Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Can Anything Good Come Out of a “S***hole”?

Jesus of the People, Janet McKenzie (1999)

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

"Why do we want all these people from 's***hole’ countries' coming here?"

This past week, the CEO of Trumpland, Inc., proclaimed that while white Europeans from countries like Norway were welcome to immigrate to his country, people of color from countries like Haiti were not. "Why do we want all these people from 's***hole’ countries' coming here?" he asked.

Later in the day, he would act to end the protections for refugees from another “s***hole country,” El Salvador. Up to a quarter of a million Salvadoran-Americans now face deportation to a country torn by violence and crime, a country the younger potential deportees have never really known. But it is a country I know a bit about first hand.

You may think we live like animals…”

The man was perhaps in his late 30s though his weather-beaten hands and face suggested many more years. He stood in front of a long barn with a number of stalls in it. Inside the barn, families had created living quarters, sleeping on straw and cooking over charcoal fires.
“You may think we live like animals,” he said, “but this is the first roof many of us have ever had over our heads.” Where did you live before, we asked. He pointed to the wooden bridge spanning a small river on the edge of the farm. 

“Under the bridge.”

Just at this moment, a handful of children came to join us. All of them bore the distended bellies of malnutrition. The man saw our expressions of discomfort on our faces as we observed these children. “Two of our children have died this week from starvation,” he said. “One of them was my son. He was 10.”

This story is one of many that I carry from my two visits to El Salvador in the early 1990s at the end of the civil war there. We were in the conflicted zone, the area in the countryside outside the capital. A UN patrolled cease fire had tentatively been established in this place where the guerillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation movement (FMLN) had battled the US supported Salvadoran army and its US trained paramilitary terrorists to a standstill.

The farm had once belonged to one of the famous 14 Families of El Salvador. At one time it had housed prized Charolais cows imported from France only for their oligarch owners to discover that these animals did poorly in tropical climates with their tropical diseases and parasites. The barn in front of which we stood had actually once been air conditioned to keep the Charolais alive.

The sharecroppers who worked in the nearby fields managed by global agribusiness entities with names like Dole lived in view of the barns under the bridge. When they dared to organize and begin to demand three basic needs – education for their children, access to health care and the right to form cooperatives to market the fruits of their labor – the Salvadoran government dominated by the oligarchs declared war on them.

It was a war the US government under Ronald Reagan was only too happy to join even when it was legally prohibited from doing so. Under a rubric of anti-communism that only marginally applied to this uprising of working class peasants, the Salvadoran army was furnished arms, funding and training, much of that under the auspices of the School of the Americas then operating out of the Canal Zone of Panama. The evidence of that war was everywhere around us as we made our way past the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers along unpaved country roads where signs on either side warned of mines capable of blowing up our vehicle and its occupants.

But it was the less obvious results of that School of the Americas training that proved most deadly to these campesinos relegated to living under bridges. Called la Escuela de los Asesinos by many Central Americans (asesino being a general word for murderer, not just those who target governmental figureheads), the School provided training in terrorist tactics designed to keep the peasants under control through fear of paramilitaries who operated in the shadows.

                           Maryknoll sisters, 1980

The handiwork of the paramilitaries who operated under cover of darkness was everywhere to be seen in the light of day: the bodies of those designated as enemies of the state who were “necklaced,” rubber tires tied to their bodies and set afire only to burn all the way through its human anchor; students, journalists and union officials who simply disappeared, their mutilated bodies later appearing on the highway to the San Salvador International Airport; Maryknoll sisters who dared to seek to bring health care, education and a modicum of hope to the anawim of El Salvador run off the road, raped and killed; an archbishop who dared to speak out against the terrorism and its governmental and corporate sponsors shot down at the altar as he celebrated the Eucharist.

This is how s***holes come into being. None of them ever arise in a vacuum.

A mother with photo of one of the desaparecidos

It is also how waves of immigrants came to seek refuge in the United States, ironically fleeing to the very country which was the primary cause of their need to leave. When the hostilities in El Salvador waned, the US pulled out much of its largely covert military presence, leaving behind a country decimated by war, a government incapacitated by deep distrust, families and communities broken by two decades of civil war and a country floating in a sea of weapons. The rise of the most ferocious gangs in North America in the wake of the US exit is not terribly difficult to understand.

But there is more to this story.

Their Lives - Lessons That Changed My Life

My visits to El Salvador were life changing. I went each time as an Episcopal seminarian under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, first as an observer of the cease-fire and the second visit as an international election observer.

The Gospels were more alive in Central America than anywhere I’ve ever been. The people Jesus loved, who served as the raw material for his parables, were all around me. “Blessed are the poor” takes on an entirely different significance when poverty that results in literal starvation to death is present all around you.

Like Roman occupied Judea, the brutality of the Salvadoran army and the obscenities carried out by the agents of empire - US trained paramilitary men - were everywhere to be seen. Archbishop Romero would compare his beloved people’s reality to that of Jesus himself: The people are being crucified. Soon, he, himself, would be crucified.

A vivid reflection of that assessment would confront us on our visit to the University of Central America, a Jesuit institution where six brothers and their two housekeepers had been shot to death in a rose garden, their brains beaten out of their heads to send the message: This is what happens to those who would use their brains to question the oligarchy. In the university chapel the Stations of the Cross took the form of those martyred people of El Salvador, the moment of their tortured deaths graphically conveying the suffering of those who dare to challenge empires.

But it was precisely the people in this hellhole created in the death grip of a modern empire who proved to be my teachers, their lives the lessons that changed my life.

