|Central American University - UCA
Number 58 | Abril 1986
The Church of the Poor in Nicaragua
"May we be cursed by the living God if we were passive spectators before the suffering of Central America." —Pedro Casaldaliga (Brazilian bishop)
IntroductionThis article offers information and shares an analysis about the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua. The reflections presented here border between theology and social analysis. There is some precedent for this in envío in some ethical parts of the 1984 article on "The Strategy of Symmetry" and in the July 1984 monograph on "Ethical-Theological Reflection Concerning the Upcoming Elections in Nicaragua."
There is now theological consensus that the Church of the Poor is not "another" church or a parallel church or against the hierarchical Church; it is only a question of a new way of living and thinking as Catholic Church, a new model of Church within its institutional unity. It is a movement of church renewal within the structure. The ecclesiastical conflict today in all of Latin America, but especially in Central America, is one we are living out with a spirit of faith and an attitude of "thinking with the Church,"* while the conflict simmers within the religious community.
*This famous expression of Ignatius of Loyola might be better translated "feeling at one with the Church." It means to feel that, according to the Christian faith and experience, the same Holy Spirit who inspires the institution also inspires history and people.
The first section of this article contains an overall analysis of the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua from 1979 until now. The second analyzes the political conflict that has developed during the past year between Cardinal Obando and the government. The final chapter, the most important one for us, analyzes the Church of the Poor from July 1985 until today. This stage has seen events of the utmost importance for the Church in Nicaragua and in all of Latin America.
Historical contextVarious scholars who have analyzed the Nicaraguan Catholic Church agree that the Church’s recent history in this country can be divided into three main stages. These stages are: first, from July 19, 1979 (triumph of the revolution) until March 4, 1983 (Pope John Paul II's visit to Nicaragua); second, from March 4, 1983 until July 7, 1985 (beginning of Fr. Miguel D'Escoto's prophetic fast); and third, from July 7, 1985 until today.
As has been pointed out by philosopher-theologian Dr. Enrique Dussel, the well-known historian of the Latin American Church, division into stages is nothing more than a hypothesis which, when it comes to very recent history, changes to the extent that insights gain greater depth and foundation. In each stage, it is important to interpret the Church’s basic movement and the meaning of the possible intra-ecclesiastical conflicts as well as the relationship between the Church and extra-ecclesiastical sectors, recognizing that each stage contains elements mixed in from other stages.
In the first stage, the Church-government conflict was not yet fundamental; rather the conflicts within the Church took center stage. These intra-ecclesiastical conflicts, however, did not yet take the form of a fundamental conflict between two clearly defined models of Church. The Church of the Poor does not have a well-defined physiognomy, structure and strategy. Many events are clear and show a certain direction (such as the participation of priests in the government, the declarations of the grassroots Christian communities, etc.), but still we don’t see a definite model of Church taking shape as an alternative to the typical model of neo-Christendom. Neither has the neo-Christendom model, which is the current one in many parts of the world, defined its own way of being Church in revolutionary Nicaragua. Not even the Vatican has a clearly defined policy for the Church of Nicaragua.
Perhaps the first strategic plan in this stage was that of the leadership of CELAM (Latin American Bishops' Conference), but this plan was unrelated to Nicaragua’s reality. It has quite a bit of influence, but as a whole does not win the day. CELAM is tremendously ignorant of the reality of the Central American Church.
In this period three collective documents of the Church of the Poor were significant: its answer to the bishops' response to the FSLN Official Document regarding the role of religion and faith in the revolutionary process (October, 1980); the document titled "Christian Fidelity in the Revolutionary Process" (February 1981); and the document titled "Time of Crisis: Time of Discernment and Grace" (June 1981).
The second stage began with the Pope’s visit to Nicaragua (March 4, 1983). Through his words and actions the Pope strengthened the hierarchical Church project with its typically neo-Christian features, seen as confronting a process believed to be unconsolidated and hostile. This had two consequences. First of all, Managua's Archbishop Obando y Bravo felt a greater sense of legitimacy in his religious power and launched what was widely perceived as a programmatic offensive against the government and the revolution. Secondly, the Church of the Poor was left badly beaten and, it would seem, delegitimized.
Many young people and Christian militants distanced themselves from the Church, and others put their Christianity within parentheses, postponing their definition until later. The grassroots Christian communities turned inward, isolating themselves a bit from the Christian population. These two consequences provoked by the Pope's visit would have one very clear consequence: the Church's internal conflict, between two models of Church, would recede to a second level and the political conflict between the hierarchy and the government would escalate to a first-class struggle. This signifies an extremely sterile situation from an ecclesiological and pastoral perspective.
If the Pope's visit strengthened Archbishop Obando's authority, dealt a blow to the Church of the Poor and triggered a political conflict between the hierarchy and the government lacking spiritual and pastoral fecundity, this does not mean either that the Church of the Poor didn’t exist before the Pope's visit or that it stopped growing after his visit. If it was necessary for a Pope come to Nicaragua to delegitimize this Church (whose erroneous characterization as the "Popular Church" has no basis in the Catholic reality of the Latin American continent or of Nicaragua), that’s a powerful sign of its existence and importance.
It is interesting to note people’s attitude toward the Pope in the July 19th Plaza: they both defended the revolution (shouting "we want peace" and "people's power") and continued to stick with this same Church (as was shown later by unpublished polls in which envío took part). This attitude could not be explained if there was no known and explicit new way of being Church within the revolution. If this model didn’t exist in people's consciousness (albeit perhaps as a kind of evangelical intuition), the people would have divided: with the Pope against the revolution or with the revolution against the Pope.
But this didn’t happen. On a massive scale, people continued to be both Catholic and revolutionary, especially among the poor and peasant classes. Because of this situation, so typical of the Third World and of Latin America (and so different from Polish reality*), the Holy Father understood little of what was going on in Nicaragua. It’s sad to recognize that, but it’s true. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding has been prolonged, in our judgment, since the archbishop chosen by the Pope to be Central America's only cardinal for now was Archbishop Obando himself.
*There’s little comparison between the role of the Church in Poland and in Latin America. In Poland the Catholic hierarchy and traditional Church membership are symbols of a nationalism that resists absorption by and submission to global powers. In Latin America the Catholic hierarchy during the colonial era was, with few exceptions, foreign-born and supported the Spanish Crown during the independence struggles. Thus, the Church in Latin America is part of the traditional identity of the majority of the people, but it is a cultural factor, not a symbol of a proud and resistant nationalism.
In Nicaragua the Church of the Poor in this second stage had taken a beating and appeared to be—in the eyes of "the world"—delegitimized, turned in on itself, incapable of creating its own public expression or a specific pastoral project. Nevertheless, this Church of the Poor was experiencing a rich process of gaining grassroots strength and maturing internally. It was a very rich stage, more internal than external, forged in the crucible of suffering and in the cross of being marginalized by some of its pastors. In that internal retreat, the events of the next stage would be brought to term. A very important document of this stage is titled "We Want Peace. Reflection from Nicaragua under Attack" (August, 1983), published by the popular weekly newspaper¬ El Tayacan¬.
