Sunday, April 28, 2019

A & Ω

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. 
- Revelation 1:1-3

A sermon preached at New North Church
Based on Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8

We are still in the Easter season, and the lectionary wants us to hear readings from Acts and Revelation throughout.  Each week, the three-year lectionary cycle offers selected readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the epistles, and the Gospels.  We can choose some or all of the readings for that day, and there are readings for each weekday too.  But Acts and Revelation don’t quite fit into that format, so the powers that be decided Easter would be the perfect time to hear about the apocalypse.
Tradition and literary analysis both hold that Luke wrote the Book of the Acts of the Apostles as a sequel to his Gospel.  For this reason, it is sometimes called the Fifth Gospel.  It could also be called the Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, owing to how the Spirit empowers and guides the church in its formative years.  In fact, Acts is the only book in the Bible that describes life in the early church.
An apocalypse is a ‘revelatory vision’ about the future or about heaven, or both.  They are stories usually told in the first-person; they use a lot of symbolism; and they tend to make a distinction between the evil in this world and the expected good times of the future.  The Greek word transliterated as Apocalypse simply means Revelation.
Revelation, or, more precisely, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, is a letter written by a man named John which he shared with seven specific churches to be read aloud from start to finish.  These seven churches happen to be in Asia, in that part of the world we now call Turkey.  And while we say it was written by John, John himself says that it came from God through Jesus who made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.  So, let’s give credit where credit is due.
Having said all that, what are these two readings about?  Basically, they are about the persecution of early Christians.  That’s a big discussion, and we tend to understand it as a time when Christians were being actively hunted down, thrown in jail, beaten, tortured, or worse.  And while some of that did happen, it tended to be localized here and there, for there was no widespread, state-sponsored persecution of Christians by Rome at the end of the first century.
A governor named Pliny, wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan, right around the time John delivered his letter, looking for advice.  He asked, should these people be punished simply for calling themselves Christians, even if they have committed no other crime?  Pliny admitted executing a few Christians, but only after giving them three tries to renounce their ‘superstition,’ but he didn’t kill them for being Christians; he killed them for their ‘obstinacy and stubbornness,’ which could be dangerous to the state.
Trajan’s response was very short: Christians should not be sought out.  They should be punished only if they are accused and handed over, and only if they do not deny being Christians.  He wrote that ‘anonymous accusations may not be considered in any trial.’
So, even though the state took a lenient view, one’s neighbors often did not, and it was that sporadic, local sort of persecution that John felt these seven churches might expect to experience, now or in the near future.
Everyone – Romans, Greeks, Egyptians – found themselves living in interesting times.  The Parthians had defeated Rome on the far eastern edge of the empire in 62; then Rome also had to deal with unrest in Gaul, then Germania, and finally Judea.  Add into the mix the political instability caused by having three emperors in two years at one point, a famine, and even earthquakes and volcanoes.  This added up to about forty years of disaster and uncertainty.  People wanted to know, what the heck is going on?
When Rome destroyed the Temple in 70, that caused many Jewish and Jewish-Christian people to migrate north into Asia.  At the time, Christ followers were still a new thing, both the Jewish and Gentile kind.  They had no history, no established place of worship, most of them were lower class, they might have been cannibals, and they followed a convicted criminal who had been executed as an enemy of the state.
