Crisis in Puerto Rico and the Lutheran Voice

[1] In this article I intend to present the position that I have assumed as a Lutheran bishop based on my understanding of Lutheran ethics, vis-à-vis the crisis that we are currently confronting in Puerto Rico. For that I will use well-known facts about Puerto Rico’s history, and lessons about Lutheranism that I learned from my days in Sunday School, at San Pedro Lutheran Church, in my native town of Toa Baja.

[2] I also hope to share enough facts to make the case that the crisis faced by Puerto Rico today is the result of the circumstances created by the fact that in all of its history as a people it has never obtained the dignity of sovereignty that it deserves. Puerto Rico is made up of people proud of their cultural heritage, who endeavor to build a better society and form a nation.

  1. November 19, 1493 Spain discovers (invades) the island known as Borikén by its original Taino inhabitants;
  2. November 25 1897 Spain grants Puerto Rico the right of autonomy (la Carta Autonómica), which gave, under the Spanish Republic, greater freedom to the people;
  3. 1898 the United States of America wins Puerto Rico as bounty of war after defeating Spain in the Spanish American (expansionist) war.
  4. April 12, 1900 The U.S. Congress approves the Foraker law, which named a supervisory board to govern Puerto Rico (Junta de gobierno);
  5. March 2, 1917, the U.S. Congress approves the Jones Law, giving greater liberty to​ the people of Puerto Rico and granting them U.S. citizenship;
  6. 1950 U.S. Congress approves law 600, granting Puerto Ricans the opportunity to redact a “Constitution,” containing the three pillars of republican government (executive, legislative and judicial branches), but always subjugated to the plenary powers of the U.S. Congress;
  7. 1952: The U.S. Congress unilaterally revises Puerto Rico’s “Constitution” draft and notifies the local government that it is that revised version of the Constitution that will be approved.
  8. June 31, 2016 The U.S. Congress approves a law that establishes a Federal Fiscal Control Board, to which ample powers are granted including the revision of budgets, laws and local rules, reducing the Puerto Rican Congress and Senate as de facto employees of the board.

[3] As a Lutheran bishop I have come to understand that the office to which I have been called requires that I give serious consideration to the social realities affecting the people, not just segments but in its totality. One of the most important principles in that regard is the principle of tolerance of diversity, which implies seeing the other person as a neighbor, as a sister or brother, as a child of God. It is that principle of tolerance that has allowed me to be immersed in a variety of movements of social struggle on behalf of the defense of human, civil and social rights. I understand that to be my calling as a Lutheran, as a believer, and as a child of God.

[4] It was the constant and patient lessons of my Sunday School teachers that forged in me the character that drives me to serve others and in particular those who are marginalized simply because they are different. That lesson of solidarity was one that I learned early on as a teenager in my sharing with other youth, some older than I and that weren’t even members of a Lutheran congregation. I learned to live that principle of tolerance and solidarity at the Lutheran Camp, the youth events in which I participated. From early on my experience was ecumenical, I remember participating at the Yukiyu Camp in Rio Grande, sponsored by the United Evangelical Church, together with other youths. I believe that it was those experiences of Christian community as a youth that gave me the opportunity to grow and to mature spiritually.

[5] Why do I relate these experiences? What is the connection to the topic? Those experiences are important because I grew up in a poor family and in a poor sector of my town. I experienced firsthand what need is about, and what it means to not even have the means for a better quality of life. But, you know what: the memories I have from those days are also the best, because it was precisely in that context that I learned what love is about; it was there that I learned the joy of loving and serving someone other than myself. That is a lesson that I continue to strive to implement in my daily life, a lesson that I see as a gift from God.

[6] Those early experiences during my childhood were my first encounter with the type of fiscal and social struggles that our people in Puerto Rico are facing today. The situation in Puerto Rico is complex and precarious. The economic wealth produced in the island is not kept in the local banks or invested in local markets, instead they are sent elsewhere where they don’t benefit the local economy. Even their taxes don’t contribute directly to the local government because they are paid outside Puerto Rico, and many of the corporations have received tax-exempt status from the local government, an arrangement that sometimes hints at possible corruption. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that i​n many instances the money produced by the corporations is used to buy state and municipal bonds, which instead of helping the local economy actually results in the worsening of the local debt. The problem is that the bonds are bought at bargain price but the buyers then turn back and demand payments based on 100% of the original price (not the price they paid), plus accrued interests that shamelessly border on usury.

[7] My experiences growing up in poverty also help me in understanding how corruption and the irresponsibility of local leaders have helped to create the crisis that we are feeling and living today. Corruption is an evil that must be eradicated from all spheres of life and society. Perhaps we can start by remembering that if it is true that we are free to organize our life together in a variety of alternative ways, that freedom has been given to us by God with the purpose of doing good and not of satisfying the greed of a few. Freedom is a gift from God that allows us to move from being single individuals to actually forming communities where we look after each other’s needs. In a real community, founded on God’s gifts of freedom and mutual love, happiness does not come from having more but from sharing more.

