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Poetry as Protest

Poetry as Protest

“The Military Police have told you
that all the Church should worry about is ‘souls.’
But what about children starved by corporations?
How shall they possess the earth if the earth is owned by landlords?” 
- Nicaraguan Poet, Ernesto Cardenal

In Nicaragua, where poets were internationally renowned for a “revolution of the poets” from 1961 through 1991 (Berman 26), poetry provided a pathway for the contextualization of the Gospel by providing a “theology from below,” a local language for social protest based on biblical justice. In “Weaving the Words: Writing about God in Culturally Appropriate Ways,” Nancy Thomas contends that “each context needs its own writers, people who are equipped to communicate in such a way that the Christian message becomes genuinely good news to readers in their own setting” (ii). In Nicaragua, the pen of the poets gave voice to the voiceless, empowering the everyday person to speak out against post-colonial, oppressive regimes (1937–1991). During this time, the young Nicaraguan churches began to contribute teopoetics, or theologizing about God through poetry, to the global church, although the church in power at the time initially rejected these theologies as syncretistic or radical. Today, poetry and writing from our theologically-trained media artists continues to provide a pathway for the contextualization of the gospel in cultures throughout the world.

Nicaraguan poet and Catholic priest, Ernesto Cardenal, fits well into a Latin American style of writing called protest poetry (Thomas 44). Cardenal’s socio-political poetry served as a catalyst, or pathway, for the contextualization of the Gospel in Nicaragua, especially during the revolutionary era (1979–1990). In the 1970s and 1980s, Cardenal, along with a handful of other writers, became one of the main theorists of Sandinismo (Berman 33), the language of the Nicaraguan revolution. Although the religious composition of the Sandinistas was pluralistic, the firsthand testimony of one of the revolutionaries stated, “We Christians are a majority among the Sandinistas” and it was because of their faith that they were fighting for the freedom of Nicaragua (Peck 34). Notable Latin American liberation theologians have declared “the presence of Christians to be the most significant and unique factor in the Nicaraguan revolution . . . Christian clergy and laity were among the Sandinista fighters and martyrs” while individual Christians and churches provided support services for the revolution (Peck).

Poetry as a Form of Preaching

Cardenal was best known internationally as a poet more than than “as a prophet, priest or cabinet minister” (85). In fact, Cardenal self-identified as a writer more than any other “position” he held. He compared himself to a modern-day prophet:

“I have the same motivations as did the biblical prophets. The prophets were poets who wrote to denounce injustice and to proclaim the new kingdom. For me, poetry is just another vehicle. It is a form of preaching.” (ibid)

Poetry, or writing, under God’s power and inspiration can become a form of preaching. Cardenal did not “write just to write,” he wrote to effect change in his local context. One critic commented that Cardenal did not “believe in ‘art for art’s sake.’ His poetic documentation of realities in Nicaragua has redemptive intentions” (ibid). For example, Cardenal’s poetry included commentary on injustices faced by Children At Risk (CAR) in his homeland:

“The Military Police have told you
that all the Church should worry about is ‘souls.’
But what about children starved by corporations?
How shall they possess the earth if the earth is owned by landlords?” (87)

The Poet’s Pen for the Oppressed

Thomas Merton, contemplative writer, priest and one of Cardenal’s mentors, wrote that the Christian contemplative, or poet, is “freed from the world for the world and is obliged, in whatever manner possible, to speak, write, and act in behalf of the oppressed and for a nonviolent Christian ministry of peace and justice” (Eigo 29–30). It was Merton who provided inspiration and vision for Cardenal’s creation of an artist’s community in Solentiname, Nicaragua (1965–1977) (Peck). This religious community of approximately one thousand people spread out over thirty-eight islands, was based on the biblical ideals of social justice and community sharing (New Revised Standard Version, Acts 2). From within the Solentiname community, the process of contextualizing the Gospel in Nicaragua began. There, the common people or peasants, los campesinos, functioned as local theologians. In Solentiname, los campesinos were empowered to begin to construct a local theology which called the church in power back to faithfulness to the Word of God (Schreiter 16). The experiences of the local community gave rise to the questions, the struggles, and the various answers that could be found through the lense of the Gospel. It was the voice of the community, illumined by Scripture, that recognized which solutions were “genuine, authentic and commensurate with their experience” (Schreiter 17). In this process, it was the “poet, the prophet, the teacher, those experienced with other communities,” such as Cardenal, who gave “leadership to the actual shaping into words of the response in faith” (ibid).

