Category Archives: Theology and Mission
U.S. poet Carolyn Forché has written the book of her lifetime and that of many other young U.S. citizens who left their homeland in the sixties and seventies and returned as changed persons to their homeland like “strangers in a strange land”. In Forche’s life, it was El Salvador in the late 1970’s that left the indelible marks on her consciousness that she has since interpreted with her poetry and the poetry of other witnesses to resistance and courage. It took her forty years but we can now celebrate her devotion to the truth and her craft that compelled her to write the story of her expanding awareness of what it was like to be a Salvadoran shortly before the 12 years of Civil War in the country.
Before the poet’s first visit to El Salvador in 1978, she might have read that the life expectancy of a Salvadoran male was 47, that of a female slightly longer. Eighty per cent of the population lived without running water, sanitation or electricity and one out of five children died before age five. Forché might also have read the 1931 dispatch of a U.S. military attaché that still held true after fifty years of dictatorship backed by the military: “30 or 40 families own nearly everything in the country. They live in almost regal style……The rest of the population has practically nothing.” Her empathy and her heart compelled her to learn the truth behind the facts and communicate what she learned with this book.
Explaining why she went, she wrote, “Although I had a college education, I knew very little about the rest of the world.” Her translation of a revolutionary Salvadoran female poet had brought her to the attention of the man who drove hundreds of miles to issue the invitation to learn about his country and the world. In many ways the main character and driving force of the book, Leonel Gómez Vides, describes her task during her first experience of rural El Salvador, “You could use your time here to learn what it is to be Salvadoran, to become that young woman over there who bore her first child at 13 and who spends all her days sorting tobacco leaves according to their size.”
Her host, guide, protector, mentor Leonel is a well connected, highly accomplished member of the Salvadoran elite whose coffee plantation and wealth allow him access to all sides in the country’s looming conflict. The movement to break “the silence of misery endured” is growing and Leonel tells her, “The Civil War is three years ahead, five at the most”. In persuading her to accept his invitation he avers it will be “like visiting Vietnam before the War there”.
There are indeed many disturbing parallels with the horror Americans became accustomed to hearing about during the prolonged U.S. War in Southeast Asia. On her 7 “extended” stays in El Salvador between her first visit in January 1978 and the outbreak of the guerrilla fighting in mid 1980, Forché is a witness to the torture, intimidation and dismembering of the poor and those who side with them. She meets with leaders of those carrying out the gruesome repression, the Salvadoran intelligence and military men who are “trained by U.S. advisors”, the unsettling refrain we have become accustomed to reading and hearing since the early 1960’s. Before she reaches age 30, Forche is taken inside a prison on the Guatemalan border where captives are held in wooden boxes the size of washing machines, reminiscent of the “tiger cages” used for political prisoners in Vietnam.
Three times Forché is herself pursued by “death squads” responsible for “disappearing” suspected opponents of the ruling elite. That she continues to return to a country threatening terror and death is powerful testimony to the conviction and courage of those serving the Salvadoran poor and to the impact of what the poet is learning from them. Describing herself as a “fallen Catholic”, she finds herself interacting with priests and church servants as the leading defenders of the poor. She meets a priest in a rural “Christian base community” who tells her, “To be with God now is to choose the fate of the poor, to be with them, to see through their eyes and feel through their hearts, and if this means torture and death, we accept. We are already in the grave.”
Without polemic or any socio economic analysis of the historical background or U.S. economic interests in El Salvador, Forché simply and directly relates the nature of U.S. involvement in the country. It is apparent that the involvement prioritizes a heightened military repression of the people and organizations dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Salvadoran poor. The official at the U.S. Embassy responsible for U.S. health aid to the country explains she doesn’t have time to visit the clinics and hospitals the U.S. aid intends to support. “I have plenty of work to do right here at my desk” she responds pointing to a pile of papers. In spite of the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights, the new U.S. Ambassador tells Forché that the truth about the U.S. citizen dropped from a Salvadoran army helicopter during the previous Ambassador’s term will not be pursued. Forché later learns that most of the plastic latrines distributed in the health official’s “latrinization program” were dismantled for housing construction.
In taking the land and the suffering of the people to heart, the poet finds it hard to return home as the armed conflict nears. Among the book’s homages to Archbishop Oscar Romero is her account of how “the voice of the poor” encourages her to return home and tell the truth about the conflict in his country. When she expresses doubt she can do that “he assured me that the time would come for me to speak and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” She last speaks with the saintly Archbishop days before his assassination in the capital’s cathedral, not long before the outbreak of Civil War.