They were considered irreligious atheists because they had no ‘gods,’ and they made easy scapegoats when things went wrong, as when Rome burned during Nero’s reign.  Christians were subject to social and economic discrimination everywhere, and sometimes became victims of mob violence.  They were the ultimate outsiders.  To survive all that and thrive, you needed a strong sense of identity, and a strong faith.
These days, it’s almost impossible for us to understand the stresses endured by our Christian ancestors.  But in every age since, people of faith have been tested, tempted, scorned, and attacked simply for being people of faith.
In many countries, people manage to get through their days without beating someone up, or setting a car on fire, or having anything more unusual than a delayed commute happen to them.  If you stay on your side of the road and I stay on mine, we will pass each other without incident or a spike in blood pressure.  Most of the time, we’re just people being people, running around, getting our errands done.  We cross paths in every direction, going hither and yon – sometimes, we even talk to each other – and it all seems to work just fine.
So, when something inexplicably evil happens, without any motivation other than hatred, we’re caught by surprise; we’re shocked, saddened, and angered.
In the past six months, people have been killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ; at multiple churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday; and yesterday, on the last day of Passover, at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California.  In the same period, we have seen or heard about three churches burned in Opelousas, LA.  In France, multiple Catholic churches have been defaced or burned, not to mention the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, which may or may not have been arson.
Slowly but surely, Christianity is being driven out of the Middle East, from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.  On the whole, things are pretty good for people of faith in this country, but around the world, it’s the first century all over again.
We are far from being a religious society these days, and many of us question what it means to be a Christian (or a person in any faith tradition) in a secular world.  Around here, what does it mean to belong to a church, to this one in particular or to any church, to any place of worship?  What does it mean to say, ‘my life belongs to God’ when there are people out there who want to end it for that very reason?
Would we be as courageous as Peter and the apostles, when they answered the council by saying, “We must obey God rather than any human authority?”  This was after they had been arrested and told to stop their teaching and healing in the Temple.  They kept it up because that’s what you do when you live according to God’s ways.
If we back up to the beginning of chapter five in Acts, we see that the apostles, after doing their work in the Temple, suffered for Jesus by getting arrested and thrown in jail.  But after a miraculous jail break engineered by an angel of the Lord, they went right back out there to continue proclaiming Jesus.  There is no further mention of the angel or the mysterious escape.  Maybe Luke is saying that miracles are part of every-day life.  Maybe good things happen when we are steadfast in the face of persecution.
Sometimes, obeying God rather than human authority can put people at needless risk, for example, missionaries evangelizing in a place where religious activity has been declared illegal.  It may be that standing in solidarity with those who ‘suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41)’ is a better way to obey God rather than human authority.  Maybe it’s better to choose a cause and fight for it in ways that cause no harm to those for whom you fight.
In this Easter season, we proclaim Christ has risen, and that Jesus is out among us.  In Revelation, John tells us that Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving God.  Come what may, John is confident that all will be well.
Knowing all that, how do we embody Easter?  How will we, as a church, reflect God’s presence in our lives and in the community?  How will we go about our Father’s business, as one church organist once put it?  Whatever it is, we are called to do it boldly, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are those who hear the words of the prophecy and who keep what is written in it; for the time is now.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Book Review: 'The wise frame their stories with care'

