An interview with don Samuel Ruiz1.


Sylvia Marcos


Translation by Albert L. Wahrhaftig and Jean Robert


Copyright ©by Sylvia Marcos . 2000, all rights reserved. This work may be used with the header included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution.

Note: A rough draft translation was previously posted in this location. Please do not circulate or cite this previous translation. If you downloaded it, please substite this authorized translation. I apologize for any confusion the premature posting of the draft translation may have caused. -----ALW


At a crucial moment in the history of the multicultural opening up of our nation, Don Samuel testifies that indigenous people are beginnning to be the subjects of their history and to develop, out of their own culture and world view, and with their own "methodologies," an "indigenous wisdom." This wisdom or "teología india" is a reflection on faith, as much that inherited from their ancestors as the Christianity received from the West, as well as a dialogue between the two. Don Samuel defines its uniqueness,insisting that it is quite different than that which has been called "Liberation theology."

I arrived in San Cristóbal with an appointment to interview don Samuel. A busy man, he had proposed seeing me two months after my call. And now I had come for that.  I had asked the nun who keeps the bishop's agenda to allow me enough time to interview him at length. The subject, I told her, is "teología india."2

It is seven thirty in the evening - the appointed hour - and I meet don Samuel just leaving the Diocesian Synod. He arrives a few minutes before our starting time. .... In these two months, a campaign against his person and his activities in the diocese has intensified. More than ever, he is in the eye of the media: with few exceptions, the press goes on repeating itself about his alleged "theology of violence and death" if such a thing could exist!

The attacks are especially virultent these days. Before seeing him, I asked myself in what state of mind I was going to find him. As though this weren't enough, the day before, June 25, 1998, the persons uprooted from Acteal had decided not to return to their places of origin. The press almost unanimously blamed don Samuel as though this were the result of his influence, and as though the Indians had decided to delay their return because he was a "protagonist" .

I worried that I might meet a man discouraged by these media distortions, perhaps overwhelmed or fatigued. These last years, since the Zapatista uprising, his life has turned into a whirlwind of mediations,sermons, political and ecclesiastical negotiations. When he greeted me and we recalled our previous encounters, he was totally serene. He was simply accomplishing his mission in life. I recalled, then, the words of Jorge Santiago a few months ago: " He has always had his eye on what must be done...." Little is this man affected by the campaigns against him, because he has an ideal which surpasses the mean minded stuff of regional and national politics.

The next day, he told me, he had to ordain deacons in San Andrés. I recalled Alicia Puente, who pointed out that the role of a deacon in Chiapas is carried out in couples. This way, "teología india" restores and revitalizes Mesoamerican rituals and beliefs. This is but one example of how it incorporates the fundamental Mesoamerican practice of duality in which man and woman - the primordial "duality" - are indispensible. So the "Indian" pastorship of don Samuel determines the rhythm of the work of the San Cristóbal diocese. This is the man and the bishop I met.

- Don Samuel, in your view what are the principal characteristics of "teología india"?

As indigenous peoples said at the Tercer Encuentro - Taller de Teologia India in Cochabamba, Bolivia last year, this term has been chosen for reasons that have to do with communication. It isn't completely satisfactory because we don't exactly talk about theology in the Western sense. In Cochabamba, the indigenous people preferred to speak of wisdom rather than of indigenous theology. But this indigenous wisdom was called yheology for a while because it is a reflection about faith, as much about faith inherited from precolumbian times as as about Christian faith. From a cultural perspective, it has some characteristics which Western theology does not have.

"Teología india" is communal. There are no theologians who are outstanding in the field of theology or, better said, for their indigenous wisdom; rather it is a reflection of the community. In these times of a necessary dialogue between indigenous cultures (rooted in a precolumbian tradition) and Christian religion, a systematization is needed. This systematization is being attempted, but it doesn't have to be the core of teología india.

Furthermore, until now, teologia india or indigenous wisdom has developed in transecuminical or interreligious terms. On the one hand, it encompasses a reflection about precolumbian religion, and on the other, it consists of looking at the Christian message within their own culture. I think that not enough attention has been paid to the saving presence of God in all religions and, of course, also in precolumbian religions.

The indigenous men and women present in Cochabamba believe that God has been manifest among their peoples in a very clear way. As one Cuna Indian said, "God is so great that He permits every group of people to have a vision of Him." This is what a priest of his people, one of many priests who were there,  said to his nephew, adding: "God is so unfathomable, so infinite and incomprehensible, that no one person, no one human group, can have a total perception of God. So God allows his presence and the perception of Him to be divided among the many peoples, so that they may enter into dialogue, so that they can speak to one another about their perception of God."

This reflection about Christian teología india presumes the recognition of the revelation of God in all cultures, that which Vatican II called, returning to the words of the Greek and Latin Fathers, "the seeds of the Word" present in all cultures. Reflecting on this at their latest meeting, which took place in the Dominican Republic, the bishops of the Americas said, rather poetically, that Christopher Columbus didn't bring God with him in his three little boats, for God was already present in the indigenous communities of the New World.