During 12 years of armed conflict, 100,000 lives are taken, 8,000 “disappear”, 500,000 citizens are displaced and 500,000 flee the country, thereby beginning the tide of Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. Concluding the book’s masterful portrayal of the elusive character of Leonel Gómes Vides, Forché describes his leading role in bringing about the peace accord. The mysterious stranger who appears on her San Diego doorstep at the book’s outset is revealed in the end as the heroic reconciler of the factions.
After the peace agreement is reached, Forché finally began to write her account of what she has seen and learned. Fifteen years later this important, lyrically written document was published not long after Leonel died in a hospital. Among his achievements was choosing Carolyn Forché to tell the truth about his country’s suffering. He told her early on, “I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.” Most readers will agree that Forché has succeeded on all three counts with this book. She has overcome all the difficulties of immersing us in the agony of contemporary El Salvador and making us and the Salvadoran people, some of our neighbors today, more human.
My wife and I just returned from 18 days in Andalucia, southern Spain where Islam was the dominant religion from the mid eighth century to the middle of the 15th century. We were struck by the many traces of the Muslim legacy in the architecture, language, and diet of Andalucia today. Before our trip, it was our good fortune to have read the 2002 book The Ornament of the World in which Rosa Maria Menocal describes the debt which Spain, indeed Western civilization as a whole, owes to the medieval Muslim scholars, artists and several enlightened rulers who settled in Andalucia.
The book’s subtitle “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” highlights what Menocal considers one of theoutstanding aspects of Muslim rule in Spain, especially in the first three hundred years. The author puts it this way, “Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures and the quality of cultural relations with the “dhimmi” (the other peoples of the Book, the Bible in our language) were vital aspects of Andalusian identity as it was cultivated over these first centuries.” With respect to the first peoples of the Book, she writes of their advances under Islamic rule, “Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as a foreign minister”.
The latter fact is an eerie reminder for us in the U.S. that Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister was a Christian, one of the nearly 6 per cent of Iraqi Christians most of whom in our day have had to flee a country due to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Indeed, let us not ignore that the suspicion, resentment and revenge directed at most Muslim Arab states by the U.S. foreign policy establishment and U.S. public today compares quite unfavorably with the tolerant treatment and policies of Muslim rulers in Andalucia one thousand years ago.
But more importantly, let us not ignore the fundamental beliefs shared by the three peoples of the Book, characterized by and united in their devotion to one God, Creator of all people and things of the world. Too many of us have ignored, myself included, that “Allah” is the Arabic name for God. So Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians worshipped “Allah” for several centuries before Muhammed lived. The “shahada” testimony of faith, one of the five pillars of Islam, simply declares in Arabic, “There is no god but “Allah”. Muhammed is the messenger of Allah.”
Last Saturday, October 27, eleven Jewish worshippers were killed by a lone gunman wielding an AR -15 semi-automatic rifle in a Pittsburgh synagogue. We cannot measure but neither can we deny the influence of the anti-Muslim language and policies of the current U.S. administration in creating a culture of suspicion and intolerance which leads an unbalanced person to commit such a loathsome act. In this context of our country’s aggressive hostility towards Muslim states and peoples we can be grateful for the rich legacy of the Islamic religion and the Arabic language displayed still in every town of Andalucia, Spain. We return from Andalucia with increased respect and appreciation of that legacy and enhanced gratitude for the presence in our lives of Muslim neighbors in Kansas City.
I close with some words written by one of the most widely read poets of all time, the Christian-Muslim-Sufi-Baha’i Khalil Gibran:
“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”
From The Prophet
A gallery of Andalucia photos follows below:
“It is not too late to restore our position in the world and recapture our sense of who we are as a nation. Widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.”
– Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and Chair of the 2009 U.N. Commission of Reform of the International Monetary and Financial System
It was my last time to read with second grader Jalen at his School at 24th and Prospect in Kansas City. It was my last opportunity to praise an eight year old whose energy and hunger to learn had inspired in me great expectations. The week before, during his spring break, Jalen had visited his five month old brother’s grave. This week, tears streamed down his cheek as he assured me his brother was in heaven. Before I could leave him with some words of encouragement, some troubling questions came to mind.