Robertson, Anne. New Vision for an Old Story: Why the Bible Might Not Be the Book You Think It Is. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. xii + 158 pp. Softcover.

 If you are someone who likes to talk about God, the Rev. Anne Robertson would be a good person to seek out.  Robertson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society and the author of three books about God as well as the popular Bible study series, Exploring the Bible: The Dickinson Series, now adds to this a book about how we read the Bible.
The phrase ‘Reading the Bible’ can be a showstopper for those who have never entered into a relationship with it.  Some people try reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, which usually starts out well because Genesis is full of great stories.  But then you get to Leviticus and there your relationship with God’s Word will end.
In our churches, we typically hear snippets of the Gospels paired with a psalm or other reading from Hebrew Scripture, or from one of Paul’s letters.  Unless your pastor provides it, these few verses seldom reveal any context, making it difficult to get the big picture.  We really need a broader view, if not the whole canvas, in order to gain an understanding about what it is we are hearing.  Reading provides that context, because we can start at Point A and go as far as we want to.  That works well until we can no longer see the forest for the trees.  Hopefully, my metaphors have not been too mixed, but you get the idea: we need a strategy if we’re going to make sense of the Bible.
This is where Robertson comes in.  A gifted writer, she somehow simplifies complex topics – God, the Bible! – even as she opens them up and expands them, leaving us to wonder why we didn’t think of that in the first place.
Her basic premise, one she repeats throughout, is that people are resistant to seeing the Bible as story.  She points out that ‘the Bible’ isn’t just one book, in the same way that ‘Africa’ isn’t a country.  The Bible is a collection of books containing histories, poetry, laments, myths, legends, instruction, wisdom, and truth.  It is a collection of stories meant to invite us into a relationship with God and which can guide us into a life lived in community.
We lose that if we read the Bible strictly as monolithic legal codes or as a textbook.
Robertson deftly navigates us through these other ways of reading the Bible.  Along the way, she removes any hint of intimidation we may have felt beforehand.  In fact, after reading any of Robertson’s books, especially the Exploring the Bible series, you will be inspired to go out and buy a new study Bible, even if you already have one.
Robertson intends to give us a new lens through and by which we can read the Bible fruitfully, and by and large, she succeeds.
As ordained clergy and as the executive director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, Robertson has a unique perspective on how people perceive the Bible.  She gets that perspective the old-fashioned way: she asks people what they think about it.  And, like most clergy, she also has a vested interest in opening access to the Bible to as many people as possible.
Robertson writes with the idea of the Bible as story, not as a law or science text.  She talks about Biblical facts vs. truth, which is an important distinction to make.  People come to the Bible looking for answers and their questions don’t always have to do with how many cubits long God wanted Noah to make the Ark.  People want to know how God can help them, and if they think of the Bible only as dogma or doctrine, they won’t ever open it to look inside.  Neither would I.
So, Robertson begins by explaining the difference between truth and ‘true,’ and how it relates to the Bible.  She talks about God’s involvement in writing the Bible, and whether it is inerrant or infallible (45).  An inerrant or infallible Bible is, she writes, a false choice, if we read the Bible as story.  And that is her main concern: that when we read the Bible, we must read it for what it is: a long, complicated story.
The book includes many helpful sidebars and, at the end, questions for reflection that work for both self-study or in groups.  It is a book meant to be read with pencil in hand, the better to underline the many passages you might want to refer to later.
In her writing, Robertson typically aims at a general audience but one which includes regular church-goers, though she is also trying to reach anyone who has ever struggled with reading the Bible for instruction, hope, or inspiration.  Anyone involved with church, whether ordained clergy or a lay person, can use a book like this.  Anyone who is reluctant to approach the Bible would do well to start with this book.
In talking about the Bible, scholar, theologian, and translator Robert Alter says, ‘It is always better to trust the concrete language of the biblical writers, which is more frank and energetic than any decorous paraphrase.’[1]  This Robertson does well.  Her prose is clean and easy to read yet filled with wisdom and insight.
We don’t necessarily agree on everything – is there such a thing as too much pizza or chocolate-covered bacon? (16) – but there is nothing to infuriate either.  When I read that ‘if you’re a Christian, it’s almost necessary to believe God had some hand in shaping the Bible’ (51), my first thought was, ‘What if I’m Jewish?  And, being a Massachusetts native who lives in the southeastern part of the state, I want her editor to correct her claim that the ‘Mayflower passengers established the Massachusetts Bay Colony (68).’  The separatist Pilgrims on the Mayflower established the Plymouth Colony, not the later separatist Puritans who did establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Robertson writes that ‘the wise frame their stories with care,’ (17) and in this book, she carefully gives us an invitation to enter into a relationship with the Bible in a new way.  She opens the door to understanding a complex collection of books by showing how to read it as a story – a long, sweeping arc of a story intentionally told (21) – and not as a legal code or a science textbook.  Nor is it meant to be taken literally.  In my experience, the only people who take the Bible literally seem to be atheists.
Depending on what the Bible means to you, do you want to know what the Bible says, or do you want to know what it means?  Robertson does not pose this as a question (107) but I do.  What she does do is give us new vision – new eyes – with which to see the Bible as an ancient collection of books containing poems, history, law codes, and, above all else, as a guide to human nature and the human condition.
The Massachusetts Bible Society's mission statement says that the organization ‘exists to promote biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue that is grounded in scholarship, socially relevant, and respectful of the many voices within the Bible and all those who turn to the Bible in faith.’  As the head of that organization, Robertson is doing a fine and enthusiastic job in fulfilling that mission.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Mouth of the Righteous

Remarks given at a prayer service for the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