Through the construction of a local theology within the community at Solentiname, Cardenal entered into true solidarity with the people. He identified with their suffering, their oppression: “Little by little we became more radical politically. In looking more deeply at the Scriptures, our revolutionary commitment became more profound. Contemplation carried us to revolution” (Kirkpatrick 27–28). In The Gospel of Solentiname, Cardenal calls both Mary and Jesus radical revolutionaries (Cardenal 98, 151) and expounds on the concept that “the will of God is that we fight for justice and he is going to fight at our side” (Paul 246). During the revolution, the Sandanistas identified one of Christ’s offices or functions in Nicaragua as that of Poet. In the midst of the bombs and fighting of the revolution (1972–1990), the Sandinistas sang out: “Christ has just been born in Palacaguia” and followed with the words: “I believe in you, Creator, Poet, Primitivist Painter” (Peck 35).

From Poets in Bell Towers to Poets in Power

In 1977 when the community at Solentiname was destroyed by the Somoza government, the people of the community sought exile in Costa Rica and Cardenal joined the Sandinistas. At this time, Nicaraguan religious and business leaders, along with Cardenal, formed Los Doce (“The Twelve”) a group which worked from exile to bring an end to the dictatorship and to create a democratic government (Peck 34). It was during this time that Cardenal moved reluctantly from the hermetic life of a poet-theologian, to the socio-political life of a religious revolutionary within the Nicaraguan revolutionaries and then government. The Sandanistas and Los Doce were following in the tradition of revolutionary Nicaraguan poets who, in the 1930s, organized a movement called the “Blue Shirts” for the purpose of overthrowing the government. “The poets in the bell tower became poets in power,” thus beginning the tradition of Nicaraguan poets in positions of high power within the government (Berman 32).

Cardenal’s politics and participation in revolution while poetically theologizing about Christ in the community naturally pose some challenges. Can contextualization of the Gospel look like revolution that is radical, political, and even violent in nature? How do we reconcile such a contextualization with the Spirit of Christ? How do we know who are the true believers in the midst of such turmoil and change? There are no easy answers to these questions. Cardenal, in one of his poems, attributed his transformation into a revolutionary and the revolutionary struggle in Nicaragua to Christ. Cardenal argued that it was necessary to become a subversive on behalf of justice for the oppressed and in the Spirit of Christ to liberate the captives. Cardenal believed and wrote that true believers, if necessary, must sometimes become subversive if the practices of the church are not aligned with Scripture (Thomas 39). In a letter to Pedro Casaldaliga, a revolutionary bishop from Brazil, Cardenal wrote:

“Bishop, we are subversives
a secret code on a card in a file who knows where,
followers of the ill-clad and visionary proletarian,
a professional agitator, executed for conspiring against the System.
It was, you know, a torture intended for subversives,
the cross was
for political criminals
not a cluster of rubies on a bishop’s breast.” (Cardenal xiv)

Theology then, in the hands of the common Nicaraguan, became “more than words,” it became “a pedagogical process liberating consciousness and inciting to action” (Schreiter 17). Missiologist David Bosch points out that Cardenal’s writing provides “mission theology from the bottom up, springing from the life of the people” (88–89). Cardenal understood the power of the micro-narrative — the story of the people giving life to the larger meta-narrative of the city or nation. Cardenal “clearly understood the reality of history and the power of story” — a mission of “horizontal communication” — “empowering the people to discover and express their own voice” as opposed to the voice of the majority in power (89).

Moving Beyond the Superficial World of Words

At the same time, Cardenal as poet and priest, did not desire for his readers to remain in the “superficial” world of words, but to take it to the streets and to act upon it. This is the integration of art, missiology and theology. One critic, Marc Zimmerman observed that the aim of Cardenal’s poetry is “to jar the reader, to refuse easy aesthetic harmonies, to provoke commitment, not applause, to demand completion not in literature, but in life” (85). After all, shouldn’t this be the aim of any great artist or writer — to move us beyond the superficial world of words and toward the construction of God’s kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven?

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Excerpt from a longer work
Visual Artist: R. Bea Rios

Works Cited
Berman, Paul. 2002. “The Epic of Pablo Antonio Cuadra: A Child of His Century”. New Republic 226 (7):26–33.
Cardenal, Ernesto. 1976. The Gospel in Solentiname. 4 vols. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
— — — . 1981. “Letter to Bishop Casadaliga”, Mystic of Liberation: A Portrait of Pedro Casadaliga. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.
Eigo, Francis, ed. 1991. Imaging Christ: Politics, Art, Spirituality. Villanova, PN: The Villanova University Press.
Kirkpatrick, Dow. 1979. “Central America: Back Door to History, Front Door to Faith” (mimeographed). New York: United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
The New Revised Standard Version Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print. 
Paul, I. 1978. The Gospel in Solentiname. Missiology 6 (2):245–246.
Peck, Jane Cary. 1983. The Church of the Poor : Church of Life. Missiology 11 (1):31–46.
Schreiter, Robert J. 1985. Constructing Local Theologies. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Thomas, Nancy. 1998. “Weaving the Words: Writing About God in Culturally Appropriate Ways”, School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena.
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