Unforgetting the Past: The Karmic Roots of U.S. Border Problems

Readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Sirach 27: 30-28:7; Psalm 103: 1-4, 9-12; Romans 14: 7-9; Matthew 18: 21-35. 

This week’s readings are about forgetting and unforgetting. They emphasize our tendencies to remember, rehearse and perversely treasure wrongs done to us, while denying, ignoring or dismissing those we’ve done to others. The wrongs in question can be both personal and/or political.

For today, let’s leave aside the myriad personal grievances we all nurse.  

Instead, let me focus on political resentments and point out that this week’s selections are especially relevant to an interview many of us may have seen last week on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. The telecast spent time with Salvadoran journalist Roberto Lovato who has just published his own memoir called Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas.

Problems at the Border

In tune with our readings, the book addresses the topic of our collective amnesia about the true causes of immigration problems and their uncomfortable cure. In Lovato’s case, both remembering and forgetting connect more than four decades of destructive U.S. policy in Central America with the refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Those three countries, Lovato pointedly recalls, were absolutely destroyed by counter-insurgency wars that go all the way back to 1932.

Without “unforgetting” those disasters, the author insists, we can understand neither the border crisis nor the gang phenomenon that causes it.

To begin with, Lovato reminds us why almost no one outside El Salvador remembers “la matanza” of ‘32. Instead, that massacre along with its more recent reprise at El Mozote in 1981, have been shoved down our Orwellian memory hole by the U.S. and Salvadoran states whose very job is to destroy records and manufacture the mass amnesia that afflicts American culture.  

Similarly, very few of us connect our contemporary border crisis with U.S. Central American policy during the 1980s. Virtually no one links the Central American policies of the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump administrations to immigrant prisons and baby jails.   

Nonetheless, on Lovato’s analysis, the connections are there for the rescue.  La matanza, he says, was one of the most violent episodes “in world history in terms of the numbers of people killed per day, per week, in a concentrated place.” The massacre at the hands of a U.S. supported military government killed thousands upon thousands of mostly indigenous Salvadorans.

As for El Mozote, some can still remember that horrendous U.S. crime where nearly 1000 unarmed Salvadoran villagers were slaughtered by U.S.-trained forces.

In fact, El Mazote encapsulates the entire disaster of American policy towards Central America foreshadowed in la matanza and resumed with a vengeance all during the 1980s. Under its aegis, entire towns were destroyed; homes were set ablaze and jobs destroyed; families were decimated; sons and husbands were killed; wives and daughters were systematically raped; union leaders, social workers, and teachers along with liberationist priests and nuns were assassinated without pity.

Disgracefully, much of the destruction was financed by CIA operations that flew narcotics from Central America to Florida and carried guns and ammunition back to U.S.-supported terrorist troops in Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – not to mention the Contras in Nicaragua. 

And of course, in the aftermath the militarily decommissioned terrorists continued their lucrative involvement with narcotics. They became the drug gang kingpins and foot soldiers who in turn have driven so many families northward.

All of that, Lovato repeats, must be “unforgetted” if we North Americans are to have any hope of solving our problems of immigration, gangs, drugs, and social justice. Our country owes extensive reparation to Central Americans.      

Today’s Readings

So, with all of that in mind, please consider this Sunday’s selections. On the one hand, they centralize the divine amnesia of Jesus’ Great Father-Mother God regarding our personal and communal shortcomings that some refer to as “sin.” On the other hand, our Divine Parents’ compassionate forgetfulness is contrasted with our own petty preoccupation with the way we imagine others have somehow done us wrong.

Sirach, the Psalmist, Paul, and Jesus all remind us of how easily we forget the way we’ve abused “strangers” (like those at our border) whom the Master identified as our very sisters and brothers. Ironically, unforgetting them is the karmic key to our own forgiveness and liberation.

In any case, what follow are my “translations” of today’s biblical excerpts. You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right. 