There is great variety in this theological perspective: it covers reflection about precolumbian religions as well as reflection about Christian theology from a cultural point of view. And this is being done by indigenous lay people converted to the Christian faith as well as by priests and religious leaders, whether they be Catholic or Evangelical. From all these positions, indigenous people are reflecting on their ancestral faith, with its precolumbian roots, and at the same time on their Christian faith, but starting with the fact that they have been converted to it from their own culture. There is also the effort of the priests and missionaires to reflect on Christianity from a cultural point of view.

All of this is called the "movement" of teología india. And because of this it is multiple, it has a very broad range. It is not only Catholic theology, but Christian and also interreligious.

Another aspect is that the sources from which this presence of God is perceptible spring from within the confines of indigenous culture. The reflection which derives from that is not, as among us, based in philosophy, but rather in mythology. Myth is a form of "abstract" reflection about things. Through a telling or a retelling of their myths, indigenous people enact a reflection or an indigenous wisdom transmitted through their elders. These are the guardians of tradition and make it possible for their whole community to reflect on it.

One can never overemphasize the importance of this indigenous reflection. It initiates a dialogue that never took place during the five hundred years since their first evangelization. In that evangelization, a foreign culture was imposed over the indigenous culture in order to express the gospel. There was no reciprocal listening.  This dialogue didn't occur because it clashed with a theological assumption which practically dismissed all that was culturally different. Within the theology that reigned during the Conquest, it was not possible to recognize anything positive in a relgion that wasn't Christian. Religions other than Christian were thought to be erroneous distortions and deadly shadows. There was no recognition of the missionaries and the Indians before their evangelization. Simply, that which was indigenous had no value and had to be erradicated. Only now, after Vatican II, are we commencing to correct this grave error.

We are even turning back to discover Biblical texts which we had passed over or which we hadn't understood.  For example, in the Book of Acts, Saint Paul speaks in this fashion: he speaks of God permitting each people to know Him because each people participates in the unique historyof salvation. There God reveals Himself in such a way that the path of each people has a point of connection with His convocation of all peoples in order to create a nation of nations, the new nation of God. This nation of God is made up from the paths to salvation and the revelation which God has granted to different cultures. It is enriched by all the experiences of these individual peoples.

Evangelization and Christian experience bring into maturity the revelation which is  originally present in these cultures. But it doesn't speak of a different God. The same God, known in a different way, is He who presents himself now, with greater clarity. This clarification began with the Jews who discovered a monotheistic God. Later, in the New Testament, a communal God is discovered and revealed: not a solitary God, a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is the divine family.

I believe that the Word is present in all cultures. Vatican II says so various times and in several documents. It recognizes, for example, that Eastern religions have a profound mysticism. This mysticism is a patrimony of humanity, and the Church must not hold it apart from itself, but needs to recognize that it enriches the very mysticism of Christianity.

I am going to try to illustrate, using common language and without involving theology, what we mean when we speak of an enrichment of faith through these many cultures.  When missionaries wanted to translate the "Pater Noster" into an African language, they ran into a difficulty: although they were capable of producing a linguistically satisfactory translation, that is, grammatically and syntactically correct, it would have been incomprenensible to the members of that tribe. The translation of the phrase "thy kingdom come" was insipid. It was technically correct, but the words "thy kingdom come" had no cultural meaning. The translators on reflection realized that for this audience the allusion to a "kingdom" evoked nothing. Then they had the inspiration to change the phrase to "May your drum resound, oh Lord,through the length of the jungle." And this was understandable because it corresponded to the manner of thinking in this culture. Hearing this, one can say: well yes, it is the same thing, but enriched by the local culturalpattern. It is the same....but completely different. When the chief of this people visited the tribe, his arrival was announced with a drum. So, may the drum of God resound througout the jungle! Through all the known world! That is the sense of "thy kingdom come." This example illustrates a form in which Christianity can be enriched (and for that matter, the religion that comes in contact with it) through thinking that has a focus different from that of the West.

Something comparable happened with the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend or story of the apparitions introduces terms used in Náhuatl culture which no theologian of the time dared to use. In the story, Mary uses the names of  God as given in Náhuatl culture. Through this, people understood that this God was their own. And it was also He who came to announce an evangelization in which the presence of Mary, her language and her cloak, spoke culturally to the indigenous population. This enhanced an indigenous formulation or acceptance by indigenous people of the Christian evangelical universe. We have barely begun to reconsider, as has seldom been done in these five hundred years, the consequences of this cultural encounter. Now, we must be prepared for the rich interreligiousdialogue which this reflection has initiated.

Generally it is erroneously thought that the majority of evangelized Indians are already Christians with profound convictions.  I recall that in a meeting before the emergence of teología india, somendigenous priests understood that they had arrived at their Christian faith through their own culture. I'm not saying that "teología india" began to exist at that point. Ever since there has been reflection about God and about religion in indigenous communities, there has been "teología" india.

