By Luis Carlos Palomino Forero
September 7th, 2021
Confronting death is an inevitable and fundamental experience for human existence. Both our own death and the death of those around us is a reality that makes us question the meaning of life, both individually and collectively. Among the countless causes of death, war is undoubtedly one of the most absurd and repugnant. Its pestilence permeates the question of the meaning of life in a dangerously pessimistic way, assuming that the only life of value is that which manifests itself violently, making all other elements in the human experience secondary to this dismal function.
Efforts by most religions to provide answers to the dilemma of death and the finitude of human experience have led many faiths to approach the problem of war in different ways. Many religions and religious leaders have devoted themselves to the project of eradicating war in order to achieve a higher existence and transcend the material plane. Others have used their beliefs and symbols as engines that drive the machinery of war, under the promise of a higher value than the opponent's life and their own.
The Colombian conflict has been no exception, giving rise to peculiar characters such as Camilo Torres, a priest and sociologist who became a guerrilla fighter in the 1960s. This proximity between war and religion has become even more evident during the peace process with the FARC-EP, revealing a wide variety of religious approaches to the agreement.
The different positions regarding the peace agreement are strongly linked to the particularities of religious diversity in Colombia. Since the conquest, Catholicism has been one of the fundamental basis of the political project of the elites, offering justifying reason for the structure of colonial society. This logic argued that the role of white Spanish men as evangelists gave them political authority over America and the peoples who inhabited it.
Since then, this meant that the Colombian territory has been mostly Catholic, giving the Church a very relevant role within the political structure of the country, mediated both by its influence on the culture and beliefs of the majority, as well its economic and social ties with the elites. The Church frequently used its influence to relegate other faiths to the peripheries of society. Thereby, with the support of the state, it consolidated a pseudo monopoly of the country's spirituality (Beltrán Cely, 2013). The greatest expression of this relationship has been the concordats signed between the Holy See and the Colombian government, where the state recognizes its responsibility to protect Catholicism and operate under its moral precepts. The religions of the native peoples, atheism, and other religious variations of Christianity could not prosper in such an oppressive context.
The situation was radically transformed with the advent of the 1991 constitution, which limited (thanks to the mobilization of indigenous peoples and Afro communities) the closeness between the Catholic Church and the State, in addition to granting tools to guarantee freedom of worship. With this starting point, an unprecedented explosion of religious diversity occurred in Colombia.
Given this new political scenario, Christian organizations inspired by U.S. religious movements (usually referred to as evangelical Christians, regardless of their particular denomination) began to prosper, managing to convert many believers disappointed with the ostracism of the Catholic Church. According to Latinobarómetro data, in Colombia in 1996, approximately 87% of the population was Catholic, while 4.2% was part of some other Christian denomination; in contrast, by 2019 only 72.3% of the population was Catholic and 14.9% held other Christian faiths.
The new groups of believers are strongly influenced by the political agenda of their counterparts in North America, thus becoming one of the new electoral strongholds of the most conservative sectors. Politically speaking, one of the main points in their agenda is the opposition to reforms regarding women sexual and reproductive rights, as well as the opposition to the legalization and promotion of the rights of the LGBTQI+ community.
This has led them to oppose sex education classes, abortion rights, and LGTBQI+ family models. However, their most prominent political involvement was their opposition to the peace agreement between the government and the FARC. In 2016 Ex-President Juan Manuel Santos decided that the agreement that had been negotiated with the FARC-EP was to be endorsed through a plebiscite, leaving its approval to a popular vote. In the electoral campaign, numerous evangelical religious leaders opposed the peace agreement because it recognized the LGBTQI+ population as victims of the conflict, allowing them to receive reparations for the violence they had suffered at the hands of the armed actors of the conflict. For these religious leaders and their followers, this recognition was part of an agenda to promote what they call "gender ideology".
However, this is not the only interpretation of the FARC peace process that emerged based on religious beliefs. Important sectors of the Catholic Church, led by Pope Francis himself, openly supported the construction of peace in Colombia, seeing in the negotiations the materialization of the Gospel message of forgiveness, repentance, and love for the neighbor. An important cornerstone of this perspective was the role of Jesuit Father Francis de Roux in the construction of the agreement and its subsequent implementation.
Concerning the peace process with the FARC, the indigenous peoples supported its development in very different ways from the standpoint of their cosmogonies. The territorial approach of the agreement requires that the actors involved have to work in the territories of these communities, as they have been particularly affected by the violence. This has profound spiritual connotations since, in these cosmogonies, the relationship between human beings and their territory is not merely utilitarian but essential and transcendent; that is, nature does not exist for human beings to use as a resource, but human beings are a part of nature and through a healthier connection with it, they can transcend their immediate experience.
Therefore, the idea that peace is the result of harmony not only between human beings but also between human beings and the environment, is a point where the traditional beliefs of these peoples and the peace agreement with the FARC converge. This has been translated into a series of rituals that have served as a bridge between the decisions made by whites and mestizos and the indigenous authorities that govern respective territories, giving it a semblance of transcendent legitimacy. This is essential in an agreement as nationally disputed as the peace agreement with the FARC. It is worth asking whether the rituals and symbols have really been understood by those outside the indigenous communities, or whether their participation is only part of a strategy to win the favor of the public and particularly these communities.
In the face of this great diversity of approaches to the peace process in Colombia, it is important to emphasize that a person's religion does not determine whether he or she was for or against the peace process in Colombia. There have been numerous cases of Protestant churches that have supported the peace process, as well as sectors within the Catholic Church that have opposed it. However, it is necessary to consider how personal beliefs affect one's vision of peace and war and to understand how others interpret the same situation under a different moral lens