The third stage began—from today's perspective—on July 7, 1985, with the time of fasting and prayer led by Fr. Miguel D'Escoto, together with the subsequent "evangelical insurrection." In this period, we can see two basic processes affecting the Nicaraguan Church. First, the political confrontation between the Catholic hierarchy and the government is sharpened, but now the conflict is centered on the role of Managua's Archbishop Obando y Bravo, who received the rank of cardinal on May 25, 1985. Second, the Church of the Poor has a new birth and "rises" with a clear but non-divisive ecclesiastical identity and with a definite historical and pastoral project. The conflict within the Church, between two models or forms of being Church, is changed into a positive conflict, with a great ecclesiastical, theological, pastoral and spiritual richness. What is really new about this third stage is that the Church of the Poor is born again with an autonomous project whose starting point is its own spiritual experience. This experience of the Spirit has been gathered within the revolutionary process and not as a direct reaction to the political conflict between the Cardinal and the government. The horizontal conflict—let’s call it that—between the power of the cardinalate and the power of the revolution follows a different logic than the logic of the conflict within the Church itself. The latter is a conflict between two different models or ways of thinking about and being the Church, the ecclesiastical communion.
In the following pages, we’ll study this third stage (from July 1985 until now) in depth. We’ll also devote a section to the political conflict between Cardinal Obando and the revolutionary government, and another to the rebirth of the Church of the Poor since July 1985. For us, this last part is the principal one and the richest from a theological, pastoral and spiritual perspective. We would have liked to write only this last part, and that was our temptation, but that would have meant being unfaithful to the historical reality. Furthermore, it wouldn’t have helped to understand the suffering and the hope of the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua. The present Pope himself has said that this quality of being "of the poor" is a condition of the authenticity of the true Church, which follows Jesus Christ (see the encyclical "On Human Work," No. 8, 1981). The Church in its institutional and charismatic aspects should become more closely the Church of the Poor.
The political confrontation betweenIn the government's own political analysis and also in the interpretation by Christian institutions, 1985 was marked by two main confrontations: one with the counterrevolution (the aggression whose foreign base of support is an indispensable condition of its continuance), and the other with the institutional Church represented basically by Cardinal Obando (seen as the internal aggression). Comandante Tomás Borge once said privately, more or less in these words: "When ten thousand FDN soldiers attack us on the border, we know what we must do; but when a group of bishops attack us, we don't."
Cardinal Obando and the government
The importance and seriousness of the conflict between the cardinal and the government can only be understood through an analysis and interpretation of all the events that have taken place since Archbishop Obando became a cardinal. We won’t present a history of these events here, but will only mention the basic ones, in order to come up with a general interpretation located at the legitimate intersection between political analysis and theological reflection.
The basic fact is the very naming of Archbishop Obando as the cardinal of Central America on April 25, 1985. It is an objective and widely known fact in all of Latin America that a considerable number of people of good faith, not only among Sandinistas, perceive Archbishop Obando as the leading opposition figure within Nicaragua against the government. He maintains very special public relations with the opposition political parties, the business sectors, leaders of the armed opposition and the US administration. In January 1981 he even received an award from the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a key organization of religious neoconservatism in the US, one of whose ecumenical co-directors, Catholic theologian Michael Novak, has defended with no theological ambiguity the so-called "spirit of democratic capitalism." (It should not be forgotten that on November 17, 1979 the Nicaraguan bishops spoke out solemnly, and with equal emphasis, against both atheistic totalitarianism and dependent capitalism, an oppressor of countries like Nicaragua.)
It is a common opinion in Central America that Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas of San Salvador (or Archbishop Prospero Penados of Guatemala or Archbishop Marcos McGrath of Panama) were candidates with greater religious, ecclesiastical and theological stature in the region because of their pastoral work and capacity for dialogue, and because one is the successor to Archbishop Chavez and Archbishop Romero and is himself a Doctor of Canon Law. But the Holy Father chose for the cardinalate the episcopal personage most embroiled in conflict, most argued about and most ambiguous in every respect in the whole region. Jokingly it was said in Nicaragua that Archbishop Obando had become cardinal thanks to the revolution. It was a joke that only helped one to digest with a sense of humor a bitter reality whose effects are dramatic.
The government's first response to the appointment was the best possible diplomatic attitude. In a spirit of national pride, the government expressed gratitude that Nicaragua had been chosen among all the Central American countries for the honor. However, Costa Rica’s most important rightwing daily paper, La Nación, made this comment in its lead editorial on May 27, 1985: "Of all the choices for new cardinals, undoubtedly the the most interesting and significant one was the selection of Archbishop Obando, because of his known ties to his people’s political vicissitudes and his systematic criticisms of the present Nicaraguan government." The naming of Obando was described as "one of the most important events not only in the religious but also in the political sphere" and "an act worthy of John Paul II but also really a masterstroke politically."
Since then the Right in Nicaragua and the region have been delirious in exalting the figure of the cardinal. Many have described this as "Obando worship" or a "Creole papism" more papist than the pope himself, with a clear political tendency. Why did the pope unleash this process? We think that the root of the problem is not in Rome but rather in the way the counterrevolution has been operating in Nicaragua. In a twisted way, it has managed to disfigure Archbishop Obando’s Episcopal ministry, presenting him as a defender of violated human rights. All the international reports about human rights in Nicaragua recognize that this country has an official policy of respect for such rights and that this policy has failed only in some concrete cases. Even in such instances, the government and military law have frequently punished the offenders. The counterrevolution's attempt to manipulate this whole situation has distorted the meaning of the papal decisions, beyond the matter of good intentions. It must also be said, however, that Archbishop Obando has committed some acts that make him appear in fact responsible for the penetration of the counterrevolution into the depths and heights of the Church.
The new cardinal’s first Mass in America was celebrated on June 13, 1985 in Miami with about five thousand people, most of whom were Nicaraguan and Cuban exiles. Present in the congregation and perfectly visible on the videotape of the Mass were Adolfo Calero, the top FDN leader, and Eden Pastora. This came very close to a true scandal for the faith of most Nicaraguans, including those who are opposed to the Sandinistas but who in no way want to see the vengeful return of the Somocistas disguised as the “Nicaraguan Democratic Force."
Something can also be learned from the cardinal’s arrival in Managua, where there was an attempt to imitate the pope's arrival in 1983. envío was an eyewitness to the cardinal's arrival. In front of the airport, there were no more than about 3,000 people, 500 of whom staged the second incident between the Sandinista police and part of the population in almost seven years of revolution. The first took place in 198l when Alfonso Robelo, ex-member of the first Government of National Reconstruction junta, along with his party, the MDN, shouted the slogan” Go Nandaime." This meant that the city of Nandaime was being called to take part in a party demonstration, mainly of the bourgeoisie, at a moment when the Nicaraguan government was doing everything possible to lay the foundation of a broad-based national anti-imperialist unity. In 1985 at the airport, it was feared that the 500 "shock troops" might provoke something and vandalize the airport, causing costly damages in an impoverished country. Those who got injured in the confrontation were several police officers.
