From Persecuted to Polarized: What US Evangelicals Can Learn from Colombia

    In the Western Hemisphere’s longest armed conflict, suffering has often inspired evangelical solidarity. Now the body of Christ is succumbing to self-harm.

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    For 70 years, Colombia has been a nation at war with itself.

    Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, and national police and military have ripped families limb from limb and scarred the national consciousness, running up a death toll of over 1 million souls and driving more than 8 million people from their homes—just in the past generation.

    In late 2016, for a brief moment, the international community thought that the violence might be nearing an end as a delegation from the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas signed peace accords with the government of then-President Juan Manuel Santos.

    Cameras flashed. Santos got a Nobel Peace Prize. And the killings continued.

    Year to date, there have already been 68 massacres in Colombia. Since the peace accords were signed in Havana, Cuba, more than 440 community leaders have been murdered. Many of these community leaders are themselves pastors, whose resistance of violence and advocacy in favor of dispossessed campesinos (rural farmers) put them in the crosshairs of armed groups.

    Their stories have begun to be told, most recently in “The Role of the Evangelicals in the Colombian Conflict,” a report submitted to the Colombian Truth Commission earlier this month. Nevertheless, this landmark report, which chronicles events from 1959 to 2016, is just the tip of the iceberg.

    About 1,800 years ago, the church father Tertullian pointed out how Christianity had flourished in spite of vicious imperial persecution, defiantly declaring, “We multiply when we are reaped by you: the blood of Christians is seed” (Tertullian, Apologeticus 50.13). Since the blood of believers has soaked Colombian soil, by Tertullian’s logic we might expect that Colombian faith is thriving.

    We would only be partially right. The violence of Colombia has been a crucible: purifying and galvanizing some believers into extraordinary righteousness, yet alloying the faith of others with political agendas that have little to do with the crucified Messiah from Nazareth.

    This article offers a glimpse at both Colombian Christianities, and observes that they have a great deal to teach the US church.

    Courageous and Compassionate Amid Conflict

    Outside the major Colombian cities, far from political grandstanding and camera crews, Christian communities have quietly spent decades risking themselves to care for victims of the violent conflict.

    One such community is the church Cristo el Rey (Christ the King), housed in an unremarkable little building in the sun-baked city of Tierralta, Córdoba. In 1996, the congregation had the reality of the armed conflict thrust upon them when 50 campesino families stumbled into town, leading their dogs and the livestock that could manage the 25-mile trip from their mountain village. Driven from their homes by a guerrilla militia and with nowhere to go, they sat down exhausted in the city plaza, burning under the merciless sun.

    Nobody remembers exactly who it was who opened the doors of Cristo el Rey to them; the pastor was in a meeting when he got a word that someone had let in the desplazados (internally displaced persons, or IDPs). By the time he arrived, they had settled themselves in the sanctuary, surrounded by their animals and overwhelmed by their trauma. The church decided to let them stay.

    The community suspended their services (since the sanctuary had become a refugee camp), and as the current pastor shared with me, “For weeks, our worship was simply to sit with them and hear their stories and weep.” Then, the small, impoverished congregation of Cristo el Rey began to build, helping to create new settlements for the IDPs—a ministry of compassion that cost some of their young leaders their lives.

    Some of the IDPs eventually returned to the mountains, but, in 2008, they were again violently expelled, this time by paramilitary groups. Years later, they ventured a second return.

    That community is now pastored by “Marcos,” an IDP whose own brother had been shot by guerrillas nine times in the middle of a church service, and who later was targeted by the same guerrillas. Nonetheless, Marcos chose to travel back to the mountains, to serve that scarred community, knowing better than most what it could cost.

    Marcos and his wife now live, with their two beautiful daughters, in a tiny cinderblock shack beside the church. They have no running water. They have no physical security. They do not even have a front door or a locking gate. But they are feeding their sheep and their flock is growing.

    Is the blood of the martyrs the seed of the church? Sometimes. But not always. A broader historical perspective is in order.

    From Persecuted Solidarity to Political Polarity

    The story of the past three generations of Colombian Protestantism cannot be told without talking about the violent conflict.

    From 1948 to 1958, a period known today simply as La Violencia savaged Colombia. In the battle between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party (and throughout the ensuing decade), evangelicals typically aligned themselves with the Liberals, in large part because the Conservative Party was closely linked to the Roman Catholic state church. The persecution Protestants endured during that epoch marks the evangelical consciousness in Colombia to this day.