- So "teología india" existed even before it was recognized as such?

Yes, it existed long before there was any such term. Now there is simply more consciousness of what can be done openly and without fear of religious repression. The pre-existence of this thinking in indigenous communities explains the rapidity with which the present movement has gained momentum.

- And this movement, when was it that you saw it take off?

Five or six years ago. I'm talking about the time when the "teología india" movement became visible, not of its first emergence. This distinction is important. Before this movement, from the very beginning of religious thinking, there was some kind of "theological" reflection, that is a reflection by people "desde su fe",  from their faith. The "so long delayed hope of a dialogue" - to recall the words of two indigenous catholic priests at the meeting where the movement started - was now the inspiring force behind the emergence of this reflection.

- And this meeting, when and where did it take place?

Five years ago.  I'm bad about dates. It was in Mexico City. The meeting was convened by the CELAM (Latin American Episcopal Conference) to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their first meeting in Medellin, Colombia. But the initial impulse was much before that, in 1978 or 1979. In the meeting in Mexico, they tried to evaluate the evolution of missionary thought since Medellin. Bishops were invited to a communitary reflexion on what one could call "the indigenous missionary situation." They came from Central America and Mexico. Indians were also invited to participate. Among them, I remember two indigenous priests, one from Panama and the other from El Salvador. At one point, they went up to the bishops and said: "Look, we want to share with you something that has been bothering us. As Catholic priests, we are telling you that if you think that Indians who say they are Christians are truly profoundly converted, you are making a mistake. We see, being close to them, that there are Indians who are not Christian, who practice their ancestral "precolumbian" relgion and who, for their survival, use what we shall call "a cloak of acceptance."

I think they were exaggerating things a little, although they were referring to areas where a much more profound evangelization had just recently been initiated. In any case, their warning isn't without truth. What lies behind this is that in order to be a Christian, an Indian has to accept not only the complex of revealed truths, but also a unique culture, a culture through which he must manifest his own Christian life, and this culture - the Western - is foreign to him.  So now, I want indigenous people to understand that their religion with its precolumbian roots doesn't have to lead them into the personality split implied bythis so-called "cloak of acceptance," rather they can see that their culture and its content are fully in resonance with their Christian faith. I grope for an awareness making people the true subjects of their history. It is in their profound identity that their heart shall focus. Meanwhile, if the Church does not hurry up and recognize the revelation that God has given to these cultures, in other words, if the Gospel is not embodied, "encarnado" in these cultures, then this schizophrenia will become more acute.

If we continue to demand that indigenous people live their christianity within the frame of Western culture, they will feel that their integrity and identity are threatened. Now, with a growing awareness of indigenous identity, there must be a religious unity, and not an internal schizophrenia. We are thus at a crossroads: either we recognize the original presence of the seeds of the Word in these cultures and we let the Gospel incarnate itself in them, or we contribute to the widening of a psychological chasm in people who only recover their cultural ground to experience and let their identity permeate their religion to discover that this leads them to a painful personality split. Hence the urgency of a dialoguing encounter between the religions with precolumbian roots and Christianity.

- Now I would like to broach a very controversial point: that which is called "Liberation Theology." What differences and what eventual similarities of points of contact do you see between Liberation Theology and the "Teología India" which you have just described.

I do not think they have touched one another. I believe that the notion of eventual similarities is an unreal notion. That is to say that reflection on the precolumbian roots of faith has nothing to do with the theological systematization being made in South America. There is no point of contact.

- Nevertheless, many scholars believe they are the same, or put another way, that "Teología India" is a variant of Liberation Theology.

Well, they're wrong. There isn't even a clear concept of what Liberation Theology means. Each time I am asked about Liberation Theology the same thing happens. I try to answer, but my questioners find that Inever really answer their question. Actually, I think the question, as they are phrasing it, is out of place. When they ask me about Liberation Theology, they are asking me neither about theology nor about liberation. They are asking me about a Marxism which they think can infiltrate a certain kind of theology. That is what they are asking. So they are on the margins of what there is. A theology based on a Marxist system, whether or not it is called "Liberation", has never been born on this continent.

- And the works of Gustavo Gutiérrez?

Yes. But what I am saying is that even in his case, the social base, that is the social thought through which he articulates his theology in order to give it actuality is not Marxism, but rather dependency theory. Marxist analysis has never entered into Liberation Theology on this continent. It is of course not ignored, but that which has served as an instrument of social analysis in theological reflections has been the theory of dependency.

- I want to approach the question from another angle. I had understood that Liberation Theology also comprises "the preferrential option for the poor." You view the Indian as a subject of his history, and as this is essential to the promotion of "Teología India," or better said of indigenous wisdom, can't we say that the poor are the subject of theological reflection in Liberation Theology?

