More than Charity

Along our Christian journeys there are times when we are drawn into a conversion of perspective about what faith asks of us. One such time for me happened in 1990 while I was sitting in the office of Medardo Gomez, the Lutheran Bishop of El Salvador.

I had already met Bishop Gomez earlier in November 1989, when he came to Chicago to speak at a luncheon I’d helped organize for him, Senator Paul Simon, and 200 local religious leaders. The luncheon was sponsored by the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Central America, an organization I helped staff for one year as my Lutheran Volunteer Corps placement. We had two aims for the luncheon. One was to educate area Christian and Jewish leaders about the civil war then at its height in El Salvador, a war between an armed Marxist political group (the FMLN) and the right-wing Salvadoran government. The second aim was to urge Senator Paul Simon to support legislation that cut military aid to El Salvador, because US aid was being used to carry out torture and disappearances of political enemies of the state.

Indeed, because the Salvadoran government’s paramilitary death squads had just murdered six Jesuit priests who had spoken out on behalf of economic and social changes that would benefit the poor (a majority in El Salvador), Bishop Gomez had gone into exile, for he too was receiving death threats. We did not know until a few days before our luncheon that he’d make it to the luncheon. He did, but during his stay in the Midwest, Salvadoran soldiers went to his church looking to arrest him. In his absence, they instead arrested 15 people and a cross. As ELCA Bishop Michael Rinehart writes: “They considered the cross a subversive symbol of resistance, just as Roman authorities did many years ago. . . . At a worship service one day, members of the congregation wrote on this cross the sins that had been committed against the people. . . . It says things like persecution of the church, discrimination against women, hunger. Sins from lying to murder are written on this cross. When the cross was finished, the people committed to work for forgiveness and for liberation. They would forgive, but they would speak out all the more.” In arresting the cross and taking it to the Presidential House, the soldiers carried these messages as well.

In those years many Christians were sympathetic with the hope for land reform voiced by the FMLN (even if fewer Christians supported armed rebellion). An oligarchy of 14 families owned the coffee plantations and controlled much of the land. Many Christians supported land reform and ways of redistributing wealth away from the oligarchy, a legacy of colonial rule. Bishop Gomez was one such Christian. He had been tortured in 1983 for speaking out against oppression.

I was moved by the Christians I met who were willing to risk their lives to speak out prophetically against human rights violations and systematic exploitation of the poor. But what most stands out to me is what Bishop Gomez said to those of us on a delegation from Chicago to El Salvador in 1990. Speaking with us in his office, Bishop Gomez was asked: How can people from the US help? Bishop Gomez replied that charity didn’t matter nearly as much as speaking out about human rights violations. He said in an earlier decade thousands were killed without any international outcry. But if international people advocated on behalf of particular people who were receiving death threats, or who were arbitrarily arrested or tortured, the Salvadoran government would kill fewer people, creating more political space for Salvadorans to sort out their own future. The church didn’t need monetary donations as much as it needed people who were aware of particular human rights violations and communicated with the Salvadoran government about them. It occurred to me that the group I was working for was already doing this: regularly putting paid ads in Salvadoran newspapers, ads that were signed by Chicago area religious leaders and that named Salvadorans who’d recently been threatened or disappeared.

Ever since then, I have understood Christian faith to include a discipleship that involves being aware of current events around the world, and participating where I can in organized efforts (like those by Amnesty International) to raise attention to human rights violations. I don’t keep well to this vision now that I’m not working full-time as an activist, but wonder how we as a congregation can do more to cultivate awareness and action about human rights violations around the globe.

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