A Gospel for the Poor

Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David C. Kirkpatrick

Review

David Kirkpatrick’s first monograph, A Gospel for the Poor, explores the development of Latin American social Christianity and its significance to the dynamics of global evangelicalism in the 20th century. Long has the story of global evangelicalism revolved around Western colonial influence and missionary efforts abroad. Consequently, the spread and evolution of global evangelicalism have historiographically emphasized Western determination of evangelical theology and identity. While there has been a greater attendance to local cultural adaptations of Christianity in non-Western contexts, these typically emphasize the uniqueness and independence of regional churches in opposition to globalizing or universalizing conformity to Western Christian hegemony.

Rather, Kirkpatrick seeks to decenter Western influence in the story of global evangelicalism, highlighting the role of Latin American evangelical theologians and leaders that shaped the definition of global evangelicalism today. Kirkpatrick, therefore, demonstrates that the development of global evangelicalism was truly a transnational negotiation among a diverse cast of individuals and organizations from several different regions of the world.

As such, the Latin American intellectual and political contexts of the 20th century gave rise to an emphasis on social Christianity that became a defining debate over evangelical identity and mission. While such Latin American evangelical theologians and leaders certainly had their Western allies (and antagonists), the author forefronts Latin American figures such as René Padilla, Samuel Escobar, José Míguez Bonino, and Orlando Costas. In so doing, Kirkpatrick contends that their continual insistence on such theologies and seemingly enigmatic inclusion in global evangelical conversations and conferences contributed to an eventual embrace of a holistic global evangelical theology, recognizing the necessity to address both spiritual salvation and material liberation.

The narrative center of this book is the Lausanne Conference in 1974, especially Padilla and Escobar’s presence and influence. Kirkpatrick emphasizes the events leading up to 1974 in order to show the continuity of Latin American evangelical thought and gradual embrace of social theologies. While chapter 1 sets the stage by discussing the push for social consideration in evangelical theology and practice, chapters 2 and 3 discuss the political climate of Latin America that lead to the development of an evangelical social theology misión integral (integral mission). Herein lies one of the more interesting, and perhaps contestable, claims Kirkpatrick makes in his book. While recognizing the significance and influence of Catholic Liberation theologians, Kirkpatrick notes that Latin American evangelical social theology arose independently and in parallel with Catholic Liberation theology, responding to a common revolutionary, Cold War political and intellectual context.

Chapter 4 then discusses the nationalization and independence of the Latin American Theological Fraternity (Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, FTL). This, however, is couched in a greater discussion of the relationship between Latin American evangelicals with North American paternalism in terms of dominance of global evangelical conversations, determination of evangelical identity, and financial provisions. Kirkpatrick traces the discussion of missiological theories from development to dependence, discussing the ways Latin American evangelicals resisted, negotiated, or flat out rejected Northern paternalism organizationally, theologically, and financially. Such resistance and negotiation demonstrate Latin American aims to decolonize evangelicalism, articulating an evangelical contextual theology against the translation and application of an American evangelicalism irrelevant to Latin American contexts, especially since they did not attend to revolutionary contexts. This dynamic, however, is qualified in chapter 5, which discusses the multidirectional influence between notable Western influences, such as Catharine Feser Padilla (René Padilla’s wife), John Mackay, and the Anabaptist Brethren.

Consequently, Kirkpatrick contends the story of global evangelicalism is neither about unilateral Western export nor unilateral Southern rejection or reversal. Instead, the development of a Latin American evangelical contextual/social theology developed through a multidirectional network of individuals and organizations, further demonstrated in chapter 6. The last chapter before the conclusion discusses the Western appropriation of Latin American embrace of social Christianity (integral mission) through the influence of Western evangelical power brokers, such as John Stott, and large humanitarian organizations, such as Compassion International, to become a defining character of global evangelicalism.

Emphasizing the role of Latin American evangelicals in association with socially minded evangelicals around the world, Kirkpatrick shows the complex and organic avenues and networks of influence that developed a holistic evangelical gospel against the dominant historiographical backdrop of American conservative evangelicalism. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling aspect of this monograph is the mixed-methodological sources he utilized to inform his narrative, incorporating archival documents, personal correspondences and diaries, and oral histories. As such, while the author’s narrative follows the development of social evangelical theology, he demonstrates that such development was not solely or simply the result of sociocultural or intellectual contexts. Nor did such developments occur only through the medium of large organizations or on the stage of global evangelical conferences.

Instead, Kirkpatrick captivatingly shows how Latin American evangelical social theology was also developed through more common and quotidian interactions, such as kitchen conversations, personal letters, and occasional camping trips. In this way, Kirkpatrick reveals the often hidden lived reality of the individual lives and relationships that connected and undergirded such theological developments. The story of global evangelicalism that Kirkpatrick tells, then, is not only about contestation and negotiation between different organizations or cultural contexts, but it is also about the collaborations, convincing, encouragement, and disputes among friends, family, and colleagues.

For these reasons and many more that cannot be captured in this short review, A Gospel for the Poor makes several important historiographical and methodological interventions into how the story of global evangelicalism ought to be told. Any scholar or student of world Christianities, contemporary evangelicalism, transnationalism, or social theologies will find this book interesting and important to their understanding of global Christian movements and networks.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jesse J. Lee is a doctoral candidate studying American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David C. Kirkpatrick is Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.