War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict and Christian Faith
by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
Chapter 5: Faith and Empire
Empires no longer suit the race of human beings. . . . You may think you’re the owners, you may have everything, even god, your god -- the bloodstained idol of your dollars . . . but you don’t have the God of Jesus Christ, the Humanity of God!
I swear by the blood of His Son, killed by another empire, and I swear by the blood of Latin America -- now ready to give birth to new tomorrows -- that you will be the last . . . emperor!
-- "Ode to Reagan," Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga
This is the mission entrusted to the church, a hard mission: to uproot sins from history, to uproot sins from the political order, to uproot sins from the economy, to uproot sins wherever they are. What a hard task! It has to meet conflicts amid so much selfishness, so much pride, so much vanity, so many who have enthroned the reign of sin among us.
-- Archbishop Oscar Romero
Christians living in the United States are children of an empire. This is not our calling but it is the starting point for our journey in faith. We have deeply internalized the values of empire. Our acceptance of the culture’s definition of freedom as the right of the powerful to invest and the right of the affluent to make consumer choices has preempted our freedom in Jesus Christ to be living signs of God’s kingdom. We know little about low-intensity conflict, our country’s global war against the poor, or the precarious position of our own democracy. We therefore lack a sense of the historical rootedness that is essential for a dynamic, living faith.
The U.S. empire is held together by deeply ingrained myths that serve as a buffer between the conscience of our people and the oppression of the poor. "Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right," theologian Walter Brueggemann writes. "Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right. . . . And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism."1
The U.S. empire engages in comforting doublespeak in order to discourage us from grieving, envisioning alternative futures, or offering meaningful criticisms. The empire talks about peace in order to cover its bloody tracks of war and war preparation; it espouses democracy but holds elections for undemocratic purposes, shields shadow governments from public scrutiny and destabilizes democracies that represent the interests of the poor; it "defends" human rights while funding and managing terrorism; it uses the existence of a "free press" as a yardstick to measure authentic democracies while engaging in disinformation campaigns and paying foreign and domestic journalists to be messengers of propaganda; and it condemns totalitarianism while secretly authorizing construction of detention centers and engaging in low-intensity conflict, a totalitarian-like strategy designed to control the hearts, minds, political choices, and economic destinies of people.
It isn’t surprising that empires are capable of oppression, violence, and deceit. Empires, after all, are empires whether or not they use the adjective "evil" to describe their adversaries and "benevolent" to describe themselves. What is surprising and most disturbing is that Christians living in the United States have so thoroughly embraced imperial myths. We have accepted almost without question that capitalism is good, socialism is evil, flags belong in churches, the U.S. press is free and objective, widespread discrepancies between rich and poor are inevitable and somehow compatible with Christian faith, our nation’s foreign policy is well intentioned, the underdevelopment of third-world peoples is unrelated to our own development, and democracy in the United States is exemplary, safe, and secure.
Our acceptance of and assimilation into empire has distorted our basic worldview and actions. It has co-opted our faith, sapped us of moral integrity, and left us subservient to a dominant ideology and culture. "The contemporary American church," Brueggemann notes, "is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act."2 As a measure of how distorted faith can become in the midst of empire, one need only recall James Robison’s assertion that God will bless the United States with a tyrant.
The historical context of the United States is that of empire, but our calling as people of faith is to become the sons and daughters of God. To be faithful to our calling inevitably leads to a confrontation with the empire and the gods it calls on for legitimacy.
Reading Scripture as a Call to Conversion
By accident of birth or as part of God’s plan, we are living in an empire in crisis. In order to find clues for our faith journey, Christians must pay particular attention to biblical stories that confront, threaten, or challenge people of power, people for whom God’s word is first a word of judgment and perhaps later one of possibility.
Our fundamental error as Christians is that we allow the biblical word to conform to the dominant culture and thereby rob it of its capacity for liberation. This helps explain why most Christians and churches in the United States are indifferent to or ignorant of the U.S. war against the poor. The empire and its gods are fearful of honest words that condemn the structures of oppression or hopeful words that promise liberation.
