In the late nineteen eighties and early nineties, I was an active member of the Rebel Armed Forces of Guatemala. I only once fired a gun, at no one, in a meadow, and it hurt my hand, but none-the-less, I was a collaborator, an arms, mail and money collector and runner. I was a participant in a process of death. Violence was my shield and tool. We – the guerrillas, the rebels, fighting against the most violent army in the Americas – we were in the right, after all.
In the early 1980s, Guatemala, my heart’s home, suffered this hemisphere’s most horrific violence. The oligarchy and the army, manipulating state security forces, had decimated community organizers and activists, students, teachers, union and church leaders in the city, and then went on to perpetrate genocide, in the rural highland communities. The United Nations human rights investigation in its report Memory of Silence released in 1999, three years after peace accords were signed between the government, the army and the rebels, estimates that about 250,000 Guatemalans died in the 36-year conflict, more than 90% of these being Maya indigenous people.
These are the numbers. Behind my eyes I have burned Beatriz’ handless body, ravaged, sliced and burned and beaten. I have dona Rosa, who lived, but lost five of her eight children, whose eyes are hollow, who’s arm hangs like a dead appendage, from the bullet wounds, that were never treated and never healed. Don Juan, don Lencho, Fabian, Isabel, my beloved sister and brothers, each with a martyred father. There are residing in my heart, the survivors, the witnesses, those who fled, and hid, or made their way to Canada, where they lived bereaved, as orphans of their land. The perpetrators of violence also live in my imaginary, in that mythic place beyond reason. I know them too, and I love them – village men, turned into soldiers, police, civil patrollers forced by the army – the poor turned into beasts to ravage their fellow poor.
All these echo within me, haunt me. When I was young, and furious, there seemed no other way but to fight back. The FAR was the oldest of four rebel groups that made up the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity, the URNG, and our small numbers in the jungles of Peten, in Chimaltenango, around the lake, barely scratched away at the power structures in Guatemala, though two of the other rebel groups, deeply imbedded in the highland mountains, made the rich oligarchs tremble in their comfort beds.
But no one was prepared for the genocide. No one could ever have imagined such viciousness. Babies smashed against rocks, women sliced open, raped, ribboned, old men and women, and their fragile, noble dignity, crushed without mercy. Men driven to violence, men, shattered and crucified. Corn fields burned, houses torn down. Animals slaughtered for bloody roasting after the orgies of raping and killing. And then a terrible haunting. A staggering silence of swallowed fear. Never any naming of what was done, and by whom. No story saved for surviving children. Just silence.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene. Isaiah 59: 15b-16a
The God who created us, who spun us into being from within our mother’s womb, that God, who was there at our very beginning, dividing our cells, sewing together the patchwork of our selves – She loves us. With fierce Mother Bear love, She loves each and every one of us, all of creation . . . every caterpillar, laurel tree, giraffe, little boy. She looks at each perfect star, and says, ahh. At each plume of plankton and says, oohh. There is nothing in creation which does not delight Her – except for the human sins of wanton violence and filthy greed. A cat catches a bird in a peach tree, young people die from cancer. Volcanoes cover villages. These things – often heart-breaking – are different. They just are. They are not caused by human sin.
There was no one to intervene, says the furious prophet Isaiah. Who then is to intervene? Clearly . . . it is up to US. God does not mean for us to look on in silence. Where there is no justice, we are to stand up and make it happen.
We were created by God, as thinking, deciding beings, what will we do? How will we prepare our lives, lived out in relationship with everything that surrounds us? From the soup of our infancy and childhood, robust or rotten, we emerge with a direction. Every day, every breath, every movement, we decide to go through this space or that, in this way, or that, brushing by, embracing, or murdering, that which is before us. We act, and no matter who we are, the nature of creation shifts. Depending on what we do, God is built up, or punched in the face. If we decide for harm, begins the unravelling of the world and love.
Apathy, then is not an option. If we don’t care, then watch out – God intervenes. God gets pissed. Stop a minute reader – I ask you, frankly – did you know about the Guatemalan genocide? Did you know that a quarter of a million people died? Do you know where Guatemala is? Just wondering.
I can go to a very crazy place. Hospital ward place. Throw myself in a lake place. Driven by grief. What comfort then, is available, through our precious ancestors, those, who for centuries have saved for us the Word. What is God’s nature? What will our God do?
God will put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrap himself in fury as in a mantle (Isaiah 59:17b). Thank God for rage and fury. These are not out of bounds. God does not forget, and my people stacked dead in wells and common pits have been remembered, and they will be avenged.
The Holy One will come and will not keep silence; before you, O God, there is a consuming flame, and round about you a raging storm (Psalm 50:3).