The mouth of the righteous
is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked
conceals violence. (Proverbs 10:11)
Hebrew poetry, especially in the Book of Proverbs, is quite fond of parallels.  In Proverbs, the mouth of the righteous is many things, good things.  Here, it is a fountain of life, and there are three others – the teaching of the wise; revering the Lord; and big-W Wisdom.
I wondered what the mouth of righteousness as a fountain of life might be like and I finally settled on it being the sound of our daughter’s voice when she sings.  Elsewhere in Proverbs (10:20), “the tongue of the righteous is choice silver,” which reminds me of her voice when she merely speaks.
But the mouth of the wicked…
That could be anything from a sinister whisper to an uncontrolled bellow.  What unthinking and unexpected violence do the wicked unleash when they merely speak?
Words are powerful; we know this from reading Scripture.  But they can also be hurtful; and when they are used to conceal the violence behind them, they can kill, provoking a moment of anger that cannot ever be taken back once released. 
The mouth of the wicked speaks to the weak, the flawed, the damaged but not broken, whose actions then reveal the violence.  We gather to pray for their victims, but pray also for them, that someday they may ask for forgiveness, from our Creator God in heaven and from those whose lives they have destroyed.
I know the Lord forgives and pours out grace upon grace on us all.  I pray that God’s loving grace can remove our demons and heal all wounds and comfort the grieving.  And I remember the words of Ecclesiastes, who said:
For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:14)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

"mutants, creeps and musclemen"

On December 12, 1980 (!), the English band The Clash released their triple-disc album called Sandinista, which featured, among other things, the first U.K. rap song, The Magnificent Seven.

According to the band's web site, "Taking its name from Nicaragua's left-wing rebel force, the album tackles subjects including US foreign policy, Vietnam, and Cold War tensions."  Sandinista was voted album of the year by the Village Voice.

Anyway, one of the tunes on the album, Hitsville U.K., has been in my head for a few days now, especially this lyric:
The mutants, creeps and musclemen,
Are shaking like a leaf

The song is about the trials and tribulations involved in making a hit record: the long odds, the smarmy record executives hanging around, the pressure, and so on.

But that phrase — mutants, creeps and musclemen — won't get out of my head, and I think it's because I'm getting toward the end of a book called Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder.  The London Telegraph named it their book of the year in 2010, as did The Atlantic, the Economist, the Seattle Times, and the Jewish Forward, among others.

In this book, the mutants, creeps, and musclemen hardly worry about anything, since they are the ones controlling the chess board.  The musclemen, of course, are the ones doing the actual killing.  It matters little whether these musclemen were Germans or Soviets.  They did their murders in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, for the most part — Eastern Europe generally was a killing field for nearly a quarter of a century, despite the ever-shifting political borders at the time.

Hitler and Stalin, Snyder writes, wanted to build their versions of utopia, though the two visions were completely different (387-389).  Both leaders lived in what Snyder calls 'fictitious worlds,' so maybe this makes them the mutants, since the world had never seen anything like this before.

The creeps, then, were the politicians, underlings, and thugs who transformed both Hitler and Stalin's 'suggestions' into policies, actions, and reality.

They were all responsible in one way or another for the deaths of millions of people, not counting those who died on the various battlefields during this same period.

I'm reading this book and others like it (for example, Red Famine by Anne Applebaum) because I want to understand how we can turn people into numbers; I want to understand how we lost our humanity then, because I can sense it slipping away from us again, now, here and there as a slow drip drip drip.  We all have names.  We all have lives and families and friends.  We have to be careful in how we treat each other, every day.

Everything flows, everything changes.
You can't board the same prison train twice.
Vasily Grossman

Friday, March 23, 2018

Then the Lord Answered Job

This is a sermon given at North Falmouth Congregational Church, UCC
a few years ago.