We have to understand one another for there may be a confusion here. First, although the expression "option for the poor" is recent, this is basic to the Church. If there is no option for the poor, there is no Church of Christ. The formulation may be recent, but the calling has been part of the Church from the beginning. The only thing that we have to answer to at the end of time is whether we have loved Christ in the poor. "I was hungry and you fed me and gave me drink." Or the other way around: "I was hungry and you didn't feed me." This is the only question we have to deal with. If we, in our Christian situation, don't love the poor, if we don't opt for them, we simply are not Christians.

- If I understand this well, you are saying tha this "option for the poor" was not initiated by Liberation Theology?

Yes. That is what I'm saying. The formulation may be recent. The "option for the poor" is a formula which was born in the context of a particular economic system, dominant now, to remind us that there isn'tjust a juxtoposition of rich and poor; there is a causal relation. There is poverty because there is wealth, and vice versa. So Christians understand that we can't remain indifferent. In the face of pauperization, in an economically dominant world which tramples and despoils, we feel ourselvestaking a position between the world of the rich and the world of the poor. We have to choose. If I see that wealth is the cause of poverty, I have to opt for those who are exploited; I have to opt for the poor. On acquiring more consciousness of how the system functions, it is evident that the Church has to choose an option. But this is not an optional choice; it is an obligatory one which derives from the perception I have of how the system functions. If, on the other hand, someone functionally blames the poor for their poverty saying "there are the poor because they are drunks, have no education, are lazy, etc.", then this can negate the calling that obliges one to make that choice.

Nevertheless, if we clearly understand what Jesus Christ says, we can't say that the rich and the poor are in the same plane for us. If there is a choice, as Christ tells us there must be, we are all involved in making a movement towards the poor. If we don't, there is no road to salvation. In this sense, the "option for the poor" is as old as the Church itself. With the sociological perception that there is a first world and a third world and that there is a relationship of economic exploitation, we can't remain indecisive. Yes. We have to choose as Christ chose, for the poor, and this with or without social analyses.

He defines his presence among us at the side of those who are suffering. That is where He locates his presence. So a theology which reflects on the concrete situation of Latin America will have a different slant than a European theology which doesn't present this problem in the same way.  The problem presented by theology in Europe is how to talk about God and Christ, including to nonbelievers and atheists. In what way can one talk about God to those who are atheists, whether theoretical or practicing? To those who aren't even concerned with God? Here people are interested in concrete problems of survival, and for now the question is not: how to announce to an unbeliever the mystery of God and the revelation of Christ which is manifest among us. It is not that which is of interest here. Here the problem is: how to speak to those who are downtrodden, those who are despoiled? And in this sense, theology, in Latin America, is in a final moment, not a first moment. The first moment of our "being Christian" is that of commitment.

The example that often occurs to me is if I appear in the doorway of my house and see a violent man beating and killing a boy, I can't shut the door and say "what is that to me." I have to intervene. For me, as a Christian, the committment comes first: I must intervene. The second moment is that of questioning about concrete situations. One can make experience more systematic.That is what is happening with theology on the Latin American continent. Not the first action of a Christian but the last. The first is the committed encounter with the poor, with the marginalized, the "option", as we said.  The second moment is that of action. What are we going to do? The third is that of reflection over the situation and its causes which brings about a systematization of this situation in order to make it better known. In our continent, Liberation Theology is not the first priority because for us liberation is more important than theology.

Teología india, that is the indigenous reflection on their faith, has had no contact with the currents of Liberation Theology. They are two different moments in history. But what can be said is that those who have been concerned with the liberation of men on this continent are the same ones who have been reflecting, on the subject of the indigenous. Because of this , there are people who say: "Ah, Liberation Theologians have been there." What is important to know is that although there are Liberation theologians who now reflect on teología india, that doesn't mean that Teología India and Liberation Theology are the same thing.

It is also necessary to clarify that if there are those who think that there is, or there was, a theology of slavery, they don't understand what theology is. If the theology is not about liberation, then it is not theology. All theology must express the mystery of Christ who came to save humanity and not to defend slavery. On the contrary, he came to destroy all slavery, and there still is a confrontation with slavery, and though nonviolent, the confrontation with slavery continues. Christianity was assaulting this when it was taking away the all-embracing power of those tyrants who wanted to justify their presence in this fashion. The shortest of the epistles of the New Testament is a terrific anti-slavery time bomb. This is the letter Paul wrote to Philemon about his slave, Onesimus. It is a short letter, a note, a little billet which Paul wrote from his Roman jail to defend a slave who had escaped from the house of his master in Colossae and fled to Rome where he encountered Paul. Paul converted him, baptized him, and later wrote to his patron: I send him to you, "not as a slave, but much better than a slave, as a much beloved brother....greet him as though he were me." This is a harsh declaration against the justification for slavery. All theology is liberationist, or it is not theoology.

- What is the relation of this reflection on indigenous wisdom to the Christian base communities, here, locally, in Chiapas?

In indigenous communities, strictly speaking, there is no room for base communities. In these indigenous communities, there is no nook or cranny where these base communities could be inserted.  They are a response from urban mass society; they propose a form of charitable life where this is being negated by the anomie of urban life.

