King's Evangelical Divinity School

15 March 2012

Evangelicals and Guatemala's Civil War

A couple of days ago a Guatemalan court sentenced a former soldier to 6,060 years in prison for his part in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre during Guatemala's bloody civil war. During PhD fieldwork I came across some shocking human rights reports of massacres and abuses committed during Nicaragua's Sandinista-Contra civil war, but what happened at Dos Erres was truly brutal (for a report in Spanish see here, for some idea of its contents see the Wikipedia entry). Neither was this an isolated incident, with other military massacres and unspeakable atrocities by Marxist guerrillas replicated across Guatemala's highlands in a civil war taking as many as 250,000 lives.

The civil war looms large over Guatemalans to this day, and among them Evangelicals. In the Mayan highlands small indigenous Pentecostal groups were frequently targeted by Marxist guerrillas who considered them counterrevolutionary. Pentecostals were also co-opted by the military into civilian defence patrols (it was either that or find oneself on the receiving end of the government's brutal scorched earth policy in the region), which only served to intensify unwelcome guerrilla attention. Yet in the city there was a quite different expression of Evangelicalism - middle-class, educated, professional neopentecostals - notably the El Verbo church. It was a member of this megachurch who emerged as key player in 1980s civil war-torn Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemala's military leader during the Dos Erres and other massacres.

Among Rios Montt's advisers were elders of his church, and while the military brutally set about breaking the insurgency in Guatemala's highlands the president was broadcast weekly expressing religious opinions and preaching sermons. Did Rios Montt order the atrocities, or even know about them? His supporters maintain not, or that he was unable to exercise control over a military that was itself completely out of control. A Guatemalan court recently decided he had a case to answer and the case is ongoing. Thus Rios Montt and Guatemala's civil war continues to loom large over the country's Evangelical population.

But Evangelical involvement in Guatemalan politics is not limited to his controversial military presidency. In the 1990s the neopentecostal Jorge Serrano Elias was elected president (though in an attempt to seize more power through a failed self-coup was forced to flee several years later), while other megachurch leaders since have similarly sought to become involved in national politics. Moreover, Guatemala counts one of the largest percentages of Pentecostals of a national population (around 25% though some surveys  inflate this somewhat on the basis of unlikely extrapolations).

The numerical strength of Guatemalan Pentecostals begs an inevitable question: If Pentecostals are so numerous and influential in Guatemala why does it remain one of Latin America's most violent societies? If the Kingdom of God reigns in the hearts of so many Guatemalans why isn't it having a wider impact upon society as a whole? Is this a structural or historical issue, whereby Guatemalan society has developed and is structured in such a way that its current problems are inevitable? Or is Guatemalan Evangelicalism overly otherworldly and has thus failed in promoting a prophetic vision and mission? Or is this in some way a spiritual battle, as many Guatemalan Pentecostals engaged in spiritual warfare believe? These and others are difficult questions for Evangelicals, particularly those of us living in a country where we represent a tiny minority who may wonder why, in a country where they represent at least one in four of the population, they are not having a far greater impact.

For those interested in knowing more about Evangelicals and Guatemala's civil war I would recommend any of several books by two excellent scholars, Virginia Garrard-Burnett and David Stoll, who have researched and written widely in this field. For a valuable ethnographic study offering fascinating insight into several of the questions I raise in the previous paragraph consider Kevin Lewis O'Neill's City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala.


Peter Stone said...

Hello Calvin, I came across you before Christmas on the Revelation Channel with Sthephen Sizer and the thing that caught me eye was your interest in Israel and Messianic affairs as well as Latin America. I found this fascinating as I know many who have an interest in one or the other but not both. I happen to be interested in both.

Re this article this is one thing I have always wondered myself why in some regions of the world where there is a large percentage of evangelicals some times society is falling apart. In my own country of Northern Ireland during the troubles there was estimates of around 40% evangelical but yet we had some so-called evangelicals perpitration horrific acts of murder. My wife happens to be from Ecuador and one of the things I have noticed that most but not all evangelicals have been taught that politics is of the devil and they should have no part in it. This perception isn't helped by evagelicals who have been elected in places like Ecuador and Peru who got themselves involved in the same corruption that they where accusing other politicians of.

On a side note I really enjoy your blog although I would like to see even more on Latin America if and when relavent.


Calvin L. Smith said...

Peter, many thanks for your comment and kind words. Yes, it is an interesting question, isn't it? And not one, I think, easily answered. Some argue Pentecostals in the region are too distant from politics, but in other parts they're very much involved, yet the same seems to apply: lots of crime and social problems. Perhaps it's something to do with Latin American society as a whole (the structural issue I referred to) and a burgeoning middle class will help in some way.

And why is, as you say, it that some (not all) Evangelicals in Latin America when they get into politics get sucked into some of the more insalubrious side? I think it was Paul Freston on Pentecostal politicians in Brazil (I need to check, don't want to misquote him) see it as a means of social upward mobility and also to secure benefits for their churches. But perhaps there's a stage when power corrupts, perhaps making a case for apoliticism (or perhaps, conversely, a case of revisiting our holy living and make it's genuine). But I'm babbling here, not thinking, just wanted to post a quick reply.

Thanks again. Will probably be posting more on both as, interestingly, both fields/regions intersect more (Ahmadinejad is courting new friends in Latin America, while a growing LA Arab population is taking an interest in ME affairs, yet Pentecostals remain strongly Zionist, see the Pew survey of 2006).

Fue un placer discutir brevemente estos asuntos. Quedase en contacto y quizás podremos charlar mas por teléfono algún tiempo.