From ........... National Catholic Reporter

September 9, 1994 page 30

Fall Books


Religion and politics in a grotesque dance, but seldom with poor


By Phillip Berryman

Orbis Books, The New Press, 276 pages, $22.95


Perhaps nowhere in the world has the church more vividly defined itself in the past generation, for better or worse than in Central America.

From the imperial go-between Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo in Managua to Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador, from the born-again evangelical President Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala to the countless nuns and priests and catechists and other lay people who laid it all on the line, the church has been a major player, politically and otherwise. That after all those years of bloody turmoil, with tens of thousands dead and mutilated and tortured and uprooted, we should be back pretty much where we started is, for some, one of the heaviest disappointments of our day.

Ironically, the concerns of U.S. foreign policy in the region are in some ways the same as the concerns of the church. The United States, however begrudgingly, can tolerate democracy in, say, El Salvador, if it is democracy imposed from the top down and does not disturb the social order past the point where it would be more difficult to exploit economically. Even the oligarchs can live with that.

But if it is a genuine movement from below, if it is the cry of people rising up to reclaim their birthright as it was in Nicaragua in 1979 the United States cannot tolerate it. So, too, in the church.

Pope John Paul II's hatred of the Sandinistas did not have nearly as much to do with their Marxist leanings as it did with the threat of a revolutionary society altogether compatible with, a people's church. Nicaragua had a chance to become liberation theology made real, liberation theology incarnated. And that was dangerous.

Phillip Berryman chronicles all this and much more in 'Stubborn Hope'. A longtime observer of the region, Berryman often writes from personal experience. He picks his way through the deepening tangle of religion and politics during the past 20 years or so in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The historical summaries are brief but cogent. With a tracker's hard eye, he lets nothing pass, marks every misstep, no matter which side makes it.

Nowhere was the dynamic between religion and politics any clearer than in Nicaragua. There the people's church, or popular church, was on the side of the revolutionary government. Four priests held prominent government posts. With a popular military victory behind them, the Sandinistas clearly intended to continue their revolution in part by working with elements of the church they thought they could trust, the same elements that had helped them defeat the Somoza regime.

But a hierarchy grown fat on Somoza pork opposed them from the start. The bishops ordered the priests in the government to step down. The priests refused and the lines between the institutional and popular church were drawn. While the Sandinistas insisted that unlike other Marxist parties they were committed to freedom of religion, the bishops claimed they were embracing religion only to strangle it.

Many in the popular church criticized the Sandinistas as well, but without losing sight of a revolutionary process that was transforming a society in terms of literacy and health care and promising an economic future that would embrace rather than exploit the poor. Not so the bishops. The bishops condemned the Sandinistas at every turn. They rightly condemned them for human rights violations against the Miskito Indians on Nicaragua's east coast, but were silent about contra atrocities against civilians. When the contras butchered a Catholic lay leader and four of his sons and carved the words 'With God, Without Communism' on the chests of two, no doubt the bishops thought the rebels were merely elucidating which side God was on.

In June 1982, John Paul II weighed in with a letter condemning the Nicaraguan popular church and urging the people to rally round the bishops and the institution. The Sandinistas made the mistake of suppressing the letter.

Then came the pope's ill-fated 1983 visit, when he ignored the Reagan war against Nicaragua, chastised the popular church and got some rough treatment at the hands of a crowd shouting for peace and 'people's power.' After that there was a curious mesh of U.S. and Vatican foreign policy toward Nicaragua.

In Guatemala and El Salvador, where the government and the military were far more repressive, there was far less distance between the institutional and popular church. After Romero was martyred in San Salvador, it was as if his successor, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, a more cautious figure, could not in conscience turn away from Romero's example. The San Salvador archdiocese became one of the most reliable chroniclers of human rights violations and a refuge for people uprooted from the countryside.

The Guatemalan bishops also spoke out against human rights abuses and army atrocities. Even some of the fast growing number of Protestants, who generally stayed on the political sidelines, criticized born-again President Rios Montt, calling his methods anti-Christian and accusing him of using personal religiosity for political ends and 'wrapping political arguments in biblical language.'

But at the heart of all this, in what ever country, was the pastoral mission called accmpanamiento, accompanying or standing by the people. Writing in a 1979 pastoral letter, Romero was probably the first to use the word in that context. It became the watchword for countless Catholics, clerical, religious and lay, who believed that the preferential option for the poor was indeed a mission and a way of life.

No matter what the stance of the official church, those priests, nuns and catechists and other church workers stood by the people and often accompanied them into death.

Before his own brutal death in San Salvador in 1989, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria saw a 'third force' emerging from the clash between left and right, a mass movement of the people that would be beyond any ideology of whatever stripe. This is the same force that many hoped would energize the revolution in Nicaragua and help it to grow. This is the same force that many looked to in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, no matter how much the economic 'third way' it might have created was mocked by so called democratic capitalists.

But that is precisely the kind of popular force that neither the United States nor the institutional church can tolerate. And yet, the church that both shaped and was shaped by that force, the church that made 'acompanamiento' real an organism living so deep in the marrow of a people that it would be impossible to imagine justice without it that church is still for many everything the church was ever meant to be.

Despite the fact that, as theologian Jon Sobrino put it, 'the powerful continue to make laws to make the rich richer while ignoring the poor,' years of enormous suffering have left the people with a vision they can carry with them toward a better future. There is hope in that.

It is a part of Berryman's stubborn hope. If we have learned anything from the events in Central America these past years, awesome in so many ways, it will be our hope as well.

Tim McCarthy is a journalist and fiction writer.

He covered the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989.


page 30 National Catholic Reporter 9 Sept.1994