2011,” (Time Magazine, Dec. 4, 2011), accessed Jan. 15, 2016, http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102138_2102238,00.html

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] “The Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity,” December 14, 2015, accessed Jan. 30, 2016. http://www.globalexchange.org/mexico/caravan

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ted Lewis, “El Chapo Recaptured: Not Exactly Mission Accomplished,” January 15, 2015, accessed Feb. 2, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ted-lewis/el-chapo-recaptured-not-mission-accomplished_b_8987068.html

[xi] “The Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity.”

[xii] “Que es La Caravana?” January 2016, accessed January 30, 2016, http://peacelifejustice.org/que-es-la-caravana-2016/

[xiii] Lloyd, “Dramatic, Inspiring ‘El Poeta’ Targets Mexico’s War on Drugs.”

[xiv] Sicilia, El Poeta.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Padgett, “Why I Protest.”

[xvii] Sicilia, El Poeta.

[xviii] Padgett, “Why I Protest.”

[xix] Gerald MacCarthy, “A Christian Response to the Mexican Drug Wars,” November 27, 2012, Accessed Feb. 1, 2016, http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20121127_1.htm

[xx] Ibid. Gerald MacCarthy’s translation.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Padgett, Why I Protest.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Miguel A. De La Torre, The Politics of Jesús: A Hispanic Political Theology (Rowan and Littlefield, Lanham: 2015), 163.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Oscar Garcia-Johnson, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 98.

[xxxii] Ibid., 115.

[xxxiii] “What is UNGASS 2016?” Open Society Foundations. June 2016. Accessed December 3, 2017. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/explainers/what-ungass-2016

[xxxiv] Ted Lewis, “Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice,” accessed Feb. 1, 2016, http://www.globalexchange.org/programs/caravan-peace-life-and-justice

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] “Iglesias manifiestan su apoyo a la Caravana por la paz, la vida y la justicia en Guatemala.” (December 10, 2015), accessed February 1, 2016 http://peacelifejustice.org/2015/12/10/diferentes-iglesias-manifiestan-su-apoyo-a-la-caravana-por-la-paz-la-vida-y-la-justicia-en-guatemala/

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Mayra Rodriguez, “Por primera vez musulmanes, budistas, mayas y cristianos se unen en oración clamando por la Paz,” accessed February 1, 2016, http://www.ini-ecumenica.org/fileadmin/mediapool/einrichtungen/E_oekumen_initiative_mittelamerika/Guatemala/CECG/Musulmanes__budistas__mayas_y_cristianos_oran_por_la_PazF.pdf

[xl] Helene Slessarev-Jamir. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 55-56. Slessarev-Jamir states that “The practice of nonviolent resistance requires that those seeking change voluntarily undergo suffering for their beliefs while refusing to strike back against their adversaries, believing that their voluntary suffering will move both the assailant and the beholders to change their hearts and feel a kinship with the sufferer” (55-56). She goes on to discuss examples of successful non-violent religious activism movements such as those of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi’s, but also many others. Most interestingly, Slessarev-Jamir characterizes the significance of prophetic activism in terms of how its “religious commitments create possibilities for people to act in way that defy the dominant models of rational, self-interested actors found in most current theories of political behavior. Religiously constructed activism certainly has the capacity to sustain marginalized people in the face of great opposition. This brand of activism also has the power to create the ethical foundations for solidarity between the politically marginalized and those with privileged access to political power. By evoking humanity’s scarred bands with one another, religious organizing can straddle the existing gulf between places of marginalization and places of privilege. Doing so opens up new spaces for broader social change campaigns”(7).

Also published on Medium.