In the large cities, there is a terrible anonyminity and an anomie or lack of orientation. One doesn't know the people who live in one's own building. In the city, there are few close relationships, little sharing among neighbors. People have their friends in other places. They chat with them by telephone and seldom get together. Each jealously guards his privacy, and if one happens to know the girl on the fourth floor, it is because he encounters her every day at the bus stop. Perhaps one knows her name and where she works, but that's all there is to the relationship.

It is not possible to live charitably when all relationships are secondary or utilitarian. This urban anomie is the sociological reason for Christian base communities. They are small human communities in which one can practice mutual charity and live with a sense of community. In large cities, only in this way can one live a charitable life, as in the first commandment given us by Jesus Christ. That's why I say that Christian base communities are designed for places where there is no community; they aren't pertinent to indigenous communities.

- But I know that in rural areas - for example in the state of Morelos where I work - Christian base communnities have grown successfully.

Yes, yes. I'm not saying anything to the contrary.  I'm speaking about the difference between urban life and indigenous communities. Indigenous communities are actual communities. Everyone knows one another. So when we ask Indians "what do you think of Christian base communities?", they answer, "No, señor bishop, you want us to divide up, you want us to be in little pieces. We are a community now. Do you want us to become a group of separate communities?" This is fine for cities, but a community of two hundred families where everyone knows one another is already a "base community." Technically speaking, this would be different from a "base community."  So the two processes don't have anything to do with one another.

- So, according to you, to believe that indigenous people need this kind of community could be called a colonialist version of the work of the Church?

It all depends on how it is done. If I come to a community and without investigating anything impose a way of doing things, then yes, I could create divisions within that community. But if when there are Sunday gatherings, two, three, four, five, or more communities get together, then forming groups for reflection and interchange can be justified. Nevertheless, within their community, which is really their own "base community," it isn't necessary. Structurally speaking, base communities function in the world of urban mass society, and indigenous communities are communities in and of themselves. They are different worlds with different itineraries.

- Don Samuel, let's return to something you briefly mentioned. Could you talk at greater length about the role myth plays in teología india? Is it useful in the process of recreating, re-signifying, and sacralizing their everyday reality?

Yes. For them myth is the equivalent to the process of abstraction in our concept of the theological task. We make abstract formulations like "life is immortal" or "everlasting." Among indigenous people, there are no such affirmations. There are narratives through which they reflect or which produce a teaching. Here is a historical example: there was a President of Guatemala who, for economic reasons, allowed Indians to plant coffee, to have their own plantations. With the passing of time, a myth arose in which God gave a coffee bean to the Indians. This is not a matter of distorting fact: the myth even preserves the proper names. But the facts are transformed into a myth which redefines everyday reality. It is their way of making an abstraction. The mythic story becomes a lesson which is transmitted from generation to generation. The myth is retold, being interpreted in different ways, remaking itself in a continuing process. It is their way of reflecting. It would take a long time here to repeat the Maya creation myth and how they are transforming it into an instrument for social analysis. It deals with a different way of talking about Creation.

-To think of God in Indian terms is to think of Him with complex characteristics distinct from the rationalistic elaboration of Christian theology. For example, the concept of duality must influence the beliefs and practices of teología india. Mesoamerican thought proceeds in terms of dualities. Good and evil exist within the concept of divinity, feminity and masculinity, life and death. Have these characteristics been incorporated within the fabric of teología india?

Indigenous "theology" or wisdom, more than being made, we might say, is born as an expresion of life. Yes, it can be articulated and synthesized in order to express it better, but it is one of the things which from the beginning we have stipulated as one of the differences that exist between Western theology and indigenous wisdom. We have here two different phenomena which carry on in different ways.

The expressions of "indigenous wisdom" are nurtured within life itself, not from thoughts or abstract reflections as is the case with Western theology.  Therefore, there is no disjunction between the life ofthe community and the reflection of vivid thought. Equally, in indigenous cultures, the dimensions that must be clearly articulated are lived. But we mustn't forget that we are dealing with cultures under attack, with dominated and exploited cultures which only very recently have begun to reclaim their identity as citizens of this continent. That is when this phenomenon which had existed within them, but in a hidden form, begins to show itself. Conditions come about that allow them to express themselves with greater freedom. This vitality which they are expressing has, nevertheless, a limitation which is that these cultures are not unharmed. There are cultures which are broken, there are things from ancient times that they do not know. Think, for example, of the codices and the objects that were destroyed. These must be reconstructed and brought back to life.

-You have also said in one of your various interviews, "we must confront the challenge of Vatican II to bring the biblical message to life in existing cultures." How can that be done?

