“The Liberating Force of the Gospel:” A Conversation with Adolfo Perez Esquivel”

In 1980, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an artist and peacemaker from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who has spent his life promoting peace and nonviolence throughout Latin America.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel has served for decades as the general coordinator of the Service for Peace and Justice, a church-based network of organizations working for social justice throughout Latin America.
In 1977, the brutal Argentine government arrested, imprisoned and tortured him for fifteen months. The worldwide outcry against the Argentine government led to Adolfo’s release. Adolfo gives lectures around the world, and supports many peace movements and projects, especially in Latin America. He is the author of Christ in a Poncho, (published by Orbis Books in 1984).
In August, 1985, while hitchhiking alone across Nicaragua, John Dear was picked up by, of all people, Adolfo Perez Esquivel. They became friends, and later that year, Adolfo stayed with John Dear in New York City for a week. In 1999, Adolfo joined John Dear on a journey to Iraq, where they witnessed first hand the effects of U.S. sanctions against the Iraqi people.
John Dear interviewed Adolfo Perez Esquivel in the fall of 1985 in New York City. This conversation was published by Pax Christi in the Spring of 1986.
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John Dear: What is your understanding of Gospel nonviolence and how do you see it as revolutionary today?
Adolfo Perez Esquivel: The Gospel itself is revolutionary! It is a liberating force. When one begins to read the Gospel from this perspective, everything becomes a liberating message. Everything follows a coherent line of liberating action. Many Christians see this call to pacifism and nonviolence in the Gospels.
The Sermon on the Mount is where all the strength and power of this nonviolent liberating message is concentrated and synthesized. When Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other,” he’s not telling us to be stupid. He’s calling us to change the situation, to act in a different manner, to change bad to good, to return good for evil, to respond to injustice in a new way. Under no circumstances does that mean weakness.
Dear: Many Pax Christi members have been professing a vow of nonviolence. What do you think this commitment to Gospel nonviolence means?
Perez Esquivel: I think that the work of Pax Christi is to assume a deeper understanding of the liberating message of the Gospel. Its work is to break the structures of dominance through the force of nonviolence and through personal commitment, such as the vow of nonviolence.
Public demonstrations and confrontative actions, too, are important. Nonviolence needs to be directed toward social transformation, creating new alternatives in the economic situation, in the relations of power, and in the political and cultural situations.
Dear: What is your vision for justice in Latin America and how does the United States fit in?
Perez Esquivel: The policies of the United States are the latest in a series of policies of domination that our peoples have been suffering. These policies have established mechanisms of control related to the deficiencies of many sectors of our own countries which have been historically allied to the power of the U.S. We can see these relationships most clearly in the system of aggression and oppression against the people of Nicaragua, in recent years.
Little by little, the clamor, the cry of our peoples for their liberation, is growing and spreading across the continent with more strength. The policy of the United States should be changed to a policy of cooperation rather than aggression. If it is not, we are going to see a confrontation between all these different countries.
Dear: What suggestions do you have for Pax Christi groups who are trying to work and pray together to promote peace?
Perez Esquivel: We’ve been in contact with Pax Christi for many years. I think that Pax Christi groups can offer concrete contributions in solidarity and support of our people. For instance, the Pax Christi reports on El Salvador and Nicaragua were a real contribution to the search for peace in Central America. Pax Christi groups can get more involved in the problems that people in Latin America and the Third World face.
Dear: How do you see the connection between the nuclear arms race and the oppression and poverty which Latin America suffer?
Perez Esquivel: The great powers are wasting millions of dollars every year on arms. Last year, they spent more than $800 billion on weapons.
We need to work for disarmament, but to achieve that, we need political willingness on the part of the big powers. It is clear that this nuclear arms race takes away resources from the real needs of the people of the Third World who suffer and hunger. We had a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize winners in Rome a short time ago, to discuss initiatives in relation to the nuclear arms race and the struggle against hunger. We all have to join forces, to make an effort together, to change these policies because, in the way we are going now, the conflicts will only worsen.
Dear: What has been the main focus of your work with “Service for Peace and Justice” in recent months?
Perez Esquivel: The work has different levels, but recently the principle aim of the work in Argentina has been to save lives. Another level of our work is with the grassroots communities, a kind of work that has a liberating content, because the people themselves will be the agent of their own liberation. We are trying to support the grassroots communities for peace and justice throughout Latin America.
Dear: What signs of hope do you see these days?
Perez Esquivel: I think there are many signs of hope, especially how the consciousness of the peoples concerning their own responsibilities in the world is being raised. We can see that the spirituality of our people is daily being strengthened. With all the contradictions and conflicts that exist, we can, nonetheless, see that our people are moving forward.
Something we know from experience is that the people who lose hope are people destined to disappear and that’s not the case with Latin America. That’s not what’s happening. On this trip to the United States, I’ve been able to see a growing awareness among people here about their responsibilities and what they can do to be in solidarity with other peoples despite the aggression that the government is conducting. That is a sign of hope.