Posts Tagged ‘Latin America’

I watched with gratitude and no small amount of nervousness, as thirty-three miners (thirty-two Chilean – one Bolivian) were hoisted more than two thousand feet to the surface. After sixty-nine days they were each stepping foot again on the earth under which they had been buried since August 5.

There are many examples of heroism, creativity, raw determination that are part of this story. I’m quite taken by Luis Urzua, the fifty-four year old shift leader who was, at his insistence, the last of the thirty-three men to be rescued. Urzua was the first to contact those on the surface, seventeen days after the mine’s collapse. He divided cans of tuna fish that helped keep the men alive while they waited supplies from the surface. He organized the workers into three work shifts, and he poured over diagrams that helped the rescuers in their plans for assisting the thirty-three.

According to an article on CNN.com, the rescue ended “a saga that gripped a nation that never gave up hope.” When Luis Urzua emerged from the red, white and blue steel tube that hoisted him to the surface he said: “ I hope this will never happen again.” (“Everyone out of the mine in Chile” accessed 10/13/10 CNN.com)

The wife of one of the miners, Lillian Ramirez (sixty-three year old, Mario Gomez) echoed the Hebrew Bible – Daniel Chapter three when the fiery furnace contained more than Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Ramirez told reporters: “To say there were thirty-three trapped in the mine is wrong. There were thirty-three men – and God.”

Hope is a kind of confidence that does not give up – even when perhaps we think it should. Even when circumstances might warrant despair, hope is the unseemly response that something awaits that we cannot fully anticipate or name.

“Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God.”

This is what grants hope its audacity. “Faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when this truth shall be manifest.” (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20) Audacity is made possible because hope is rooted in the promise of God whom we have through the centuries known to be faithful – even when humans have forgotten, turned away, crafted idols, and done everything in our power to extinguish the hope of the world.

One theological problem haunts us constantly, whether we are doing theology as an academic subject or whether we are living it in the day to dayness of life in the trying-to-be-faithful community called church – this is the problem of the future. We do not know the future and are not yet there – but this is not the problem – it is not a lack of knowing nor a limitation of location. Rather, the problem of the future – theologically speaking – is the struggle for what remains after all else passes away…the struggle for hope.

We have possessed since the beginning of time the capacity to extinguish the future. Cain’s slaughter of his brother marked the human family’s first mythic entry into the destruction of hope. Each act of violence robs someone of the future – and to live under the threat of violence steels from us hope that a future can be. Cain’s sin was murder – yes – but the sons and daughters of Cain – you and me – do more than take a life when/if we slaughter Abel. We destroy hope in concentric circles around Abel and fuel the growth of despair and cynicism, of anxiety and of hopelessness.

The pain of hope’s demise is sharp. In fact, what burns so deeply in despair is its close proximity to hope. Despair sees hope and can almost grasp it, but it is frustrated, or its grasp of hope forbidden or refused or suppressed or delayed.

This is so true with violence as well. From the beginning violence – the destruction of a future – has always rested side by side with life – it has been literally “in the space” of the future. But Cain killed his brother not far from life and clearly “in the space” of the future. “Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8 RSV)

The field is a space of the future – it is the context of life and promise, sustenance, and hope. By inviting his brother there he invited him into the space of the future. By murdering him there, Cain took the gift of God, the promise of life, hope, and the future, and he desecrated it – making the promise of life a lure toward destruction – making the future collapse in upon him burying him under its weight.

A simple and tragic story – one repeated hourly in one of a thousand forms – each version, in its own way, extinguishes the future, smashes hope, and replaces it with despair, or with what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls “submissive resignation in the face of historical events.” (God of Life, 107)

From the beginning, faith has been rooted in today but a today textured with promise – held up and drawn into the future of God – whether it was the command to press into the future with confidence: “be fruitful and multiply,” or whether it was the parting words of Jesus: “I will be with you even until the end of the age.” Present action, and grounded ness is built upon the promise of a future which, if God can be trusted to be faithful, would be a “behold it is very good” even as was each day of creation.

Hope is essential for all – but such an essential reality can be and has been trivialized, as have its companions: faith and love. It is a promise of life and future, but it is rooted in the faithfulness of God – call to press into life abundant in God’s future of justice. It is not a neo liberal economic promise, nor a support to capitalistic visions of a better tomorrow; it is a righteousness, and peace.

It is rooted in the kingdom of God, which is breaking into history in every moment when love is permitted to trump hate, and in every moment when violence is overwhelmed by peace.

Gutiérrez writes:  “If the church breaks its link with the Kingdom, it will by that very act lose its transcendent purpose and its ability to be critical of the present.” (God of Life, 107)

I think of the many who are, like Abel, lured “into the space” of the future only to find that future taken away – lured into places of promise and life only to find that they have been seduced into a place of destruction.

