The Problem of Religious Violence in Puerto Rico

Religious violence and fanaticism is nothing new. Both of these have had many manifestations throughout the centuries. In the history of the Church in the West – both Roman Catholic and Protestant expressions – we have seen and experienced religious violence. Within Roman Catholicism this violence was manifested in the institution of the Office of the Holy Inquisition, which accused thousands of people of heresy and brought them to death by horrible means. At the same time, Roman Catholicism fostered the religious wars of the Crusades, which were used to regain control of Jerusalem and Palestine, taking these lands from the Muslim faithful.

Less known are the manifestations of religious intolerance and violence within Protestantism. In the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, as the Protestant faith was taking shape, pretty much every country had to overcome religious violence. Even the Martin Luther, the main reformer of the church in the West, was guilty of persecution when he condoned the execution of hundreds of peasants who wanted to take his reforms too far in his native Germany. In England, thousands of Catholic martyrs were killed because of religious persecution thanks to the actions of Queen Elizabeth, who sought to keep her political and religious stability through bloodshed.

More recently, in the Americas, we have seen religious wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Mexican state of Chiapas, where faithful from both parties accuse each other of having desecrated the Christian faith. Puerto Rico has not been exempt from these manifestations of violence, especially expressed through the work of self-proclaimed religious leaders who frame their religious sermons in war rhetoric. For instance, often times during religious meetings in Puerto Rico, the term “spiritual warfare” is used to describe the relationship between those who profess the Christian faith on any given way and those who have a different understanding of the faith or those who have no faith. The problem with these manifestations of religious intolerance is that bring us to demonize “the other” thus taking away their personhood and transforming them into objects of hate.

Religious intolerance in Puerto Rico has much to do with the little theological education of the religious leadership. More often than not, this lack of theological education is more evident in those institutions that are not related to an established denomination. In Puerto Rico we have seen a sprouting of faith communities of charismatic theology and many “independent”  churches where the leadership role is filled by people who have proclaimed themselves “Apostles”, “pastors”, or “bishops” without having gone through the rigorous theological training required by many established denominations.

The proliferation of independent and charismatic/Pentecostal churches has also left a deep imprint in those faith communities that have traditionally been theologically educated. This is so, I believe, because those churches that require theological training do not have the resources to compete with those who send out without theological training to the pastoral field. Because of this lack of resources – particularly economic resources to send people to theological schools – both Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant communities are very often led by lay people without any or very little theological training.  This creates an environment where the leaders bring their own theological interpretations with multiple local biblical interpretations based on the social mores and understandings of the leaders. Unfortunately, these local interpretations of Scripture either dismiss or do not take into consideration the evolutionary reality of the development of the dogma and doctrine. There is no attention to how one belief is developed and why it exists.

Although the Puerto Rican people have tried to dismiss our Latino history and identity, preferring a pseudo-Americanization based on a myth, the truth is that we still show our plantain stain[i]. We are a Latin/Hispanic country. As such, we tend to grant power to those people who show greater charisma and personality. Church communities in Puerto Rico show this reality when they (us) grant leadership positions to those who claim to have received a direct message from God appointed them – or rather, self-appointing – as “God’s chosen and sent.” This is in spite of their lack of theological education for the most part. It is in this context where most religious leaders whose congregants are also voters come to be the perfect place for the political elite of all stripes to gain support.

Politics in Puerto Rico is also a manifestation of our latinidad, and thus it grants power and authority to those with more charisma and personality. The political ideas or platforms are irrelevant if a political party has enough money to buy the conscience of the people who watch sparkly TV and newspapers ads. Religious leaders are the perfect people to bring voters to the voting booths, regardless of the policy positions of the political parties. This is even more evident when we see in Puerto Rico the overwhelming support that Roman Catholic, conservative candidates receive from Pentecostal, charismatic, and conservative evangelical leaders in spite of these leaders’ violent and open anti-Catholic rhetoric. This makes for very interesting bedfellows, and to my knowledge, is not very common in other democratic societies, with the exception of the USA, country to which Puerto Rico belongs. These alliances are, perhaps, just a way for conservative religious leaders to gain access to power and prestige in order to impose their own religiously-motivated policy agendas.

Church-State separation in Puerto Rico is but a historical footnote printed in our Constitution. This separation is not practiced because it does not favor the establishment of political-religious elites. Historically, this separation was brought up with the idea of keeping the Church safe from the intervention of the State. The Baptist community, of which I am a part, fought incessantly to protect this separation. There are thousands of Baptist martyrs who died because of their position on this particular theological principle. Unfortunately, within the greater Baptist family, the principle of Church-State separation is but a mantra that is repeated without understanding what it means or how much it cost us to gain. It is even more unfortunate to see how a multitude of religious groups with a charismatic and Pentecostal tendency have influenced in the way in which our Baptist faith communities interpret this Biblical principle of separation.

