David C. Kirkpatrick, A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left

The Abstract

David C. Kirkpatrick, A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2019. 288 pp. $55.00. ISBN-13: 978-0812250947. David C. Kirkpatrick’s A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left focuses on the history of the Latin American evangelical “left” movement, presenting […]

See all articles in this issue See all issues in this volume

Book review by Luis Tapia

David C. Kirkpatrick, A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social
Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left
, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2019. 288 pp. $55.00. ISBN-13: 978-0812250947.

David C. Kirkpatrick’s A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left focuses on the history of the Latin American evangelical “left” movement, presenting its background and influence on global Christianity. Several sources that Kirkpatrick resorts to for building his narrative—such as bilingual interviews, unstudied personal papers, and far-flung archival documents—evidence the originality of his work, providing insight into the untold stories of the political drama of the Latinos/as within the leadership of global evangelicalism. Kirkpatrick aims to show that the current social emphasis within American and European evangelicalism arose primarily from the influence of this Latin American movement. As a Latin American who was once part of this evangelical movement, I will concentrate on Kirkpatrick’s revised picture of the origins and development of the movement, and conclude with a brief observation about his narrative as a whole.

To situate the Latin American evangelical “left” movement within a global perspective, Kirkpatrick introduces his work by focusing on one of the most important evangelical gatherings of the twentieth century—the International Congress on World Evangelization, which took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. This focus on Lausanne allows him to connect the story of the Latin American movement with the story of two of its leaders, Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar, both of whom had key roles in the congress. After this setting, the first chapter presents the controversial theological elements that Latin American theologians brought to Lausanne, together with the responses from American and British leaders, such as Billy Graham and John Stott. For Kirkpatrick, the presence of Escobar and Padilla on the platform at Lausanne was not only a symbol of the emerging leadership from the Global South but also a symbol of protest. He highlights how both Escobar and Padilla resort to the notion of misión integral (integral mission) to criticize the “mutilated Gospel” of the American middle-class evangelicals. This notion is a key theological concept raised by Latin American evangelicals within missional work. Kirkpatrick’s account of Padilla’s speech at Lausanne explains integral mission as a comprehensive view of Christian salvation, which touches all aspects of life, including the concern for social justice and the ethical demands of discipleship. For Latin American evangelicals, says Kirkpatrick, Lausanne was all about negotiating this “social” Christianity within the very structures of global evangelicalism. In this respect, the result of the congress—that is, the Lausanne Covenant—must be perceived as a political compromise between Latin Americans and the global evangelical movement led by the North.

In chapter 2, Kirkpatrick shows the background and development of the Latin American evangelical movement before Lausanne, claiming that it is a mistake to consider the movement as a mere version of liberation theology. In that respect, he shows the unique way that the sociopolitical context of violence, oppression, and dependency connected with the evangelical experience. Escobar and Padilla, together with Pedro Arana, were leaders of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) in Latin America in the 1960s, which placed them at the heart of the evangelical global movement, permeating their theological reflection and approach to the political climate of Latin America. Kirkpatrick’s narrative shows that for Escobar, Padilla, and Arana the imported evangelical understanding of the gospel was not an option because that discourse did not provide an answer to the questions posed by the Latin American context and liberation theology. As an alternative, the movement originated a parallel space for theological reflection to maintain its evangelical identity—that is, La Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana (FTL), the “Latin American Theological Fraternity/Fellowship.”

As chapters 3 and 4 show, the FTL was born as a rejection of North American and British paternalism but without cutting off relationships with those evangelical networks. The FTL pulled global evangelicalism toward social themes without disconnecting from the North Atlantic world. In this respect, Kirkpatrick notes in chapter 5 that the assumed postcolonial narrative for the emergence of the FTL as an independent Latin American evangelical movement must be nuanced by highlighting the missionary sources that shaped the movement, helped in its development, and allowed the global expansion of its ideas. For Kirkpatrick, the origin of the current global “social” Christianity can only be told in a transnational story that involves the mutual influence of evangelicals in the Southern and Northern hemispheres.

