The Reality Of Violence In La Tin America

The physiognomy of events is different to some extent in every country of Latin America, but we cannot explore every country here. So let us try to examine the problem of violence in terms of a couple of countries.

Colombia is a country in which violence has reigned since the first days of Spanish conquest. The conquistadores slaughtered Indians in wholesale fashion as they went about looking for gold. One bishop noted that the lndians had come to assume that gold was the god of the Spaniard, and they had reason. Gold was almost an idol for many Spaniards, and they went about sacking Chibcha tombs to find it. The Chibchas buried gold objects with their dead, and the Spaniards desecrated their burial areas in search of the wealth which was needed in Spain to combat the "Lutheran heretics."

Violence-ridden Colombia is also the Colombia which produced a most significant figure in the last decade. I cannot explore his whole history here,8 but I must allude to the basic outlines of his intellectual and spiritual itinerary. Camilo Torres received his degree in sociology from the University of Louvain. Four months before his death he expressed his admiration for dedicated Marxists but noted that he would never join their ranks: "They are sincerely seeking the truth and they love their neighbor in an efficacious way, but they must know very well that I will never enter their ranks. I will never be a communist-neither as a Colombian, a sociologist, a Christian, or a priest."

Camilo Torres was an intelligent Christian who confronted sociology, history, and his faith in his own way. One ideal dominated his thinking and writing: love. He believed it was the one and only Christian commandment, but he also believed it had to be efficacious love. This thought, which appears repeatedly in his writings and statements, gradually effected a change in his own approach and life. In 1963, for example, he wrote these negative comments on violence: "Violence has effected all these changes through pathological channels which in no way dovetail with the country's process of economic development." He was opposed to violence, yet gradually this attitude would change.

The Church displayed a lack of comprehension which gradually shackled him. The university professor was prevented from becoming university rector. He was asked to withdraw his name from the nominations for the post. Then he was asked to stop speaking and writing. Desiring to pursue the demands of his Christian faith, he asked to be l aicized so that he might be involved in politics; but the doors of the political world were closed to him. He was shunted aside and gradually forced to make a definitive commitment. And then his corpse was found. We do not know for sure whether he died as a guerrilla fighter, or whether he was assassinated first and then passed off as such.

When we read some of his writings, we cannot help but think of some of the earlier bishops and other present-day martyrs. He wrote: "After analyzing Colombian society. I have come to the conclusion that a revolution is necessary if we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and bring well-being to the majority of our people. The supreme gauge of our decisions should be charity: supernatural love. I will take all the risks that this ideal imposes on me."It is the underlying attitude of such men as Valdivieso, who was assassinated by Contreras; Pereira Neto, who was killed on his way to a meeting of Catholic Action; and Father Hector Gallegos of Panama, who was first threatened and then killed for his work with peasant cooperatives. Since we have not yet given our own lives, we most respect those who did.

The situation in Guatemala is depicted in powerful terms by Thomas Melville, who was a Maryknoll missioner there. His words speak for themselves: "During the last eighteen months, these three rightist groups have slain more than 2800 people: intellectuals, students, union and peasant leaders, and others who have tried in one way or another to organize the people and combat the evils of Guatemalan society. I personally know a man, a good friend and daily communicant, who accused a Christian union leader of being a communist because he was trying to organize a union in his sugar plantation. He thus got him shot by the army. When the cooperative I had organized among the Indians of Quezaltenango was finally able to buy its own truck, the rich people tried to bribe the driver so that he would wreck the vehicle. He refused their overtures, so they tried several times to force him off the road and over a cliff. They were successful on the fourth try. In the parish of San Antonio Huista where my brother-also a Maryknoller-was pastor, the president of the agrarian cooperative was assassinated by the people in power-the mayor included. When the case was brought to the capital city of Huehuetenango, the judge had already been bought off and nothing came of it."

Melville goes on to say: "The American government has sent jeeps, helicopters, armaments, doctors, and military advisers to the government in power. This merely strengthens their control over the peasant masses. In 1967 salaries, uniforms, arms, and vehicles for two thousand additional police were paid for by the Alliance For progress. When twenty-five priests got together to organize farm workers on the large haciendas along the southern coast, the bishops of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Quezal-tenango and Solola dispatched a harsh letter forbidding us to get involved in such a project. It said that it was none of our business, and that we should be content with preaching the Gospel message."9

Hundreds of comments of this sort could be presented here. But instead I want to reflect briefly on the whole matter of violence in the Latin American context.