Not one Central American archbishop took part in the solemn Mass welcoming the new cardinal, nor any representative of Guatemala or Costa Rica, nor of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, nor the papal nuncio; some Nicaraguan bishops were even absent from the Eucharist. These conspicuous absences were a sign of how far the politicization of the cardinalate had gone. One text chosen for the Mass was that of Apocalypse l2:7ff: the struggle of Miguel (Obando?) against the red dragon (the revolutionary government?). Radio l5th of September, the official voice of the FDN, insistently put out this message: “People of Nicaragua, united with our cardinal.... There is a new opportunity to show that we have not been conquered by the communist enemy....United in our faith we are invincible."
On June 20, 1985, the cardinal began a journey throughout Nicaragua, with a somewhat greater emphasis on the three departments of his archdiocese (Managua, Masaya, and Carazo). A bishop’s visit to his diocese is a pastoral duty, but many circumstances gave this visit another character. In the first place, there were an extraordinary number of visits: more than 70 trips in four months (an average of four per week). Then there are the political trappings that the opposition gave this trip, with total complacency by the bishop. People used the following titles in referring to him: Prince of the Church; Cardinal of Peace, of Youth, of Hope, of Reconciliation; Pastor of Nicaraguans; Pioneer of the Faith in Latin America; Prophet of the 20th Century...
He went from one place to another in the "Cardinal-mobile" (a poor imitation of the Pope-mobile, but symbolic nonetheless). In all large assemblies, there were never more than 4,000 people except for the day he arrived, when there were about 30,000. In these events a political climate of opposition against the government was in the air. To illustrate this delirious excitement of the political Right, we quote here some parts of the La Prensa daily newspaper’s editorial of July 14, 1985 about Cardinal Obando: "One thousand will fall at his right hand, and ten thousand at his left, but his enemies will not touch him, because he is the chosen one of the Lord... The life of Cardinal Obando is a mirror that reflects the glory of God.... He does not speak in his own name, but the Lord speaks through his mouth."
The central theme of Obando's preaching is reconciliation,¬ a positive and biblical theme, but the cardinal gives it a political content along the lines of Reagan's thinking. For Reagan "reconciliation" is brought about through dialogue with the counterrevolution, and the condition for this "dialogue" is that the Sandinistas abandon the revolutionary program; “peace" will come when the revolution is overthrown; while it exists, there will be war against Nicaragua. The proposal of dialogue with the counterrevolution as an indispensable condition for peace was contained in the pastoral letter of the Holy Year of Reconciliation (April 14, 1984), which the bishops' conference as a whole signed. Other documents, with the exception of one in the spring of 1985 offering to mediate, have gone out with only the signature of the Bishop-Secretary of the Conference—a sure sign of the absence of one or more bishops from the agreement or of their explicit disagreement.
In order to discern the theological strength of the cardinal's call for reconciliation, it is of the utmost importance that Nicaraguans keep in mind the words of Scripture: "Peace will be the work of justice and the fruits of justice will be tranquility and security forever" (Is. 32:17); "justice will go before him, and peace will follow his steps" (Psalm 85:l4). We all know what Zaccheus had to do to be reconciled with God and with the people: share half of his goods with the poor and make a fourfold return to those he had exploited (Luke 19). If this logic of the gospel is not followed, the demands of reconciliation can be changed into blackmail (demanding surrender on an important matter of justice).
The cardinal’s travels around Nicaragua became dangerous not so much because of the number of those in attendance, or because of the message given, but especially because rightwing politicians tried to use his visit to create a social organization that could be easily used by the counterrevolution. The latter was unsuccessful in its efforts to build its internal front, and the cardinal's trips presented an occasion for the opposition politicians to create a political climate that tends to bring together those who are unhappy with the government.
The Archdiocesan Commission for Social Promotion (COPROSA) is one of the elements used indirectly for that purpose. It is a matter of public knowledge that COPROSA receives funds from the US government's Agency for International Development (AID) and from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, an institution of the German Christian Democrats for development assistance. The political logic of this is clear: to the extent that the military aggression from outside is defeated, it’s necessary to create an internal military front, and the only possible social space for this is offered by the Church. The economic pressure has failed; the opposition that held aloof from the elections has lost standing within the country; and La Prensa has become too extremist. The bourgeois groups, now out of power, thus have a great interest in taking advantage of the cardinal’s civic-political sentiments and converting him into a standard-bearer of the opposition.
This inescapable connection between the Church and the internal front is so notable and serious that the government decided to intervene. Daniel Ortega declared in a meeting with Church representatives on his last trip to the US that there are three alternatives for dealing with those who are directly responsible for creating the internal military front: jail them, deport them from the country or control them. The government decided on the third option and so declared the State of Emergency on October l5, 1985.
In countries under military dictatorship, like Chile and Paraguay, the State of Emergency is a legal instrument to institutionalize repression of the people. But in Nicaragua, where there is a popular revolution, it’s used to defend the people from the external and internal aggression. As an important document signed by more than 100 priests and religious put it: "This measure (the State of Emergency), even if it were objectively a mistake, has been taken not to repress the people but to protect their interests in the face of the threats that stalk the revolution" (Manager, December, 1985, No. 38-39, pp. l0-l2). The State of Emergency is not accompanied by any curfew or martial law. What the government wants is precisely to avoid jailing or deportations of Church people involved in the counterrevolution. The government seeks to have controls with the least possible cost, and the only ones who are suffering are those who are caught red-handed conspiring against the revolution and using illegal and subversive means. (A legal and legitimate opposition does exist, recognized by the government.)
The poor don’t even notice of the State of Emergency, since there are no roadblocks in the streets or highways, the cities are safe, the peasant villages—except in war zones—enjoy relative tranquility, and those who can afford to travel continue, as a general norm, coming and going to and from the country. The government has promised to end the State of Emergency as soon as the US government stops attacking and threatening Nicaragua.
In the final months of 1985, the government succeeded in controlling the whole economic, social, political and cultural organization that serves as a base for the counterrevolution, above all by deciding to arrest the couriers and informants of the counterrevolution. It thus prevented this network from being used in religious ways by the internal counterrevolution. (An important fact, which shows the character of the organizations in this network, is that almost none of them were legally registered in keeping with the laws in effect in Nicaragua.) The first issue of the publication called Iglesia was confiscated and the government intervened in COPROSA for having printed it because its publisher refused to comply with a law in common use in many countries: to register as a new publication with the appropriate government office.
Considering the data we’ve analyzed, we can say that the confrontation between the cardinal and the government lends itself to a clear political interpretation, although expressly religious motives are invoked, such as fear of the government’s presumed militant atheism. The conflict has none of the characteristics of true religious persecution. It is the cardinal who has lent himself to the politicization of the conflict. This isn’t to deny that there have been irregularities, abuses and errors by the government apparatus in applying the emergency law to religious entities. They are condemnable and should be corrected quickly. But above all, it’s necessary to discern the meaning and the reason behind historical processes.
