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Photo: Instituto Rubem Alves

Photo: Instituto Rubem Alves

By Theodore Gill (*)

Rubem Alves of Brazil, one of the foundational thinkers behind Latin American “liberation theology”, died at the age of 80 on Saturday 19 July. This scholar, teacher, activist, psychotherapist and author is being commemorated by colleagues, former students, journalists and others, including heads of state. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hailed him on her Facebook page as “one of the most respected intellectuals of Brazil.”

Different admirers are recalling him from a number of perspectives. For some church members and ecumenical organizations, Alves is being remembered as one of the great educational innovators who helped hone Christian social ethics in light of the theology of liberation, and helped shape the field of ecumenical formation in partnership with theological institutions in North and South, as well as programmes of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), SODEPAX and similar international bodies and conferences of the churches.

Alves once remarked, “Prophets are not visionaries who announce a future that is coming. Prophets are poets who design a future that may happen. Poets suggest a way.” In just this sense, Rubem Alves served as a poet and prophet aligned with the ecumenical movement in times of both turmoil and potential.

As a young student of theology at Campinas, Brazil in the 1950s, Alves joined a group of fellow seminarians “spending their summer vacation,” in his words, “as industrial workers in a factory in Vila Anastácio, São Paulo. The experience was inspired by the worker priests in France who stopped expecting that factory workers would come to church, and decided to meet them where they lived and worked.”

Through the 1960s, Alves alternated between service as a Presbyterian parish pastor and study as a graduate researcher in theology. During the military dictatorship, he was listed as one of the pastors sought by the military and so left to pursue further study outside Brazil.

He earned graduate degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Princeton Theological Seminary, also in the USA. Although he and the young Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutierrez were then working and publishing on what they termed the “theology of liberation”, these two thinkers did not meet until 1969 near Geneva at an ecumenical consultation of SODEPAX, the ecumenical joint committee on society, development and peace that was co-sponsored by the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church.

Philosophy, life and works of Rubem Alves

Alves is often credited with having informed the philosophy of SODEPAX, and particularly the ethical principles behind its approach to decision-making and social action. At the same time, he became involved as a participant in seminars and conferences convened under the auspices of Church and Society in Latin America (ISAL), a programme that had been strongly encouraged and augmented following the WCC Conference on Church and Society held at Geneva in 1966.

Through the WCC education office staffed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, ISAL and the WSCF, chaired from 1968 to 1972 by his former doctoral supervisor M. Richard Shaull, Alves became a figure well-known at international ecumenical conferences and symposia. This culminated in his 1979 presentation at the WCC Church and Society Conference on faith, science, technology and the future, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

After returning to Brazil, Alves became a university professor whose interests ranged from educational theory to constructive philosophy. His writing encompassed many fields, including books for children. He eventually added psychotherapy to his portfolio and established his own clinic.

The Rev. Sonia Gomes Mota, a minister of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil and executive secretary of CESE, a Brazilian agency supporting human rights, justice and peace, knew Alves when she was a young girl and he was her pastor. Earlier this week, she recalled his role in her church:

“Rubem Alves was part of a group of pastors, male and female leaders, who reflected and organized different ways of being a Reformed church. This process led to the creation of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPU), now a member of the WCC. With his erudition, his ecumenical and social commitment, he helped draft the founding documents that are a basis of the IPU. He was not interested in giving us moral lessons or transmitting the absolute and indisputable truth. As a good theologian, philosopher and educator, he was more interested in making us think, reflect and question the immutable truths of theology and urged us to envision new possibilities and new ways of living our faith. Rubem led us to deserts and invited us to be gardeners and planters of hope.”

In later years, Alves would retain a pastoral and prophetic touch with the people he encountered, but his association with institutional religion became more reserved.

Following the death of Richard Shaull, the theologian and one-time WSCF leader under whom he had studied at both Campinas and Princeton, Alves composed a brief but heart-felt tribute that was published by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in its journal Reformed World titled “Through the eyes of Dick Shaull” in September 2006. He depicted his late friend as a poet and a prophet who often fell out with people of influence in the churches. Alves wrote, “Prophets are cursed beings.”

He concluded the essay on his mentor’s passing in these words: “Now he is enchanted. He departed. Of course, I will plant a tree in his honour in my lonely little orchard, on a mountain top, at the side of a volcano, near the trees of other conspirators… In their silence, when no one is around, the trees will talk to each other.”

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(*) Written by Theodore Gill, senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva and a minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with report from Marcelo Schneider, WCC communication liaison for Latin America based in Brazil.