The gospel is distorted within the empire because the "good news" is full of pain and promise. For the rich and powerful the good news is almost always a call to conversion. By removing the pain and promise from Scripture, we restrict our capacity to grieve, deny the need for repentance, and undermine the possibility of conversion. Faith is reduced to an afterlife insurance policy, paid in full through the blood of our resurrected Lord, and guaranteed by grace. Repentance, conversion, and salvation become words without historical significance.
Poor people engaged in liberation struggles find hope, strength, and courage in biblical texts and stories in which God expresses solidarity with their struggle. God’s commitment to justice and to overcoming the structures of sin are expressed in texts such as the following:
Then the Lord said, "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up Out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey [Exodus 3:7-8].
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord [Luke 4:18-19].
For consider your call, [brothers and sisters]; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God [I Corinthians 1:26-29].
These texts reveal that compassion, justice, and concern for the wellbeing of the poor are central aspects of the character of God. In the exodus event God enters into history in a new and decisive way. The old social order and its gods lose their legitimacy. Jesus underscores God’s commitment to overcoming the structures of sin by announcing his ministry as good news to the poor and by proclaiming the "acceptable year of the Lord," a likely reference to land reform within the context of the jubilee year. The passage from Corinthians reveals how God’s priorities are dramatically different than those of empire. It is the poor and the weak who are special instruments of the kingdom.
These texts, obviously good news to the poor, also speak to us as children of empire. However, for these passages to engage us fully we must look at them through the eyes of those who would have been our contemporaries: the Pharaoh and his taskmasters, those responsible for the oppression that Jesus sets out to overcome, and the "wise and powerful ones" who look down upon the poor.
Like Pharaoh’s subjects, we today are lined up and armed with ideological and military weapons to prevent others from passing through the wilderness toward freedom. Like servants and soldiers of a modern-day Caesar, we witness and knowingly or unknowingly participate in the crucifixion of millions of poor people throughout the third world. Hunger, poverty, and repression are the crosses they bear. All-knowing and profoundly arrogant, we look at the poor in Central America as "enemies" who live in "our backyard."
Christian acceptance of structural injustice and indifference to the human costs of low-intensity conflict are signs that the empire has co-opted our faith and is using religion to serve imperial goals. The empire’s view of the poor clashes sharply with the God of the exodus and Jesus’ portrayal of the kingdom. The poor who look to Scripture and claim God as their advocate are victimized by a war in defense of the U.S. empire. Once defined as enemies, the poor become troublesome waste products within an unjust global economy that extracts wealth from God’s creation for the benefit of the few. From the perspective of faith the death of the poor through hunger and malnutrition represents the ongoing crucifixion of Jesus. According to the great judgment story in Matthew 25 when we feed the hungry we feed Jesus, when we clothe the naked we clothe Jesus, and it would be fair to say, when we wage war against the poor through low-intensity conflict we are at war against Jesus.
The passages above and the biblical message in general are good news to us only if we decide that following a liberating God is worth abandoning the unjust privileges that the empire delivers or promises to deliver. God’s liberating, hope-filled message to the poor calls the rich and powerful to conversion.
The central religious problem throughout the Bible is idolatry, not atheism. The biblical writers understand that all people have gods that demand ultimate allegiances. "For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god," Micah 4:5 says, "but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever." It is not accidental that when the prophets speak against social injustice they condemn the religious leaders, systems, and ceremonies that serve the unjust order:
For from the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly saying, "Peace, peace, when there is no peace [Jeremiah 6:13- 14].
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs: to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream [Amos 5:21-24].
There is an inevitable clash between a liberating God and empire. The first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me," is prefaced with a reminder that the God who is to be worshiped and followed is the liberating God who broke with the religious and social order of empire: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 5:6). In Luke 4, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus’ ministry and proclamation of the kingdom is consistent with the liberating God of the exodus. Jesus declares his ministry, which ultimately led the empire to crucify him, as "good news to the poor," "release to the captives," and liberty to the "oppressed" after he resisted temptations of national fame, wealth, and power (Luke 4:1-13). The early Christians facing both religious and political persecution summarized their resistance to idolatry by asserting that "Christ is Lord."