God, Sovereign-Plumed Serpent, He of 30,000 names, and no name at all. She who mysteriously is One, cares about all of this, and demands that Her creatures live with justice, with righteousness, as in love with one another, bursting from our tender hearts, as She created us to be. We are God’s hands in the world, under strict directions to do everything and more with our lives, called only and exclusively towards the up-building of God’s Heaven and God’s Earth. If we don’t intervene, God will.
“I have observed the misery of my people,” says God, “Indeed, I know their suffering” (Exodus 3:7).
In the 1980s, Guatemala was limping and burning. There was massive, numbing injustice and some of us noticed. So we picked up fire to kill one another. And more and more and more died. And nothing changed. And now, still, the country rocks with murder, about 6,500 people are killed off a year. The rebel war failed, it was a disaster.
So, was I wrong? Were we wrong? In the face of 500 years of oppression, exclusion, slavery, an oligarchy so embedded in the incestuous lies of its own blood supremacy, intractable, un-negotiable – what were we to do? After the failure of the rebel war, I limped back to Canada, alone, with my three young sons, and started to think seriously about God.
If God requires us to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with Him, what does that look like? Rebel armies for justice? Personal piety and moral behaviour? Committees, petitions, rallies, waving of banners, jumping up and down? What does it mean to be an active Christian? Can those last two words be separated?
Jesus takes sides – though he stands apart from the predictable divisions, surprising us by who he loves. But he does not sit around whining, wondering what to do. He does not give out sad leftovers to the poor, but invites us all to the banquet of abundance. We are to go and do likewise, Jesus no longer being a man in this world, but ever the Son of the God of Life, slivered and sunk into each human heart. Yet what are we to do with the suffering and the sorrow laid out before us in every generation? In the K’iche’ language, here where I live, the word meba’ can mean three things: the poor, a widow or an orphan. That isn’t how the Creator means us to be. Wherever things are wrong, get busy
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22).
We are to act on the Word, not merely listen to it. To listen and nod contentedly to the Word, to pat one another on the back, and then go out into the world to hurt, abuse, pile up obscene wealth – this is to fuck God over. God, our singing Mother. God spoke to us from within our mother’s womb, inserting those slivers of thirst and love into our hearts. God continues to speak to us without ceasing through every moment of our lives, though we stuff our ears with otherwise. We are being called to the fullness of life, and to witness, release, let go, stand up, whatever it is we have to do, for life to flourish around us.
This is what really matters. This spark that lives within us, this word, this piece of God – we mostly ignore it, stamp it out even – but we can kindle it and let it roar forth into the world. Here over our flame hobos will warm their hands, lovers will smooch, children will set marshmallows on fire. Here there is life! We are supposed to DO something with this gift we have been given. We must not fool ourselves, or it will die. Like a wet twig it will try for awhile, and then quietly go out. And we’ll walk around for the rest of our life dark, damp and cold, wondering what happened, and then we’ll die, and God will fold us into the earth, mush up our atoms again, and our bits will come back, maybe as a lady-slipper or as a weasel (that might be fun!) and maybe this time around we’ll be able to align ourselves better with the burning direction of God’s love.
I don’t know what you are supposed to do. I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to do. I know that what I did was wrong. Violence-laced self-righteous fire wrecks everything before it. It didn’t work, and it was rough up against the core of the God of Life.
In November of 2006, many years after I had abandoned the Rebel Armed Forces, I found myself in a crush, a stifling, a mad rush, beatings and tear gas, all coming out of the masked and shielded Federal Preventative Police in the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico. Things were bad. Teachers had gone on strike. The government came down upon them with helicopters, clubs swinging, tear gas cans a-popping, violence, control, mayhem. The indigenous communities rose up in support, in protest against the hideous corrupt state government. My friend Chayo had called me, nights before, and with a trembling voice told me about the police circling outside their house, the headquarters of the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca. The lights had been cut off, and shots were being fired against the metal door. I was on the first plane that I could find, then the first bus, down from the Mega-City, to the smoldering city of Oaxaca.
For a month more we gathered in public places, teachers and indigenous leaders, embroidering napkins in parks, marching, eating tamales with green chile sauce, and chocolate champurada. With a bunch of teenagers we put up clandestine radio towers in the mountain tops around the city. In the middle of it all there was a wedding, and we ate mole, and danced with turkeys, smashed crockery and a lot of people got drunk. We had processions for peace and I said Mass in the square, and Catholic women helped me sing the hymns and say the responses. We broke tlayudas, and drank fermented fruit juice.