Recent manifestations from self-appointed religious leaders in Puerto Rico are also a testimony to the lack of theological education that these people have been exposed to. Often, when any form of theological education has taken place, is in the form of a “Bible institute” in which you are taught how to memorize Scriptural texts but any contextual interpretation of the Bible is dismissed. These institutes tend to prefer a so-called “literal” approach. What the people trained in these institutes do not realize is that their “literal” reading of the Bible is actually a way of interpretation, in which their own mores and socialization is read into the text. Moreover, these literal readings of the Sacred Text lead people to the sin of idolatry, putting the Sacred Text en par and often times above the Triune expression of the Divine Mystery.  This form of idolatry, bibliolatry, has been extensively studied in recent years.

In more concrete ways, we note how the religious leadership in Puerto Rico has tried – often times very successfully – to influence the creation of public policy. By implanting laws that take away rights from the LGBT communities and protections to women in particular, the religious leaders have demonstrated that their interest goes beyond religious intolerance. These actions are actually a representation of these people’s desires to establish a form of “constitutional theocracy” where only those deemed “right” should have rights and be protected. This is an extension of their erroneous eschatological theologies in which the Reign of God is to be established by all means necessary.

This, of course, does not contribute to create a peaceful environment. These are in fact the roots of the cultural wars we are continually exposed to. What the religious leaders forget, though, is our call as people of faith to imitate Christ and to open stop closing the doors to those who are different from us/them. Interestingly, if these leaders paid any attention to the New Testament, they will see that it is filled with instances in which Jesus rebuked those religious leaders who wanted to implement their own interpretations of the Sacred Scriptures upon others. Again, we note how the religious leaders in Puerto Rico put the laws of the Bible above the example of Jesus, committing bibliolatry.

Ecumenical conversations in the Island are – from my perspective – not very useful either. Ecumenism in Puerto Rico is reduced to a series of liturgical celebrations and very few, watered-down, and sporadic round-tables. Even these ecumenical instances are marked by their lack of diversity. In Puerto Rico, ecumenism often takes place in one of three ways:

– Roman Catholic “ecumenism” that tries to bring the lost back to Rome.

– Mainline Protestant ecumenism that is watered-down and downplays the role of difference in Biblical interpretation in the name of “peace” and “unity.”

– Conservative evangelical and Pentecostal ecumenism that is more often than not a way of “saving” those lost Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants who have let theological education and church history “rot their minds.”

Perhaps it is time for ecumenical conversations in Puerto Rico to start anew, bringing to the table both what unites us and what separates us. Perhaps it is time to revive those ecumenical actions that happened during the people of Vieques’ fight to get the US Marine out of their island-municipality. Perhaps it is time for religious people in Puerto Rico to finally acknowledge the presence of Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Santero, Espiritist, and other forms of religions that are widely practiced in the Island and invite them to the conversation.

When Puerto Rico suffered the recent systematic killing of gay, lesbian, and especially transgender individuals, no church, to my knowledge, raised their voice of protest to denounce these atrocities. Yet, when a great Puerto Rican humanitarian like Ricky Martin brings his concert, a myriad of religious leaders came to protest. Why? Perhaps because Ricky is doing exactly what they are not: saving children from the hands of unscrupulous predators through his foundation to stop human trafficking. This is something that the churches in Puerto Rico are not doing. The shame that these religious leaders must be feeling might have moved them to raise their voices… These religious leaders are often more interested in “saving the souls” of the little kids while ignoring their current oppressed realities. This is certainly deplorable.

Many of us have already experienced the pain of having been excluded because of our theological leanings, our sexualities, our socio-economic realities and even our racial backgrounds. I was one of this people who suffered this pain both from society at-large but more painfully from the church. I believe that if there is any hope for the Church in Puerto Rico to be redeemed it will be when the Church – in all its expressions – publicly confesses its sins of rejecting God’s diversity in creation. In the meantime, the violent environment they have created from their hostile pulpits will continue to foster violence, deaths, murders, attacks to LGBT people, oppression to women and the working class, and a plethora of other social ills. This hostility from the pulpit has also reached the Legislature and the Executive branch and it is the primary responsible for bringing about the pain of death and violence in our Island. It is time to put an end to the bully pulpit of the Puerto Rican Church, and to begin living out the blessing of having God’s diversity in creation recognized. Until them, a peaceful living will be hard to achieve.


[i] There is a saying in Puerto Rico, “se te nota la mancha de plátano”, which translates to “you show your plantain stain”, making reference to the difficulty of hiding our identity as a historically rural-based and farming country.

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Filed under Church, Gay, Hispanics, Latino, Lesbian, LGBTQ, Peace, Puerto Rico, Queer

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