The Common Good

Ryan Beiler: Evangelicals and the El Mozote Massacre

This past week has been a blur of activity with the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, but I didn't want to let the passing of Rufina Amaya go unmentioned on this blog. If that name is unfamiliar to you, Amaya was the sole survivor of the worst single massacre in modern Latin American history. A recent Washington Post article by Alma Guillermoprieto, one of the journalists to originally document the atrocity, recounts Amaya's testimony in chilling detail:

An army officer who was a friend of her husband's, she said, had told the villagers early in December not to worry about a coming offensive against the guerrillas, because El Mozote, which had a large evangelical population, was not known to be subversivo, or subversive.
...
But the troops returned. Acting on orders, they separated the villagers into groups of men, young girls, and women and children. Rufina Amaya managed to slip behind some trees as her group was being herded to the killing ground, and from there she witnessed the murders, which went on until late at night. An army officer, told by an underling that a soldier was refusing to kill children, said, "Where is the sonofabitch who said that? I am going to kill him," and bayoneted a child on the spot. She heard her own children crying out for her as they met their deaths. The troops herded people into the church and houses facing a patch of grass that served as the village plaza. They shot the villagers or dismembered them with machetes, then set the structures on fire. At last, believing they had killed all the citizens of El Mozote and the surrounding hamlets, the troops withdrew.

I'm personally compelled to memorialize Amaya and El Mozote for three reasons:

1) When I visited El Mozote and other sites of atrocities in El Salvador as a college student in 1997, the resounding theme from survivors was to tell these stories so that people never forget what happened, and especially for gringos, that we know what crimes our government supported through its military aid.

2) Lest you should assign these horrors to ancient history, look no further than Colombia, the recipient of the most U.S. military aid in Latin America (third in the world), where it is now more clearly documented than ever that right-wing paramilitary death squads have been operating in close cooperation with the very military our government supports. Then, as now, that flow of aid is dependent on human rights ceritification, a highly politicized process that resists hearing the testimony of peasants caught in the meat-grinder of counterinsurgency warfare. Reading Guillermoprieto's article alongside recent reports from Colombia, I'm overcome by vertigo-inducing deja vu.

3) One detail that has always struck me about El Mozote is that the villagers had been told that because they were evangelicals - generally perceived as apolitical, and not liberation theology-inspired "subversivos" - they would be spared. That they were massacred anyway is a stark reminder that apolitical piety is no protection from the principalities and powers. Though innocent farmers, they were, in Guillermoprieto's words, "simply fodder in one of the last battles of the Cold War."

The lesson for Christians seeking to love our neighbors as ourselves is that we are inextricably linked to the policies and actions of our government, and are vulnerable to their consequences whether we choose to engage them or not. So, whether the issue is military aid to Latin America, the war in Iraq, or violence in our own neighborhoods, let us engage those powers, with Christ as our model of sacrificial love; rejecting both the violence of Zealots and the superficial public piety of Pharisees.

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered 27 years ago tomorrow, was a shining example of that kind of faith, which can also get you killed. Below are the final paragraphs of the homily delivered the day before his death at the hands of assassins, two of whom received training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas:

I would like to appeal in a special way to the men of the army, and in particular to the troops of the National Guard, the Police, and the garrisons. Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God should prevail that says: Do not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. It is time now that you recover your conscience and obey its dictates rather than the command of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of the dignity of the human person, cannot remain silent before so much abomination.

We want the government to seriously consider that reforms mean nothing when they come bathed in so much blood. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: Cease the repression!

Ryan Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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