The most vulnerable among us, the poor, the immigrant, they are literally tending fields of promise, serving the food of life, caring for the children who are the future of families. These settings, however, have become places where hope is visible and the future in view. Yet, this hope and this future are for many crushed, forbidden, suppressed. “But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted be crushed forever.” (Psalm 9:18)

Hope is audacious not because it is too stupid to know when to give up. Hope is audacious because it is grounded in God who is too faithful to ever let go. We cannot give hope or be hope by promising what we cannot. We can have hope and be hope when we live into the life and promise of the Kingdom of God.  (Today is lived in the reality of God’s presence today and tomorrow.)

As the church became more and more indistinguishable from the Empire, such hope was cast into Chrono’s future, not God’s. Chrono’s future was another time, another realm. The Kingdom of Empire tended to one’s needs and the justice, peace and order of God’s Kingdom was erased and displaced – “come back in tomorrow’s tomorrow.”

It is, as we are reminded in liberation theology “aquí y ahora” – here and now. It is a future of Jubilee. But the future of God is a future that is today as well as tomorrow – and it is a future that does not play well with those who seduce the hopeful into a space of life only to crush them and steal from them the future God has promised.

As I watched the miners lifted from a tomb in which they had been buried sixty-nine days, I felt as though I was celebrating Easter – the day of the resurrection. In the end, the news report announced: “The last rescuer has surfaced. The mine is empty.” I felt I could reply with integrity – “He is risen, indeed.”

Imagination, ingenuity, determination, and hope brought to a miraculous conclusion a threat to a future – to many futures.

We have had since the beginning the capacity to extinguish hope. But we have had since the beginning the capacity to walk along side God into God’s future – and we have had since the beginning the capacity to do this together.


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Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that we should remain silent when we do not know something—whereon one does not know, thereon one must not speak, or something like that. Of course, Wittgenstein didn’t follow his own advice and neither do most of us. Occasionally we try, but the pressure to say something is strong, the desire to appear knowledgeable too tempting for us to hold our tongue for very long. Maybe he was right—whereon one does not know—and, who knows, maybe there would be fewer conflicts, inner and outer, if we chose silence over bullshit—thereon one must not speak—but we’ll never know for sure.

I’m a professor. This means I’m expected to know a few things, which I do. But whether society expects it or whether my own insecurities demand it, I don’t often chose silence when I don’t know something. I try to find something useful to say, or something clever, or at least I try to sound smart as I think out loud.

When I traveled to Guatemala to teach a workshop on Quaker testimonies I had been speaking Spanish for only one year. I had a lot to say about the topic, but I hadn’t packed enough words to say it.

“Everyone has something that trips them up. Anger. Fear. Something. What’s it for you?”

I stepped over a stack of books when I walked into the office and set my briefcase close to me on the sofa cluttered with magazines and papers. I had never been asked this in a job interview. I might have brushed it aside as inappropriate, but it was coming from the college’s president. “What trips you up?”

There were just the two of us and the sound of our gazing. “I don’t like to look incompetent in front of people,” I said.

I didn’t hesitate and it wasn’t a scripted response; I think I told him the truth. Thereon I knew, so thereon I spoke.

I never wanted to travel to Guatemala or Honduras. I wanted to see India or the Egyptian pyramids, or to kiss a complete stranger atop the Eiffel Tower. But after a reluctant trip to Central America with co-workers, I had become taken with Mesoamerica and just about everything latino, including Guatemala and the language of 350 million people.

I thought I would spend my first sabbatical in Europe breathing the musty air of a great university library writing an important book, or maybe backpacking through India studying ancient rituals and swimming in the murky sacred waters of the Ganges. But in February 2007 I was in Chiquimula, Guatemala, one year old in a new language and a sophomore in confidence.

La Iglesia Amigos Embajadores had invited me to speak to them about the “Quaker Testimonies,” core principles of Quaker faith and practice. I was eager to practice the Spanish I was learning, so I said yes without really considering whether it made sense to do this. I showed up with a stack of notes, my Langenscheidt Spanish dictionary, and an ego big enough for three people.

The church started to fill with workshop attendees from Chiquimula, then a van arrived with a dozen more who had driven all day from El Salvador. Not long after, a couple from Honduras walked in and took a seat. In the colleges where I’ve taught, some students found the dorms a time zone away from the classrooms. I was surprised these people were here to listen to my talk. As I made last minute preparations the attendees visited and made small talk. I overheard some of it but realized I wasn’t eavesdropping because I couldn’t understand most of what was being said.