Based on Job 38:1-7, 34-41

“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”  How did we get to this holy place today?
The Book of Job fearlessly tackles the problem of suffering in the world.  You’ve heard people wonder, time and time again, when disaster strikes where was God.  If God was all-powerful, they say, God would have prevented every fill-in-the-blank horror ever visited upon humanity.  People get angry when the Hand of God doesn’t scoop them up out of harm’s way.  What happens to our faith when we know we did nothing to invite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  What do we do?
We open the Book of Job to chapter 1, verse 1, which reads: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.  That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
And yet, his life comes undone.  We say today that so-and-so ‘had the patience of Job,’ but you find out when you read the book cover to cover that Job was anything but patient.  The word patient comes from Latin and means sufferer.  That would be Job.
It’s easy to talk about Job and his suffering because it’s not ours.  The people who put this book together knew that when our pain is too close, we stop talking, but we can talk about Job’s pain.  He lived “in the land of Uz,” and even then no one knew where that was.  At best, it was far enough away for us to know that whatever happened to Job, probably wouldn’t happen to us.  And his name was Job.  He wasn’t even Jewish, yet he calls on the Jewish God of the covenant.
Long story short: Job’s life falls apart through no fault of his own.  His friends come to help but they just make everything worse.  During the course of the book, Job even threatens a lawsuit against God!  In chapter 23, he says:
I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  
I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.  Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  
No; but he would give heed to me.
Job wants to know why his life was ruined – he needs to be heard – and he’s even willing to cross-exam God in open court.  Throughout the book, we also learn something else: it’s all about Job.  He’s angry and becomes blind, as any of us might, to the world around him.
But God remains silent.  Finally, after much dialogue between Job and his three friends, and a fourth man, a younger man named Elihu who offers his perspective, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, which brings us to today’s passage.
The National Lampoon recorded some comedy albums and made some films back in the Seventies and Eighties.  At one point, they recorded a parody of a New Age poem called Desiderata and called theirs Deteriorata, which was pretty funny, for the times – find it on youTube.  Anyway, at one point the narrator says, “Make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be – hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.”  I have always imagined God in Job as the hairy thunderer, mostly because I think I was set up to expect that through the first 37 chapters, but the text itself may show us another way to read God’s speeches.
For one thing, up until now, Job himself has called on Shaddai, the Almighty.  The authors also refer to El, God.  Now, in these final chapters, it’s the Lord, YHWH, the God who raised up Israel out of Egypt, who speaks.  Is the compassionate God of the covenant also a hairy thunderer?  Is YHWH angry with Job?  It’s hard to tell with what we have to work with but it makes a difference to how we as Christians understand God’s nature and how God relates to humanity and humanity’s suffering.
English translations tend to steamroll meaning.  God says, “Gird up your loins like a man,” which is Bible-speak for “get ready because here it comes.”  Except, most translations leave out one word which translates as “I pray” which itself means, in modern English, “please.”  So is God being ironic or is God approaching Job as an equal?
Good news!  First, God heard Job’s lament!  And then God answered.  God had to, either to maintain a sense of honor or perhaps Job had pushed too far.  Or maybe Job was beginning to show signs of real stress – an explanation might help him hang in there.  He also needed to get back into relationship with God, and that’s another reason for the switch to YHWH – when God establishes contact in a direct, personal way (think Moses or Jonah), it is YHWH the covenant God who shows up.  This is a sign of YHWH’s steadfast love and faithfulness to the people of the covenant.
Throughout the book, Job has raged against God, and that, I think is something he had to do before he could return to God.  We know his faith wasn’t broken but his trust in God was.  And now they’re talking, the first sign of reconciliation.
God asks a series of questions: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Can you do this?  Who can do what I do, asks the Lord.  Up to now, Job has been preoccupied with his own problems.  His life has become chaos, so God shows him the vastness of Creation.  Job never saw beyond his own picket fence, and now he has a new perspective: Yes, there are predators and there is prey.  There are limits.  There are boundaries, drawn by God.  There are reasons for everything.  You matter, God says, but other things matter too; Job, you are not the center of the universe.  In the end, Job says to the Lord, “I had heard of you but now my eyes see you; I withdraw my case against you,” or words to that effect.
In our time, we still want to know: what is the meaning of suffering?  Why?  Does God indeed control everything, or did the Lord simply wind the metaphorical clock and then step aside?  We tend to think that you reap what you sow, but we also know that stuff happens.  We are all eligible to slip on God’s banana peel; we are all subject to what David Bentley Hart calls the “imbecile forces of chance.”
We want the world to be fair.  Yet it’s a two-way street.  We know good things happen to bad people too.  After becoming a fugitive from the FBI, Whitey Bulger won the lottery – twice.  But we want – we expect – Evil to be punished and Good to be rewarded.  We want the fighting in Syria to end.  Some of us secretly root for the Cubs.  It doesn’t always happen the way we want it to.
Are there boundaries we can’t cross with God?  If we keep the Commandments, are we then free to say anything to the Almighty, as long as it comes from the heart?
When God answers Job “out of the whirlwind,” I think what YHWH is really saying is, “Here I am.”  Never too far away.  Always within earshot.  Through the Book of Job, we learn that we can return to God just by speaking up.  We are welcome to question God and demand a hearing.  We learn that God’s steadfast love is unwavering.  And we learn that while there might be no answer to the questions we ask, we better be ready for the answer we get when it comes.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Remembering the Martyrs

