Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Dan Berrigan's letter to Ernesto Cardenal

Credit...Mario Tapia/Barricada, via Associated Press

Jim Forest really does connect all the dots. Cardenal, an admired Latin American poet and priest, served in the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. He actively supported revolution (and violence). During the 1980s, the Vatican publicly demanded that he resign from his government position.

The following is from Jim Forest's biography of Dan Berrigan, "At Play in the Lion's Den". I quote it in its entirety because it is all so important:
 In 1966, after returning from his first trip to Latin America, Dan had briefly questioned whether nonviolent approaches could provide an effective means of overcoming the military dictatorships that ruled so many countries in that continent. In the years that followed Dan became increasingly convinced that there was no alternative to nonviolent methods and attitudes for those who sought to model their actions on the example and teaching of Jesus. On this issue he entered into a public debate with his friend and fellow poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal, who took part in Nicaragua’s Sandanista revolution and, after its victory, became Minister of Culture. 
In November 1977, in an interview published in the Costa Rican journal Tiempo, Cardenal recalled how he had initially favored nonviolent methods of struggle. However, after the destruction of his community, Solentiname, by troops of the Somosa dictatorship, he had been forced to realize that, in the Nicaraguan context, “a nonviolent struggle is not practical, and that Gandhi himself would be in agreement with us.” 
“Above all,” Cardenal argued, “the Gospel teaches us that the Word of God is not simply to be heard, but should be practiced.” In the Nicaraguan situation, in which so many peasants were suffering persecution and terror, imprisonment, torture and murder, “the only practical witness that could be given was to take up arms with the [revolutionary movement] Frente Sandinista.” Those who did this “did it for one reason only: for their love of the Kingdom of God, for their ardent desire to build a just society, a Kingdom of God, concrete and real, here on earth. When the hour arrived, our young men and women fought valiantly, and as Christians.” The young people, said Cardenal, “fought without hatred, in spite of everything, without hating the police, poor peasants like themselves, exploited.” 
Cardenal saw the choice of violence as tragic but necessary. “We would prefer that there not be fighting in Nicaragua, but this is not the fault of the people, the oppressed, who only defend themselves. One day there will be no more fighting in Nicaragua, no more peasant police killing other peasants. Rather, there will be an abundance of schools, of child care centers, hospitals and clinics for everyone, food and adequate housing for all the people, art and diversions for everyone, and most importantly, love between them all. And it is for this that we struggle.” 
Dan wrote an open letter in response, addressing Cardenal as “dear brother”: 
“Let me say that the questions you raise are among the most crucial that Christians can spell out today. Indeed, in your own country, your life raises them…. They are far more than a matter of domestic importance…. 
“You discuss quite freely and approvingly the violence of a violated people, yourselves. You align yourself with that violence, regretfully but firmly, irrevocably. I am sobered and saddened by this. I think of the consequences of your choice, within Nicaragua and far beyond. I sense how the web of violence spins another thread, draws you in, and so many others for whom your example is primary, who do not think for themselves, judging that a priest and poet will lead them in the true way. 
“I think how fatally easy it is, in a world demented and enchanted with the myth of short cuts and definitive solutions, when nonviolence appears increasingly naïve, old hat, freakish — how easy it is to cross over, to seize the gun. 
“It may be true, as you say, that ‘Gandhi would agree with us.’ Or it may not be true…. It may be true that Christ would agree with you. I do not believe He would, but I am willing to concede your argument, for the sake of argument. 
“You may be correct in reporting that ‘those young Christians fought without hate … and especially without hate for the guards’ they shortly killed (though this must be cold comfort to the dead). Your vision may one day be verified of a Nicaragua free of ‘campesino guards killing other campesinos…’ The utopia you ache for may one day be realized in Nicaragua: ‘an abundance of schools, child-care centers, hospitals, and clinics for everyone … and most importantly, love between everyone.’ This may all be true: the guns may bring on the kingdom. But I do not believe it. 
“So the young men of Solentiname resolved to take up arms. They did it for one reason: ‘on account of their love for the kingdom of God.’ Now here we certainly speak within a tradition! In every crusade that ever marched across Christendom, murder — the most secular of undertakings, the most worldly, the one that enlists and rewards us along with the other enlistees of Caesar — this undertaking is invariably baptized in religious ideology: the kingdom of God. 
“Of course we have choices, of course we must decide. When all is said, we find that the Gospel makes sense, that it strikes against our motives and actions or it does not. Can that word make sense at all today? 
“‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ‘If your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well.’ Practically everyone in the world, citizens and believers alike, consign such words to the images on church walls or the embroideries on front parlors. 
“We really are stuck. Christians are stuck with this Christ, the impossible, unteachable, unreformable loser. Revolutionaries must correct him, set him aright. That absurd form, shivering under the cross winds of power, must be made acceptable, relevant. So a gun is painted into his empty hands. Now he is human! Now he is like us. 
“Correction! Correction! we cry to those ignorant Gospel scribes, Matthew and the rest. He was not like that, he was not helpless, he was not gentle, he was under no one's heel, no one pushed him around! He would have taken up a gun if one had been at hand, he would have taken up arms, ‘solely for one reason; on account of his love for the kingdom of God.’ Did he not have fantasies like ours, in hours out of the public glare, when he too itched for the quick solution, his eyes narrowed like gun sights? 
“Dear brother Ernesto, when I was underground in 1970 … I had long hours to think of these things. At that time I wrote: ‘The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred.’ I should add that at the time, many among the anti-war Left were playing around with bombings, in disarray and despair. 
“I am grateful that I wrote those words. I find no reason eight years later to amend or deny them. Indeed, in this bloody century, religion has little to offer, little that is not contaminated or broken or in bad faith. But one thing we have: our refusal to take up bombs or guns, aimed at the flesh of brothers and sisters, whom we persist in defining as such, refusing the enmities pushed at us by war-making state or war-blessing church. 
“This is a long loneliness, and a thankless one. One says ‘no’ when every ache of the heart would say ‘yes.’ We, too, long for a community on the land, heartening liturgies, our own turf, the arts, a place where sane ecology can heal us. And the big boot comes down. It destroys everything we have built. And we recoil. Perhaps in shock, perhaps in a change of heart, we begin to savor on our tongues a language that is current all around us: phrases like ‘legitimate violence,’ ‘limited retaliation,’ ‘killing for the love of the kingdom.’ And the phrases make sense — we have crossed over. We are now [like] any army…. We have disappeared into this world, into bloody, secular history. We cannot adroitly handle both gospel and gun; so we drop the gospel, an impediment in any case.
“And our weapons? They are contaminated in what they do and condemned in what they cannot do. There is blood on them, as on our hands. And like our hands, they cannot heal injustice or succor the homeless. 
“How can they signal the advent of the kingdom of God? How can we, who hold them? We announce only another bloody victory for the emperor of necessity, whose name in the Bible is Death. 
“Shall [Death] have dominion? 
“Brother, I think of you so often. And pray with you. And hope against hope.” 
In May and June 1984, seven years after his exchange with Cardenal, Dan and fellow Jesuit Dennis Leder spent a month in Central America visiting both El Salvador, governed by a U.S.-backed military junta, and Nicaragua, in its sixth year of U.S.-opposed Sandanista rule. 
In Nicaragua, Dan took part in a dialogue with leaders of the revolutionary government, including Cardenal, now Minister of Culture. The exchange was, for Dan, deeply disappointing. Asking what provisions were made for conscientious objectors, he was told hat military service was obligatory for all without exception. Dan listened with “a sinking spirit.” Was not respect of conscience essential for a revolution that defined itself as “a revolution of conscience”? A question was raised about concerns Amnesty International had published regarding the treatment of minorities and dissidents, the use of “preventive detention” and forced removals from the land. While everyone present knew that the Sandanista leadership had made a number of serious mistakes, neither Cardenal nor others in the government admitted any of their policies had gone off track. Dan was saddened that Cardenal presented a wrinkle-free portrait of “the revolution as a kind of absolute platonic form, beyond question or critique — essentially a romantic view.” (A decade later, in 1994, Cardenal left the Sandanista party, protesting its authoritarianism, and joined an opposition group. Cardenal stated, “I think an authentic capitalism would be more desirable than a false revolution.”) 
While in El Salvador Dan and Leder listened to testimonies of torture, murder and war, but also of peacemaking and community building. While in the capital city of San Salvador, they visited staff and faculty of the Universidad Centroamericana, including theologian and rector Ignacio Ellacuria and the five other Jesuits who, five years later, would be assassinated by government soldiers. There were also discussions with Jon Sobrino, one of the leading voices of liberation theology. “These learned Christians, theorists, weavers of the volatile biblical words and themes,” Dan noted, were “first of all listeners, and not merely to one another, to [fellow] academics … but listeners to the unlikely poor.”  

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