In many Latin American countries, the people use the Church’s social arena to defend their rights and their life (especially under military dictatorships). It’s a different case when this space is used by a minority to destroy a revolution that defends the life of the majority. The President of Nicaragua has said that Nicaragua will not allow the revolutionary process to be undermined as it was in Chile. The fact is that many of those who previously oppressed the people and didn’t get involved in the Church are now being converted to the most ardent devotion, having been displaced by the revolution. They openly lament the country’s persistent poverty as if it were due mainly to a “new class," which they call dominant and unjust. Of course, there have been some clear mistakes and blind alleys in the economic and social welfare policies, but the former oppressors want to blame everything on this supposed new class, ignoring the legacy of their own former system, the impact of the embargo, the blockade of loans from multilateral lending institutions and the war of aggression. In jest Nicaraguans speak of the "miracle of the revolution," which converted Somocistas and those turned off to the process, who were also previously cold to religion, into "good Catholics" and fervent defenders of the Church.
The political nature of the confrontation between the cardinal and the government was also made clear later on by the cardinal’s attitude outside Nicaragua. In January 1986 the cardinal went to the US seeking solidarity and support in the face of a presumed "persecution of the Church." But, with whom did he speak and what did he request? He visited the United Nations and the Organization of American States, asking for protection for the Church in the face of the threat that would be coming down on it from the Nicaraguan government. He also visited many well-known US neoconservative political organizations, and his words were used directly and explicitly to legitimize Reagan's campaign to get Congress to approve the $l00 million in aid to the counterrevolution. The cardinal never denounced the aggression against his own people, which has now produced 12,000 victims and heavily burdened the majority with a cruel war economy. (See Teofilo Cabestrero, ¬Blood of the Innocent¬, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y., 1985.)
Why did the cardinal visit the US just when the campaign of support for the counterrevolution was going on in that country? Why did he see fit to denounce right then the deportation of the ten priests, the closing of Radio Católica (for not having linked up with the national network to broadcast President Ortega's New Year speech, which is legally required)? Reagan, in his March l8 speech to legitimize economic support for the contras, cited the cardinal’s exact words: "The Catholic prelate of Nicaragua, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, has spoken directly about the matter: 'We want to state clearly,'" Reagan quotes Obando as saying, "'that this government is totalitarian and we are facing an enemy of the Church.'" Not only the objectivity, but also the actual truthfulness of a number of points in that speech was later challenged (see News Analysis, this issue of envío.) Only Cardinal Obando kept silent.
To conclude this section we would like to cite and analyze briefly the actions of Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega of Juigalpa, who has been an ideological companion of Cardinal Obando in his political confrontation with the government. This bishop, in the very midst of the campaign in the US for $l00 million for the contras, accepted an invitation from the Heritage Foundation, a top organization of the extreme Right in that country and author of ¬Mandate 2,¬ a program for Reagan’s second term. In his visit to the US, he attacked the revolution and launched the calumny that in Nicaragua three priests had been killed. Upon his return to Nicaragua he retracted this and said that they were three Delegates of the Word.(The Director of State Security, Comandante Lenín Cerna, indicated that two of the murders were certain and that it was equally certain—and known by Bishop Vega—that the killers had been judged and condemned to 30 years in prison. He asked the bishop to give data about the third case, which was unknown to State Security.)
In the judgment of US social scientists of the Latin American Studies Association, the greatest scandal has to do with the bishop of Juigalpa’s "theology," a real "theology of death." On his return to Nicaragua, he said: "Man without the soul is worth nothing, and man without the body lives" (El Nuevo Diario, March l3, 1986). He had already said once before that “there is military aggression, but there is also ideological aggression, and obviously it is worse to kill the soul than to kill the body" (Amanecer, No. 36-37, p. 36). He has often insisted that the counterrevolutionaries kill the body, but the Sandinistas kill the soul, which is much worse.
This is, in synthesis, a sad theology of death, whose foundation was condemned by Fray Bartólome de las Casas when he denounced some conquistadors for justifying the baptism of Indians condemned to death: "A live Indian who is not a Christian is better than a dead Indian who has been made a Christian." In the 16th century Juan Gines de Sepulveda justified the genocide of forty million Indians with the same arguments as those used today: that it was legitimate to make war against Indians and even to torture them if necessary, in order to subjugate them and save their souls. Nicaraguan Christians have expressed their desire that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concern itself with these deviations from the truth that jeopardize the faith and with those pillars of the faith who do not recognize the absolute immorality of tearing down the dignity of the human being (image and child of God) by such practices as torture.
This political conflict between the cardinal and the government (in which an important part of the Nicaraguan hierarchy doesn’t participate) is truly a cross for the Church and the people of Nicaragua, but a torrent of hope always springs up from every cross.
The "Evangelical Insurrection" (July 1985 - April 1986) We have already said that July 1985 is the starting point of a third stage in the history of the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua. Let’s look at the major events of this stage and their meaning for the future of the Church.
1. Origin of the Evangelical InsurrectionThe "Fast and Prayer for Peace, in Defense of Life and Against US Terrorism" took place between July 7 and August 6, 1985. Fr. Miguel D'Escoto, who is also the foreign minister of the revolutionary government, served as the catalyst of this experience. The site was the Sacred Heart parish in the Monsignor Lezcano neighborhood of Managua, which is under the direction of the Dominican Fathers. The Ecumenical Research Department (DEI) of Costa Rica has published a book titled ¬Un Grito a Dios y al Mundo. El Ayuno por la Paz del Canciller D'Escoto y del Pueblo de Nicaragua¬ by Teofilo Cabestrero, which gives a synthetic and lucid narrative and analysis of the whole evangelical insurrection from all possible points of view. Here we cannot even summarize this testimony, but will give the basic facts.
The fast was not undertaken spontaneously or without reflection. It was the fruit of a long transformation both in the Church of the Poor and within Miguel D'Escoto himself. Fr. D'Escoto has the great merit of having acted as the spark touching off the process, but really it was a question of the irrepressible eruption of an enormous spiritual force that had been welling up within a religious sector that sees in the revolutionary process what the bishops saw in November 1979: "the best opportunity to fulfill and carry out the Latin American Church's option for the cause of the poor."
There were four reasons for the upsurge of this evangelical insurrection. First, Reagan and his administration had definitely adopted the attitude of destroying the Nicaraguan revolution, using terror, death and lies to achieve that goal. Secondly, theological arguments were being used to justify this aggression against Nicaragua, invoking such expressions as a holy war between good and evil, between God and Satan, between the US and Russia. Reagan presents himself as a defender of the values of the gospel and the Church, in keeping with the strategy suggested in the famous Santa Fe Document and previously, in l976, in the Plan Banzer.
