Column Title: Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission
Column Entry: Damaged Goods
Column Description: If you hang around long enough, mingle with enough folks in enough places on this fragile planet, and pay attention at least part of the time, life happens. And with life, stories. In this monthly column, Dennis Smith, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication, shares communication insights and wisdom gleaned from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. Through mission service, God gifted Dennis with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine whupped him upside the head and “invited” him to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.
October 2021 / September 2021
I was the interpreter. The speaker was a Mayan pastor with deep roots in the spirituality of his people. The year was 2004 and the delegation that had gathered in Guatemala City represented several theological seminaries from North and Central America.
Because the meeting was held in Guatemala, heart of the ancient Mayan culture, participants had a special interest in what was happening in this troubled Central American nation. Guatemala was only just emerging from the proxy wars between US-backed militaries and landed elites and Soviet-backed guerrilla groups that had ravaged Central America from the 1970s to the 1990s.
In Guatemala the civil war had begun in 1960 and continued until Peace Accords were signed in 1996. Of course, it was more than just a proxy war. The early armed opposition was made up of dissident army officers, union leaders and students who were inspired by Fidel Castro’s nationalist overthrow of Batista in Cuba in 1959. It came to include Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, as well as peasant and Mayan community leaders. Christians ended up on both sides of the bitter conflict.
The war left more than 250,000 people dead or disappeared; more than a million displaced people. Later studies by the United Nations would attribute more than 90 per cent of the victims to actions by US-backed military and right-wing paramilitary forces.
For Guatemala’s Mayan majority—remarkably diverse and resilient peoples speaking more than 20 languages in a country the size of the US State of Ohio—this conflict was but one chapter in almost 500 years of cultural resistance dating back to the European invasion in 1521. For this reason, the delegation wanted to hear about Mayan cultural resistance. The Maya had somehow survived centuries of adversity and still maintained languages, cultures, a vibrant spirituality, a unique way of being in this world.
The Mayan pastor talked about his experience of the recent war, placing it in this larger context of cultural resistance. During the war, the US-backed military specifically targeted Mayan communities for hundreds of massacres precisely because they were the unrepentant, unassimilated Other. The pastor spoke of the need to rediscover roots. He reflected on how hard that is after a time of massive brutality. Being immersed in so much violence for so long, he said, breaks something inside us. Trust is shattered. Suspicion becomes a way of life. We become damaged, numb, and deep within us lingers a continuing spark of violence.
In Mayan spirituality, the pastor explained, maintaining balance and harmony within the community and with the whole created order is key. Thus, after the war, his community faced deep and troubling questions: How does one restore one’s humanity? How does one recover one’s connectedness with all things? What is the glue that helps us piece together our integrity?
Others had adapted to the dominant culture, even taking the ancient ways and placing them at the service of the oppressor for their personal advantage. Government ceremonies would be inaugurated by domesticated shamans. In the crass competitiveness of the moment, these bent ones tapped into ancient spiritual power for vengeance, for personal gain, for partisan political ends.
Only a remnant remained true to their vocation of restoring balance and harmony, to the awful, awe-filled calling to serve those in need in the name of the Creator, whose name in Mayan languages is Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth.
One professor who was part of the delegation wanted to talk about the problem of evil. Is there not a time when one must take up arms against the oppressor? Much of his identity had become tied to Central America’s struggles. In good faith, he, like many of us, had chosen to baptize Central America’s revolutions and sidestep their ambiguities. Now, he wanted to hear that the other side was evil.
The Mayan pastor did not answer.
Another posed a similar question.
Still no answer.
I noted to myself that the pastor did not trot out his credentials of suffering. I knew he had lost close relatives. I knew he had witnessed monstrous acts.
The pastor and I talked later in private. I asked him why he had chosen not to tell his own story. Such memories, he told me, should not be violated. To do so can trivialize the victims, can cheapen their ongoing presence as they accompany us on life’s journey.
We talked about living in a time of great violence. We agreed that in these circumstances, there are no good guys. Within each of us exists the capacity to do monstrous acts. That is who we are as human beings. To celebrate violence only lessens us, no matter what the justification. But victimhood also lessens us. To perpetrate violence breaks something inside us. Always. There are no exceptions.
So here we are, lessened: victims, witnesses, perpetrators. After so much brutality, our very humanity hangs by a thread. God’s restoring grace is our only hope.
In such struggles, my friend explained, it can be necessary and honorable to say: “My time, for now, is done. I must step aside because I am embittered, I have become hard. I sense within myself the lust for power, the temptation to say that ends justify means. For now, I must attend to my own soul and seek healing for my family. I must help my community recover the gifts of tenderness and vulnerability. We must restore the fragile balance between past, present, and future.”
At these moments, he said, we must attend, with fear and trembling, to our own souls. Somehow, empowered by the Spirit of the Creator, we must rebuild community.
So how do we deal with continued violence and injustice? Do we just step aside and let it roll unchecked? No. The struggle to build the world imagined by God must continue. But we must know that the struggle will consume us. In our brokenness, we will become even more broken.
In Guatemala, I learned that all of us, sooner or later, end up as damaged goods. That is why Jesus leaves us with an advocate, the Spirit of Wholeness. We are broken. We are capable of breaking others.
Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel states categorically:
Because you can’t kill death with death
And kill death with life.
In this season of All Souls, remind us, Spirit of Wholeness, that we are never alone. We are accompanied by a company of saints, past and present. All damaged. All broken. All forgiven. All made whole, by the Grace of God.