But somewhere along the way, a rock slipped into my sandal, and I couldn’t shake it out. There we were, thousands of us, unarmed, but with firecrackers, rocks and molotov cocktails, there they were, big fat mean guns, tanks with poisoned water, shields, swords, spears, god-knows-what. I choked in fury at them (though here, of course, I left the rock throwing to others). But as we made our way up to the police lines, as we stared them down through their plexi-visors, as we, filled with righteousness, screamed violence, suddenly, I was ashamed. The pimply boys in front of us, were us, I deeply understood. I was sad, and sorry, again, for my hatred.
I couldn’t pack up and go, not yet. First the whole theatre had to go through its motions, the protesters rallied, the boy police attacked, we were until dawn running, hiding, the blisters on my feet exploded. Eighty cars burned that night, and many buildings and then there was a glum silence. The rebel radio went off the air. We had lost again. Everyone who wasn’t in jail limped home, or went into hiding. I found a kitten in a ditch and named her Lucha, but she died.
Then I went back to Vancouver, and felt strangled, out of place. It was Christmas, dark, dirty in the mean streets, where I worked with the drug addicted and mentally ill. Then the ‘cheer’, the pounding hideous lights, the instructions to buy and to spend, and to use, and to throw away.
If you love Guatemala so much, Leocadio Juracan, co-ordinator of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, once said to me, go home to Canada and work for change there. And so it is – we are all linked on this, our island home. What we do here and there, it all moves as one, a great dance, a drawing in and release. So, where are the great sins? Where are things so out of balance, so out of order, where do the lie-factories churn out the words that lead the world to ruin?
They hatch adders’ eggs,
and weave the spider’s web,
whoever eats their eggs dies,
and the crushed-egg hatches out a viper. (Isaiah 59:5)
We have been fed a pack of lies, from the moment we could suck it in, and the time of reckoning is upon us. It has become more urgent than ever before – it is time for us to shake off the lies, and ask, where is the truth? Can we grab from the maw of death, all that which is so precious? All of God’s creation. And we, those of us who are dying from our lack of God, our fear, and our sorry love of wealth, we must renounce, return, repay, undo, apologize, and listen.
After the trials of fire, the struggles of youth, I have settled now, in the heart of where the crucifixion of the genocide occurred. Every quarter-hour I hear the bell tolling in what was the torture palace, in the place where one survivor describes the mountain of shoes left behind, the murdered men and women. Every quarter hour I lift my head in prayer – and it will never be enough. What am I to do here, but make amends?
Active faith, love in a quiet way, healing, gardens, bread, cats. Ears ready to listen, hearts ready to hold.
Babies die here all the time, for no reason at all. Women are crushed. Men are humiliated, and unable to carry on. Christians, dear, what are we going to do? Are we going to say, go and eat your fill to the 80 percent of children suffering chronic malnutrition in my region? What a joke . . .
In the next range of mountains over from me, in the department of San Marcos, a Canadian mining company, Goldcorp Inc., is grinding down a mountain, sifting out the gold and silver, taking all but 1 per cent of the profit away, while sucking up an obscene 6 million litres of water a day and leaving a disgusting toxic tailings pond ready to spill out over into the sacred rivers and hills of this place. Canada is raping and pillaging, stealing, wrecking, gouging and lying . . . all of us are blindly in it, with our cozy pension plans, and investments.
I have jumped up and down with placards about this. I have written letters, interviewed everyone, wrote my Master’s Thesis on the Maya concept of sacred land in the affected community of Sipakapa. I want this to stop. It must stop. The ground made sacred by God, made sacred by the blood of the martyrs of the Spanish invasion, the holy land soaked in the suffering of the genocide, is where true God and human value lies.
We in the idea of the “north”, the “west”, whatever the hell it is that we reside, that place where our heads are formed . . . we are without direction. We are lost. We have lost God. We have lost humility, reverence, gratitude, shame. We are clinging to the wrong thing.
This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness. (Psalm 52:7)
For example, Jesus has precious few things to say about our sacred sexuality. He has a whole lot to say about how we live with one another in terms of despicable wealth and disgraceful poverty. I am not much of a biblical fundamentalist, except when it comes to this: you cannot love God, and love wealth/money/Mamon. Honestly, I’m really worried about the rich. Soon, it will be too late. Give, rush, give it ALL away! There is still time. There won’t be time later, as wretched Lazarus testifies.
Active, engaged faith. Turn things over, and refuse to believe the lie promising happiness. There is no joy in possessing, only in participating with God in flourishing. There is NO peace in violence, no matter how urgent it seems. Put away the Che caps and t-shirts, and bags, burn them. They are lies too.
Rush out into the world, to love and serve the Holy One, the God of Life.