Sirach 27: 30-28:7: Karma is a Law of the Universe. LIFE will treat you as you treat your neighbor. If you’re vengeful, you’ll inevitably experience others’ revenge. If you’re always angry, life will seem cruel. But if you’re forgiving, Life itself will forgive you. So, forget about your own fictitious wounds. Instead practice forgetful mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. After all, life is short. Vendettas will mean nothing to you on your deathbed.

Psalm 103: 1-4, 9-12: Our Divine Mother herself sets the example. She is patient, forgiving, kind, generous and compassionate. She doesn’t remember any of our faults – not even grave “sins” we fear may have destroyed our lives. Far, far from such guilt, it’s as if she never witnessed our shortcomings at all.

Romans 14: 7-9:  Practicing such forgetfulness, none of us will have anything at all to fear from death which will simply be surrender to the One in whom we have always lived and moved and had our being. This is what Jesus himself showed us by the example of his own life.

Matthew 18: 21-35: When Peter asked him about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus said there are none at all. “Or maybe” (he joked) “you can stop forgiving after the 490th time – but be sure to keep track, Peter, as I know you will. Don’t let yourself go over 500.” (He said that with a gentle smile.) “In any case, remember what Sirach said about karma. If you’re generous to others, Life will treat you kindly; If not, you’re creating your own tragic misfortune – and that of your entire family. It’s you, not God who creates your inevitable destiny.”

Conclusion

Yes, Karma is a law of the universe. All the world’s great spiritual traditions teach that simple profound truth. What we do to others will eventually come back to haunt us. There’s no getting around it.

The problems experienced at our borders are simply blowback from our country’s own criminal missteps in the world. While we imagine that we’re threatened and wronged by those at our border, simple unforgetting reminds us that we’re actually the ones who have victimized the ones seeking refuge and asylum. Actually, we have nothing at all to forgive them. Instead, we owe them enormous repair.

No, it’s the ones at our border who have so much to forgive us. So far, they’ve been generous in doing so – well beyond the 500-mark specified by Jesus. Both our karmic liability and our debt of gratitude to our southern siblings are huge.

We’re indebted to Roberto Lovato for helping us unforget all of that.

In Memoriam: John Capillo

Last week Peggy and I received the very sad news that our long-time friend, John Capillo, had died suddenly on New Year’s Eve. Mercifully, there was no long illness. Stomach pains brought him to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, suffered septic shock, and suddenly was gone. He was 76 years of age.

For us, it was John’s second death. Years ago, Peggy and I said goodbye to him as he lay in coma in a Lexington (KY) hospital. We laid hands on him as we left his bedside then and thanked him for all his gifts to us and the world. But afterwards the unexpected happened. He was given a reprieve; he came back from the dead to live among us for several more years. It seemed entirely miraculous.

In any case, this time it’s final. And our world won’t be the same without this extraordinary man. He was a priest, a prophet, a teacher, storyteller, and a social justice warrior of astonishing accomplishment.

I first met John Capillo 40 years ago, when he and Terri and their new baby, Maureen, moved to Berea, Kentucky. One Sunday, the three of them showed up for Mass at St. Clare’s Church, where Peggy and I had been parishioners since our own arrival in town 5 years earlier. By then, we had our own daughter, Maggie, who was just about Maureen’s age.

Immediately, I learned that, like me, John had been a priest – ordained in New York’s Brooklyn archdiocese. That did it: we soon became fast friends – as did Maggie and Maureen. Peggy and Terri also shared a deep friendship.

At the beginning, John’s day job was carpentry. He had learned the trade during his first priestly assignment in Puerto Rico (or was it Guatemala? I forget.) John had showed up there to help rebuild after a hurricane or something. However, (as he told me early on) when he declared his do-good intention, an old man took him aside and said, “Padre, we know how to build houses. We need you to be our priest.”

And so, John did just that with the enthusiasm, commitment and insight that characterized his entire life. However, his desire to make the gospel relevant moved him to take chances with liturgy and edgy homilies that rendered him suspect to his superiors. The resulting conflicts with authority eventually drove him from the priesthood and into family life.

Nevertheless, John never did give up carpentry or building. One Sunday shortly after arriving in Berea, he came to Sunday Mass with bandages on his left hand. The previous week, he had cut off a finger with his Skill Saw.