[This piece was originally written in 2014 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the murders in El Salvador.  This edited version incorporates new material and updates the original text.]

On November 16, 1989, eight people were murdered on the grounds of the José Simeón Cañas University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador.  Six of the victims were Jesuit priests who taught at the university and who were vocal advocates for a negotiated settlement of the country’s civil war.  The two other victims were the cook for the priest’s dormitory and her daughter.[1]  These murders shocked a country that had seen plenty of bloodshed up to that point.
The 1993 United Nations Security Council report submitted by the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador claimed that, “between 1980 and 1991, the Republic of El Salvador […] was engulfed in a war” which ultimately claimed upwards of 75,000 lives, traumatized an entire society, destroyed roads, highways, bridges, churches, schools, hospitals, homes, and families.  “In its cruelty violence leaves everyone defenceless.”[2]
Looking back, I remember being unsure about who was doing what to whom, and where.  Central America was in crisis throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when civil wars in Guatemala (1960-1996), Nicaragua (twice, first in 1978-1979 and again from 1981-1990), and El Salvador attracted a variety of foreign involvement, in the form of money, arms, and advisors.  Coup d’états, repressions, and counter-coups marked the era.  Human rights were abused with impunity.  People disappeared, villages were destroyed, and villagers massacred.  Both sides committed gross atrocities against the other.
In El Salvador, the United States backed the government.  The Soviet Union, Cuba, and other Soviet bloc countries supported the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), an alliance of five insurgent groups.  The fighting was “particularly merciless” on the civilian population.[3]  The details are far more complicated than a brief synopsis can provide, but in the end, neither side could dislodge the other, and as the Cold War dwindled, so too did foreign political interest and financial aid to El Salvador, eventually leading to an end to the fighting and a subsequent peace accord, signed in Mexico City on January 16, 1992.[4]
This conflict highlights the nature of power – who has it, who wants it, and who gets stuck in the middle.  But war doesn’t happen overnight.  Even the seemingly spontaneous Rwandan genocide in 1994 was planned.  War is, as von Clausewitz said, “a continuation of policy by other means,”[5] a political act, as it certainly seemed to be in the El Salvador of the Cold War era.
The roots to this latest conflict go back to the sixteenth century when Spain conquered Central America.  El Salvador only became an independent republic in 1838.  Before then, the Spaniards and, after independence, Salvadorans of European descent had created a vast gap between rich and poor.  The Salvadoran economy was based on agriculture, mostly around two singular crops: first, indigo, for which demand evaporated with the introduction of chemical dyes, followed by coffee in the 1800s.[6]  By 1880, coffee had become the dominant export crop and would figure prominently as a funding source in the civil wars to come.[7]
The Center for Justice and Accountability says indigenous peoples and mestizos[8] made up 95 percent of the population but were reduced to virtual serfdom while a small minority of wealthy landholders called the “Fourteen Families” ruled through a long series of military dictatorships throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  “It is along these fault lines – between peasant and planter, European and native – that cycles of violence have erupted throughout El Salvador’s troubled history.”[9]
In January 1932, Augustin Farabundo Marti, a labor leader, led a peasant revolt against the ruling dictatorship and the “Fourteen Families.”  The response was immediate and massive.  It is remembered today as La Matanza, the slaughter that took 30,000 lives, mostly those of indigenous people.[10]  Thus began a perpetual struggle between the various right-wing military dictatorships and their left-wing guerilla opponents.  Caught in the middle, Salvadoran society in general and particularly the peasant population were vulnerable to depredations from both sides, more so from the right-wing.
Europe between Hitler and Stalin, from the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, and even a little beyond, experienced similar murders, where millions of people were murdered simply for who they were and where they happened to be living at the time.
We need to know these long and complicated histories in order to see our current world in all its complexity and tragedy and as clearly and completely as possible.  In response, one might ask, where was God?  For every murder, for every disappearance, was God present to the victims?  How could God allow such a long-playing tragedy such as what befell El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Poland and Ukraine?
In the immediate aftermath of the December, 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Sumatra and most of the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean as far away as Sri Lanka, David B. Hart wrote that, when we are confronted by “the sheer savage immensity” of wide-spread suffering, we are permitted only to hate death, waste, and “the imbecile forces of chance.”[11]  The hidden hand of God does not send the destruction of natural causes our way as a form of testing or punishment.  Instead, we can see that God is in our collective positive response to tragedy, in our compassion, and in our charity.
In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, John Podhoretz wrote that evil is “an effort to destroy the common good by making good appear powerless, ineffectual, weak.”[12]  Evil is all of that and more.  Evil isn’t just a thing that sits there as if it were waiting for the next bus.  Evil is something we choose to do.  We can resist evil.  We can choose not to do it.
What happened on November 16, 1989 in El Salvador was not by natural causes.  The men who murdered six priests and two women that night chose to do evil.  Worse, they were commanded to, and they did not question the command.  We can say, then, that the murderers and their commanders were evil.  Such evil is still on the loose around the world today in conflicts small and large.
We are called to remember what happened on November 16, 1989 and elsewhere in Central America at that time because, as Father Joseph O’Hare wrote, “for us to forget [the slain priests] or to decide that the costs of justice are too high for us to pay would be to betray not only their memory but our faith that this is God’s world and that God is the Lord of justice.”[13]  In the same way, we are called to also remember if not stand with the slain in Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, and with all those trapped in a war zone; anywhere that neighbors strike at neighbors or wherever people have died at the hands of oppression.  It is a long list.
At the Communion table, Christians recall the words of Jesus Christ, who said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Jesus is calling us to remember, first, that we meet in peaceful fellowship that cuts across social, political, and economic boundaries.  Secondly, in sharing that meal, we build up God’s beloved community, the kingdom of heaven, here on earth.  Reconciliation and perhaps understanding occur at the Lord’s Table.  What we do there is the exact opposite of what we do when we are at war.
Jon Sobrino reminds us of “God’s eternal question,” which is this: “What have you done to your brother or sister,”[14] to which we would add, “or not done for them?”  Here is Sobrino again with what we hope is the last word that might speak for all time to man’s inhumanity to mankind: “In a world of darkness with a heart of stone it is possible to live with light and with a heart of flesh, and that it is possible to experience in one’s own life the blessing and joy of the beatitudes.”[15]

