Like kindness, brutality changes lives. And it often changes lives with more permanence than kindness does.
Even though I was a witness to brutality from far away, it changed my life in the 1980s toward a new political course. It was when I stopped being a “Reagan Republican”.
Young Man, On My Way
When Ronald Reagan beat incumbent Jimmy Carter for the U.S. presidency in 1980 I was already moving toward a yuppie-ish sort of Republican belief that caused me to trust Reagan and the movement to reduce the size of government and “get big government off our backs”. The son of a long line of Republicans, it felt very comfortable and natural to support Reagan.
I had just graduated from the prestigious Candler School of Theology at Emory University, was married to a very sharp law student who had just passed the bar. And, we were about to give birth to a beautiful daughter.
The kind of hopefulness that was in the air around the election of Reagan was infectious, especially here in Oklahoma, where I served at my first appointment as a pastor in a very socially acceptable, Protestant, mainline denomination.
Assassination of a Bishop in El Salvador
Growing up in Oklahoma in a small, rural community gave me a view that all people everywhere respected the clergy in general and respected bishops even more.
It was with extreme shock, then, that I learned of the assassination of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero in the small Central American country of El Salvador.
As time went on, more in-depth reports continued to roll out about the terrible killing of Romero. He had been shot dead in the middle of the Eucharist, the service of celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some reports were that he had been shot just as he was raising up the host (ceremonial wafer that represented the body of Christ).
It was clearly a brutal, evil act meant to terrorize someone. But who? Why?
I was drawn to learn about this brutality since I not only claimed to be of Christ myself, but a minister to those who claimed faith in Christ.
Romero had tried to intervene peacefully in a developing civil war between the U.S./CIA supported military and revolutionaries who were organizing the peasant majority.
The ruling oligarchy had been the caretakers and beneficiaries of U.S. and other outside investors in mining and agricultural interests there.
What has been revealed since, was that Romero’s assassination was ordered by military leaders because of his refusal to stay quiet about the brutality that was starting to take place against the peasants. And for those who were trained and supported by the CIA, politics trumped faith every time.
The Archbishop had broken the main rule of the professional ministry in every country — bless and legitimize the earthly powers that be, or suffer the consequences.
He suffered the consequences. So did six other priests in El Salvador as the CIA-supported civil war escalated, all in the name of anti-communism.
Assassination of Father Stanley Rother in Guatemala
Being not only a Piedmont, Oklahoma farmer, but a Farm Bureau insurance agent, my father knew many of the oldest families in nearby Okarche, one of which was the Rother family.
Father Stanley Rother had grown up in that community. I was a classmate of one of his younger cousins.
After his ordination, he had become a missionary to a small village in Guatemala. Over time he started seeing the way that the Mayan peasants were treated by the U.S. backed oligarchy. Brutality and terror were the order of business by design of the government and carried out by their military. As any shepherd would, he spoke out.
When he found out that he had been put on a kill list by a local right-wing death squad, church officials acted quickly to remove him back to the safety of the U.S.
He couldn’t stay away. He went back to continue to minister to those parishioners whom he loved.
And so, one night, an earnest, committed pastor — a man raised less than twenty miles from where I grew up — was murdered in his quarters at the mission. He was another victim of our support of an oligarchy in Central America that benefitted a small, wealthy group there, and a small wealthy group here in the U.S.
Murder and Mayhem Under the Banner of Anti-Communism
When news of these assassinations first came out, the U.S. government tried to deny involvement, first in the waning days of the Carter administration, then in the Reagan administration. As it became more clear that the U.S. government was supporting those right-wing, brutal oligarchies in Central America, they claimed this effort in the name of opposing Communism.
Just as I have heard over and over all of my life, the fear was that if we did not stop the Communists there, they would soon be on our doorstep.
The Communists are not on our doorstep, but the children of Central America are. As I have shown in an earlier post, they are the natural consequences of U.S. policies over 60 years.
Iran-Contra Affair: End of Conservative Credibility
The last step in my evolution beyond political conservatism was the Iran-Contra Affair.
Seeing the attempted cover-up of the Reagan administration, and then the undeniable evidence of the affair showed me that there was something fundamentally wrong with that type of hyper anti-communist thought.
The evidence showed that high-ranking members of the Reagan administration had, in fact, sold missiles to Iran (who were supposed to be our enemies) and then used that money to support the “Contras” or anti-communist guerillas waging war against the Socialist government of Nicaragua, also in Central America.
More brutality and repression was carried out in the name of supporting “freedom and liberty”.
On the Way Out
As that decade unfolded it became clear to me that the right-wing of American politics was based not on principles of anti-communism or of the principle of “freedom and liberty throughout the world”.
Instead, it was based on crass, cynical desires to satisfy those contributors to the Republican Party who stood to gain financially by staying in control of all of Central America, and other countries, extracting natural resources as the majority of their people starved.
It slowly became clear to me that what the Republican party of the 1980s and beyond actually represented was a clever scam of luring common Americans into voting for them under the banner of anti-communism, freedom, and democracy, while actually serving a small, shadowy minority of cynical wealthy people who cared little about any principles except those of building their wealth at the expense of whole countries of other people.
My dad gave money to two organizations — the church, and the Republican Party. He kept a small Christmas postcard from Ronald Reagan on his desk year round. Each year he proudly replaced it with the new one that came in the mail.
But I could not go along any more. As a pastor, I could no longer support a political shell game that indirectly supported the murder of peasants, priests, and yes, even a bishop, as they cynically raised money from my hard-working farmer dad in the name of a set of principles that he believed, but they did not.
I was done. I haven’t looked back.
See my in-depth post about these circumstances in Central America: We Sponsored Central American Brutality for 60 Years — So Now the Refugee Children Come