Undeterred, at one point, he built a solar addition onto our house in Buffalo Holler about 5 miles outside Berea’s city limits. The project was designed by Appalachian Science in the Public interest. It caught John’s imagination, because, like Peggy and me, he and Terri were going through a “back to nature” phase. He thrived on environmental harmony, innovation, recycling and simple living.

In fact, years later John built an even more innovative structure for himself. It was made entirely from strong woven-plastic bags filled with dirt. John had done a study on the process and technology. And soon he was filling the required bags and carefully laying out the building’s perimeter. Layer after layer created outside walls, interior divisions, and then a roof.

Everything was laid out carefully to take advantage of the sun, but also to orient the house towards sacred energies John perceived as housed in the east, north, west, and south. He wanted to steep himself deeply in such emanations, even while asleep. The whole project expressed John’s deep and never-abandoned desire for enlightenment and unity with God.

Yes, I saw John as a kind of saint. He was. I’ve met few people like him – always on point, never caught up in trivialities, deeply interested in meaning, and counter-cultural to a fault. That’s the way prophets are.

That’s the way John was. He cared little about externals. His diet was simple; he always ate what was set before him. He didn’t drink liquor. His beard was scruffy, his hair unkempt, his clothes always nondescript. But his soul was absolutely luminescent.  His laugh was raucous and full of joy. His loud Ha-Ha’s punctuated every story he ever told.

And he told many. In fact, he considered storytelling his calling and avocation. He studied its technique. And he always used that skill to talk about things that matter – as explained in the books he devoured as the voracious reader he was. John was an inveterate book clubber. He also read my blog, commented on it often, and frequently had us talking shop at Berea Coffee and Tea. Conversations always revolved around God, politics, philosophy and family.

But John was no armchair philosopher. He was a fierce activist on behalf of El Salvador during Central America’s troubled 1980s. As he put it, he “went to school” there – learning from the people during his frequent visits about the destructive role U.S. policy played not only in Salvador, but throughout the colonial world of Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

John was a deeply, deeply critical thinker. At one point, he spent a month in El Salvador with Peggy and her class of Berea College students as they worked with local residents struggling to overcome the disastrous effects of U.S. policy.

John’s greatest activist accomplishments came after he joined our mutual friend, Craig Williams’ Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF). It was and remains a grassroots organization committed to environmental justice. KEF’s main focus became delivering Berea’s Madison County from arrogant U.S. Army plans to dispose of World War II chemical weapons containing mustard gas and other genocidal poisons. The Army had planned to simply burn it all in a thoughtless incinerator near our homes, schools and local businesses.

However, with John’s help, KEF stopped the planners in their tracks. KEF mobilized the entire county and state to prevent that particular disaster from happening. It actually defeated the U.S. Army! Eventually, KEF linked up with similarly victimized communities throughout the United States and the world to work for and celebrate analogous accomplishments.

It was all truly heroic. And John was a huge part of all that. For years, KEF was his final regular job. And in that capacity, he mentored numerous Berea College students including our own daughter, Maggie, who had the privilege of working closely with him and Craig as a student-volunteer.

Here’s a list of some other ways I experienced John as activist, prophet, teacher, and friend:

  • Any of us organizers and educators could always count on John to attend and participate in meetings of any kind, anywhere if they addressed issues of spirituality, activism, critical thinking and/or critical living.
  • He was an advocate and friend of Berea’s and Madison County’s large Hispanic community often working as a translator for its members in court and in social services offices.
  • He was a frequent guest in my own (and Peggy’s) Berea College classes where he edified and provoked students with his informative stories and explanations about our country’s Central American wars and about the environmental dangers of incineration. He was so effective with students.
  • For years, John was a faithful and active member of the Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace, which during the ‘80s was organized around nuclear disarmament and opposition to our government’s tragic interventionism in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
  • One January, the two of us taught a month-long Berea College course on environmental justice. The course took place in Alabama, where another U.S. Army incinerator threatened the local mostly African American community. The offering was called “Taking on the Military Industrial Complex.” You can imagine the conversations John and I had in the process.
  • Years later, John joined Peggy and me in Oaxaca for a month-long course with Mexico’s Gustavo Esteva — himself an extraordinary critical thinker – who deeply influenced so many of us through his seminars, lectures, prophetic example and books like Grassroots Postmodernism. John loved Gustavo.
  • John was there for me when I tried to start a home church.
  • He visited me at our lake house in Michigan last summer. We spent the entire afternoon on our back porch talking of our usual things – family, politics, church, theology, books. John was extraordinarily proud of his four children and of his grandchildren. I treasure that memory.