Good. Let me sketch a little historic panorama. Ever since the Conquest, missionaries have based their teaching on a phrase from Saint Irenaeus, but wrongly interpreted: "away from the Church, there is no salvation." This has been taken in a rigid and literal sense which deviates from what Saint Irenaeus meant. So we have come to negate the saving presence of God outside the Church and the ecclesiastical world. For the rest, all is darkness. Various images in the Bible have been similarly misinterpreted. For example, Saint Peter's boat, which one must climb aboard in order to overcome torment and arrive at the safe port of salvation, and the same can be said of Noah's ark. Noah, instructed by God, made an ark and placed in it all the animals and his own entire family. Everything else perished. Transplanted to the history of the Church, the ark becomes the ship which sails the sea of history, carrying those who are destined to be saved. Those outside will not be saved. Though this is a rather simplistic thought,  note that Noah did not place whales in his ark, or fish, but nevertheless these were saved from the flood.

The missionaries were exclusionary but, in the Gospels, Jesus says there are other sheep who are in other flocks and they shall be as one. The Apocalypse speaks of those who bear a sign and of another multitude which also shall be saved.

According to the traditional Christian conception, effectively God wanted salvation for all humans, not that anyone should die but rather that the sinner be converted and live. So salvation is universal. God intended salvation for all, and to want that salvation to be effective means that He manifests His presence in each human group. This is what the Greek and Latin priests called "the seeds of the Word" in all cultures.

But when the missionaries came here, they were shocked to see thousands and thousands of persons, in ancient civilizations, who did not know of the Christian religion. Given that, the missionaries were anxious to baptize them, for without that they couldn't be saved. They had to convert and baptize them. From that point they undertook to accelerate the process, tearing down temples, burning codices, destroying stelae and statues. Otherwise - they thought - these people would be condemned.

All of this in an atmosphere of terrific anguish. These missionaries were unaware of something that also has been revealed: that God is willing to manifest Himself universally, among all humans.

We could even compare some Babylonian hymns with the Biblical psalms. Concerning some passages, one begins to think: the Babylonian tradition has the same theme as a Biblical psalm, but it is better, it has a greater religious density. Or consider the story of the Flood. In all areas of the Middle East - and in others as well - there is a story of a universal flood and this is more or less aligned with that in the Bible. There are also some revelations about times that shall come. It is important to look closely at the books of various religions, comparing their mythologies, to emphasize their revelation. The early missionaries did not have a theology that could help them with this. And I confess that in that situation, I wouldn't have been any better, because the theology of those times conditioned one to think within the strict confines of one culture.

This is how this Western culture was thrust upon indigenous people, leaving them no alternative but to adopt it in order to become Christians. The patterns of their ancestral culture were unacceptable. Certain theologians speak of inculturation. Christianity in its early centuries had already been "inculturated" by the Hellenistic tradition. What happened was that this Western culture was imposed on the whole American continent as if it were the only possible manifestation of Christian faith. Instead of an inculturation of the Gospel, there was a smashing of native cultures. This is not to deny the merits of evangelization, but neither can it be said that what I have just mentioned was beneficial.

Through ignorance, a destruction of the dignity of the person was perpetrated.  Vatican II brought us the proposition that it is necessary to recognize the manifestations of God in all cultures. Recall the "seeds of the Word." I'll present it in another form so you can better understand it. If evangelization consists of imposing one culture as though it were the only possible manifestation of Christian faith, why did God allow so many cultures to exist if, when all is said and done, evangelization was going to consist of the destruction of those cultures? Why was Christ himself brought into being in Israelite culture, moreover, in a marginalized culture, in a remote place, to the point of saying, "What good thing can come from here, from Nazareth?"

If the Gospel must be spread, how can this be done without cultural destruction? If I come and preach and through that destroy cultures by imposing a universal monoculture, I am failing to understand the phenomenon of distinct cultures.

So what we have to understand is that God is manifest in this cultural pluralism and Paul says, all of these people are called to create the new people of God which is not composed of a single tribe speaking a single language, like that of the Jews, but a new peoplehood of peoples, a joining of all.

Paul in Athens, when he saw the altar of the unknown God, said to the Athenians, "I have come to tell you of the God you worship withou knowing Him."

- Saint Paul said that?

Yes, he said [Acts 17:22,23]: "Athenians, you are, as I see it, the most religious of people. Traveling through your city and seeing your sacred monuments, I found an altar with the inscription: 'To the unknown God.'" Very well. To those who worship without knowing him, I have come to tell you of Him." So where we are going is toward understanding that the evangelization of the past wasn't directed towards the emergence of inculturated or autochthonous churches. These develop their own way of thinking, their own language, their own cultural symbols to express their faith, their own faith and not the faith of others. This is the mission we have in the Latin American continent of which we spoke earlier.

- What problems are presented by the application of the term "theology" to indigenous religious thought?

The indigenous people themselves prefer the term "wisdom." Theology is systematic, abstract. This abstraction is foreign to the Indian who lives a communal life and who nourishes himself as much through the contemplation of nature as through profound dreams. Dreams are very important. For example, now that natives were going back to Acteal, they have decided not to go back because some of them had prophetic dreams, premonitions.  Actually it was an old woman, an old man, and another three others who told of their dreams. But the interpretation of these dreams was decisive. They said, "we can't go back now," for there is this premonition. The five agreed in interpreting this as an omen: "this is not the opportune time to return." We see, then, that God Himself manifests in many ways, and in indigenous cultures reflection on this is complemented in many ways and is nourished by all these situations.