I learned that it’s quite possible to distinguish people from their governments. Frankly, I had no idea why any Salvadoreño could stand to be in the same room with a citizen of the country that had been the author of such misery. Yet they made very clear that their own government was not the same as the people I was encountering, people whose hospitality and openness was astounding given their suffering. Why should I be any different?

Their lives were lessons in perseverance under conditions that would long ago have staggered people of the First World like me. Their hope for a better El Salvador rising from the ruins of the old, a relic of an older era whose time had now passed, was amazing if not counter-intuitive. 

Their generosity in sharing the meager material goods their lives of back breaking labor and overwhelming poverty managed to produce overwhelmed me again and again during my days there. It stood in stark contrast to the villas of the oligarchs we passed whose broken glass capped concrete walls and iron gates guarded by men with machine guns shielded them from the misery their privilege required for its existence. And it brought to consciousness my own privilege in what most in the First World would see as a very ordinary life, a privilege made possible by the suffering of the Third.

That privilege would become very clear to me within hours of arriving home the first trip. My husband needed to go to the local K-Mart for something. Inside the store, shelves of material good stacked to the ceiling required a rolling ladder to retrieve them. I had just come from a place where people were living in cattle stalls cooking over charcoal fires.

What did people here need all this stuff for?

We left the K-Mart for the Sizzler Steak House. The first thing to greet my vision upon entering the restaurant was the open food bar covered by the obligatory translucent plastic sneeze guard which stretched nearly the length of the room. The bar was stocked to overflowing. But the chances that all this food would be eaten this day were slim to none. Much – perhaps most – of it would be thrown away at the end of the night. Within the past 24 hours I had seen people starving to death, people who may well have picked some of the very produce I now observed headed for a dumpster before day’s end.

How does one make sense of this?

We Could Learn From This…

The lessons learned in countries like this one which frightened, ignorant men of privilege call s***holes have much to teach those of us in the First World. They are lessons in the harsh economic realities that, far from being “just business,” are the result of deliberate choices that create and maintain privilege for a few at the expense of enormous suffering for many.

This reality is never a given. These ongoing choices can be made very differently with different results.

Perhaps more important, it is the people of the s***holes in the world who have the potential to teach those of us leading privileged First World lives about our own humanity. It’s not just our privilege and the unexamined sense of entitlement we hold regarding that privilege. It’s much deeper than that.

Fully human beings have learned that it’s never “all about me,” the moral reasoning of children. They have learned that if one of us suffers, all of us suffer. They have learned that if we are to fully develop our humanity, we must find something larger than ourselves to devote our lives to. They have learned that if we foul this nest in which we all reside, there will be no others to shelter us.

I am hardly the only person to benefit from the lessons that people in the developing world - the fully human beings living in places that angry white men of privilege call “s***holes” – offer us.

With a voice quivering from outrage and pain, CNN announcer Anderson Cooper reacted to the “s***hole” comments speaking of his time spent in Haiti:

I have never met a Haitian who isn't strong. You have to be to survive in a place where the government has often abandoned its people. Where opportunities are few and where Mother Nature has punished the people far more than anyone should ever be punished…Haitians slap your hand hard when they shake it. They look you in the eye, they do not blink. They stand tall. They have dignity. A dignity many in this White House could learn from. A dignity the President with all his money and power could learn from as well.

Indeed. A highly insecure, narcissistic man who by a fluke of an archaic electoral system now holds power has much to learn about what it actually means to be human. Those lessons could begin with the humility that is immediately evident when one steps off the plane in virtually any country in the developing world.

From the S***holes, Hope for Salvation

In the 1st CE Roman Empire, the region of Palestine was seen as a hardship post. It contained several tetrarchies including Judea and the Galilee exploited to the point of breaking by the First World elites of its time. Within the region, local oligarchs scrambled to insure their own privilege while denigrating those they deigned to be beneath them.

In the Gospel lesson read in Sunday’s common lectionary in the western churches, a figure named Nathaniel is being recruited by Philip, a disciple of Jesus, to join the inner circle of this Galilean prophetic sage. Nathaniel’s response reflects the same level of contempt and dismissal as the recent pronouncements of Donald Trump: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Even within tense, exploited Palestine with its imperial extraction economy, not all places and residents were alike. Judeans despised their northern neighbors in Galilee, seeing them as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence. Within that despised region, a backwater village off the main road to the nearby Roman city of Sepphoris named Nazareth would decidedly have been seen as a “s**hole.”

It would be from that s***hole that a man would rise whose brief but incredible life would change the world forever.

It is from the s***holes of the world – the places least suspected of harboring anything of value - that hope for salvation - the journey to wholeness - often springs. It is often the daughters and sons of the working poor whose wisdom draws into question the common sense and implicit values of empire and exposes the destructiveness of its deadly grip. It is often the anawim, the little ones, of backwater provinces who often possess the very means to a full humanity that those of us leading privileged lives of superficiality and the constant escape we seek from them so badly need.

It is always easier to dismiss the wells of suffering in our world as s***holes than to admit we have ourselves created them and benefit from them. It is always safer to stone our prophets than to admit that they have something to tell us we badly need to hear and to open ourselves to the wisdom they might offer us.

As Anderson Cooper observed, it is precisely the example of their life experience in the face of enormous suffering that offers us a lesson in dignity so many of us so badly need. And truth be told, in a country whose CEO conducts the nation’s business in the scatological terms of a middle school boy, a little dignity would go an awful long way. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018

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