As I said, John Capillo was a saint. He was one of my closest friends. Unfortunately, he won’t be coming back from the dead this time (physically, that is). Peggy, Maggie and I will miss him. The world is poorer for his absence.

Anniversary of St. Oscar Romero’s Assassination: Imagine if He Had Been Elected Pope!

A lot has been written in these pages about liberation theology. I’ve defined it as “Reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of those committed to the liberation of the world’s poor and oppressed.” I’ve called it the most important theological development in 1700 years and perhaps the most important intellectual development since the publication of the Communist Manifesto. (See my blog posts by clicking the “liberation theology” button just under the masthead of this blog site.)

Well, today is the feast day of liberation theology’s patron saint, Oscar Romero. On this day, March 24th in 1980, St. Oscar was gunned down by the U.S. – supported military of El Salvador. He was shot while celebrating the Eucharist in a convent chapel.

His killing was part of what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was fought by the U.S.-Vatican axis against the Catholic Church in Central America. That church had committed the unpardonable sin of taking seriously the call of the Second Vatican Council to live out what the Council called Jesus’ own “preferential option for the poor.” Such doctrinal consistency was unacceptable to the U.S. government and to the pope of Rome.

St. Oscar had been a conservative priest who was appointed archbishop of San Salvador by Pope John Paul II precisely because of Romero’s conservative leanings in both politics and theology. In a country heavily influenced by liberation theology, he could be counted on to continue the Catholic Church’s war against that movement, as well as its support for the Salvadoran oligarchy, the butchery of its military, and the U.S. policy that sponsored it all.

That particular troika brought about in 1977 the killing of Rutilio Grande, a Salvadoran Jesuit priest and close friend of St. Oscar. Their friendship had flourished even though Grande was an advocate of liberation theology.

Following Grande’s assassination, Romero underwent a profound conversion. He passed from being the enemy of liberation theology like John Paul II, his lieutenant Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI), and Jorge Bergoglio (the future Francis I) to being its ardent promoter like Grande himself.

As U.S.-sponsored “White Hand” assassination squads did their bloody work throughout El Salvador, St. Oscar denounced the bloodbath in no uncertain terms. Each Sunday his sermons were broadcast throughout the country denouncing the military and reading the unending lists of people tortured, garroted, executed, burned, buried alive, drowned, smothered, shot and raped the previous week.

That is, while Bergoglio was giving at least “silent consent” to those same crimes by the military in Argentina, and while John Paul II worked hand in glove with Ronald Reagan against liberation theology, Romero fulfilled the role of courageous prophet in El Salvador.

For his troubles, St. Oscar received threats daily from the White Hand. He could see that his own days were numbered. “Yes, they will kill a bishop,” he had said, “but may my blood may be the seed of freedom for the Salvadoran people.” Those words and others spoken by the sainted archbishop are centralized in the song featured at the top of today’s blog post. (See the sponsoring website: TheMartyrsProject.com/)

True to his premonitions, on this day 33 years ago, he was shot at the altar.

But what if he had survived? What if (impossibly) he had been created Cardinal? What if he had been elected pope? How different then the church would be. How different the world.

Conversions are possible. St. Oscar changed profoundly.

Can something similar happen for Francis I?

St. Oscar, pray for us!

Pray for Francis I!

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Based on Lk. 1:24-39 (?)

