Column entry, “Love and Do Not Forget,” by Dennis Smith

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Column Title: Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission

Column Entry: Love and Do Not Forget (April)

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.

 

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Love and Do Not Forget

There is a certain clarity that comes in the presence of victims.

It was October 2019 and I sat in the newly inaugurated Museum of Memory Against Impunity in Managua, Nicaragua. The museum is located on the campus of University of Central America (UCA), the local Jesuit university.

Nicaragua has been on a political roller coaster since the left-wing Sandinistas successfully overthrew the U.S.-supported Somoza regime in 1979. Since 2007, former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega has been President with his wife Rosario Murillo as Vice President. Ortega’s family, with ideological roots in Marxism, has embraced the Machiavellian tactics so successfully employed by the right-wing Somoza family that held power from 1936 to 1979. Both families learned how to co-opt or eliminate their political competition, control the courts and legislature, and build a clientelist relationship with the private sector and much of civil society—including many religious groups.

In 2018, massive protests met Ortega’s attempt to modify Nicaragua’s social security system by increasing taxes and reducing benefits. This marked the proverbial last straw in what was perceived by the public as another step in Ortega’s attempt to cut back on social services and consolidate his family’s political power in one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

Security forces used Draconian methods to quash the protests, killing more than 300 people, many of them high school and university students. Since then, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans have fled into exile, mostly to Costa Rica, their neighbor to the south.

This was the context for my 2019 visit as part of a fact-finding group from the Presbyterian Church (USA). That day our itinerary included a visit to the just-opened Museum of Memory, an improvised effort to honor some of those 300 victims.

I remember walking through a poignant collection of random objects that commemorated lives cut short—a football jersey, a diary, tennis shoes, a silly Halloween mask . . . all arranged just so.

I remember sitting on a simple wooden bench in the middle of a repurposed storeroom and watching as the photos of several dozen children who had dared to protest tyranny and corruption flashed on the wall.

Mothers, siblings, and classmates organized this collection. They staff the museum and welcomed visitors at the door. Their slogan is “Love Truth. Love Justice. Love and Do Not Forget.”

I remember how, at one of the meager displays, three students stood and saluted a fallen classmate; they broke out in a rendition of the Nicaraguan national anthem. As I witnessed their tribute, my breath caught in my throat.

I remember watching more images. I understand that these people had reached a point of no return. Inaction was no longer an option. One day, perhaps, they would speak of forgiveness or reconciliation, but today, they are certain, is a time for change.

Since that visit, the Ortega regime won another rigged election in Nicaragua and bought themselves a bit more time. But the spirit I sensed in the Museum of Memory now blows freely through the land despite continued repression. Change will come.

What does it take for a community to come together and say: “Enough!” And how, as Christian communicators, do we bear witness to that spirit of change?

In a post-truth society how does one winnow the chaff of self-serving propaganda from the grain of truth needed to illuminate the common good? Wherever we go, faithful witnesses tell us that power corrupts. For a time, they say, power can instill fear, buy silence, co-opt opponents. But a time comes when a critical mass is reached, and fear or a resigned acceptance of the status quo are no longer enough to ensure silence.

Often, the issue is not ideology, but a deeply felt sense that lines have been crossed and things must change. A faithful remnant clings to a vision of justice deeply imbued in all of human history by the Spirit of the Creator: power can be used mindfully, accountably, to protect the vulnerable and in service to the common good.

Those that have eyes to see and ears to hear continue to discern this struggle today, both in our local communities and in the larger world. We learn to look and listen. Why does hunger and homelessness continue to increase in my community? Why does that country, long an exporter of bountiful food, experience growing hunger? Why do the rich in my community continue to get richer while the poor get poorer? Why, in that country, does corruption continue to paralyze effective governance? Why is the private sector an accomplice to corruption—even a necessary partner to illicit enterprises such as drugs, arms and human trafficking—and why do profit levels continue to soar? Why are we unable to implement fundamental changes in how we extract and consume the limited resources of our fragile planet, knowing that the current models are already reaping a whirlwind of death and destruction? How much must we consume before we are satisfied? Before we can say: “Enough!”

As people of faith so very conscious of human frailty, how do we strengthen institutions and processes that will hold all of us accountable to one another and to the Lord of Life? We seem to face a failure of our collective imagination. We can’t even imagine other ways of organizing our productive endeavors and systems of governance.

Life lived in this way breaks many people. But it is our brokenness that binds us together. It is our brokenness that is gathered up by God’s Spirit and transformed into fierce hope and resistance.

Hope is nourished, in part, by exercising the right to memory. Collective memory can dispute the power of official history so often used to defend and justify tyranny. Yes, memory is always fleeting, flawed, fickle. But a community can remember, can hold itself accountable to its own best version of itself, and, in the re-membering, can re-member, piece by piece, a vision of the common good and call itself to accountability and action.

We are a resurrection people. Against all odds, we know that death and injustice do not win in the end.

In my mind’s eye I return to that little museum on the campus of the Jesuit university in Managua. The images of valiant children, not yet bereft of hope, flash on the wall. And the words echo in my mind: Love Truth. Love Justice. Love and Do Not Forget.

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