The freedom of God is a challenge to empires who use political power to oppress others. God’s freedom to act on behalf of the oppressed challenges the well-ordered societies of Pharaohs and kings where the rich and the poor and comforting gods all know their places. Whether it be Moses confronting Egypt’s Pharaoh, Jesus challenging Caesar’s Rome, or the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador -- inspired by a liberating theology -- defying Washington, D.C., empires always resist alternative religious and political models that challenge their authority and privileges.
Walter Brueggemann notes that "the ministry of Moses" represents "a radical break with the social reality of Pharaoh’s Egypt." In this radical break from "imperial reality," Moses "dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion" and he dismantles the empire’s static religion "by exposing the gods and showing that in fact they had no power and were not gods." According to Brueggemann, the "mythic claims of the empire are ended by the disclosure of the alternative religion of the freedom of God."
The good news from the exodus to the Jesus story to present-day El Salvador and Nicaragua is that God enters history and invalidates both empire and the religious idolatry that makes it possible. As followers of this liberating, myth-shattering, justice-oriented God, our task is to be living examples of meaningful alternatives. "The participants in the Exodus found themselves," Brueggemann writes, "undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom."4
Paul Hanson, in his book The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible, finds the search for authentic community to be the heart of the biblical narrative. The Bible in all its diversity describes the interaction between a liberating God and people of faith who seek to order their life in a manner consistent with God’s compassion and freedom:
The first event recorded in the Bible that can be called "historical" -- the exodus -- presents a mixed company. . . of people challenging the . . . orthodoxy of their time. They did so on the basis of real experiences that broke the credibility of the official religion of special privilege and that initiated a search for a radically different grounding for life. The resulting movement from hopeless slave bondage into freedom gave birth to a notion of community dedicated to the ordering of all life, for the good of all life, under the guidance and empowerment of a righteous, compassionate God.
This notion, unlike the one it challenged, did not offer a finished program; it inaugurated a process. It did not commend to its members static answers; it offered the perspective of those who had experienced deliverance to others who suffered under various kinds of oppression. . . . Taken as a whole, it manifested a purpose dedicated to the redemption and restoration of the entire created order.5
Idolatry is the inevitable consequence of Christians’ tolerating or conforming to the values, myths, and rewards of empire. Empires demand ultimate allegiances. By allowing ourselves to be subservient to the U.S. empire, our lifestyles and political priorities are indistinguishable from other citizens. Assimilation into the dominant culture makes it impossible for us to help construct an alternative social order more consistent with the compassion of God. Religion serves the empire rather than the God of liberation and justice. Our capacity to be a creative leaven within society is buried beneath an avalanche of rewards doled out by the empire, including comforting myths, nationalistic slogans, consumer goods, and power.
Our Confessional Situation
The community of faith must be clear about ultimate allegiances in all times and in all places. There is no possibility of authentic faith if we forget the first commandment or fail to assert in word and deed that "Christ is Lord." The biblical writers’ perspective on the role and acceptability of government evolved over time. In general, the institution of government is seen as a gift from God. However, not all governments or actions of specific governments are to be obeyed. Governments are to be judged in light of a justice-seeking God, and national citizenship is for Christians always provisional.6
There are some situations, such as the persecution and death of Jews in Nazi Germany, which require Christians to resist government authorities. Neutrality in situations such as these is impossible. We are required to affirm publicly the Lordship of Christ, denounce injustice, confess our complicity with evil, acknowledge our need for forgiveness, and take costly action.