[1] Rev. Stan G. Duncan , “Introduction: The Crime” in Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990], xi-xxviii.
[2] Betancur B, Figueredo Planchart R, Buergenthal T.  “From madness to hope: the twelve-year war in El Salvador.  Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.”  [New York: United Nations; 1993], accessed 13 October 2014.
[3] Mark Vasallo, “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: General Considerations and a Critical Comparison of the Commissions of Chile and El Salvador,” The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), 168.
[4] Ibid., 168-169.
[5] Karl von Clausewitz, War, Politics, and Power: Selections from On War, and I Believe and Profess, ed. and tran. Edward M. Collins [Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1962], 83.
[6] “Background on El Salvador,” The Center for Justice and Accountability,, accessed 16 October 2013.
[7] Donald E. Jacobson and David B. Ehrenthal, "Chapter 3: The Economy" in A Country Study: El Salvador, Library of Congress Call Number F1483.B55 1990,, accessed 17 October 2014.
[8] A person of combined European and Native American descent.
[9] “Background on El Salvador.”  Emphasis added.
[10] Ibid.
[11] David B. Hart, “Tremors of Doubt,” The Wall Street Journal (31 December 2004).
[12] John Podhoretz, “Gehenna in Connecticut,” Commentary (14 December 2012),
[13] Father Joseph O’Hare, S.J., “Six Slain Jesuits” in Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, 176.
[14] Ibid., ix.
[15] Ibid.