Another factor is that Christian convictions had to be lived and expressed in a Western culture, and now that it is a matter of expressing them within the indigenous peoples' own cultural patterns, we come up against a gap. The psychological evolution of the people has been more rapid than their cultural expression. There are signs that have become inadequate, that can't express what the people want to say. They have to be lived once again, so that they can acquire a new meaning.

- Is it that these symbols are subject to a process such that if they haven't survived they can be revived and recreated?

That is how it is. For example, why do you wear ear rings? What is your answer?

- Because it is a custom.

You hear your answer?  That is the custom, you tell me. But what you probably don't know is that this is a sign of slavery. Freed slaves pierced their ear and thus indicated the faithfulness they had to their master, who now, having freed them, was no longer their master. Then the slave who loved his master who was now not his master said, "well, I'm not going, boss. I want to stay here." So they pierced their ear as a sign of fidelity and wore ear rings. So the ear ring reminds us of slavery. But now it doesn't mean that. Now it is an ornament, a thing of beauty.

Another example: when someone dies, what do we usually do? What do we bring to the grave? Flowers. But we don't believe, as did the Romans, that there are gods who come to smell the flowers which, for this reason, we put with the dead ones. No. It is a keepsake, a form or gift of something naturally beautiful which we wish to present. But we aren't thinking that the deceased will come to smell them.  Still, to remember the ancient meaning of this act can give it a new intensity. We will have given a different meaning to the same symbol.

Through these examples, I wanted to illustrate what is lacking in indigenous communities.  Many symbols remain disconnected from their meaning because they couldn't be openly shown, for they were repressed. So their evolution was thwarted and the indigenous peoples don't have symbols adequate for their existing religious thought; they have to bring them up to date.

- What you have explained here clarifies the frequent answer to the questions of anthropologists doing fieldwork. The interviewees say, "that's is how it is done" or "it is the custom". The same way I answered about ear rings. It seems that they no longer have clear and deep meanings, that they have lost them....but that they can revive them or find within them new meaning.

Some things indeed have been lost. But a symbol can re-emerge and can be given another meaning.  It is just that in the face of such a reemergence, some will say, "the Indians are returning to paganism." For us, from afar, this meaning appears inadequate, but they are giving it another meaning. But one can't say that there is already such a different sense. This is part of the process of recovering.

- Or of "refunctionalizing" as it is called by academics like Alfredo Lopez Austin. I think that these cultural elaborations shouldn't be called "paganism."

No, no. The word paganism is discriminatory and ignores all that we have just said about the revelation of God in all cultures.

- Don Samuel, one understands that theology means the believing search for an understanding of faith. It is the undertaking to demonstrate its rationality to those who demand that. It can also be defined as the effort to clarify the teachings of revelation in the face of Reason. As such, it means the application of reason to the mysteries of faith. This rationalistic path is very deeply marked by abstract schemes taken from the world of the ancient Greeks. Do you think that a true teología india must be involved with systems of thinking - oral, mythic, symbolic - of the Amerindian peoples?

Yes. The concept of theology which you lay out is exactly the Western concept of theology. Of that, we say no, this is not for us. This is what I have wanted to say throughout this interview. We are living through an exciting time of the history of Latin America which is that of the emergence of the Indian as a subject of history and not as an object.  He is beginning to emerge with his own personality, his words are beginning to have repercussions and he is beginning to realize that he has a dignity, that equality demands that his difference be recognized, both theoretically and practically. Enrichment of the entire life of the nation and not just of the religious sphere is written in a beautiful way within the San Andrés accords. These accords stipulate the recognition of the Indian cultures within this nation, Mexico. They insist that if space and free expression is not given to these cultures, a richness will be lost irretrievably. This richness is the very constitution of our Mexican being.

These diverse indigenous cultural values are inherent to the Mexican identity. To recognize that is to more than offer them a museum-like kind of respect, as though they were archaic remains. No. They must be permitted to live, recognizing fully their customs, their life, the laws of these communities, with their own concepts of justice. To say recognize, we demand that they be given opportunity to demonstrate, to develop, and thus to truly enrich our life. None of us received an education open to the consciousness that our ancestors were the indigenous peoples.  No, in this country - at least when I was taught the history of Mexico - everything began with the Conquest, as if nothing had existed before that. On the other hand,Europeans, especially the Spanish, recognize as their ancestors people such as the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths. We don't recognize any such thing. We say, "Yes, we are Indians," but we say so with a flavor of "well, I'm a redskin, so what can you do?" and we don't clearly define ourselves as descendents of indigenous peoples. Perhaps we come to recognize that we were born of a mixture and that this mixture makes up that which is the Mexican people, but we don't want to go further than that. But an Indian is not just that. If we ask a Chamula "what are you?" he will answer:

I am a Chamula.