In the third place, the Nicaraguan Catholic hierarchy was being consciously silent in light of this aggression and its theological justification. The only exceptions were three isolated declarations, by the bishops of Estelí and Matagalpa and by the auxiliary bishop on the Atlantic Coast. The latter, Bishop Pablo Schmitz, a US-born Capuchin, stated in December l984: "In Nicaragua it is a question of a war of the Empire against the people." He stated that he could not be in favor of direct US intervention.
Lastly, there was recognition of the need to turn to the potential of the poor to evangelize, to the spiritual force of the oppressed, to the hidden energy of the weak against the strong.
Nicaragua's confrontation with imperialism involved all fronts: military, economic, political, diplomatic and legal. Now the confrontation would also be played out on spiritual and theological ground, and here Nicaragua's only force is the faith of the poor and believing people on the way to liberation and the Church's own weapons as it follows Jesus Christ: the appeal to a future of nonviolence and the present use, along with justified defense, of prayer and fasting in solidarity with the people's suffering.
Let’s hear some personal testimonies in order to grasp something of the meaning of that evangelical insurrection launched with Fr. Miguel D'Escoto’s prayer and fasting:
“Our weapons—prayer and fasting—are more powerful than Reagan's weapons.”
“Our continent is marked by four centuries of hunger, and going without food today is a weapon in our struggle for liberation.”
“Father, empires tremble with these actions.”
“You people have shown us our strength.”
“Our only weapon is God, our defender.”
“We have joined Fr. Miguel's fast because we can’t bear the war any more.”
“Every day in the mountains we poor people suffer from the aggression and want peace, so we made the sacrifice to come to pray with Fr. Miguel.”
“You have broadened our ways of struggling against the evil empire,” and this is a “slap at the imperialism which is attacking us.”
“Through your prayer and sacrifice, Jesus Christ will light a brilliant lamp within imperialism that will make them see the injustice being committed against our people”
“Fasting is stronger than the war that is attacking us.”
“Today the BLI [Special Warfare Battalion] is with you through this letter, and we hope that your great sacrifice will not be in vain and that the mountains will tremble and move, as all of Nicaragua prays with you to the God of life.”
“To many it seems crazy that our small country opposes and resists the empire. But this prophetic resistance, as well as the armed resistance, is a clear sign of a great and tremendous hope.”
Those who came to visit Fr. Miguel were mainly ordinary people and the young, but in some way everyone became part of the evangelical insurrection: unorganized Christians and Christians organized in communities; militants of the FSLN; militia members and soldiers; merchants and government ministers; peasants, workers, poor city folks, etc. There were also many "internationalists" (people who come to Nicaragua to show solidarity in various ways) who came to take part in the fast, prayer and personal testimony. There is a real spiritual mass movement. Teofilo Cabestrero, in the book we have already cited, sums up the experience this way:
“The foreign minister saw that Nicaragua now is not simply facing ideological, political, economic and military aggression from the greatest power on earth, but is also confronting an obstinate determination to destroy Nicaragua root and branch. D'Escoto also recognized that this aggression has such a capacity for lying and for false messianism, for manipulating and identifying itself with the moral will of God that it amounts to a kind of metaphysical or mystical fight of good against evil. In view of all this, D'Escoto turned to a dramatic act which went beyond the battle fronts already established in the US war against the Sandinistas—a theological war in which Reagan wants to be the incarnation of some divine mission to be the arbiter of good and the destroyer of evil in Nicaragua.
“It is up to the Church, to Christians, in the name of their faith and their mission in the world, to pull the rug out from under Reagan's manipulation of the Christian God, of the Church, of the faith and of people’s religious consciousness. D'Escoto feels that it is up to the Church hierarchy above all to respond. And he is convinced that the Church can stop the war and achieve peace for Nicaragua and all of Central America, if the bishops speak.
“But the Church hierarchy maintains a silence that is deafening in that it allows lying, religious manipulation, war and death—a silence which, in D'Escoto's estimation, makes the Church an accomplice and an even more guilty party than Reagan because of its mission as the Church of Christ. And he feels called to initiate a cry to God and the world with gospel actions that unleash a growing evangelical insurrection of Christians in Nicaragua, the US, Latin America and the world.”
On July l4 in León, six thousand representatives of grassroots Christian Communities throughout Nicaragua came together around the theme “Christ, the Lord of Life, strengthen our hope as we face the aggression." With this mass mobilization the evangelical insurrection was stepped up, and throughout the country more and more people joined in the prayer and fasting. July 26 was proclaimed a National Day of Fasting for Peace. It is surprising that this day was observed not only by the organized Christians but also by many others, including officials: in some markets no food was sold, some restaurants in state buildings were closed, and the President of the Republic himself kept a strict fast that day. The fast begun by Miguel D'Escoto had a massive impact on the whole country, not only on the organized Church. The message proclaimed on the national day of fasting stated, among other things: "Today we are depriving ourselves of food as a community sign that we are in pain because of the hunger and the war that the imperial demon is inflicting upon us.”
On July 23, Fr. D'Escoto received a letter from Dom Paolo Evaristo Arns, a Franciscan, Cardinal of Sao Paolo, Brazil. The letter says in part: “Your fast in the present circumstances focuses the world's ethical conscience on the serious situation in which the people of your country are living. By your prophetic act you are denouncing the attempts to kill the seed of new life planted by the Sandinista Revolution.”
Cardinal Arns' own prophetic act lent the evangelical insurrection a broad Latin American religious dimension, the historic importance of which will remain forever inscribed in our consciousness.
On July 28 Dom Pedro Casaldaliga, the bishop of Sao Felix do Araguaia, Brazil, arrived in Nicaragua. He would stay until September 22. “I do not come alone,” he stated; “I represent 23 Brazilian bishops and 200 human rights, labor and Christian organizations of Brazil.” Dom Pedro certainly represented much more: the whole outcry of the poor Christian people of Latin America in their search for life. Dom Pedro visited seven of the eight regions of the country; he went to almost every corner of Nicaragua, consoling, preaching and giving testimony of his hope and his faith in the Church. Nicaragua covers l30 square kilometers, while Dom Pedro's diocese alone in Brazil covers l50 square kilometers; thus the bishop's Nicaraguan itinerary was well within his capacity.
Many people criticized the visit as an intervention by another local Church in the internal affairs of the Nicaraguan Church. Dom Pedro, however, described his visit as “an ecclesiastical service of apostolic co-responsibility.” We believe that he was not rupturing Church unity but only breaking with a certain structure of neo-Christendom, which paralyzes the Church because it’s based on fear of a presumed (and possible) militant totalitarian atheism. The latter becomes a "God of Evil" whose power is imagined to be greater than the power of the God of Jesus Christ, and this is a terrible manichaeanism come back to life. Dom Pedro tried every possible way to be in communion with the bishops of Nicaragua’s local Churches, but that communion was denied him.