The U.S. war against the poor presents Christians in the United States with such a situation. The world economy is structured so that the poor experience hunger, poverty, and hopelessness while the rich enjoy luxuries and power. German theologian Ulrich Duchrow, in his book Global Economy: A Confessional Issue for the Churches, describes how injustice within the present world economy is as serious an affront to Christian faith as apartheid or the atrocities of the Third Reich:
My question is whether apartheid is not just the tip of the iceberg. We inhabitants of industrialized nations, together with a few tiny elites in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, are exploiting the majority of the world’s population just as systematically as the white South Africans exploit the majority of the people in South Africa. The demon of profit for the few at the expense (i.e. the impoverishment) of the many has the whole world economic system firmly in its grip, with all the side-effects in the shape of discrimination and the suppression of human rights. The forty million or more deaths from starvation per year, the direct result of the workings of the present global economic system, require of us just as clear a confession of guilt as did the murder of the six million Jewish men, women and children in Nazi Germany and as does the deprivation of twenty million people in South Africa of their rights today.7
The injustice structured into the global economy would in itself justify Christians in the leading capitalist power to view the present situation as a confessional moment. It is long past time for Christians worldwide to denounce hunger as unacceptable to God and to the human family, Martin Luther, in his commentary on the commandment "Thou shalt not kill," says that "all those who fail to offer counsel and aid to people in need, to those in physical danger even of death, God rightly calls ‘murderers’. . . . You may not have actually committed all these crimes but you have for your part left your neighbor to pine and die in distress."8
Our confessional moment becomes more urgent by virtue of the fact that we are not only fully integrated into this global economy, we are also living in a nation that is fighting a sophisticated yet undeclared war against the poor. The United States seeks to defend its privileged position within the unjust world economy through low-intensity conflict. It uses deceit, terror, intimidation, and secrecy; defines suffering as victory; and punishes people and governments that are committed to redistributing power and resources to meet the needs of the poor.
Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, accurately states our ethical dilemma:
Forty years ago at Nuremberg, representatives of the United States government participated in the prosecution and punishment of Nazi government officials for committing some of the same types of international crimes that members of the Reagan administration are today inflicting upon the civilian population. The American people must reaffirm our commitment to the Nuremberg Principles by holding their government officials fully accountable under international and U.S. domestic law for the commission of such grievous international crimes.
We must not permit any aspect of our foreign affairs and defense policies to be conducted by acknowledged "war criminals" according to the U.S. government’s own official definition of that term. At the very minimum, the American people must insist upon the impeachment, dismissal or resignation of all Reagan administration officials responsible for complicity in the commission of international crimes in Nicaragua.
Reagan administration officials were not impeached for their crimes against the Nicaraguan people and their violation of the Nuremberg Principles. That does not lessen the severity of the crimes committed and it adds weight to our responsibility as Christians because of our complicity. Confession must begin with people of faith and with church institutions. We cannot rightfully expect or hope for national repentance or conversion without purging ourselves of the values, lifestyles -- both as individual Christians and as churches -- and expectations of empire. "Our major problem fifty years ago," writes Eberhard Bethge in the foreword to Duchrow’s Global Economy, "was not so much the wickedness and godlessness of the Nazis. Our problem then was the fanatical or deceitful falsification and corruption of the substance of the Christian faith and the devastation this wrought on the life and witness of the people of God."
In Saying Yes and Saying No theologian Robert McAfee Brown writes that his "greatest fear" is that the United States might "slide down [the] slippery slope" to "fascism with a friendly face." "The greatest failure of the church" in Nazi Germany "was to wait too long before engaging in significant protest." The great challenge facing churches in the United States, according to Brown, "is to avoid that failure and to speak loudly and clearly at the first telltale signs of national idolatry, so that its development can be arrested before it is too late."9
My greatest fears are that Christians in the United States will continue to live out their faith as if 40 million people dying each year from hunger is normal, acceptable, or necessary, and that we shall fail to see a connection between our distorted faith and the ability of the nation’s leaders to carry on a global war against the poor utilizing low-intensity conflict. These fears lead me to call on Christians and churches to denounce the evil and to confess our complicity with sinful structures because the suffering outside our national borders is already sufficient to demand confession. Also, a failure to confess our participation in social injustice, our subservience to the dominant culture, and our idolatry before the national gods of wealth and power will inevitably lead to internal repression, an erosion of democratic freedoms, or a "slippery slide" toward fascism, friendly or otherwise.
