November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 14, 2019
Forgiveness and faith are like writing a story. They take time, effort, revisions.—Daisy Hernández, A Cup of Water Under My Bed
During the civil war in Nicaragua, Daniel Berrigan wrote to his fellow priest, poet, and Thomas Merton devotee, Ernesto Cardenal, that the people of Nicaragua “could disappear tomorrow” and US Americans would not even realize it.1 Nearly forty years later, it seems that we only notice the people of Central America when they reappear, so to speak, at our southern border as part of an ongoing refugee crisis that most North Americans are only now starting to pay attention to. In some sense, we have, as Berrigan may have feared, forgotten or even tried to actively forget our Latin American neighbors.
This forgetting is an indictment not just of Americans in general but of Christians in particular. I’m old enough to have suffered through the Thief in the Night movies of the late 1970s. Like the awful Left Behind series of the late 1990s, the Thief in the Night franchise conveyed a pop dispensationalist theology that still haunts many Christians today. According to this theology, first, there will be the sudden vanishing of the faithful, who will be raptured before the wrath of God is poured out on sinful humanity. And second, there will be the disappearance of the remnant, those sinners who miss out on the rapture, but are born again during the tribulation. Their imprisonment, torture, and execution resemble a Dickensian tale of French bloody terror: supermarket bar codes meet guillotines. Yet for all of the talk since the 1960s of a diverse and global church, the action in these doomsday films primarily features persecution in the United States. The suffering of the rest of the people across the earth is nearly invisible. Indeed, the horrible irony of an American evangelicalism that has become centered on rapture disappearances or on the imagined persecution of a totalitarian regime is that actual bodies, often the bodies of children, have been disappearing across Latin America for the past fifty years.
Should we be shocked at this invisibility? We seem to be obsessed with dystopia and ruin. But as we gaze over the shoulder of George Orwell, our dystopian nightmares primarily seem to originate with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Holocaust survivors like Eli Wiesel are right to fear the forgetting of genocide, yet when it comes to the recent tragedies in Latin America, it is impossible to forget what has really never been taught. As Daisy Hernández notes, there is a “hierarchy of pain” in our textbooks, our nightly news, and family conversations, and in that hierarchy, our southern neighbors slip out of the narrative. Likewise, the Puerto Rican decolonial theorist Ramón Grosfoguel has shown that most of what we study in the “Westernized university” when we study history is a handful of male figures who are primarily from the United States, Italy, Germany, France, and England. This is evidence that, as José Olivarez writes, history is written by guns.2
The disappearance of Latin Americans from our histories may be an unconscious way of releasing ourselves from feeling culpable for our own roles in Latin American violence, but such forgetting may have wider reaching consequences. Archbishop Desmond Tutu declares that “the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.” In this regard, the past currently holds the people of the United States hostage. It is a past that is often denied, passed over, or ignored. However, envisioning “the past as a resource for the present” may be a way to challenge modernist readings of history and to remember.3
When I first started college, I read a lot of Wolfhart Pannenberg. I submerged myself in eschatology because I got a thrill out of guessing where history was headed. Then something happened. With time, I became less interested in studying the big picture. I went from reading Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann to reading Sandra Cisneros and Roberto Bolaño. I became more interested in histories than History, more interested in global perspectives than European perspectives. I devoured works by Latin American liberation theologians and Latinx theologians in the United States, and theorists like Anouar Majid, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and Boaventura de Sousa Santos revealed to me that global expressions of religion can be a liberating force even in this supposedly secular age, for as de Sousa Santos writes, “pluralist and progressive theologies may be a source of radical energy for counterhegemonic human rights struggle.”4
The fact that it was reading that transformed the way I saw the world suggests that one of the most important ways that we can awaken lost histories is through decolonizing our reading lists and syllabi. This exposes us to books—and histories—that can produce a literary event in our lives. In crafting such lists, Yvette DeChavez cautions against making token additions for the sake of multiculturalism; instead, decolonization means allowing writers outside of the European literary canon to become the dominant voices in our lives and studies. Moreover, the Chinese-British author Xiaolu Guo points out that “lists of so-called ‘most important books in the last 100 years’ always comprise mainly books written in English. This is a very unhealthy and lazy way to view our literary history: it treats Arabic, Asian and African literature as secondary.”5
The dean of Chicanx historians at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mario T. García, recently wrote a historiography claiming that historians need an interdisciplinary approach to history, one that includes fiction, memoirs, autobiographies, and other genres from the humanities. I especially appreciate his message concerning fiction because those stories often contain deeper truths about our history than supposedly neutral—or neutralized—accounts of history that lack a poet’s heart.6 Fiction helps show us that a person’s story does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in a particular context and a particular community. This is why the Peruvian novelist and failed presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa praises the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, because Ortega y Gasset focused on histories about human struggle, stories that resound with the same fire as the liberation theologies that caught my fancy as a young man.7 Such a technique may put us in contact with ideologues, fanatics, and dreamers, but the concrete humanity featured in well-crafted stories avoids the pitfalls of theoretical jargon. Thus, just as we come to know characters in a novel through their flaws, we also find that history is impure because people in history are complex, which is better revealed when we view them from our own situatedness.