The people, in contrast, completely opened their arms to his visit, welcoming him as a prophet and universal pastor visiting the People of God in solidarity with them. His concern was, in the words of St. Paul, the "concern for all the Churches," which is the basis of the bishops' pastoral co-responsibility as rediscovered by the Second Vatican Council. The Bishop participated fully in the fasting and prayer and in the evangelical insurrection, and his visit gave new strength, an ecclesial dimension and a Latin American character to this Church which came to birth in Nicaragua through the power of the Spirit of God in a historical process that awakened and released for good the memory of what Jesus said and did. This visit will also be recorded forever in the history of the Latin American Church, as an event as important as the outcry in Havana of Montesinos, the Dominican, when he denounced the unjust conquest in the 16th century.
Within the context of the evangelical insurrection and during the International Week for Peace (September 8-15), Brazilian theologians Leonardo Boff, Clodovis Boff and Frei Betto also visited Nicaragua. Another visitor was Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. These visits, like that of Bishop Casaldaliga, reinforced the evangelical and ecclesiastical character of the evangelical insurrection. Boff, who as we go to press has just been relieved of the order to keep silent, spoke these prophetic words in a sermon during the Eucharist:
“In Nicaragua we have learned that it is possible not only to have a new society but also to have a new style of Church within it. And we have a lot to learn from the Nicaraguan Church. The Nicaraguans have given us testimony of a faith that continues in spite of the scandal of important official sectors of the Church—a faith that lives amidst contradiction. To believe in the Church means to believe in spite of so many Christians in this Church.
“You have lived with public scandal at the very top and have not abandoned the Church. They wanted to throw you out, calling you the ‘Popular Church.’ But you answered: ‘No, we are the heirs of the great Church of the Apostles, we are in communion with that Church, in spite of the contradictions.’”
The Church of the Poor in Nicaragua was not the same after receiving all this Christian, prophetic, apostolic and Latin American solidarity.
The rebirth of the Church of the PoorWith the experience of the fast and prayer and with the evangelical insurrection, the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua went through a radical change in its way of operating. It saw the birth of a really new ecclesial and pastoral methodology. Furthermore, there is a pluralism that tolerates a diversity of charismas. The following elements emerge from this new history:
l) The Church of the Poor moves forth now with its own project, one that springs forth from its own dynamic and identity. Before, it was only reacting to what the neo-Christendom Church or the government was doing. It was a Church that was always responding to other people's issues; since 1972 (with frustrated post-Medellin pastoral workshops) it had been unable to bring forth its own issues to which others would respond. But now the Church of the Poor comes forth with the ability to take the initiative, thanks to its own spiritual experience within the Nicaraguan revolutionary process.
2) The Church of the Poor is rediscovering more clearly those properly Christian actions and signs that are part of the more evangelical identity and more traditional religiosity of the Latin American Church, such as experiences of prayer and fasting, vigils, processions, letters to the Churches, etc. The symbolism and the whole way of speaking now have a spiritual, theological and ecclesiastical identity. The inevitable political strength and dimension of their actions and signs don’t disappear; in fact, they even grow; but now the Church acts and speaks with an ecclesial and religious identity that is proper to it and distinguishes it from other social and political organizations involved in the revolutionary process. This even raises suspicions among some ideologically orthodox Marxists who just go by the book and their simplistic "catechisms." Today the Church of the Poor is truly "Church" in Nicaragua and, as such, also has its liberating function.
3) By word and action the Church of the Poor locates itself within the life of the people, as much on the human level as on the religious. The fast is really a response to an objective situation—hunger—in people’s lives although subjectively those who are in increasing material want because of the war and the embargo don’t find it easy to understand. Likewise, the attitudes involved in vigils, prayer, resistance, denunciation of injustice, solidarity, etc. have an echo in people's very vital religious experiences. In this instance, the Church really adopted the popular sentiment and religion (which it will adopt even more fully in the Way of the Cross in February l986). Thus the international community understood what the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua was doing and proclaiming; and its message, while touching the heart of the Christian people (whether organized or unorganized) in Nicaragua was heard at the same time on a massive scale in Mexico and Brazil, in Catalonia and Holland, for example. The people have always experienced the closeness of God in their suffering and in their struggle for life and justice; now the Church, through the fast, also went down into that suffering of people in search of God.
4) The Church of the Poor was able to keep up a long campaign in which many events came together with the same meaning and message. The evangelical insurrection was a great mission of mass evangelization, kept up for several months, which succeeded in having a real impact on the national conscience. Before, the Church was getting lost and burning out in helter-skelter activism, and people couldn’t grasp what the Church’s path or project was.
5) All the activity of the Church of the Poor doesn’t get directly polarized with the hierarchy; it doesn’t act in direct opposition to the hierarchy. Certainly the hierarchy's silence about imperialism's aggression from without is an important element in motivating the evangelical insurrection, but the insurrection isn’t against the hierarchy; it is rather against the military aggression and pseudo-theology of imperialism. Before, the life of the Church of the Poor was very centered in on the intra-ecclesiastical conflict, burning up its energy in the continuous confrontation with certain bishops. Now it devotes all its energies to growing on the soil where it has its main strength: the poor and faithful people of Nicaragua and the grassroots Christian communities. The intra-ecclesial conflict goes on; in fact, it is even growing. But that isn’t the conflict that defines the Church born of the people by the power of the Spirit of God. Bishop Casaldaliga's visit helped it to have a true ecclesiastical balance and to live through the Church conflict in a spirit of faith and communion. (The Bishop-Secretary of the Nicaraguan Bishops' Conference bitterly protested Bishop Casaldaliga’s visit, but his counterpart in the Brazilian Bishops' Conference responded that he respected the protest but also respected the prophetic inspiration of Dom Pedro Casaldaliga and the 23 bishops who supported his visit.)
It is a matter of general knowledge that there’s a conflict in the Nicaraguan Church, but fewer people today are making that conflict the center of their faith or their action, either in the political or religious sphere. Now there’s a greater search for ways to live out the conflict within the communion of the Church, or in respect for that sector of the Church that wants to become more "of the poor." People know that the conflict isn’t overcome by confrontation but by the growth of the Church among the poor and faithful people.
6) The Church of the Poor in Nicaragua discovered the spiritual force of Latin American ecclesial solidarity, drew new life from it and made it part of its own identity. The apostolic dimension of the Church and its ecumenical and Latin American breadth remained etched in the history and the very essence of the Church of the Poor. This new model of Church that is emerging within the Latin American Church and in communion with it will be really Church if it is ecumenical-"catholic," i.e., universal and nonexclusive—and Latin American. International solidarity became an indelible part of Nicaragua’s religious consciousness and an essential element in its identity. In this regard, the contribution of the Church living in Brazil was important and decisive. This profoundly ecclesial solidarity between the Nicaraguan and Brazilian Church is very significant for the future of the Latin American Church.
7) The Church of the Poor in Nicaragua discovered new methods of communication with the people, especially the use of the spoken word. Previously there was too much use of the written message or discourse, which is more conceptual and rational. During the fast, the use of radio was decisive to reach the population; very few read newspapers, and not all people watch TV, but the radio is on the air throughout Nicaragua. The Church moved into that space with a powerful and strong spoken word, going beyond the purely written tradition so typical of an intellectualized minority culture. We moved from the dominant written tradition to a popular oral tradition.