When Cain killed Abel, he set up a "totality" in which the Other came to be at best a slave under his domination. Everything goes well so long as the slave does not advert to his situation or feel any self-worth. If I feel I am worth nothing, it is because I have been subjected to a pedagogy that has driven that point home to me. But if I suddenly begin to think that I am worth something, if I suddenly place myself outside totality fashioned by my master and oppressor, then a process of liberation begins and the situation becomes quite serious. The oppressor will try to prevent me from taking the step to freedom; he will try to keep me in his totality by force. This is what Dom Helder Camara calls the "first violence." It is the violence of an unjust situation which prevents the reified man from being free. This first sin is the gravest of all because it reifies human beings, turning them into things. The person en route to freedom, the person in the "exodus," must defend himself from this first violence .

The defense is just. It seeks to prevent the exercise of a violence that would keep the process of liberation from taking place. The J esuit Reductions in Paraguay offer us an example here. The Jesuits organized the Indians of the Gran Chaco area into civilized communities. Then colonists came and attacked these Indians, robbing them and killing them. The Jesuits asked the king for permission to arm the Indians. The king did not want to grant this permission, but they went ahead and armed the Indians. The incursions stopped, and the Jesuit Red\;tctions went on existing for at least a century and a half. When the J esuits left, the Indians gradually lost their supply of arms. Soon the Reductions were no more. It is sad to visit the ruins of those edifices today, which were really destroyed by the "first violence" of which I spoke above. The Jesuit'defense of the Indians was the defense of the Other, of the poor .

If someone wants to kill my child, I am not going to let him. If the aggressor has a knife, then I must get a knife to defend the child. If I do not, then I am an irresponsible parent. I am committing a sin.

So there is a "first violence": organized, legal violence. And there is a "second" violence: the violence that sets out to establish a new "whole." The second violence is the violence of San Martin, for example. He organized his soldiers and followers. When the Spaniards came to destroy the new homeland, he went out to fight them-paving the way for a new whole that is present-day Argentina. If that conflict had not taken place, there would not be any Argentina today.

Thomas Aquinas never said that force as such is evil. He said that force, like all the passions, is equivocal. The essential question is: For what purpose are they used? If I love something, but it truly belongs to another, then I commit a sin. If I love my neighbor as such, however, that is very fine indeed. "Violence" is associated with the Latin word vis, which means "strength" or "force" or "power." I may use "violence" or "force"-not that of arms, needless to say-to preach the Gospel message; such was the "violence" of the prophets, for example. In short, the "second violence" of which we spoke above can be virtue insofar as it is the defense of the Other. The "first violence," however, is always sinful. It is the violence of unjust law and established disorder. If the Christian opposes violence, then he must oppose all violence. In particular, he must oppose the "first violence," which is the violence of the pharaoh rather than that of the plagues.

This justification of violence is a theological and ineradicable aspect of the Christian faith. Many passages from the Church Fathers and other theologians could be introduced to prove the point. Thomas Aquinas justified the death penalty; Saint Bernard justified crusades to recapture the Lord's sepulcher in Israel; Christians have waged many wars in defense ofwhat they regarded as their just rights. I am not suggesting that all these wars were truly in defense of the poor, of course. Christian crusaders sacked and exploited Byzantium when they went to recapture the holy sepulcher. That was not virtue but injustice.

But there is also the violence of the spoken word, the violence of the prophet and martyr. It is the distinctive and peculiar violence of the Church as such. Violence in de-

fense of a new political order is not the proper violence of the Church as such, even though it may be proper to the committed Christian individual. The Church as such is a prophetic body which dies for the sake of the Other but which, as Church, never kills anyone. In the throes of his passion and death, Jesus pardoned his persecutors. That is the only way to respect one's persecutor as a human being. If I abuse or insult him, then I am treating him as a thing. I must realize that he does not know what he is doing; if he did, he would not do it.

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