How often does he find a rat in his bedroom as he searches before sleeping every night? Why has he been so tired recently? Would there be someone to read with him this summer? Would eviction or domestic strife force a move away from the neighborhood before school resumes? Would this second grader reading at a much higher level get the financial help he likely will need to continue his education beyond high school?
If the trend continues of cutting taxes on the wealthy while underfunding our public education system, Jalen may well be one of thousands of American children left behind. More questions come forward. Why has our political discourse now seemingly abandoned progress in bringing about the American ideal of equal opportunity for all children? Why are we as a society more concerned about the effects of tax cuts on our crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges than we are about the effects on the lives of American children and their parents.
The fact is we haven’t heard much about the poor in recent years. In our latest presidential campaign the major party candidates focused our concern on the shrinking incomes of “the middle class”. How often did you hear a candidate mention the twenty per cent of the population (and some say nearly twenty five per cent of the children) living below the poverty line? Programs in education, health care, housing, and job training providing more opportunity for the poor have been reduced or eliminated in the drive to cut taxes, shrink government, and privatize services.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s, reports on the living conditions of the poor in the U.S. during an era of unprecedented wealth and economic growth resulted in new political and policy priorities. The book by Michael Harrington The Other America: Poverty in the United States was widely read in the Kennedy Administration and helped to lay the ground work for the legislation focused on creating “the good society” through a “war on poverty”.
Today we are all suffering the effects of what Rev. William Barber and others have called the shift from a “war on poverty” to “a war on the poor” since the days of Reagan Administration policies. The focus on our individual self interest and a bogus definition of freedom as represented by a deregulated economy in which every person is out for themselves now prevails over the view that my freedom is bound up with your freedom and your liberation is tied to my own.
In choosing to participate in this spring’s revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign I am not just demonstrating concern for those left behind by the rampant individualism, racism, militarism and economic exploitation of these times. I am marching also with those crying out for sane gun control measures, humane prison conditions and judicial sentencing reform , immigration policy reform, and curtailment of the misguided war on drugs. Rev. Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of Union Seminary, the lead organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign wrote recently, “There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.”
In the disastrous grip of big money’s influence on our American political and economic life, we must make our concerns and values known in between elections. When the top one per cent of the population receives 52 % of the country’s growth in income, and use their bloated wealth to rig the political process, the only way we save democratic rule by the people and make our system more fair is public protest.
Fifty years ago in leading the organizing of the first Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King called for a revolution in the nation’s values pointing out that “a civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy”. He would certainly agree with those religious leaders today whose recent joint statement lamented the nation’s “political crisis” and declared “if our gospel is not ‘good news for the poor’ it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ”.
Before leaving Jalen this past week, I told him I had high hopes for his future. I also told him the twin of the baby who died is lucky to have him for his big brother. Jalen will do his best to help care for that baby brother who survived. But he will need my help and yours too.
For Further Reading:
Article on the “moral agenda” of the Poor People’s Campaign by Rev. Barber and Rev. Theoharis:
U.S. religious leaders’, including Fr. Richard Rohr’s, statement “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” go to: reclaimingjesus.org
Excellent article by Dr. Joseph Stiglitz “Inequality is not Inevitable” in the NY Times:
Organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign in Missouri are planning demonstrations every Monday from May 14 through June 11 both in Kansas City and at the State Capitol in Jefferson City. For info of what the Poor People’s Campaign is planning in other areas of the U.S. go to:
The following post departs from the direction taken when the blog began its focus on our experience of living in San Luis Potosí México and serving with the joint Roundtable of the Disciples of Christ and Congregational Churches of México. Since our return to the States in 2015, harsh cariacatures of Mexican immigrants and immigrants from other countries have helped elect a U.S. President with a history of bigotry and racism. Building the wall along the U.S.- Mexican border has become a major theme as well as a continuing aim of the Trump Administration.
While the wall is now for many in the U.S. the most blatant example of the anti-human, nonsensical policies of this Administration, the real threat may lie ahead. The blog article below is published on the 50th Anniversary of the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968. More than 400 old men, women and children, in a South Vietnamese peasant village lost their lives that day. Since then, there have been civilian massacres perpetrated by U.S. troops or U.S. trainees, war planes and now drones in Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Some are asking how much farther astray must our nation go before we seriously pursue the things that make for peace.