Ortega y Gasset has said that “man makes history because, faced with a future which is not in his hands, he finds that the only thing he has, that he possesses, is his past.”8 This captures some sense of why I stopped playing guessing games with the big questions of the future and looked to learn more about myself and others from the past, particularly from a past that our Eurocentric tunnel vision seems eager to erase. Such stories are all around us, penned by Latinx authors, often in exile, who describe, for example, trying to survive under right-wing military dictatorships; we have just been too busy reading Orwell, whose books are always assigned by instructors, to spot them.
One example of a novel that de Sousa Santos, Guo, and Ortega y Gasset might appreciate and that helps bring the impure history of Latin American to life is Marta Traba’s Mothers and Shadows (Conversación al sur). Traba’s novel focuses on two women whose loved ones have either been murdered by a political dictatorship in Latin America or who have simply vanished once they were taken into custody. The action takes place across South America—Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina—to illustrate the broad scope of oppression against those who are seen as left-wing agitators, and in the novel, these characters ponder which is worse, having the historical script of a loved one in your hands, even though the ending is torture and death, or holding out hope that the disappeared will reappear someday. Closure or hope?
In Traba’s world, we find that hope is overrated and memory is not a refuge. As one of the characters says, “I don’t want to remember anything. The past is behind me. It’s dead and buried. I hate to think what it would be like if I kept replaying it in my mind every day.”9 Another character, who has been tortured and released, believes there is no God of the theology of hope for her. As the narrator declares, “If only there were a God capable of protecting her from the implacable curse of memory, she’d be on her knees before his image begging to be spared. But who would grant her oblivion? Who would be prepared to extend such mercy?”10 In Mothers and Shadows, history is wreckage not refuge.
Oblivion may come to some of us as a blessing, but oblivion does not serve eschatology or history. It is important that we read Traba’s characters asking, “What do you do with the death squads when you run out of victims?”11 This rhetorical question helps to explain the post–Cold War era across much of Latin America. It points to the uncomfortable fact that following US celebrations concerning the defeat of the Evil Empire, men with guns needed something to do. They needed someone to kill.
One of the ways to honor the past is to avoid the moralism we have been taught to read in history. Perhaps what Traba’s book and others like it force us to consider is whether we can truly be bystanders in history or whether we are either accomplices or victims of violence and disappearance. If we read history as dispassionate, neutral observers, then this question is nonsense. But we are all caught up in history. We are all caught up in the past and present and the way they shape our perspectives.
Christian history will always need eschatology. It is an implicit part of our faith and doctrinal beliefs. However, my modest hope is to see this history become more impure by realizing the historical shifts that have occurred throughout its history. This will only happen when theology and history take seriously the literature that they so often ignore. I too desire to have the blessed hope spoken about in the Scriptures, but when face-to-face with all the history we choose to ignore, I find that eschatology begins to lose its glamor.
Is it right for me to be so pessimistic when people talk about hope today? Moltmann declared a Christian theology of hope right after World War II and the Holocaust. What right do I have to be so critical of hope today? I am currently living with this tension. Perhaps, as Ortega y Gasset suggests, all we have is the past. We imagine from a particular time and place. And we must seek out writers like Traba who have left an account of the past as a resource, even if it is a violent past. Berrigan notes, recalling an image he had seen of the recently assassinated Óscar Romero, that no one disappears because of the “persistence of memory,” yet memory only persists if we sink our hands into the past and read the accounts that hold these memories.12
Michael Jimenez received his PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Remembering Lived Lives: A Historiography from the Underside of Modernity and Karl Barth and the Study of the Religious Enlightenment: Encountering the Task of History.