Fort Benning, Georgia, November 2003
In late November 2003 I attended the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, where nearly 10,000 professional Bible scholars and theologians gathered to listen to papers on specialized topics at a luxurious convention center. While in Atlanta I contacted the founders of an inner-city homeless shelter called the Open Door Community, who invited me to travel down on a Sunday morning in one of two vans full of homeless people to attend the annual protest a few hours drive South at Fort Benning demanding the closure of the School of the Americas—a military base where thousands of police and soldiers from Central America’s elite units had been trained during the 1980’s.
Tens of thousands of poor peasants, labor leaders, priests and other activists were tortured and killed by troops and intelligence agents trained at this base by US military advisors paid for by US tax dollars.
There at Fort Benning I joined a throng of some 10,000 protesters gathered that day from all across the US and Canada who peacefully march in a funeral dirge commemorating Latin America’s martyrs up to the fence at the entrance of the base between rows of mounted Georgia State Patrol and Police.
As we walked in orderly lines a full width of the road across a voice annunciated Spanish names from a microphone on a stage. The names and ages of each known individual killed by US-trained troops and police were mentioned. I am surprised at how deeply moved I am, to the point of weeping, as the names and ages penetrate my heart: Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the University of Central America and an outspoken critic of the Army— “presente”; Elba Ramos, the Jesuit’s housekeeper, remembered as sensitive and intuitive— “presente”; Agustina Vigil, 25, pregnant at time of death— “presente”; child, 5, son of Dionisio Marquez: Marto Vigil, 75, farmer, El Mazote— “presente”; Isabel Argueta, 6, El Mozote— “presente.”
I feel sorrow over mainstream American ignorance of the US’s involvement in supporting oppressive regimes and pain at the near absence of any recognition of their culpability as the protesters around me lifted white crosses and call “presente” after every name. My heart is so heavy that I cry on and on as I walk towards the base. I have been despairing about the war in Iraq, and the American public’s general agreement about how the “war on terrorism” is being waged. What am I doing to resist our national direction? I am a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. I remember feeling this acutely when I first visited Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in 1981 and became aware of our national guilt. There I had felt for the first time the God with us (Americans) shift to a God against us and with them in a way that forever changed my life.
I walk with my head hung low, up to the fence where some were preparing to cross over to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience. Scores of Military Police stand ready to make arrests, clusters of plastic hand cuffs attached to their belts. Someone plays loud patriotic music through a megaphone. Regular announcements are blasted through speakers warning the protesters that they will be arrested if they step foot onto the base.
I decide to stand against the cyclone fence as the protesters cycle past and back away to make room for the rest. I watch people place their crosses and signs in the fence and continue past me. Many tear-stained faces look grey with sorrow. I look out at the base trying to figure out what I am feeling: anger, despair, sadness, powerlessness, confusion. “Why am I here Oh Lord?” “What can we hope to achieve in this time of war?” “How can I best resist?” “What hope is there for real change when most Americans seem complacent or in agreement with nearly anything in the name of national defense?”
My prayer was interrupted by an impression that I must read Psalm 37. Curious, I pulled my Bible out of my carrying case and begin to read the Psalm 37:1-2:
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
As I continue to read I begin to feel a surprising freedom. I am suddenly moved to not fret, to refrain from anger and to forsake wrath as I feel impressed by the truth of the words of this Psalm:
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there (Ps 37:8-10).
I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon. Again I passed by, and they were no more; though I sought them, they could not be found (Ps 37:35-36).
The truth of this Psalm is impressing me. At the same time more questions are arising. “Who are the wicked?” I ask. As I look out through the fence I’m noticing that most of the soldiers are African American. “Certainly not them,” I think. So many soldiers are seeking a way out of poverty, a future that beats the streets or jails and prisons.
