A Review of
A Gospel for the Poor:
Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left
Reviewed by Tim Hoiland
Ask just about anyone in Latin America and they’ll tell you there are two main religious groups in the region: Roman Catholics and evangélicos. It’s true. According to the most recent Pew study, just over two-thirds of Latin Americans identify as Catholic, while one in five identifies as some sort of evangélico.
But there are nuances. And nothing I have read better puts these nuances into historical perspective than David C. Kirkpatrick’s debut book. Focusing on the work of theologians C. René Padilla of Ecuador, Samuel Escobar of Peru, among others, Kirkpatrick argues for the significance of these thinkers and activists in a sort of via media amidst the more dominant categories – not just in Latin America but in global Christianity as a whole.
Drawing on a wealth of archives and personal papers, as well as bilingual interviews, Kirkpatrick situates his study of these paradigm-busting Christians in the context of the Cold War – which, in Latin America, ultimately played out in tragic, decidedly less-than-cool ways. As a result of rapid urbanization throughout the twentieth century, Latin American cities were evolving in unpredictable directions. Shanty towns were popping up – literally overnight – in ravines, along railroad tracks, and on the far edges of urban areas. Enrollment rates at state universities were soaring. Jobs in the informal sector were growing. So was social and economic inequality. Conditions, you might say, were combustible.
With the region in the grip of strongmen, and with death squads and armed insurgencies tearing communities apart, there was a growing desperation for meaning, comfort, and hope. Naturally, in a region where religious “nones” were almost nonexistent, many looked for answers at church. The Second Vatican Council, which marked a shift away from a more centralized, paternalistic ecclesiology, opened the door for theologies of liberation that empowered poor, often illiterate Latin American Catholics to “do theology” themselves, reckoning with biblical teaching in light of their own, often frightful, situations. The hermeneutics may have been problematic, but the real-world relevance of these theologies is unquestionable.
Meanwhile, evangélico churches were growing by leaps and bounds, especially in marginal areas where people’s lives were in constant turmoil. Whereas many of these newly established communities were without so much as one Catholic priest, much less proper church buildings, Protestants were meeting in homes and storefronts, as small congregations with bivocational pastors. Evangélicos had a presence in more affluent neighborhoods as well, and in time these churches grew, but they generally retained this organic character. They also tended to share a conservative dispensational theology that led to a more personal, pietistic faith that generally eschewed political involvement.
For evangélicos like Escobar and Padilla, something was amiss. Deeply disturbed by the grinding poverty and grave injustice all around them, these young theologians “began to search for theological materials with which they could address a revolutionary situation.” They had no interest in turning their backs on orthodox Christian beliefs. Theologies of liberation were mostly off the table. As were ecumenical theologies that prevailed among the liberal Protestant churches associated with the World Council of Churches.
These were still evangélicos, after all – even if then and there, like here and now, the word “evangelical” carried unhelpful baggage. So they set out to articulate and embody a thoroughly biblical “gospel for the poor,” removing the “white, middle-class American packaging” that missionaries, in their view, had unhelpfully used to contain the good news. Accompanying this renewed emphasis on activism among the marginalized and oppressed was a sharp rebuke of North American paternalism, church-growth pragmatism, and theological quietism.
In time, this “gospel for the poor” would come to be known as misión integral, most commonly translated as integral (or holistic) mission. While it is often assumed Padilla, Escobar, and others developed misión integral as a Protestant alternative to liberation theology, Kirkpatrick makes a convincing argument that this is not the case. In fact, while both liberation theology and misión integral arose out of the same tumultuous environment, he sees a “surprising and untold influence” moving in the opposite direction.
Padilla and Escobar also greatly influenced global evangelicalism. Their keynote addresses at the first Lausanne Congress in 1974 put them on the evangelical map – and nearly kickstarted a civil war within the conference. By the close of the gathering, at the insistence of Escobar, Padilla, and other leaders from the Global South – and with the crucial support of John Stott – a section on “Christian Social Responsibility” had been added to the groundbreaking Lausanne Covenant, incorporating the language and ideas of misión integral in a mainstream evangelical publication for the first time.
In addition to Padilla and Escobar, Kirkpatrick introduces us to a cast of socially active evangélicos who played a crucial role in giving shape to misión integral, including fellow Latin Americans Pedro Arana and Orlando Costas, as well as Scottish missionary John Mackay and Catherine Feser Padilla, René Padilla’s American-born wife. But Escobar and Padilla get the most attention in these pages, and deservingly so.
The contributions – and, just as importantly, the methods – of these two men, however, have been distinct. “Padilla was the primary mind behind these progressive evangelical themes,” Kirkpatrick writes. Escobar, meanwhile, “appropriated theological ideas that originated from Padilla’s theological journey, developed in organizations formed primarily by him.” Perhaps it was inevitable, but their paths diverged sharply in the 1970s. While Padilla would remain in Latin America throughout his life, Escobar eventually moved to the United States to teach missiology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Seminary) outside of Philadelphia. He later served as the president of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, further extending his influence.
Padilla, for his part, is undoubtedly a trailblazer who has left an indelible mark on global evangelicalism and on my own life. I know from first-hand experience, though, that his fiery rhetoric can be a bit jarring. The popularization of misión integral north of the Rio Grande, Kirkpatrick rightly argues, likely wouldn’t have happened to such an extent without Escobar’s presence – and more irenic posture – in North American evangelical contexts.
Like so many highways throughout Latin America, the road from that first Lausanne conference to today has had its share of potholes and hairpin turns. But Kirkpatrick points to the integration of integral mission into the language and programs of some 600 mission agencies and development organizations – World Vision, Compassion International, and Food for the Hungry among them – to demonstrate the extent to which misión integral has become accepted and largely uncontroversial within evangelicalism. Popularization, however, has had a predictably depoliticizing effect. Child sponsorship appeals, Kirkpatrick points out, are far less threatening to American evangelicals than diatribes against “the ‘sins’ of U.S. missionaries and foreign policy.”
If there’s one part of the book that’s lamentable, and I’m nitpicking here, it’s the clunkiness of oft-repeated terms. Kirkpatrick takes great pains to use precise language, and I’m sympathetic to the cause. Throughout the book he consistently refers to Padilla, Escobar, and their ilk as the “Latin American Evangelical Left.” Each word in that phrase is carefully chosen (and reasonably explained). But the effect is cumbersome at best and misleading at worst.
Escobar and Padilla are not theological liberals; they are historically orthodox, evangelical Christians. It’s true that they aren’t traditionally conservative in their politics. Nor are they milquetoast moderates. But they have critiqued not just quietism on the evangélico right but also, possibly more strongly, the ideologies of secular and Catholic revolutionaries on the left. And, as Kirkpatrick has demonstrated, their relationship with evangelicals is only one part of the story. On Latin American college campuses in the 1960s, with Marxist ideas especially ascendant, Escobar would plead with students, “Why haven’t you paid careful attention to [Jesus’] message of transformation, of redemption, as a response to the desperate human situation?”
That quibble aside, A Gospel for the Poor is a tremendous gift to all of us who, in one way or another, are indebted to the work of these Latin American brothers and sisters in the faith. May this tribe increase. And may David Kirkpatrick write many more books.
Tim Hoiland is Communications Director at 1MISSION, a community development organization working in Mexico and Central America. Born and raised as a missionary kid in Guatemala, he now lives in Tempe, Arizona. You can follow him at @timhoiland.