    When an uneasy coalition government brought La Violencia to a supposed conclusion, Marxist guerrilla groups formed—most famously, the FARC and the ELN (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional)—notionally in order to champion the cause of oppressed campesinos. In reaction to the violence and atrocities committed by guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups formed, themselves perpetrating even more massacres than their guerrilla counterparts.

    During the ’70s and ’80s, evangelicals gradually attenuated their affiliation with the Liberal Party, opting for an apolitical posture—in part because of the high price they paid for their previous political identification. But being notionally apolitical did not protect them; as the report submitted to the Truth Commission notes, they were suspected by armed factions on both the left and the right of collaborating with groups of the opposite stripe.

    A massive shift ensued after the watershed events of the early ’90s. As the result of a peace treaty with the guerrilla group M-19, a constitutional congress was convened and a new constitution was ratified in 1991. One outcome of this new political framework was to secure the freedom of personal conscience and religious worship, which fostered the ensuing spread of Protestantism.

    Evangelical churches progressively became a more potent electorate, and they began to form small political parties. (Protestants now represent at least 16 percent of the Colombian population.) The report indicates how Protestants began to diversify politically and to polarize—a point which became strikingly clear in the 2016 referendum on the La Habana Peace Accords with the FARC.

    Much of the international community was shocked when on October 2, 2016, Colombia voted down the peace agreement with the FARC (by a margin of less than 1 percent), deciding to perpetuate the 50-year war with the world’s oldest guerrilla group.

    National opinion was split on geographical lines. The regions of the country most affected by the violence voted in favor of the peace referendum, while those least affected and most major urban centers except Bogotá voted against it (partially for fear that demobilized guerrillas would move out of the jungle and into the cities).

    Protestant communities mirrored this split, and evangelicals, especially urban Pentecostal megachurches, were key players in swinging the vote. Rural Pentecostals and historic denominations such as the Methodists, Lutherans, and Mennonites tended to vote in favor of the referendum. [See CT’s explainer: Why Many Colombian Protestants Opposed Peace with FARC Fighters]

    The political reasoning (and legerdemain) behind the evangelical No vote was telling, especially because much of it re-emerged two years later with the election of the current president, Iván Duque Márquez. (Duque represents the political stance and interests of the wildly popular former President Álvaro Uribe Velez [2002–2010], known for his hardline anti-guerrilla stance. Uribe is currently being investigated for witness tampering and has been accused of paramilitary ties and abetting human rights abuses.)

    Three components proved especially decisive in mobilizing the evangelical No vote.

    First, the peace agreement was seen as guaranteeing “impunity” for guerrillas, given its provisions for restorative rather than retributive justice for those who confessed to their crimes.

    Second, it was feared the treaty’s commitments to land restitution for the forcibly displaced would open the door to “Castrochavismo.” A neologism for Latin American communist dictatorship in the style of Cuba and Venezuela, this term was popularized by former President Uribe and proved effective in President Duque’s 2018 defeat of Gustavo Petro (a former M-19 guerrilla and a member of the 1991 constitutional congress).

    Third, right-wing politicians convinced evangelicals that a vote in favor of the peace agreement was an affirmation of LGBTI rights. This sleight of hand was especially disingenuous.

    The peace agreement rightly decries the victimization of numerous vulnerable groups in the conflict and calls for their protection in the future. (It repeatedly lists the following: women, children, adolescents, older adults, handicapped people, indigenous people, campesinos, afrocolombians, Roma, the LGBTI community, and minority faith communities, among others.) Such references to the LGBTI community in the agreement were of course sufficient to awaken the concern of some evangelicals.

    Still, the Santos government (2010–2018) made a key political miscalculation when it appointed former Senator Gina Parody as Minister of Education and head of the campaign for the peace referendum. The lesbian lawmaker was a leading force in promoting what was called “gender ideology” in schools, a stance that galvanized Protestants against her and, by extension, against the referendum.

    After the referendum was voted down, the peace accord was revised in dialogue with members of the opposition, and thereafter was approved by the Colombian congress (rather than via popular vote); the nation then entered a “post-conflict” period. But the international acclaim Santos received was not enough to carry national sentiment.

