Solidarity: At The Heart of the Gospel

Over and over today, in Juarez, Mexico, the theme was solidarity. I had the chance to get down to the border for the first time  in my life and get just a glimpse at life there. To be honest, I didn’t see nearly as much as I heard from people who live and work in Juarez. I spent all day in a classroom with people offering information and analysis, and challenging us white Americans to think about what we are called to, how to live in solidarity with a situation that folks there today said causes them fear they didn’t even have while working in El Salvador with all the violence going on there. Some stats to put it in perspective:

In early 2008, there were roughly 40 murders in the first three months of the year. The new president ordered the militarization of Juarez in order to stamp down on crime, supposedly, and win popularity with the people (he was a marginal winner in the election). Murders went down for the first month. After that, murders continued to escalate, resulting in 1607 murders in 2008. Additionally, kidnapping, which was not a big problem before last year, began as well as extortion. Despite over 2500 federal troops and police, the violence has not lessened but increased. In 2009 so far, there are 994 murders, on pace to surpass last year, with 217 in June alone. There are now 9200 soldiers in Juarez, 2000 federal police, 800 state police…yet the violence worsens. The government says that the drug cartels are to blame, giving the army/police an excuse for the breaches of human rights that are carried out. Over 600 complaints against the army have been filed, yet only about 4 out of every 100 crimes committed against people by the military result in arrest, equalling a 96% impunity. Basically, the military is refusing to investigate and thereby granting the military license to do whatever they want. Today in Juarez, I saw trucks of armed military and police patroling the streets; it just creates more insecurity and chaos.

The result is fear. Everybody is afraid. Many churches in El Paso have strongly encouraged their members to completely avoid going any where near Juarez, and in Juarez, the church puts too much faith in the government and trusts that it will take care of things (the institutional church that is, though the church in the U.S. suffers from the same problem…), rendering it unable to be prophetic. It fears the return of persecution that it faced years ago, and in the interest of saving face and not coming into conflict with the government, it has remained relatively passive.

Yet on the flip side of all this is the reality that all the drug trafficking that happens, and Juarez is the major cocaine channel in Mexico to the U.S., is happening to feed a consumer in the United States. The U.S. is the largest consumer in the world of illegal drugs. There are therefore two ends of the spectrum that need people working harder for true peace. The peace of Juarez depends on the peace in Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and the peace of those cities depends on peace in Juarez. How can we celebrate Independence Day when it is more obvious than ever that the very salvation of our humanity is only possible in realizing our dependence on one another?

I could go on and on about all that was said today because I just learned so much about the city, but more than that I learned from some beautiful people who have dedicated their lives to the gospel of peace. Sister Betty, 76, shared with us three letters from Archbishop Oscar Romero sent to her when she lived in D.C. at the Tabor House, in which he praised their community for their continued acts of solidarity with the El Salvadoran people, as the Tabor House opened their home to refugees from that region of the world. Then Father Peter, 85 (!), shared some of his experiences in solidarity living in different parts of Latin America, and now in Juarez. Such amazing people, so much wisdom embodied in these two folks who have not stopped running the race even in their elder years. We heard other stories, one about a recent murder of a man named Jose who had gone into a grocery store to buy ice cream for his son’s birthday party and was shot with his wife and 3 kids waiting in the car. At the funeral, there was an amazing moment where an American priest and the Mexican priest embraced and just wept together, symbolizing what I said above, that we are connected in ways we cannot describe with words.

The other word that comes to my mind in with the word “solidarity” is “hospitality.” True hospitality, true welcoming of the stranger and being a part of the life of the orphan and widow is recognizing the Christ in the other and suffering with them. “They knew him in the breaking of bread,” as it is said, and in our hospitality we can share Christ even as we receive Christ in the enemy and the stranger. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” says Tertullian. Solidarity, hospitality; these require a willingness to die to self and to risk bodily death. This is at the center of the Gospel message, that Christ came to suffer along with those who suffer, that he might ease our suffering. Another key message today was that in the end it doesn’t matter “why”; solidarity means meeting the suffering and becoming part of it in compassionate service. Solidarity is a permanent attitude of encounter with humanity, and we need concrete examples of it. To divorce piety and spirituality from solidarity and action is to separate God from justice, Jesus from the cross, and humanity from humanity.

What to do? Well, to put it bluntly, Get out of the U.S. Go to Mexico, or Iraq, or Palestine, or Colombia, or any number of other places in the world. Go there, be ready to die alongside brothers and sisters so that the Gospel of Peace can be proclaimed. If that seems impossible, go to the other end of the spectrum. Go to the margins, to the poor, to the drug infested neighborhoods that (yes) are even part of the suburbs of the U.S. Be ready to die. Peace comes at a cost, but not the cost of military and police, but at the cost of the willing disciples of the Prince of Peace to die, to express the greatest love, to lay down your life for brothers and sisters without violence or hatred towards the enemy. If that sounds impossible, it’s not. But if you’re still not able to do that, practice radical, revolutionary hospitality. Invite an immigrant family over for dinner. Keep a guest room available and look for an opportunity to invite Jesus to stay with you (Jesus being the stranger, the alien, and the marginalized). Encourage your church to be receptive towards immigrants, reach out to them specifically, and raise money to send to places like Juarez. All of the above ways are equally beautiful, equally inacting the kingdom of God, of declaring the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee, the new creation. Shalom.

“Not to act is to act. Not to speak is to speak.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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