[8] The drive to accumulate wealth by immoral and often illegal methods (that is, through corruption) means that the Government of Puerto Rico has fallen in the deep financial crisis in which it is today, with a debt that is simply unpayable. Common sense tells me that the crisis has been the result of inept and corrupt politicians, but also of the people’s indolence and a pattern of lies and subterfuge, including at the federal level, that kept from the view of the people the truth and direness of the situation until it was too late. The same pattern has obfuscated the real roots of the crisis, namely, the absence of the dignity of sovereignty that the Puerto Rican people deserve.

[9] Therein lie the roots of the Puerto Rican crisis, in the inexorable accumulation of wealth by a few without regard for its effects on the wellbeing of others, combined with the absence of communal solidarity that is a symptom of centuries of denial of the dignity of sovereignty due to the people. The experiences of my early childhood gave me the sensibility to perceive these realities; my Lutheran heritage has given me the tools to understand how to engage them.

[10] There are no easy solutions to the crisis we are confronting in Puerto Rico. But I find guidance for how to engage in this difficult situation from the Lutheran understanding of faith active in love and the willingness to assume the consequences of living out that love in our specific context. I remember that this important principle of Lutheran ethics was brought to my attention by Doña Virginia, a faithful member of the first parish I served. During conversations and Bible studies she would adamantly point to Luther’s treatise on The Freedom of a Christian. Not only did she know the teachings contained in the treatise, but she knew how to put it in practice in her daily life. She actually carried it with her, so it was a very meaningful gesture when she gave me her personal copy. It signified a calling to a certain way of life, a life oriented towards the needs and wellbeing of others.

[11] In his treatise on The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther tells us the following:

“Any work that is not done exclusively to bring the body under control or serve the neighbor (as long as he or she does not request something contrary to God’s will) is neither good nor Christian.”[1]

That is the basis of my work in the community, to act following the teachings of Jesus, to live out his message, to teach it to Sunday School students, and to model it in my previous vocation as a public school teacher for over 30 years. The key is to seek to act according to God’s will, to base one’s own desires in the love of God, and to be guided by God’s mercy. This is a love that draws us into community and inspires us to communal action. It is only in that walking together with the people and as a community that we will be able to find true freedom and the energy to face the great challenges before us.

[12] Brother Martin Luther exhorts us to remember our baptism constantly, which means to remember the covenant in which we have agreed to live in all spheres of our life. Baptism allows us to not just hear the word that is given to us by God in the Scriptures but to actually feel it in the water, to feel soaked by the word of God that rains on us and refreshes us especially in times of drought, like the ones we are experiencing in Puerto Rico.

[13] The economic and social crisis that we are living through in Puerto Rico is one that does violence to a whole people. The violence is amplified by the ill-conceived decisions made by the leaders of the government. They have been decisions that, frankly, have been made with the only intention to further the ideological agenda of the party; populist tactics to gain the support of large sectors of the people. I would even venture to say that what seems to drive the resolve of our political leaders to be elected is ultimately the desire to assume control over the administration of the island’s budget. Their corruption has taken us down to where we are now. Realizing that is what moved me to join various community-based social action movements, such as:

  1. Multi-sectorial group to advocate against the raise in costs of electrical power for customers. (In Puerto Rico the power company is owned by the state and its privatization is currently a hotly contested issue);
  2. Community Group to advocate for a greater inclusion and participation in health care programs such as Medicaid and Medicare;
  3. Working group for gender equality;
  4. Puerto Rican joint effort to oppose the Federal Fiscal Control Board.

[14] The accumulation of the public debt that has skyrocketed in the last few decades, is now close to 72 billion dollars ($72,000,000,000.00); an amount accumulated and fattened by the irresponsible attitude of our political leaders, epitomized by our local saying: “el que viene atras paga” (pass the bill to the one coming after me). The bill has now reached us; but it will not only affect us, sadly, it will also have deleterious consequences on the quality of life of our children and of our children’s children, and only God knows how many more generations to come. A quiet church is not an option!

[15] In the midst of that situation, I am confronted and challenged by the Word, especially as I interpret it in community. The Word challenges us to proclaim to the people a message that is wholesome and that has clear moral and ethical dimensions, always firmly rooted in the gospel and expressed in a life of commitment that often includes suffering and even sacrifice. I am also reminded of Martin Luther’s saying in the Treatise on Good Works:

“But where anything goes against a poor, insignificant man, the deceitful eye finds little pleasure, though it sees the disfavor of the mighty well enough.” (Luther’s Works, 44: 51)

[16] The consequence of such a huge debt— which is, of course, impossible to pay— is hopelessness and despair. Therefore, the people need the church to speak clearly and to proclaim a message that includes both, prophetic denunciation and proposals for a way to move forward. The people are yearning for and demanding a clear direction, a goal, an itinerary to begin to move into the future. True, the debt is unpayable, but we simply can’t stop there. The time is ripe to finally draw a route that will lead us out of this crisis and into the dignity of sovereignty that would allow us to become integrated into the rest of world. Therefore, this is the itinerary that I have been following:

  1. Every week, I write a reflection on a relevant Bible verse and share it through the internet;
  2. My preaching as a bishop has become more contextualized, trying to proclaim a message of hope, but also to challenge the church to understand that to follow the gospel involves to walk in solidarity with your neighbor;
  3. Sponsoring and pushing for various workshops exploring the relation between church and society.