The Content of Confession
In the Lutheran Book of Worship there is a "brief order for confession and forgiveness," which includes the following words
[PASTOR:] If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Most merciful God. . .
[CONGREGATION:] . . . we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen 10
These words of confession are an important acknowledgment of our need for forgiveness. However, it is the task of us as individual Christians, and of our churches, to be more specific about the sins we commit or participate in through our action or inaction. By naming or confessing our sins more concretely we begin to lessen the power sin has to distort our lives. We open up the possibility of lived repentance, that is, a reordering of our values, priorities, and actions to be more consistent with our faith in a compassionate, justice-seeking God.
In this book I have argued that the U.S. war against the poor is so insidious, so much in conflict with authentic democracy and Christian faith that it requires Christians to take bold action. The U.S. war against the poor and its strategy of low-intensity conflict is so broad in scope, so cynical in outlook, so damaging in practice that it presents Christians and churches in the United States with a historical challenge similar to that faced by the Confessing churches in Nazi Germany. A confessional situation demands acknowledgment of our participation in sinful social structures, repentance, and creative action.
The content of our confession, in light of low-intensity conflict and the U.S. war against the poor, will need to include elements such as the following:
First, we need to confess that, despite verbal commitments to the contrary, our actions indicate a confusion over ultimate allegiances. Most Christians and churches in the United States are guilty of idolatry. Our ultimate commitment is no longer to the God of community, compassion, and justice. Wealth, power, nationalism, and not Jesus Christ, have become lords of our lives. There is no greater task lying before Christians and our churches than to reassert our freedom in Christ. This freedom, which is rooted in faith, could make it possible for us to overcome our subservience to the dominant culture and be a light and leaven to the United States and to the world.
In order to clarify our ultimate allegiance to Christ and to separate ourselves from the dominant culture, we must stop living as if these are normal times. Forty million people dying from hunger-related causes cannot be regarded as normal. A global economy that worships the idol of the "free market" and leaves the poor increasingly desperate is unacceptable. The use of terrorism by the United States in Central America, defining suffering as victory, using elections for undemocratic purposes, tolerating the death of the poor through international finance, concealing the existence of shadow governments, issuing presidential decrees to construct detention centers for political prisoners, and implementing the totalitarianlike strategy of low-intensity conflict call us to immediate and bold action.
One tactic we can use as we wrestle to free ourselves from the clutches of the dominant culture and for the gospel is noncooperation with evil. Tax resistance, refusal or withdrawal from military service or military or other socially unconscionable employment, distinctive lifestyles that withdraw from the neurosis of endless consumption and involve sharing and fulfillment of basic needs are possible steps leading to independence from national idols.
Second, we need to confess that our subservience to the idols of wealth and power, nationalism and capitalism has led us to ignore or to destroy the unity of the global body of Christ. Faith in a compassionate God that desires health and wholeness for the whole human family must necessarily transcend national boundaries. Ulrich Duchrow reflects upon the relationship between an unjust global economy and the universal body of Christ:
. . . participation in the body of Christ excludes systematic oppression and exploitation of certain groups of people within the church or in society generally.
Some theologians . . . are seeking in the light of the New Testament doctrine of the body of Christ to understand, analyze and influence the international economic processes and mechanisms which experience shows are already catastrophic in their effects and are becoming increasingly so with each passing day. . . . The northern industrial countries . . . are growing steadily richer at the expense of the majority of the people in the countries supplying the raw materials, who are becoming steadily poorer. . . . Christians and churches in the "North" enjoy their growing (or at least protected) prosperity in part at least at the expense of the Christians and churches in the countries supplying the raw materials. In other words, if we are in any real sense still the one universal body of Christ, this body of Christ is divided among active thieves, passive profiteers, and deprived victims [italics added]11
Affirming the unity of the global body of Christ is an essential task that lies before us as individual Christians, as faith communities, and as churches. Groups like Witness for Peace, which have documented U.S.-sponsored terrorism and walked with the Nicaraguan people in their suffering, help show the way. So too do churches and church workers who challenge their nation’s violation of domestic and international laws by offering sanctuary to refugees fleeing U.S.-sponsored terror in Central America. In El Salvador Christians from the United States have helped build international faith ties through material aid, spiritual support, and political solidarity. Christians and churches in the United States, in order to affirm our essential unity in the body of Christ, will need to become outspoken and active critics of the global economy, advocates of an alternative order including debt relief and fairer terms of trade, and determined resisters against low-intensity conflict.