8) Finally, by means of a sustained campaign with deep significance for the people, the Church of the Poor succeeded in launching, amidst difficulties, a process to overcome its organic limitations. Through the strength of the active presence of the lay people of God, every effort is being made to achieve better coordination of all the energies and resources. There are serious efforts to overcome individualistic "bossism," institutional selfishness and private jealousies, which are part of the past and belong to an excessively ecclesiastical heritage that the Nicaraguan people want to air out with more spiritual breezes. The evangelical insurrection allowed people to express to the Church their demand for unity. They were experiencing only one faith and only one hope, and that generated greater communion in the Church of the Poor. Communion also grew because the people now had an identity and an historical project as the Church of the Poor.
The Way of the Cross for Peace and Life The Way of the Cross took place between February l4 and 28, l986. It was organized as a second popular evangelizing "mission" of the Church of the Poor, to deepen and broaden the evangelical insurrection. The journey went from Jalapa, near the Honduran border, down to Managua, a distance of 326 kilometers. There were l5 stations, each held in a town or city along the way; each day's march covered 25 to 30 kilometers. This was an extraordinary physical and spiritual effort.
Again Miguel D'Escoto was the catalyst of the campaign, and about 80 people marched the whole way with him. Among them were 10 people with war disabilities who made the journey in wheelchairs. Certain legs of the journey saw between 500 and 2,000 people marching. More than 100,000 people took part in the procession as a whole, with its 15 stations. It was another massive event, which had a great impact on the consciousness of the entire country. The high point of the journey was at Estelí, the city that saw three uprisings of the people against Somoza in 1978 and 1979. Twenty thousand people turned out to welcome the Way of the Cross; and when the procession left, Bishop López Ardón embraced Fr. D'Escoto and blessed the pilgrims.
The Way of the Cross ended with a religious celebration in the Plaza of the Revolution in Managua. Mass was celebrated on the entrance steps of the cathedral, and about 15 thousand people in the plaza participated. The liturgy was concelebrated by 72 priests, between a third and a fourth of all the priests in Nicaragua. People gave very moving testimonies. One speaker was an 80-year-old man who had been with the Way of the Cross for the whole journey and who in his early years had been a soldier in Sandino's army. He is now a Delegate of the Word. He said that four of his sons were heroes who had been killed in the present war and that several of his grandchildren are in military service.
A festive note was added to the occasion when pine torches were lit in the middle of the service and some fireworks were set off toward the end. Then came Miguel D'Escoto's sermon. It was a powerful and solemn moment. Miguel bore the marks of a 326-kilometer journey made in 15 days without rest. News had just arrived of the indirect participation of Cardinal Obando y Bravo and more active involvement of Bishop Pablo Vega in giving a religious boost to Reagan's campaign to give $100 million to the counterrevolution. Miguel was deeply moved by the whole religious spirit of the event, and the long march had been a kind of ascetic purification for him. He was also heartbroken by the tragic drama of the aggression being carried out by imperialism and the contras and was spiritually torn apart by the attitude of Archbishop Obando and Bishop Vega. His prophetic homily surprised everyone.
His words were heard throughout the country, since they were broadcast over 17 radio stations; TV cameras, however, were not there. Miguel was completely transfigured, and he seemed to be carried along by a kind of prophetic hurricane—all of this was unusual in Miguel. He addressed himself to Cardinal Obando in a personal and direct way, telling the cardinal that his hands were stained with blood and that he had betrayed the people by approving aid to the counterrevolution. He told the cardinal not to say Mass because of the situation he had gotten himself into. Some people misinterpreted these words as if Miguel were getting back at the cardinal because he, Miguel, had been suspended from the priesthood; but Miguel clarified this matter unmistakably in two subsequent televised forums.
Miguel went on to call the cardinal to repent. He urged him not to go to Rome or anywhere else outside Nicaragua in such circumstances, and repeated that there was still time to repent. He told the cardinal that, if he was listening at the moment, he should not turn off his radio or TV (Miguel thought that there was live TV coverage of the event) but should listen because he was being called to repentance. Everyone was astonished at Miguel's words. His listeners felt that they were seeing a replay of Peter's speech on the first Pentecost, where some people had their doubts as to whether the apostles were possessed by the Spirit or just drunk.
The government was surprised and somewhat overtaken by events. Its policy, when all is said and done, has tended toward dialogue. The grassroots Christian communities felt that the sermon was prophetic and authentic. They expressed support for Miguel but also offered him some fraternal correction. A considerable number of priests who were at the Mass took the same position as that of the grassroots Christian communities.
The Church of the Poor decided to move forward with the methodology that had been adopted in the evangelical insurrection, deepening and enriching it at the level of action. Thus new actions were decided upon that would involve people’s massive participation. Vigils, prayers and fasts are being organized to pray for peace and life in Nicaragua. The war-wounded and the mothers of heroes and martyrs are giving voice to the call D'Escoto had addressed to the cardinal. They, as the main victims of the aggression against the people, are sending letters to their pastor and knocking on the door of his home, asking the cardinal to change his opinion and, in their eyes, be "converted." Miguel's words have called forth the people's own potential to evangelize.
Why is a Church of the Poor born in Nicaragua?The growing strength of the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua is a basic fact that must be kept in mind in order to understand where the Church is in Nicaragua, what its specific identity is and why it’s springing forth with such force within the revolutionary process. The Church of the Poor is not an idea imposed from above or outside, but comes into being from the very logic of the faith lived within a revolution. It is the ecclesiastical expression of a spiritual experience—mediated by an analysis of the reality and the options—lived within the history of a people. Now more than ever before the Church of the Poor has been able to show its essentially Nicaraguan character while remaining an integral part of the universal Catholic Church.
Let’s take a quick look at the character of the Sandinista popular revolution and see how a new spiritual and ecclesiastical experience is being born within it. With this reflection, we’re not denying that the gift of the Spirit exercises its own causality in the Church, calling forth the people's faith response to the Holy Spirit's action in history. We’re simply trying to understand the concrete genesis of a local Church in an equally concrete set of circumstances.
l) The axis of the present crisis in the system is the North-South conflict, i.e., the confrontation between the poor countries (and the poor within those countries) and the power centers located especially in the countries of the North. Basically it’s not a question of a power confrontation between large blocs, which would constitute an East-West conflict, but rather a confrontation of the poor majorities against the centers of power—poor majorities who struggle on behalf of life against the economic, political, financial, military and ideological centers of death. What marks the North-South, life-death confrontation is the eruption of the poor.
Therefore a Church of the Poor is born as an organic ecclesiastical expression of the faith and the lived spiritual experience of the world's poor. It’s not a question of a Church defined by some ideology; it’s not a matter of a Sandinista or socialist Church. Rather, what we’re talking about is a Church of the poor who struggle for life and believe in the God of the life of the poor. At the same time, they hold firmly to what they see as the historical vehicle of their hope for dignity and for a role in shaping history. We should view the Church from the position of the poor, who are the majority in the third world, and not from the perspective of an supposed ideological expansion of the Eastern countries that want to manipulate the Church. We’re talking about a Church that is reborn at the same time as a new revolutionary historical subject enters the historical scene in Central America—as analyzed in the special January-February issue of envío.
