Integral Mission and the Reshaping of Global Evangelicalism: A Conversation with David C. Kirkpatrick

Heath Carter

I recently had the chance to catch up with David C. Kirkpatrick, who successfully defended his dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on Monday (congratulations, David!).  Readers of the blog will no doubt be interested in his work, which tracks the rise of progressive evangelicalism in Latin America - a story which, as we discuss below, has important implications for the historiography on postwar American evangelicalism.  His manuscript is currently entitled, "C. René Padilla: Integral Mission and the Reshaping of Global Evangelicalism," and will be a great book before you know it. 

HC: Many readers of this blog are familiar with liberation theology but fewer, perhaps, with misión integral.  Can you tell us a bit about it?

DK: Thank you for having me, Heath!  The development of Latin American social Christianity - both Protestant and Catholic - reflected wider transnational intellectual trends.  In the aftermath of the Marshall Plan in Europe and the failure of American development projects in Latin America, many economists in the 1960s began to question economic theories of development in favor of dependency theory.  Dependency theory argued that Latin America did not simply lag behind Western countries in terms of economic development, but suffered from an unjust system that channelled resources from peripheral, poor nations to core, wealthy economies.  What Latin America needed, then, was not development within the world economy but liberation from the world economic status quo.  Dependency theory also created an ideological unity and shared suspicion of Western efforts, funding, and ideology among a politically conscious theological elite in the Global South.  The reality of dependency was as unacceptable in theology as in economics.

This shift from theories of development to theories of dependency is the background for the emergence of Catholic theologies of liberation, perhaps most well-known in the career of Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, and his 1971 book Teologia de la Liberación.  Latin American evangelicals shared this postwar intellectual context with liberation theologians, yet negotiated a unique path of paternalism with North American evangelicalism - especially in the seminaries and historic mission organizations.  This intersection of imported theological and political influence from the North, and a growing awareness of dependence in the South created a third path toward the emergence of new, inculturated, and holistic forms of Christianity.

Ecuadorian theologian René Padilla speaking
at the Lausanne Congress of 1974
(Courtesy Billy Graham Center Archives of Wheaton College)
Ecuadorian evangelical René Padilla (b. 1932) coined the term misión integral to speak of an understanding of Christian mission that synthesized the pursuit of justice with the offer of salvation.  Padilla's use of the term derives from his homemade pan integral, or whole-wheat bread.  He first used the phrase publicly in his controversial plenary address at the Lausanne Congress of 1974, where he decried the exportation of "American culture Christianity" around the world.  The emergence of misión integral signaled both the rise of Majority World evangelical leadership, and a growing discontent with rote repetition of translated theologies from the North.  In turn, it radically reshaped evangelical conceptions of mission, challenging paternalistic missionary structures and the political monopoly of the Religious Right.

HC: How does your book manuscript reframe the emergence of this Latin American theological tradition?

DK: Historiography has posited three realities in regard to Catholic liberation theology and Protestant evangelical social theology: 1) It has largely defined misión integral in terms of liberation theology, placing an anachronistic narrative pro forma over the story.  Put more clearly, this literature has argued that evangelicals developed social theologies in response to the rise of liberation theology.  2) The former is generally viewed as indigenous, while the latter is dismissed as an export from North America.  3) Historiography has placed the two in binary, opposite poles - largely negating any intellectual exchange or interpersonal relationships.

In contrast, I demonstrate that the origins of misión integral are found within a cluster of political and social forces reshaping postwar Latin America: rural-urban migration flows, the resulting complications of urbanization, and the rapid expansion of the universities, where Marxist ideas of revolutionary change presented a growing appeal to students.  Misión integral arose not as a response to developments within the Roman Catholic Church, but as a response to the same political and social stimuli that gave rise to liberation theology.

Finally, my monograph perhaps corrects the oral history and prevailing narratives surrounding these events within Latin American evangelicalism.  In my Spanish interviews over the course of 2013 and 2014, René Padilla, and Peruvians Samuel Escobar and Pedro Arana spoke of breaking free of imported North American theologies through founding the influential Latin American evangelical think tank called the Latin American Theological Fraternity in Cochambamba, Bolivia, in 1970.  The meagre scholarship on these events has largely followed the oral historical accounts - accounts I also heard.  In a sense, one triumphalistic narrative has given way to another - a North American story of soul saving has been replaced by a Southern story of the emergence of truly independent Latin American contextual theology.

But what my archival research revealed was that the first Latin American Theological Fraternity gathering was funded exclusively by donors in the United States.  With financial dependence came strings attached.  Personal correspondence between Western missionaries with North American donors reveals they negotiated the inclusion and exclusion of Latin American Protestant leaders based on their perceived theological and political conservatism.  Padilla himself was initially excluded due to his friendship with Methodist liberation theologian José Miguez Bonino (I dedicate a chapter to this previously unstudied friendship and collaboration).

Thus, while it is true that Padilla set the trajectory for the new contextual brand of evangelical theologies - its emergence was contested and negotiated well into the 1970s.  Rather than either a hegemonic North American story or a triumphalistic independence narrative, this conversation was polycentric and multidirectional in nature.

HC: In recent years there have been a number of books on the longer history of progressive evangelicalism in the United States.  I think, for example, of great books by David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway, and even my own work to a certain extent.  How does your work, which is so thoroughly transnational, intersect with and/or add to such stories about American evangelicalism?

DK: The recent books by Swartz and Gasaway have contributed enormously to our understanding of progressive evangelicalism in the United States.  I have appreciated your work over the years as well, Heath - in particular its focus on immigrants and grassroots activism rather than simply elite voices.  I look forward to reading Union Made after its book launch in Chicago on September 8th!

In my opinion, the nature of postwar evangelicalism in the United States necessitates a transnational approach.  This is particularly true when discussing progressive evangelicals, who were often more sensitive to the voices of leaders from the Global South.  Of course, this is not unique to historiography on Protestant evangelicalism.  How can one discuss the decline of the Ecumenical Movement and the World Council of Churches without highlighting pressure and politics from the Global South?  Progressive evangelicals in the United States were often part of a multidirectional conversation as diverse as evangelicalism itself.  I hope my work adds to the story emerging from these new books and fills in crucial parts of the narrative.  Let me give one example of where I hope my manuscript provides this global perspective.

Both works helpfully highlight the Brethren/Anabaptist movement with leaders such as Ron Sider and Intervarsity-USA founder Stacey Woods.  IVCF-USA is often discussed as a pipeline for progressive evangelical leadership in theology and politics.  IVCF was simply one member organization of a parent organization called the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).  Stacey Woods unfortunately destroyed his personal papers, so very little exists of his personal correspondence.  But I was able to recreate many of the controversies and events through carbon copies in the personal papers of his closest Latin American colleagues such as René Padilla and Samuel Escobar (who were both on staff with IFES).  What emerges is a fascinating story full of controversies with Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, John Stott, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, and Fuller Seminary Professor Donald McGavran.  Ideological wars between conservative and progressive evangelicals in the United States often played out on battlefields in the Global South.  These conversations were particularly salient for the rise of progressive evangelical politics, the explosion of Christian mission and relief organizations, and even the rise of the Emerging Church movement in the United States.

Once again, this is not simply replacing an American story with a Latin American or global one.  We cannot deny that white, male, American evangelical leaders exercised an enormous influence upon progressive evangelicalism.  Yet they often channeled the diverse voices, ideas, and experiences of minorities in the US and leaders from the Majority World.  How can our historiography do justice to this multidirectional conversation, while reflecting the realities of power and politics in American religious life?  I hope my work opens up further conversation on these important themes.


Popular Posts