Deep in my heart I am receiving a strong impression, almost a prophetic word: “The US is on its way down as a global empire. America will fall. The time is short. These are dangerous times.” I know that we are in trouble. 911 gave us an opportunity to change our way of thinking—to repent of a way of wielding power that has gained us many, many enemies. Yet we act like we are invincible. The power of pride is an illusion. “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall,” I remember from my required grade school memory verses.
Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight in abundant prosperity (Ps 37:10-11).
The mention of the meek causes me to turn away from gazing at the soldiers and the base and look at the crowd. Could they be among the meek? I wonder. I notice that many are crying. Many look hopeless. I feel drawn to read Matthew 5:1a, 2, 3-10:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he began to speak and taught them saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I feel a sudden lifting of my sorrow and a call to minister to the protesters. “These are your people, serve them.” I approach a man who is weeping and point to Jesus’ words to those who mourn. This is my place. God has called me to minister to God’s people, the humble ones. At the same time I think of the soldiers across the fence, and feel compelled to return and to read another section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 6:43-44).
Reading this reminds me of Paul’s words written from prison in Romans 12:14 regarding enemies:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
In a moment of inspiration I point at every soldier I see and I bless them: “I bless you in the name of Jesus!” “I bless you in the name of Jesus!” “I bless you in the name of Jesus!”
I think of the Seraph who flew to Isaiah holding a live coal from the altar. It feels like once again my mouth has been touched and my guilt has been taken away and my sin blotted out. I’ve heard the call and say yes to not only comforting the week, but to Isaiah’s call of speaking to his own people a difficult message. Could Isaiah’s very message be what I am witnesses now as mainstream America continues to live in denial as we fall under increasing debt and international distain:
Say to this people: see see, but do not perceive, hear hear but do not understand. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed (Isa 6:9-10).
I can see that the national blindness and deafness of Isaiah’s time is now being replayed in our own. I dread the consequent fulfillment of this word in the verses that follow, which describe a more severe judgment coming that echoes the words of Psalm 37.
Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken (6:11-12)
I hear the imperatives of Isaiah: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isa 1:16b-17).
I think again of Psalm 37:3: “Trust in the Lord and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (Ps 37:3) and am reminded of Romans 12:21:
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Is it too late for mainstream America? As long as we are convinced that our problems are due to an abundance of wickedness that we must combat, we will be in serious trouble. We need to learn to turn over the problem of the wicked to God and focus instead on the remedying the tragic absence of goodness. In the absence of good all efforts to combat evil are doomed to failure. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
As our two vanloads of homeless men and shelter volunteers drive home, I talk with as black man fresh out of jail whose been estranged from his son, whose now in prison. He’s afraid to reestablish contact. He doesn’t want to disappoint his son again, or risk being rejected when he makes an effort to step back into relationship. I encourage him to write his son a letter. We talk with others about reading the Bible and relate it to the struggle to stay clean and sober.
They let me off at the fancy hotel where I’m staying and I walk back into the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meeting. I return to the vast array of papers being presented, book tables and scholars visiting among themselves. I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. Will we keep on seeing but not perceive? How long Oh Lord?
Like Isaiah, the prophet Jeremiah reflects a prophetic stream announcing judgment to the people of God, at that time embodied as Israel. God called Jeremiah to announce Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians (Jer 1:13-17). God empowered Jeremiah against the entire religious and political establishment of Judah.
Now, gird up your loins, and arise, and speak to them all which I command you. Do not be dismayed before them, lest I dismay you before them. Now behold, I have made you today as a fortified city, and as a pillar of iron and as walls of bronze against the whole land, to the kings of Judah, to its princes, to its priests and to the people of the land. And they will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you,” declares the Lord (Jer 1:19-19).
The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah invite a resistance alongside the oppressors on behalf of the oppressed to the point of even going down with them into exile.
See the School of the Americas Witness website for the full list of names and informative articles, www.soaw.org
For those already in exile, a whole other model exists for prophetic ministry to those in exile. I recognize that Isaiah 40-66 offer an empowering image of ministry that recruits the downtrodden as God’s change agents and begin to think on this.