Like many adults in the U.S. today, I am deeply troubled by how my tax dollars are spent for war and an already massive military U.S. footprint around the world. How could a nation with a long, rich history of religious belief and practice, the nation with more Christians than any other, have become the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” in the words of Rev. Martin Luther King? This blog will in the future be more theological in purpose, tone and subject matter if one embraces as I do the definition of theology as “faith in search of understanding”.
The COURAGE of WEAKNESS
I’ve been thinking a lot about courage these days. Courage in the face of health challenges, rejection, scorn, and death. I’ve been thinking of how my views on courage have changed during my lifetime.
As an eight year old and for most years of my childhood, courage took on the contours of heroism in battles. Battles of the cowboys against the Indians, of young men defending the homeland against whatever forces might menace us. As I entered college in 1964 courage was represented by the life of the recently assassinated John F. Kennedy who had commanded a PT Boat during WW II combat in the Pacific.
Then came Vietnam and wrestling with the “truth” of that War, the “truth” that is always “the first casualty in war” as the playwright Aeschylus wrote. I opposed the War and wrote a fourteen page single spaced statement for my draft board in filing for conscientious objector status. I was determined to oppose not just what the U.S. war machine was doing in Vietnam to the Vietnamese people but for what it would do in the present and the future to our nation.
Since Vietnam I have experienced the constant armed combat and arms buildup as our nation’s response to perceived threats off our shores and far away. There was no scaling down of our defense budget after Vietnam and there has been no “peace dividend” after the fall of our “Communist” adversary as represented by the Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant we could stand alone as the great “Superpower” in the world so we continued an unprecedented defense buildup to maintain our status as a “superpower” and further our “national interest”.
It is as though our victories in war from the American Revolution through WW II had given us sole possession of Aladdin’s lamp and the right to ask for one wish from the genie within. Vietnam might have taught our foreign policy strategists and our military that no weight of military buildup and deployment can subdue a people organized for resistance and liberation from foreign control and prepared to make great sacrifices to get it. The genie granted our wish for ultimate, unmatched military weaponry and killing power. As a result, we continue to suffer the consequences of “truth” being the “first casualty in war” in our civic dialog and the loss of tens of thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan in our history as a “superpower”.
The death of my “Uncle Jim”, the last family member of my parents’ generation, last week took my thoughts on courage in another direction. I began thinking of my elders who displayed courage in their lives and none of the examples involved heroism on the battlefield of armed warfare.
The first story that came to mind was of the young seminary graduate Rev. Thomas J. Liggett in his first pastorate out of seminary. The Sunday following Pearl Harbor, on December 14, 1941 members of his small town church in Kentucky were greeted in the narthex by a photo mounted on a makeshift altar. Everyone entering the sanctuary passed by the portrait of a Japanese Christian T.J. Liggett had met, seated with his family.
Rev. Liggett served as a missionary in Argentina and Puerto Rico before becoming President of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. On accepting that position he told the trustees he couldn’t accept their salary package. It was too much he told them, even for a family with two children, and his wife, Virginia, confronted by fragile health. So the trustees eventually persuaded “TJ” to accept a package that included a larger pension from the seminary. My father had told me that story as a form of encouragement in my first years out of seminary.
My Uncle Jim Craddock earned a degree in aeronautical engineering as a member of the ROTC at Virginia Tech during WW II. He trained pilots after the War ended but never experienced combat himself. I associated “Uncle Jim” with courage after his retirement from a long lasting pastorate in the suburbs of Indianapolis. His last years at the church saw a dramatic demographic change in the area as African American families found relatively inexpensive housing there away from the inner city. That congregation is now a thriving African American faith community. Uncle Jim remained an active member, worshipping every Sunday and focusing his giving there. In the eyes of our American culture he had become a distinct minority in a majority black church. In my eyes he is a man of real courage.
There are many models of courage in the Bible stories. Some quickly come to mind like Daniel, Samson, Esther, the prophet Nathan and the powerful man Nathan warned, David. But the profile in courage I’ve come to focus on in recent years is the woman who anoints Jesus as told about in two of the Gospels. Her behavior, and perhaps her reputation, makes her an object of scorn but Jesus praises her passionate devotion to Him and leaves us with the assurance that her story will be told as long as His Gospel is preached.
Her story leads me to close this meditation on courage with Paul’s words which come as close as any for me to summing up the “good news” of Jesus: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” I CO 1:26-29
Prayer: Loving, merciful God, lead us to the faith and to the “love that casts out fear” in our living now and in the future. Amen.