- Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present ed. by Alexander Wilde
This edited volume, the result of a two-year research collaboration hosted by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, examines the religious dimensions of social change in Latin America over the past 50 years. Major themes that thread through the 15 substantive chapters include church responses to human rights, distinctions between political/state violence and criminal violence, and pastoral accompaniment. Every chapter addresses one or more of these themes, through contextual discussions of the theories and practices of violence and rights, or through specific case studies.
Contributors draw from a variety of disciplines, including theology, history, sociology, anthropology, political science, and legal studies. Likewise, they present case studies ranging from religious responses to state violence in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Central America during the Cold War to more contemporary efforts to mitigate new forms of violence through work with incarcerated men in São Paulo, members of street gangs in Central America, former combatants in Colombia, and other groups.
Although the majority of the chapters focus on religious workers associated with the Catholic Church, the text makes clear that Catholicism is not monolithic. Several chapters address the efforts of Evangelical Protestants, for example, and many of the Catholic-focused chapters take time to explore internal tensions and rifts (for example, between priests working at the grass roots and those in institutional hierarchies). Although this nuanced attention to the work of Catholics is one strength of the volume, the narrow concentration may leave some readers wondering about other religious responses, for there is no treatment (for example) of ecumenical approaches or of perspectives from Judaism, or indigenous or Afro-Latin American traditions.
Other areas could have been further developed as well. A more even geographic coverage, for instance, would have advanced the region-wide assessment promised by the volume's subtitle. As it is, South American countries dominate (11 chapters), and two contributors treat Central America as a region rather than as individual countries (in contrast, no one fuses Brazil, Argentina, and Chile into the singular Southern Cone). Caribbean nations do not even appear on the map.
Volume editor Alexander Wilde writes in his brief afterword that the volume's studies "illuminate how the manifestations of violence have changed and also how its underlying causes have not changed enough" (479). From this reviewer's perspective, the historic studies presented in Part I and the contemporary studies of Part II remain too widely separated. We see clearly the differences between the state-led political violence of the 1970s and 1980s (Part I) and the new market-driven criminal violence [End Page 416] of the 1990s and 2000s (Part II), but what is missing is a sturdier bridge between the two eras. In what ways are they similar? In what ways did the former cause or contribute to the latter?
Without serious examination of the connections between the two eras—and their links to relevant global systems of power—this volume can do little to alter the unfortunate mainstream perceptions of Latin America as a congenitally violent region. Because of this lacuna, instructors who might wish to use this volume in introductory courses must take special care with its framing.
Nonetheless, Wilde and his contributors have constructed a volume that combines analytical breadth and depth, with shared themes that hold the chapters together well. The result is a rather nuanced comparative text—an unusual achievement in an edited collection of this kind. It offers a compelling treatment of the social impacts of a handful of religious institutions and individuals who have worked, and continue working, to mitigate violence in many places across the Latin America region.