    In 2018, Duque was elected president, having cultivated the evangelical and Pentecostal vote. Duque represented himself as a defender of religious liberty (in contradistinction to the supposed Castrochavismo and gender ideology of his opponents) and as a strong leader—in continuity with former President Uribe—who would not kowtow to guerrilla groups.

    The Duque victory resulted quickly in the remobilization of a sector of the demobilized FARC forces and the abandonment of peace talks by the ELN guerrilla group. Likewise, right-wing paramilitary groups such as Clan del Golfo intensified their activities, responding to the power vacuum left by the FARC and arguably emboldened by the Duque victory.

    The violence and division of the nation continues today, such that it is hard even to utter the word “post-conflict” un-ironically.

    While some evangelical Colombians are champions of peace and disarmament, others were key opponents of the peace process, and there is certainly no single “Protestant” view of the violence of Colombia. Gone are the days in which a sense of being persecuted inspired an evangelical solidarity. Instead, Colombian social media reveals and exacerbates a profound polarization between Protestant groups.

    Fear and Reductionism Compromise Witness

    Many believers I know here in Colombia remind me of Jesus, because of their faithful testimony and literal scars (Gal. 6:17). Yet the body of Christ in Colombia is succumbing to self-harm in ways that remind me of my passport country, the United States.

    I am watching some Christians in both my homes mortgage their witness under very similar pressures: reductionism and fear .

    Many Colombian evangelicals have fallen into the trap of reducing Christianity to a pair of moral issues that take precedence over all others: “gender ideology” and abortion. As indicated above, even though LGBTI rights were at best peripheral to the peace referendum—which was primarily focused on land rights for campesinos, the cessation of violence, the victimization of women, and the pursuit of truth as well as justice for human rights violations—homosexuality and “impunity” were more decisive for the evangelical vote than were care for impoverished campesinos or the end of violence.

    Likewise, in the US, the holy grail of an additional Supreme Court seat continues to be the juggernaut issue for many evangelicals, at the expense of any number of moral issues that should matter to Christians as well (although groups like “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden” are problematizing that reasoning).

    Nonetheless, if believers in North or South America decide that the indisputable importance of two moral issues justifies tepidity to numerous other ethical topics that God cares about—poverty, refugees, environmental sustainability, racial injustice, violence, and corruption—then we have, perhaps unwittingly, opted to subordinate the Scriptures to a reductionist construal of “Christianity” designed to align neatly with a particular political party. But the Kingdom of God cannot be confused with any political affiliation.

    Finally, fear has proven a powerful weapon in coopting evangelicals, both in Colombia and in the US. The specter of “Castrochavismo” and “gender ideology” fired the electoral activism of Colombian churches. So also, the fear of “socialism” in the US and concern about the waning of white Christian cultural hegemony have done a great deal to mobilize evangelicals politically.

    Fear is why Jerry Falwell Jr. could tweet, un-ironically, “Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys’. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters” like President Trump. Fear is why Eric Trump could venture the claim that his father “literally saved Christianity”, arguing “there’s a full out war on faith in this country by the other side.” President Trump is presented as a strong man who will save the faithful. This is why Eric Metaxas could celebrate Trump’s rapid COVID recovery by tweeting “Is there anyone like unto him? If I were one of his detractors, I think I’d give up right about now.” Ostensibly Metaxas intended to allude to Exodus 15:11 or Psalm 113:5—which would be blasphemy, since those texts speak of YHWH—but it is more than a little disconcerting to notice the similarities to Revelation 13:3-4.

    Twitter exegesis aside, these comments reveal just how much believers let fear drive us to seek salvation in the arms of political leaders who bear little resemblance to Christ. This is not a mistake that a believer like pastor Marcos in the mountains of Córdoba would make; every day, he places fidelity to the gospel over his own security, prosperity, and fear.

    In Colombia, and in the US, there are compelling Christian reasons to be a member of the liberal parties or the conservative parties. Christians should have strong feelings about religious freedom, racial justice, economic development, health care, violence, migration, education, the unborn, and the elderly.

    But Christians cannot continue to be seduced by politicians who pander to our fear or our vanity, and who convince us to thin our faith down to a pair of moral issues in conjunction with a certain cultural dominance.

    We were instructed to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). Instead, in both nations, I fear that we are being played for fools, and increasingly immoral ones at that.