“Saving” Guatemala, Rios Montt & the Silence of Complicity

Probably because I am naturally a cynic, I was not surprised by the overturning of José Efraín Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide last week. I am even less surprised that those Pentecostals, prominent celebrity preachers among others said nothing about this sad human rights tragedy.  There seems to be such selective memory among certain sectors of American Pentecostalism, that they never have to apologize or say they were wrong–even if  they’re wrong alot–about alot–and they just keep talking.  The political debates around US policy in Central America in the 1980s were when I came of political age. I read as much history as I could, I debated in high school, I debated in college.  Did the centuries-long military intervention in Central America, usually on the side of US corporate interests, often in the guise of anti-communism mean anything? Why didn’t people see that? Well, I won most of these debates and  I wrote opinion pieces for local papers, but despite my best efforts–and with apologies to Allen Ginsburg.  I saw the best minds of my generation-become Reaganites. Unfettered markets, robust military intervention, culture wars–I’m not sure where we lost you, but it would be years in the wilderness till these wars that brutalized a generation of people in Central America would end.  After the wars were over–the generals who prosecuted these wars on behalf of the US–especially Pentecostal Rios Montt, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Mayan Indians, seemed to escape unscathed. As a reminder, the Rios Montt, who preached a fiery anti-communism filtered through an apocalyptic lens was responsible for the following:

During his 17-month stint as military dictator, he oversaw the genocide [by his armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the indigenous Maya Ixil population. Roughly 100 survivors testified during the course of his trial this year.

Along with the mass murder, his military regime carried out a policy of forced displacement, forced assimilation, torture, systematic rape and sexual assault, starvation, and arbitrary execution against those labeled as political opponents.  Due to his staunchly anti-communist attitudes during the Guatemalan Civil War, the general received plenty of financial, military,and political support from President Ronald Reagan’s administration and friends in the United States. Among those friends, celebrity preacher Pat Robertson, celebrity evangelist Luis Palau, who was quoted in Christianity Today saying of  Rios Montt’s reign, “The hand of God appears to be on him.” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/5.21.html

There is a psychological term that has lately come into fashion to explain this phenomenon, it’s called “confirmation bias.” Meaning that we gravitate and only accept information if it confirms what we already believe, we dismiss information that contradicts our pre-determined biases.  Communism, for the better part of the 20th century, was our “twilight struggle,” and evangelical and Pentecostal churches in the U.S. largely remained convinced that this struggle was worthy of sacrificing the lives of thousands of indigenous people in Guatemala. Among those killed under Rios Montt’s watch were Catholic activists, and ironically, Pentecostal laity and pastors.  A survivor of Rios Montt’s purges, a student of mine, told me of his travails, hiding his family for fear that the military would come in the middle of the night, and they would all soon be disappeared.  The stories he told me of other pastors, church members being killed, raped, their children being assaulted as a “lesson” to their rebellious parents were difficult to listen to and harder to accept that U.S. Pentecostals simply had no idea what was going on in Central America and if they did–they did not believe it—choosing to believe what their biases confirmed already–that Rios Montt was a God-ordained savior of the Guatemalan people who was committed to rooting out the evil of communism.  That pastor could not continue his story, he simply shook his head and walked away. I did not pursue his story further, but he is still ministering today in a Central American congregation in Los Angeles.

I am not sure that history helps people see things in context, but I have dedicated the better part of my adult life to that small stab at idealism.  So let me try to put the whole anti-communist thing in context. During the 1920s, the pages of most, if not all Pentecostal magazines were filled with anti-Catholicism of the worst sort. Part of the rationale for beginning missions to the borderlands and Latin America was to free that “dark” land of its “Romanism,” “heathenism” and ‘idolatry.”  The Assemblies of God magazine, the Pentecostal Evangel was filled with this kind of language for decades. During the height of anti-Catholic violence in Mexico, where thousands of Catholic laity and clergy were killed, called the Cristero War (1926-29), Mexico was run by Plutarco Elías Calles, an atheist who prosecuted the enforcement of the 1917 Mexican Constitution with extreme violence against the Roman Catholic church, thus setting in motion the revolt against his violence, by devout Catholics who vowed to die before they would be forced to give up their religious rights.  During this time, there is little in the pages of any Pentecostal magazine that sympathizes with the plight of the Catholic rebels in Mexico, this revolution is viewed as an opportunity by some enterprising missionaries, to bring in the “Pentecostal light” to “dark Old Mexico.”

When President Lázaro Cárdenas came to power from 1934-40, he maintained some anti-Catholic persecution, but that did not cause U.S. Pentecostals much alarm, when Cárdenas began instituting land reform,  formalized secular schools that were forbidden from teaching “fanaticism” of the Church, and when he began worker’s cooperatives to counter the influence of capitalism–then Mexico and Catholicism became something different in the eyes of the Assemblies of God.  Almost overnight, the midnight that fell over Mexico was no longer Catholicism, but socialism, and the only way to combat that was to send more money so the denomination could send more missionaries.  The atrocities of the Cristero War were slowly being printed in the Pentecostal Evangel, but curiously, there are few references to the fact that it was Catholics who were being summarily executed and terrorized. The articles mention that there are protests against Cárdenas’ programs, and infers that these protests are against “bolshevism” and offers little evidence of this.

Mexico, it seems was now part of an End Time schema, where because of the anti-religious persecution coupled with the socialist policies, it was viewed as a portent of the eschaton.  It was confirmation of the biases of most U.S. Pentecostals that Mexico lived in the “darkness” of Catholicism, viewed the Church as a “cancer,” that allowed for the atheist/socialist take-over in the 1930s where “saving” Mexico now had become necessary to the very survival of America. The fact that people had suffered, been tortured, and died at the hands of a brutal regime that prosecuted a war against a devoutly Catholic population did not matter as much as when that government changed hands and decided to blunt the effects of centuries of land monopolies and unfettered markets that Mexico became important. That is the problem with confirmation bias, that is the problem, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt eloquently argues in his remarkable book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics, that the “morality that binds, is the morality that blinds.”  As U.S. Pentecostals were blinded by their anti-Catholic fervor in the early 20th century, so much so that they did not see themselves as sharing in the sufferings of their brethren in Mexico.   U.S. Pentecostals and evangelicals in the late 20th century were blinded by their right-wing politics, and as they gave financial, moral, and spiritual support to José Efraín Rios Montt, they became complicit in the evils of this world.  A complicity so corrupting that the silence of those trapped in this immoral quagmire says it all.

About Arlene Sánchez-Walsh

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X