The Church of the Poor is inspired by Jesus of Nazareth, the Servant of Yahweh; as such, in all humility it aspires to be the spiritual force of the third world in its struggle for life and against death; it does not want to be the spiritual force of the west in its struggle against communism, because it doesn’t want to live out of fear but rather out of a spirit of freedom in openness toward the future. In other words, the North-South conflict defines the historical context of the Church of the Poor, not the East-West conflict. The spiritual logic of the Church of the Poor is the logic of the majorities who seek not only life but a life worth living for all, while they view that life as part of the happiness promised in the Beatitudes and part of the Kingdom inherited by those who practice the works of sisterhood and brotherhood in history (Mat 25: 31-45).
This is not the logic of any ideology smuggled into the Church. The logic of the life of the poor historically parallels the logic of the Sandinista revolution. The latter is a revolution that has made not so much an ideological option as a preferential option for the poor, although due to the human weakness of every political project it hasn’t always been able to live up to its ideal. In that context, the Church of the Poor is born in Nicaragua and the evangelical insurrection showed that basic historical insertion.
2) Earlier crises in the system had shown a strictly economic, political and military dimension, whereas the present crisis also shows an ethical, spiritual and religious dimension. What is at stake now is the very life of the planet and the future of humanity. The crisis has to do with the meaning of life and the historical future of humanity. The system, with all its technological and military development and with its consequences of consumerism and materialism that are destructive of life, is forcing a totally irrational model of development upon us more and more.
The poor of the third world are aware of this problem, so they’re offering a response not only on the economic or political level but also on the ethical and spiritual level. The poor of the first world are beginning to join their third world brothers and sisters in this, too. It’s not about tacking on some kind of spiritualism, as is the case in the false spiritual response of the empire and the sects; we are rather talking about the ethical and spiritual meaning of life itself, of the very model of development, and of the technological and financial development we want. When we see the poor majorities of the third world dying, we’re looking not only at an economic or technical problem but also at a dramatic ethical and spiritual problem. Therefore, the response of third world revolutions has that spiritual meaning more and more today. There is also the desire to have that spiritual dimension at the heart of the economic and political processes in the Central American revolution.
The development of the Church of the Poor also parallels the spiritual dimension of present revolutionary processes, and this is not by chance. We can’t understand the popular revolution in Nicaragua in purely economic or political terms; we must analyze it also in theological and spiritual terms. Therefore, it might be difficult to understand the revolution in Nicaragua if there hadn’t been a Church of the Poor that committed itself to 1979 insurrection. And now the evangelical insurrection gives new life and ferment to that first insurrection.
Within this historical context, we can understand the profound importance of the new birth of the Church of the Poor in Nicaragua and its projection for all of Latin America. But this historical context also helps us understand the fury of the imperial beast and the anger of the false imperial prophet, which will not let up until it destroys the very soul and spirit of the insurrection of the poor and of the peoples of the third world. The Church of those rising up against the empire has now found its historical space and its spiritual and mystical identity within the liberation struggle of the poor.
The revolution triumphed against Somoza and then in the literacy campaign, and it is holding its own in the battle for production and for a more just distribution, as well as in health and in defense; and it has begun to triumph also in the faith and religion of the people. Today in Nicaragua there is not only a more just kind of production, and not only do people have greater security, health and education; but also the evangelical insurrection permits a sector of the one Church to celebrate the presence of the God of the Poor in our history of liberation, and to do so with all possible fullness and joy. The moment of the revolution of the poor is also now the Spirit's time of grace (kairos) in the history of Central America.
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Post ScriptAs this April issue of envío was going to press, a pastoral letter of the bishops' conference on the Eucharistic Year in the Nicaraguan Church, was published, dated April 6, l986. In this eight-page letter, titled "The Eucharist, Source of Unity and Reconciliation," the bishops substantially confirm positions they have already expressed in the past concerning dialogue and national reconciliation "with all Nicaraguans," and they attack what they call the "popular Church" which, in their view, "works actively to undermine the unity of the Church itself." However, we want to refer briefly here to the chapter called "The Judgment of History" in order to understand better the philosophy of history that underpins the bishops' analysis. Here are some quotes: "As time passes and passions cool down, man sees more clearly how imprudent and irresponsible were the arguments and reasons on which the politicians of the past based their intransigence in refusing to dialogue and in throwing our people into war. Before the judgment of history, every fratricidal war in the past could have been avoided, and no war resulted in any solution that could not have been obtained through timely dialogue and a sincere correction of each side's errors. Today the motives that were given for the wars Nicaragua has suffered throughout its history appear unjustifiable to us."
This ignorance of history and of its laws today leads the episcopate to the absurd position of considering "unjustifiable" the Indians' resistance to the conquistadors, the Central American struggle against William Walker, General Sandino's war of national liberation and finally the current defense of the revolution. And what is the solution called for by the bishops? Dialogue and sincere correction of mistakes. This is to say that if Sandino and Somoza had enjoyed a glass of wine and some friendly conversation together, perhaps... However, it was precisely after such a banquet that Sandino was kidnapped and killed. History doesn’t forget that, but it seems that the Nicaraguan bishops do. Some bishops, with the abovementioned "judgment of history," seem to be correcting their letter of June 2, 1979, in which they affirmed both the legitimacy of the popular insurrection to overthrow the dictatorship and the historical judgment they made in their pastoral letter of November 7, 1979.
To be fair, we should note that, for the first time, the Bishops' Conference states: "We judge that all forms of aid, whatever the source, that lead to destruction, pain and the death of our families or to hatred and division among Nicaraguans are condemnable. To opt for annihilation of the enemy as the only possible way toward peace is to opt inevitably for war." This statement not only condemns what some bishops have repeatedly called ideological aggression, which in their judgment is more dangerous and deadly than military aggression and which they attribute to the presumably influential Cuban and even Soviet presence. But the statement also condemns, and here is the new element, military aid to the counterrevolution from the government of Ronald Reagan.
Furthermore, this paragraph not only condemns what some bishops have repeatedly called an intransigent Sandinista policy regarding negotiation with the counterrevolutionaries, but also the policy of seeking the overthrow of the present Nicaraguan government. In the eyes of many international observers, including Speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, this policy is the real one, although it gets hidden under Reagan's so-called policy of "negotiating with the stick of military pressure." It is really a military and not a political solution for the Nicaraguan issue.
The Honduran mass media published this unusual statement of the Nicaraguan bishops under large headlines. envío was consulted to verify the authenticity of the paragraph cited above, which indicates how surprising that short little paragraph was. Before this letter, only one other bishops' conference—that of the US—had expressed such condemnation. envío notes this historic step for the Nicaraguan Bishops' Conference while not losing sight of the context we have pointed out in this article.