Third, we need to confess that there is a relationship between our relative affluence and our willingness to accept imperial myths and to ignore or be indifferent to U.S. foreign and domestic policies that victimize the poor. The biblical writers frequently warn of the dangers of wealth and affluence. This is true both because wealth is often earned by exploiting the poor and because wealth tends to distort the worldview and faith perspective of those who are affluent. Jesus warns that it is impossible to serve both God and riches.
Our relative comfort helps explain our lack of interest in global problems. Indifference is the best friend of tyranny and injustice. The desire not to know is as important as disinformation or a biased press in creating a broad climate of indifference and ignorance within US. churches and the society as a whole. The lifestyles of most Christians and their churches fully reflect the goals and values of the dominant culture. Churches, pastors, and denominational executives are often locked into the prestige and indebtedness of comfortable salaries, large buildings, and hefty mortgages. They are often more concerned about how well the stock market is doing and in preserving the well-being of their pension and investment funds than they are about wars against the poor. Such preoccupations make following Jesus impossible.
The confessional situation confronts individual Christians, congregations, and denominational institutions with the need to overcome our addiction to power and privilege. Jesus, who embraced the alternative power of the cross, is calling us to take religious, political, and financial risks, and to seek alternative institutional forms. We cannot remain a church that is subservient to the powerful and be faithful to Jesus Christ. Our society and our brothers and sisters throughout the third world can no more tolerate the self-censorship of the churches than they can tolerate the self-censorship of the press. Both mainline churches and media sources have all too often internalized and projected a role as the guardians of empire through a politics of assurance. Pain and promise must be rediscovered in the Scriptures and echoed from the pulpits. Our complacency must be shattered, injustice denounced, and our call to conversion heard clearly, first in the churches and then within the society as a whole.
The lifestyles of individual Christians are also in need of transformation. Our addiction to the consumer society gives legitimacy to the unjust power and privilege of the dominant culture. John Francis Kavanaugh writes in his book Following Christ in a Consumer Society:
Possessions which might otherwise serve as expressions of our humanity, and enhance us as persons, are transformed into ultimates. Our being is in having. Our happiness is said to be in possessing more. Our drive to consume, bolstered by an economics of infinite growth, becomes addictive; it moves from manipulated need, to the promise of joy in things, to broken promises and frustrated expectation, to guilt and greater need for buying. Property is no longer instrumental to our lives; it is the final judge of our merit. So vast in its pre-eminence, it is worth killing for.12
U.S. government and corporate leaders are willing to kill and to wage war against the poor in order to defend our "national valuables" from "have-not" peoples. Meanwhile, events such as the widespread drought during the summer of 1988 have renewed speculation that our mindless consumption may be causing irreversible damage to the environment. The consumer culture not only fosters indifference to the plight of the poor and our participation in their suffering; it also, in effect, is a war against future generations because it threatens to undermine the support base for all life.
Alternative lifestyles are essential for individual Christians and their churches. We must be living signs that wars against the poor are incompatible with Christian faith. Our voices will lack credibility and be without integrity unless we demonstrate our willingness to leave behind styles of living that are built on the blood and backs of the poor, and which are maintained at the expense of both present and future generations.
Alternative lifestyles need to be embraced for a variety of reasons: for the sake of personal and institutional credibility; as examples of how the "abundant life" is possible, perhaps only possible, when we are free from the illusionary pursuit of finding our meaning through having an endless consumption; as signs of joyful accommodation to a future in which the world’s goods will be more evenly distributed to meet the basic needs of the whole human family; to share or give back resources that we have indirectly stolen through unjust economic structures; to offer resistance to sophisticated interventions on behalf of privilege through low-intensity conflict; to express solidarity with future generations and with the majority of the human family, which today has no choice about lifestyles; to increase our reliance on communities of people; and to break the endless cycle of consumption and indebtedness so that our time and our human talents can be devoted to building an alternative future more consistent with our faith in a compassionate, loving God.