Then you aren't a Mexican?

I am a Chamula and I am a Mexican.

But if you ask me "Are you Mexican?"

I am Mexican.

Are you Indian?

I have a little bit of Indian blood but....

But we aren't conscious of being a multicultural people. This lack of knowledge has grave consequences. It is not only a matter of admitting that there are Indians, nor of being conscious that Mexico is multicultural, that they and us are this entity called Mexico. And it has to do with existing on the same plane, with the same rights, and the same opportunity for cultural developement.

These are what will give a breath of life to an agonizing Western world dominated by its economy. The Western world is an egoistic and individualistic world. In contrast, the world of the indigenous cultures is a communal world.

Let me tell a story which illustrates the difference between these two worlds and their educative processes. One day I was in a chapel.  On my right there was a mestizo boy with his mother. She was standing and her baby was on the ground. On the other side there was an indigenous mother and her baby who was also on the ground. As I was preaching, the little mestizo boy crawled over to the Indian child, slapped him, and went back to his mother.  She didn't discipline him, but only made a gesture as if to ask why he did that.  The Indian child was crying. A parishoner gave him a piece of candy to shut him up. The Indian child took the candy, but looked for his mother or his sister to let them have a taste before eating ithimself.

There we have two kinds of education. One of rejection of the other and agression, the other communal. From earliest age, the little mestizo learns to depreciate the little Indian, to attack him; the other learns to share.

Another anecdote:

A child at a graduation ceremony met a teacher who was going to leave after the exams. The boy began to cry.

"Why are you crying," the teacher asked.

Because you are going away tomorrow, brother Carlos, and you won't be with us.

I'm going away tomorrow after the exams, but I'll be coming back from time to time to see how you have been applying what you have been learning.

Not knowing how to console him, the teacher gave him a piece of candy. The boy lived in an isolated community, two days walk away.

Where could this child get  candy? He took it and put it away. The next day, after the exam, he got up and said to a dozen of his fellow students, "Brothers, you weren't here when I came to talk to brother Carlos and he gave me this candy. Now I'm going to divide it among you.

The child broke the candy into pieces and each one took a piece.


This is communal thinking. Let's imagine that these indigenous communal values could be brought into an egoistic world. A world in which even social groupos and civic associations are cradles of individualism. They aren't about sharing, but about competition against others. Stories like these, thank God, give us hope for a transformation of our society. We are at a historic moment in which we must listen to our indigenous brothers and sisters.

The interview finished, don Samuel indicated to me that he would be late for another appointment because we had been talking for more than an hour. I bid him a friendly farewell and was left reflecting. With his style of pastoral rhetoric, clear and full of parables, don Samuel made a complete overview of the theme. He spoke of the problems of collective identity which we Mexicans have, embarassed by the "Indianness" within us. He discussed the focus of "European" theology and how Latin American theology must develop differently; he elaborated his thoughts on Liberation Theology and of opting for the poor as a duty of the Church; he discussed the relevance of Christian base communities in indigenous communities. He also interpreted Biblical passages which allow belief in the revelation of God in all cultures: the "seeds of the Word." He made me smile with his reinterpretation of Noah's ark as an image of the Church. He challenged us to think whether Columbus's three ships could have "brought God" to the American continent; he dismissed the existence of a "theology of violence and of slavery." He outlined the process of cultural change and the reintegration of new meanings and symbols.

But above all, don Samuel defined "teología india," its virtues and its strength as an option for his diocese and for many other dioceses in the continent of "communities and native peoples." A theology fashionedfrom life experience; a theology which stemming from the beginnings of faith develops into patterns for a style of being in a world which is neither rational nor lineal. A theology not only graced by Indian rituals but forged be these ways of knowing the world, the community, the person, and the relationship to God. A "theology" which is really the wisdom of the Indian peoples of America.

Another version of this interview has been published in the Revista Académica para el Estudio de la Religíon, tomo II.  Publication of the Asociacíon Latinoammerican para el Estudio de las Religiones, Mexico,

December 1998.


Translator's notes:

1. Source: IXTUS: Espiritu y Cultura. 7(26):27-44. 1999

2. I have left the term "teología india" untranslated. "Teología" presents

no difficulty; it glosses as theology.  But in Mexico "indio" ("Indian") and the adjectival forms, "indio" and "india" are derogatory terms. The descendants of the prehispanic population prefer to be spoken of as"indigenes" ("indigenous people"). Neither "Indian theology" nor "indigenous theology" sound right to me, and as don Samuel proceeds to an elegant explanation of what teología india is, I see no problem withleaving the term in the original.  Similarly, though don Samuel generally uses the term "indigenes," he sometimes uses the term "indio." I have therefore used both terms too, though not necessarily in a 1:1correspondence with don Samuel's usage. Generally, when the discussion is of specific individuals, I have used the term "Indian," and where the discussion is of groups or peoples or whole cultures I have used the term "indigenous people."



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