(For this week’s homily, I’ve invited my good friend and resigned priest, John Capillo to share his thoughts. In his formal priestly days John worked in the archdiocese of Brooklyn in New York, and in El Salvador. A prophet and  father of  four grown children, John has spent his informal priestly days in public service — most notably working for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. He is a wonderful teacher, and has often visited my classes and those of my bride, Peggy. I know you will love his words below.)

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.

Recall the previous scene in Luke.  Who is this Mary who sets off?  What is her state of mind?

She has been greeted by the angel Gabriel

who tells her that she is favored,

and that the LORD is with her.

She is troubled.

Let’s let her talk.

 

“What does it mean that the LORD is with  me?

I do not understand the greeting,

What do you mean I am favored?”

And the angel’s lines:

“Don’t be afraid,

you are not alone,

you are loved.

And I want to tell you something,

Sit down.

Breathe deeply,

Stay calm

Remember.   You are loved.”

 

And then the bomb shell,

blowing up all plans and status and expectations:

“You are to conceive and give birth to a son who will be great,

the Son of the Most High

A king like David,

who will reign forever.”

 

“Whoa.  Back up a bit. Let me think this through.

You are saying that I am favored and I am going to become pregnant?

But I am only betrothed to Joseph and if I am judged to be pregnant out of wedlock I can be stoned.

Am I hearing you correctly?

And I am to have a son who will be a king like David, complete with sword and shield, going off to war?

And he will reign over the House of Judah which is now reigned over by the Romans, and contested by the Zealots?

And who did you say you were, a messenger from God?

Maybe I am nuts, seeing visions, hearing voices.”

 

And in an understatement that lives with lack of understanding, she says,

“How can this be?

You gotta be kidding?

Do you know who you are talking to?

I am a young girl who does not even have a husband, and in this world that is no small potatoes.”

 

But the story goes on.

The angel says,

“Oh, I did not tell you how this is going to work, how you are going to explain this to

to your mother who raised you to be a good girl

to your father, who has this betrothal deal with Joseph,

to Joseph, who is expecting a wife who is a virgin,

to the priests who will be ready to stone you,

to the governor, who will see your son as a pretender to the throne,

and to the Empire, that now rules and with an iron fist.

Just tell them that the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and the power of the MOST high will over shadowed you, and your son will be the Son of GOD.’

 

And Mary’s response?

‘Wow! You are not kidding around.  This is the whole enchilada.  And you think that I can pull this off.

And the only explanation that I get is that the Holy Spirit will come upon me and the power of the most high will overshadow me.

And you are waiting for an answer?

OK,

I accept.

I hope my mother understands that I made this decision because I had a vision and heard voices

I will hope my father is not ripping mad.

I hope that Joseph will still have me,

God knows what I will do about the governor and the Empire

and I will deal with this kingship thing and swords and overthrowing when the time comes.

Are you sure that you understand that you are dealing with a little poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks of a runt of a city in no-where’s-ville. I am not trying to give you any lip about this, but just to let you know.

But if you are for real, I am game.  I suppose you will get back to me about the details.

Oh and you say Elizabeth is pregnant, old barren Elizabeth. And that because nothing is impossible with God,

I gotta get up there and talk to her about all this.”

 

And so we start today’s episode.

 

Mary goes right away to Elizabeth’s.  It is a woman thing.

And Elizabeth is all excited,

filled with the Holy Spirit.

And her baby is jumping up and down,

gleefully,

in her womb.

And Elizabeth says,

all excited,

full of anima,

speaking like one possessed,

“Blessed are you who believed,

you who took the promptings as real,

who trusted her intuition,

who trusted her muse, her logos, her inner voice.

What a joy it is to know that you are willing to take what you heard out for a spin;

willing to step off the edge

to go with the flow

to glide in the air

to dance in the back room,

to put aside the fearfulness that her mother has,

to defy the anger that her father has ,

to test the love that Joseph has,

to stand up to the priests, the governor, the Empire

all because you saw a vision and heard voices.

You are one special person, and one great friend.

Give me a hug, squirt.”

 

That’s the miracle.  That’s the call. We are up to it, aren’t we?