Local activist works to improve impoverished conditions

September 12, 2003|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on Centre College professor Richard D. Axtell's work with Witness for Peace and its work in Latin American countries.

Back in the days when he was a seminary student in Louisville, Richard D. Axtell became interested in liberation theology.

"It is a theology that begins from the perspective of the poor," says Axtell, associate professor of religion at Centre College and college chaplain. "It was originally a Latin American theology and arose from theologians in Latin America.

"What they were saying was that the interpretation of the Bible always comes with certain biases. So what they did was to try to understand the Bible from the perspective of what they considered a situation of oppression and exploitation of Latin America."

When liberation theology was on the rise in the 1960s and '70s, Axtell says, many of the theologians were living under dictatorships, many of which were supported and funded by the United States of America. He says the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, which was from approximately 1936 to 1979, was one such autocracy.


"So the theologians did an analysis of the situation, using the tools of the social sciences, particularly a theory in Latin America that was popular at that time called Dependency Theory," explains Axtell, who has been at Centre for the past seven years. "Dependency Theory looked at the situation of Latin America within a total global system in which the economies of the former colonial nations were structured to serve the interests of the wealthy nations. From all of that analysis as a starting point, these theologians then reread the Bible from that perspective and saw it as the story of the liberation of the poor.

"For instance, they focused on stories like the Exodus (from Egypt) - the deliverance of a group of oppressed slaves from a dictator, the pharaoh. Or the stories of Jesus, who preached in passages like Luke chapter 4 the liberation of the poor in the context of an oppressive Roman Empire."

Axtell says "liberation theology frequently found common cause with movements that were seeking to overthrow those dictatorships in the '70s and '80s."

"And it was probably stronger in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Brazil than other countries."

Special interest in Latin America

Axtell says his serious study of liberation theology led him to a particular interest in the Latin American situations that had given rise to the theology. In addition to liberation theology, he adds, his studies focused on Christian social ethics, or looking at ethics from a theological perspective.

"Within that, I specialized in peace and justice studies, which, combined with my interest in liberation theology, led to a focus on Latin America," Axtell notes. "Witness for Peace was really well known in the 1980s when I was first getting into these studies. I had numerous friends who had gone to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace, and so eventually I got involved as well. Now, I'm a member of the board, and have been for five years now."

He began making trips to Latin America in the 1990s, Axtell says, and in June wrapped up his fourth trip to Nicaragua. He's been to Cuba seven times; Colombia, once; El Salvador, twice; Guatemala, twice; Honduras, once; and Mexico, many times. He lived in Mexico with Centre's "Study Abroad" program in fall 2001.

His June trip to Nicaragua was through Witness for Peace, an organization with which Axtell has been active for 10 years. Founded in 1983, the group just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Axtell says Witness for Peace looks at the effects of U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. The organization began during the Contra War in Nicaragua, he adds.

"There was a strong movement in the United States in opposition to the Reagan administration's funding to the Contras, who were fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua," Axtell explains. "A group of church people actually went down to Nicaragua to see what was going on. They saw that when they were in the villages, which were under fairly frequent attack by the Contras, those attacks stopped. They got the idea that maybe it was good to have a North American presence in the villages that were in danger of Contra attacks in order to prevent the violence.

"Throughout the '80s, Witness for Peace sent thousands of North Americans down to live in Nicaraguan villages. Usually those people would come back to the United States with a new understanding of what's happening in Nicaragua. They did a lot to educate the U.S. public, media and Congress on the effects of the Contra war, which was instrumental in leading Congress to cut off funding to the Contras."

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