Fourth, we confess that our subservience to the empire has eroded our capacity for hope, our ability to envision an alternative future, and our faith in the resurrection. I discussed earlier how the U.S. war against the poor is a war against hope: psychological warfare seeks to control people’s hearts and minds; terrorism intimidates and destroys bodies and spirits; defining victory in terms of suffering leads to immoral and illegal actions to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution so that the poor in neighboring countries will understand the resolve of the empire and the consequences of seeking self-determination.
At the same time, as Walter Brueggemann stated earlier, the empire seeks to prevent us from grieving by offering us assurances that things are "O.K." We are told repeatedly by political and economic leaders and by the dominant culture that alternative futures are not necessary or possible. We are pacified through comforting ideologies and promises of fulfillment through consumption. Our failure to grieve atrophies our capacity for hope and healing just as terminal patients who deny their death never come to terms with the dying process.
There are alternatives to affluence at the expense of the poor, to fortress America, and to the drift away from democracy toward tyranny. The typical male paradigm for power is a situation in which there must be winners and losers. It is true that there is little chance of overcoming poverty without redistributing wealth and power. If poverty is caused by a lack of democracy, then more power for the poor will mean less power for those of us who are relatively rich. However, it may be that this redistribution of power is necessary for the well-being of the entire human family. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus responds to a rich young man’s question about eternal life by telling him to go and sell all he has and give it to the poor. Mark prefaces Jesus’ troublesome directive with these words: "And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him . . ." (Mark 10:21). Jesus’ message to the young man was motivated by love. The rich man, unable to hear the good news in the message, walked away from Jesus’ attempt to save him. The rich young man, like ourselves and our society, did not face a win/lose situation. However, he was unable to see that Jesus was interested in his well-being as much as the well-being of the poor.
The existence of wealth alongside massive hunger, poverty, and economic injustice is a sign of spiritual brokenness that desperately needs healing. Economic inequality and injustice demonstrate a lack of compassion and the need for transformation and healing of both the rich and the poor. Without transformation of the existing structures of violence and inequality, the male power paradigm of win or lose is ultimately a situation in which everyone loses. The shifting of power from the rich to the poor is necessary for the liberation of both rich and poor. It is ironic that the rich so consistently and ruthlessly seek to block the liberation of the poor on which their own redemption depends.
Our capacity to hope for and work for an alternative future must be rooted in faith and community. The dominant culture stresses individualism. People of faith must learn to find courage in community with others. Individuals will nearly always be overwhelmed by structural evil. The question "What can I do?" when asked alone is far more overwhelming than the question "What can we do?" asked in the context of a caring community of faith. Hope is rooted in honest assessments that enable both grieving and dreaming of new possibilities, in commitment and trust in others, in faith in God’s faithfulness to us, in humor and urgency, in patience, endurance, and action.
The people of Central America teach us that a resurrection faith is possible only in community. Why are so few Christians and churches in the United States willing to take risks in order to denounce injustice and express solidarity in word and action with suffering people? One part of the answer to this question is the absence of community. People in Central America have a resurrection faith, that is, they refuse, as Jesus did, to let fear of death intimidate them into subservience to empire. They are part of communities of prayer, study, reflection, and action. They know that Jesus was crucified because he lived out his faith in a justice-loving God to its ultimate consequence, and they see suffering as a likely consequence of following Jesus’ example. However, they have the capacity to take risks because their actions are rooted in community. If they should die or be persecuted or imprisoned as a consequence of living their faith, they know that the community of which they are a part will carry on their work and even be strengthened by the courage of their example. Because they are rooted in community, and many of us are not, they know that the risks they take will mean something, whereas we live with the gnawing fear that disrupting our lives may not be worth the trouble.