[17] The arrival of the Federal Fiscal Control Board has also brought to the open a reality that had always been present for us but until now only in latent form, I am talking about the reality that we are property (or, if you prefer, colony or territory) of the United States of America. That is our political reality, which forces us to understand things in a new light and to reassess how to begin to overcome the crisis. In order to be a follower of Jesus one must be serious about studying his message, but his message has to be read from our reality and the way we understand it needs to take into account our social, economic, and political circumstances. Only by understanding our reality in light of the gospel will we, as followers of Jesus, be able to begin to transform our situation.

[18] In the preface of the book, Lutero al Habla, we read the following: “. . . as a new ethical option, the end of superficial and irresponsible relationships is called for.”[2] Lutherans in our context are invited to bring forward proposals that are honest, that have the wellbeing of the people at heart, and that map out a way to move into the future. In the midst of this crisis we must go back to the principles upon which our Evangelical Lutheran Church is built.

[19] With deep roots in our Lutheran heritage we must resolve to be unwavering in our commitment to be present in the public sphere during this historical moment that we are currently living. That commitment should be our northern star, but always rooted in the gospel. This crisis is an opportunity for the church to continue to become relevant again in people’s lives by reclaiming the prophetic dimension of its message, that way we will touch people’s lives and do our part in this historical juncture. The task ahead of us is not easy. But we must assume it with faith and courage. We must also help form future leaders that will have the desire to serve the community, the tools and flexibility to serve effectively, and the openness to allow themselves to constantly be made new by the gospel.

[20] To be true to our evangelical Lutheran church roots we must throw ourselves fully into the task in front of us but with the resolve to always let our actions born out of our faith and love, as our dear theologian “Che” David Rodriguez always said: faith must always be active in love! Isn’t it precisely evangelical love – faith active in love – the driving force that has moved us to walk with the people, to march with them until the soles of our shoes have been spent, to voice their concerns and seek justice? Yes, and it is that same love that will guide in the future as we endeavor to find helpful ways to engage the federal fiscal control board, sometimes by denouncing injustices, protesting unfairness, and marching, and at other times by listening, dialoging, and making concrete proposals, always for the good of the people.

[21] Unfortunately, it seems to us that the Federal Fiscal Control Board is not the solution to the crisis. In fact, it might be that their work will aggravate it. Is it not their main concern that the bond holders are paid what they think they are due? Is it not their strategy to cut jobs, reduce services, and use other public funds to pay the debt? They come to do viability studies, as if such studies had not already been done by own people, and workable recommendations been proposed to revitalize our markets and produce economic growth. But all that is ignored! We don’t need more studies, what we need is the resolve to engage in sensible reforms and changes that would really benefit the people and not just the bond-holders. Some of the most troubling aspects of the law that created the Federal Fiscal Control Board are the following:

  1. It allows members of the board to receive gifts from individual citizens as well as from corporations. Is that not calling for trouble? Breeding ground for corruption?
  2. Effectively strips local elected officials of any real power and gives it instead to the members of the board. Is that not a denial of democracy, a mockery of our electoral process?
  3. The board has been given more power than the Legislature, the Executive, and the local judiciary; they are not accountable to the local government, elected by the people who will have to bear the brunt of their decisions.

[22] The will for change has to be fostered in our people, in each sector that makes up the Puerto Rican society, so that we can begin to construct a society capable of supporting itself, and with healthy relations with other nations around the world. We must not allow that the avenues for our development continue to be blocked! We have the collective capacity to bring about substantial change, and to reinforce our identity as a people: we need Puerto Rican solutions for our Puerto Rican problems.

[23] As a Puerto Rican citizen and as a bishop and pastor of the church it is my responsibility to endeavor to bring about a positive change in the people’s attitudes and ways of thinking. I am aware of how difficult such a task is, but I am convinced that “in Christ all things are possible.” As Martin Luther said:

“Although we Christians are free from all works, we ought to use this liberty to empty ourselves, take on the form of servants, take on human form, and become human in order to serve and help our neighbors in every possible way. This is the very manner in which God in Christ acted and continues to act toward us.”[3]


[1]Luther, Martin. 2008. Freedom of a Christian. Translated by Mark Tranvik. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, pg 87. Can also be found in Luther’s Works, 31:370.

[2] Luther, Martin. Lutero al habla: antología. Edited and translated by Giacomo Cassese, Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez. Publicaciones El Faro S.A (Mexico: 2005).

[3] Luther, Martin. 2008. Freedom of a Christian. Translated by Mark Tranvik. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, pg. 82. Can also be found in Luther’s Works, 31:366.

Felipe Lozada-Montañez

Felipe Lozada-Montañez is the Bishop of the Carribbean Synod of the ELCA and serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Puerto Rico Council of Churches.