The Common Good
July-August 1995

From Peru to Oklahoma

by Joe Nangle | July-August 1995

Showing the way of compassion.

In 1995, several faith communities in the southern Andean region of Peru sent a remarkable message to the United States. Largely "campesino" (peasant) in makeup, these parishes and congregations expressed their concern and sympathy for Americans in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City tragedy.

The history of the groups who made this gesture offers much food for thought to all of us who work at building community. During the '80s, inhabitants of the Peruvian highlands suffered horrendously at the hands of the Shining Path terrorists and the Peruvian military counterinsurgency forces. Peru had one of the world's worst human rights records, as guerrillas and soldiers outdid one another in atrocities against innocent civilians caught in the middle.

Given this history, one could understand that communities in the Peruvian highlands would readily empathize with the victims of a bombing and a country in mourning. Indeed, it is quite possible that their personal and collective suffering gives them the sensitivity to understand and respond to others' tragedies.

Still, the empathy, outreach, and brotherly and sisterly concern that those good people in Peru showed us, complete strangers and citizens of a far-off country, gives me pause. Those peasant communities, themselves victims of enormous violations, exhibited a remarkable capacity to embrace a hurting world—ours—and to reach out to a numbed populace—us.

Probing deeper, in their outreach to us we see Christians capable of forgiving our affluence and domination, capable of overlooking the fact that historically the United States could well be called their oppressor. We have lived off the poverty of countries like Peru for generations.

In addition, the fact that the Peruvians who wrote words of comfort to us are members of faith communities says something about the power of such communities. Our Andean brothers and sisters took seriously Jesus' assurance, "Blessed are they who mourn" (Matthew 5:4). They offer us a picture of unschooled, unsophisticated people of the land shedding tears over Oklahoma City—because God's sons and daughters in that city and around the United States were hurting.

Individually, it is possible that those Peruvian campesinos might only have shrugged, as so many of us do at distance tragedy, at the news of 168 deaths from the bombing. Collectively, gathered in the base Christian communities for which that part of the world is so famous, they overcame the temptation to compare our Oklahoma moment with their decades, nay centuries, of oppression, impoverishment, and death. They knew that humans should not try to quantify suffering. These Peruvians taught us that communities which strive to nurture and challenge individual faith commitments take us way beyond where we could go individually.

SOME UNSETTLING questions rise up in the face of the Peruvians' concern for us. Does our life in community nurture and challenge us the way it seems to have done for our Peruvian friends? Do our communities empower us as members of the body of Christ to overcome individualism, nationalism, and all of the other "isms" that drive us deeper into ourselves and away from the human family?

Specifically, would we have the largeness of heart and the viewpoint of Christ to offer condolences to the children of Baghdad, as they suffered for years the effects of an American embargo of medicines and foodstuffs? Are we expansive enough in our Christianity to offer sympathy to the indigenous widows of Guatemala for the direct and indirect harm done by the CIA in their campesino populations?

Perhaps only a faith community can bring us to such a generous world vision. And the faith community does so only if its power is unleashed by the individuals who make it up. Each of us who are members of Christian collectives has the responsibility to challenge the body to go beyond our personal limits, beyond our very selves.

Finally, once again we see Mary's prayer fulfilled—God has "raised up the lowly" (Luke 1:52). Peruvian campesino Christian communities have demonstrated what it means to be the anawim, the humble folk who are entirely abandoned to God's will.

JOE NANGLE, OFM, former outreach director at Sojourners, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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