Finally, a word of personal confession. I do not know how to live in response to the confessional situation I have presented in this book. At times I feel overwhelmed by the evil of low-intensity conflict and the U.S. war against the poor, the silence of the churches and my own inadequate voice, and the immensity of the tasks that lie before us. My actions rarely keep pace with my words. The racism that low-intensity-conflict planners count on is alive within me, the individualism and mobility of our culture infect my life and emerge as obstacles to authentic community, and the hope that I with others can effectively embody a resurrection faith and seriously challenge the internal and external trappings of empire still seems distant.
However, naming the evil reduces its power over me and strengthens my resolve to confront it. I trust that the more people are willing to confront low-intensity conflict and resist the U.S. war against the poor, the greater the likelihood that we can move, sometimes awkwardly and other times more gracefully, toward a community that shares God’s commitment to justice for the whole human family.
The pathway that lies before us is uncertain terrain. However, our journey will lead us to participate actively in local and global communities that express solidarity with the poor and work to overcome the causes of hunger and poverty; to order our lives in light of the unity of the body of Christ and become a leaven that raises up peace and justice within the broader human family; to embrace a provisional citizenship that prefers defense of human rights and authentic democracy over national idols and ideologies; and to become living signs of the possibilities of "living more with less" so that we can demonstrate that basic needs and spiritual health are more important and more fulfilling than mindless consumption that results in tragic poverty.
The future of the people in Central America, in our own towns and cities, and throughout the world will be shaped by how we respond to low-intensity conflict and the U.S. war against the poor. George Bush and Dan Quayle are so intimately tied to past scandals that the future isn’t promising. Quayle was elected to the Senate as part of a right wing campaign to defeat senators who had worked to expose CIA and FBI abuses through the Church hearings. Robert Owen, propaganda specialist and liason between the National Security Council and the contras, worked as an aide to Senator Quayle. Quayle also had a number of meetings with John Hull whose ranch in Costa Rica has been named as a key transhipment point for illegal weapons shipments to the contras and illegal drug shipments into the United States.
Bush of course was vice president throughout the Iran-contra scandal and is a proponent of low-intensity conflict. His foreign policy aide, Donald Gregg. was a key figure in illegal arms shipments to the contras. Gregg had frequent meetings, at times attended by Bush, with long time secret team member Felix Rodriguez. Rodriguez delivered money to the contras from the Colombian drug cartel during the time when Bush was heading up the U.S. war against drugs. Bush was also head of the CIA when many members of the "off the shelf, self-sustaining, stand alone entity" implicated in the Iran-contra affair solidified their relationships and power.
I am haunted and motivated by the words of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga when he says that "solidarity must not tolerate too many delays You can be a Cain by killing, but you can also be a Cain by allowing others to get away with killing." Our destiny will be determined by our response to our country’s war against the poor. We should add North America to the following quotation from Bishop Casaldáliga:
The route to the impending future of Latin America and the Latin American church is to be found today in Central America, and more specifically in Nicaragua. Tomorrow it will be too late. And if we fail to measure up, once again we will have been accomplices, at least by remaining silent, because we were afraid of prophecy, because we were unwilling to dirty our hands in the turbulent waters of history.13
1. Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 20-21.
2. Ibid., p. 11.
3. Ibid., pp. 15-17.
4. Ibid., p. 17.
5. Paul D. Hanson, The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 2-3.
6. For a more complete discussion of this issue, see Nelson-Pallmeyer, The Politics of Compassion (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987), chap. 5.
7. Ulrich Duchrow, Global Economy: A Confessional Issue for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 1987), Pp. 92-93.
8. Ibid.; this quotation is found before the table of contents.
9. Robert McAfee Brown, Saying Yes and Saying No (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), pp. 16-17.
10. Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis and Philadelphia: Augsburg Publishing House and Board of Publication of the Lutheran Church in America, 1978), p. 77.
11. Duchrow, Global Economy, pp. 47-48.
12. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Culture, (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1981) pp. 42-43.
13. Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, Prophets in Combat, (Oak Park, Ill.: Meyer Stone Books, 1987), pp. 11, 14.