In two weeks I’ll be heading to El Salvador. One of the pre-trip readings has been The Massacre at El Mozote by Mark Danner. In this tragic book, Danner provides a gripping summary of a 1981 massacre of nearly one thousand non-combatant El Salvadorians. In other words, these were unarmed men, women, and children caught in the crossfire of the civil war. Through eyewitness interviews, original photographs, and obtained government documents, Danner reconstructs the events surrounding this grave tragedy. Many of the women and children were raped by the pro-government forces before being brutally murdered. Most human remains found during future excavations were horrendously mutilated.
And to complicate things, the United States was entangled in a sort of alliance and funding web with many powers in the Latin American region. Supposedly the repressive El Salvadorian government would not succumb to communist influence if our nation were to provide millions of dollars annually in military aid. What also stands out is that the battalion responsible for the massacre at El Mozote was explicitly trained and equipped through US funds and resources. Danner interprets the events following the massacre as being marred in a systematic cover-up on part of both governments. I found his case to be quite convincing.
War is a bloody game, you might say, and civilian casualties should always be expected. But after reading Danner’s account, this situation struck me as just downright demonic. From the horrendous testimony of a young girl who actually survived the massacre to examining the indifference of both Democrats and Republicans in congress, this was definitely a sobering read.
People don’t like to apologize. Articles released in the years following El Mozote (particularly in the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine) adopted a skeptical tone and arguably dismissed the reports of rape, mutilation, murder, and conspiracy as “anti-US propaganda.” Political pride essentially trumped human rights (or at best, attempted to cloud and discredit the situation).
Tara and I encountered a similar situation while on a vacation in Turkey a couple of years ago. The Armenian genocide is not something that is readily discussed by authorities and some citizens, even though nearly a century has passed. Authors and reporters are regularly criticized or even imprisoned in exposing these sorts of national issues. While walking through a rural town one day, we saw a gift shop featuring a marionette with a Pinocchio-style nose with Nicholas Sarkozy’s face on it, obviously an act of criticism against some comments he had made a few years back. There was a sign next to the marionette that read: “Sarkozy is a liar, Armenian genocide is anti-Turkish propaganda.”
Why is it so hard for groups to apologize? Commonly the response seems to be denial or shifting guilt in order to maintain a sense of righteousness about some network of people. Churches and denominations will frequently do this too–it’s not just a problem with world governments. Sovereign Grace Ministries and Vatican scandals are just two examples that immediately come to mind.
The problem does become difficult because potential culpability is diffused among a mass of people, all in the name of upholding ideology or institution. If you think about it, things like “Bush’s Iraq War” and “Obama’s Drone Policy” don’t exactly make much sense considering the networks and systems in place to carry out such endeavors. These aren’t one-person jobs. Even though someone might be in a position of power or leadership, these sorts of things don’t just happen without the compliance and efforts of others (sometimes a massive amount of others, too). These potentially form murky ethical dilemmas.
What would be a solution, especially in relation to shortcomings of the church?
Recently I have been studying Paul’s Christology and theology of the body for another class at Perkins. More particularly, these issues are really prominent in 1 Corinthians. Paul of course deals questions of bodily purity (re: sex with priestesses), but I think 12:12-13 reveals a profound understanding of community and collectivism:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Paul then goes on to explain more on this conception of the body. Instead of dismissing the supposedly lesser parts, all play a key role. The weakest members are actually the most important. Paul actually defines the Corinthians as the actual body of Christ.
I don’t think many of us would take Paul seriously on this when faced with institutional conflict. We prefer to think of ourselves as individual players in tune with a righteous group identity. I think this is true in many cases, especially with El Mozote. We would much rather adopt an abrasive defensiveness in response to threats against our pride.
But as the people of God, we are called to a radical alternative. In reading 1 Corinthians 12, we read that Paul presents a revolutionary challenge: there are many members, yet one body. The body of Christ matters. People matter. Acknowledging mistakes and working through guilt matters. The deeper truth is that we are connected as Christians in Christ. This might be an optimistic view of institution, but I think it might help, especially if we view Jesus as acting in restoration and making things right.