The meeting room was a cavernous two-story space, wooden benches, tile floors, and not a stitch of cloth to absorb the echoes. Through the morning and into the afternoon the entire room was bright from sunlight that gushed through ten-foot tall open windows. But the sun was slipping behind the mountains as I was introduced and I took my place at the podium beneath the dull glow of florescence.

I’d given this talk a dozen times before—in English, no problema—but this time had to find another way to say familiar things. This alone was enough to cause me to think differently about my words. But on top of that my mouth vibrated through the entire talk, a sensual buzzing along the roof of my mouth and length of my tongue.

I have a friend whose Spanish is very good and we practice together from time to time. His Spanish is better than mine, but he sounds like a North Carolinian. There’s nothing wrong with sounding like a North Carolinian, especially if one was born there, like my friend. But Spanish has a kind of buzzing, vibrating, purring feeling if you let your mouth play with it. I likely sound more a mid-western boy trying to speak Spanish than I think I do—I’m not fooling anyone—but I try to let my tongue taste the language I am learning.

So, even though the ideas were familiar—this point leads to that one, and another comes in later—and although a lot of words were similar—testimonio, cuáqueros, expresión—it all felt different, each word reminded me that I was somewhere between everything I didn’t know.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” That’s good advice—whereon one does not know. I was talking with my mouth full and I could feel my cheeks swelling, stretching. I knew sooner or later my talk would be unintelligible and I would choke on my words.

La integridad, la igualdad, and la paz. Each of these testimonies was familiar to me, I had scribbled lecture notes to prove it, and three nations sat before me nodding in recognition, or politeness. Integrity. Yes. Equality. Of course. Peace. That’s who we are.

There is a fourth testimony, simplicity.

I had the Spanish translation of a 1927 statement from Philadelphia Quakers that I had wanted to read aloud: La verdadera sencillez consiste, no en el uso de formas particulares, sino en la privación del exceso de indulgencia, en mantener la humildad del espíritu… true simplicity, I wanted to tell them, was not a matter of certain kinds of forms but in limiting indulgent excess and maintaining a humble spirit.

I stopped.

I tried to say the word, but I couldn’t. I had used it before in another context—simplicidad—that was one word, another was, sencillez, both mean simplicity and neither is hard to say—sem-plee-cee-dad (accent on the last syllable); sain-see-YAAZ (double ll’s pronounced like a Y…or a J if you’re from Columbia or Argentina). I wasn’t sure which was best, so I planned to use both, like a walking thesaurus. But when I tried I couldn’t pronounce either. I just wanted to say a simple word simply. No purring R’s, nothing fancy. Simple. Simplicity itself. But my mouth was too full and the buzzing felt like a flaying live wire whipping back and forth. There was no room for anything but the one thing I didn’t want.

My face was hot and the front of my shirt was already dotted with blots of Rorschach sweat. Read the smudges: “What trips you up?”

I stammered trying to spit the words from my mouth. I wanted to teach my workshop, to leave and have everyone amazed at how much Spanish I had learned in a year. I wanted people to say: Mira, es casi latino! he’s almost Latino! I wanted more than anything to teach my first workshop in Spanish and not make an ass of myself. But I fell headlong into a stammering mess.

I saw my house back in the states—comfortable in Indiana—extravagant in Chiquimula. The weight of all the letters following my name felt like a string of pearls at a picnic. I felt the irony of a sabbatical, the economic privilege of time and money to travel and be with people who had neither the money nor the time to do the same.

I couldn’t hide, standing in front of three-dozen people, each one willing to help me find the words I needed. I needed to end the talk and get out of there. The longer I spoke the more obvious it was that I was working with a limited palate of words, repeating them in a fashion to make my point but unable to take us as deep as I wanted us to go.  It was best to come clean and to confess that I was falling apart—I wasn’t fooling anyone.

“I don’t know what to say,” and I told them that I was feeling embarrassed, guilty, that I had nothing more to say, and couldn’t finish the talk. I’d never done this before, even when, years ago, irate with class, I had too much to say that I walked out of the room leaving them confused until the next week.

Qué pasó? I heard someone ask.

“What’s wrong?” I looked at the floor and mumbled about how I had come from a wealthy and materialistic country, that’s ‘what’s wrong!’ I knew nothing about their lives, that’s ‘qué pasó!” I had no business talking to them about anything, much less about sencillez. I don’t know whether they had ever witnessed someone crumble before their eyes under the collective weight of their gringo life, but that’s what they got when they invited me to speak.

“Just tell the truth, hermano,” I heard a woman say.

“I don’t know what that is,” I said.

“I have no idea what the truth is.”

The enormity of the room collapsed, the air was gone, and we were all squeezed into a shoebox. But in the box echoed, “I don’t know…I have no idea.” Still looking at the floor I added that I felt like un mentiroso y un mendigo, a liar and a beggar.

Thereon I knew.

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