For Kirkpatrick, integral mission theology is not a version of liberation theology, and this becomes clear as he pays attention to the evangelical movement’s criticisms of the liberationist theological method. However, as chapter 6 shows, there was also a rich ecumenical dialogue between evangelicals and liberationists. The FTL included Protestant theologians inclined toward liberation theology, such as Orlando Costas and José Míguez Bonino, although the dialogue was more at an interpersonal level than an organizational one. Kirkpatrick says that the dialogue with ecumenical theologians helped widen the purview not only for the Latin American evangelical movement but also for the global evangelical movement, which made room for the inclusion of a “social” evangelicalism. However, as he explains in chapter 7, integral mission theology was later appropriated by international NGOs as a depoliticized synthesis of “pursuing justice and offering salvation” (142), although many missiologists are still challenging the political conservatism within global evangelicalism by resorting to the theological legacy of Latin Americans.

In A Gospel for the Poor, Kirkpatrick states that his goal is to offer not only a descriptive story of the Latin American evangelical movement but also a prescriptive narrative that demands for others to recognize the importance of Latinos/as within evangelicalism. In this respect, there are many details in Kirkpatrick’s narrative that could be taken as prescriptive elements for the presence of Latinos/as within global evangelical Christianity. Here I will consider three elements: (1) the multidirectional conversation within evangelicalism, (2) the importance of personal relationships, and (3) the theological alternative that Latin Americans represented for global evangelicalism.

First, throughout his narrative, Kirkpatrick attends to the connections between the Latin American and North Atlantic evangelicals, highlighting that these movements were part of a multidirectional conversation within global evangelicalism. In that sense, global evangelicalism should not underestimate Latino/a’s contributions. In the same way, it is important to remember that Latinos/as have received multiple benefits from the North besides financial support—for example, the profusion of theological conversation partners that shaped the development of Latin American missional theology. The dangers of neo-colonialism did not deter the dialogues that created the possibility for interdependency, which has produced the present movement of critical global evangelical Christianity.

Next, Kirkpatrick’s account centers on the lives of the people who have shaped this movement through their persistent conversations. These relationships have overcome many organizational and institutional divisions. In this respect, it is imperative to recognize the value of friendship within global evangelicalism, and the political skills of leaders who brought together different organizations and institutions for common goals.

And finally, a third important element in Kirkpatrick’s work is the claim that the Latin American evangelical movement produced not a different version of liberation theology but an evangelical alternative to it. However, as Kirkpatrick’s narrative also shows, it is possible to call into question the movement’s own evangelical identity. Latin American theologians recognized early on the troubling theological issues within their evangelical tradition and therefore pushed global evangelicalism toward an alternative. In this respect, the connections with Anabaptists that Kirkpatrick highlights—such as John Howard Yoder’s involvement with the FTL and the “Radical discipleship group,” the presence of Anabaptist Brethren missionaries, and Ron Sider as a conversation partner—subtly influenced the discussions of Latin American theologians. This might explain some of the theological emphases that North American Anabaptists and Latin American evangelicals share in common—for example, a focus on the kingdom of God; the centrality of the church and the biblical narrative rather than other communities and ideologies; and the nature of the gospel and mission as an indivisible union of words and actions.

In sum, A Gospel for the Poor provides a good picture of the origins and development of the Latin American evangelical “left” movement, highlighting the importance of the Latinos/as within global evangelical Christianity. However, the foreign origin and target of Kirkpatrick’s work—a North American perspective directed to North American and European readers—permeates his narrative. For example, Kirkpatrick’s use of the designation “left” is hardly neutral. He explicitly states that this designation avoids a blanket categorization of the movement, since many Latin American evangelicals rejected misión integral, underscoring that “the emerging coalition of the Latin American Evangelical Left refers primarily to a political orientation rather a theological one—theologically conservative and evangelical while pushing boundaries on socially progressive ideas” (13). Yet, Escobar, Padilla, and the FTL never assumed a partisan perspective nor intended to bring a partisan ideology to global evangelicalism. This Latin American movement consisted of theologians and pastors who were trying to respond to their social and political context with their own understanding of the gospel and with a theological discourse that had political consequences but that could not be subsumed under a political category. In that respect, the main goal of the movement was not to influence the political discourse of global evangelicalism but to change the missional practices that the evangelical theological discourse originated. Therefore, the global impact of this Latin American evangelical movement could be better evaluated not by assessing its influence over North American and British leaders nor by determining its role in shaping the theological statements of international conferences, but by noting the extent to which it is forming the life and mission of local evangelical churches around the world.

Luis Tapia Rubio, PhD student, International Baptist Theological Study Center (IBTS Center), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Luis is a member of College Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana; Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism (ISGA), Goshen College, Indiana; and lecturer, Hispanic Anabaptist Biblical Seminary (SeBAH), United States.