Presentation on Work in Mexico Division for Global Mission Board Meeting
David A. Brondos
Oct. 19, 2001
(NOTE: This is a presentation I prepared when invited to speak at a meeting of the Board of the Division for Global Mission Board shortly after the events of September 2001. While of course many things are now dated, it conveys well some of the aspects of my understanding of the relation between theology and mission as well as how I regard my work at the Theological Community.)
It’s good to be with you this evening. As you have heard, I am serving as a DGM missionary assigned to the Theological Community of Mexico, where I have been Dean since July of 2000. I have also served as Professor at the Theological Community since 1996, and as Coordinator of Augsburg Lutheran Seminary since its reopening in 1998. Augsburg Lutheran Seminary forms part of the Theological Community of Mexico, together with the Baptist Seminary of Mexico and San Andrés Anglican Seminary; we also work closely with the Seminary of the Mexican Methodist Church, which is next door to the Theological Community. Except for a couple of brief interruptions, I have lived and served in Mexico since 1982, together with my wife Alicia. We have two daughters, Elizabeth, age 16, and Monica Julie, age 10.
I’ve been given half an hour to share with you some of the work we’re involved with in Mexico. In the light of the events going on around us, however, I find it impossible to limit myself to speaking about Mexico without reflecting on what we have all been experiencing these last few weeks, since those events have had a profound impact, not only on the U.S., but on Mexico and the world as well. Therefore, I would like to base my presentation on a text from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 6, verses 10 to 13:
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
We are living times of war. As we speak, there are bombs and missiles being dropped on Afghanistan. Soldiers are leaving their homes and families to go far away, and countless innocent men, women and children are also leaving their homes and families for a different reason: to flee from the destruction, but often unfortunately only to encounter more pain, suffering, hunger and hardships wherever they flee to. While that is the war that is no doubt getting the most attention today, there are many other wars and conflicts going on. Some of these get a great deal of media attention, such as those in the Middle East; others do not, such as the war in Mexico, where the Zapatista Army for National Liberation continues the struggle it began almost 8 years ago, or the war in Colombia, where there are 21⁄2 million displaced people, and hundreds die every week. War is a very serious thing, not something to take lightly. It brings death, destruction and starvation; it produces widows and orphans and leaves people maimed and destitute. It has been said, and rightly so, that war is hell.
According to this passage from Ephesians and others in Scripture, as Christians, you and I are involved in a war. Yet there are some important differences between our war and the wars just mentioned. As we have just read, our war is “not against flesh and blood.” That means that it’s not against people. It’s not against the Taliban or terrorists or Muslims, or any human being. On the contrary, it’s a war for or on behalf of all human beings. Note this well: the passage says that our conflict is not with other human beings, but rather against the forces of evil, the “cosmic powers of the present darkness” that are above us and in us, that oppress and enslave us, that destroy life, that fill the world with injustice, violence, greed, hatred, poverty, pain and suffering. Those are the demonic forces we have seen once again unleashed in all their destructive fury in these last few weeks. Yet we must be careful to note that these forces of evil have not only been active in others, those whom we are so quick to label “evildoers.” They are here in you and me as well, in our families and loved ones, in our structures and systems, in our country and our leaders, in our church and our organizations, in each and every one of us. If we want to start pointing out evildoers, instead of looking far away at others, we need to look right here, at ourselves; we are all evildoers. And thus we need to fight both for our own liberation from these forces of darkness, and for that of others. That includes fighting so that those who commit acts of violence and seek revenge may be liberated from their possession by the demons that have beguiled, blinded and enslaved them; we want their liberation just as badly as we want to see ourselves liberated from those forces.
A lot of killing and destruction has been carried out and continues to be carried out in God’s name recently, as if that were what God wanted, what he rejoices over. But the war God wants us to carry out in his name is not a destructive but a constructive war, a war aimed at bringing peace, justice, wholeness and healing to all creation, the same war waged by Jesus of Nazareth, of whom it is written in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “He will bring justice to the nations. He will not grow faint or be discouraged until he has established justice in the earth” (42:1). “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace, shalom” (9:7). “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:4). “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (11:6, 9). “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (51:11). That is God’s final objective, and our objective as well, in the war we wage in God’s name, the war to end all wars; and until we see that objective attained under the reign of Jesus our Messiah, we must not and cannot grow faint or be discouraged.
A war is a complex thing; it is waged on many fronts. Soldiers must not only be sent, but trained, fed, and equipped; that is the work of many different people. There are different ranks, ranging from the footsoldiers on the front line all the way up to the captains and generals who remain behind the scenes, establishing and implementing plans and strategies to make the best of their resources so as to gain victory in the battles that are fought. Those that are in the position of making decisions must make them wisely, because mistakes can cost many lives. A war on the level of ideas must be carried out at the same time so as to maintain the support and morale, not only of the soldiers, but of all those who contribute to the cause, and the general population. There are also many others involved in the war effort, each with a different task: the medics and nurses, the chaplains, the mechanics, those who are involved in gathering intelligence, in communications, in technical support, in designing, testing and constructing weapons, in gathering the human and material resources that are needed, and administering them; each of these people has a vital and indispensable task to carry out, and without the contribution of each of them, the war cannot be won.
In the same way, in the war you and I wage together against the forces of evil and darkness, each of us has a different task; we fight in different places, and have different areas of responsibility. As I have worked with you at DGM, I have appreciated seeing and learning how the variety of people in the Division all contribute in different ways to our common cause. In a meeting like this one, I have gotten to see and know many others who are involved in the same effort in different ways, and give thanks to God for you. I have also been able to see and learn more about how the Division of which we form part carries out the fight on many different fronts: in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed, in providing bread for the hungry, in training and equipping leaders, in empowering the poor, marginated and oppressed, in speaking out and fighting against injustice, in being the voice of those who have often had no voice, as well as allowing their voice to be heard in the U.S. and elsewhere, and in walking with many others who are involved in these same efforts.
I have the joy and privilege of working with you and representing you in those efforts in Mexico, where we also wage war on many fronts against the forces of evil. Those forces manifest themselves in a legion of ways. There is of course poverty, and all that it generates in its vicious circle: malnutrition, disease, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence in the home, particularly against women, violence in the streets, gang warfare, homeless children, corruption, desperation, hopelessness. While in the cities life is extremely difficult for many, in the countryside, the devastation and desolation are reaching unprecedented levels. In large part because of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the policies of the Mexican government, the farmers and their families are being left, not only penniless, but deeply in debt, a debt they will never be able to pay. Their only hope is to leave their land, their family, and their home to look for work elsewhere, so as virtually to become refugees like the ones we have seen recently in Afghanistan. Many migrate to the cities, only to find more suffering and scarcity. Many others decide to come to the U.S. They do not come because they want to get rich, share in the “abundant life,” or get their own slice of the pie, as is often said here. They come because, if they want to eat, if they want to survive, they have virtually no other choice. So they risk their lives to get up to the U.S./Mexican border, often being mistreated and robbed so as to lose everything they had on the way. If they make it that far, then they have to deal with U.S. Immigration. The fact that the U.S. has patrolled certain parts of the border much more closely in recent years, making it extremely difficult for people to cross illegally there without being hunted down and caught, has meant that more and more Mexicans and Central Americans are having to go out to the desert areas of Arizona and New Mexico to get across the border and into the U.S.; but as a result, the numbers of those dropping dead in the desert from dehydration and exhaustion has risen dramatically. There has been talk in the U.S. of putting up a wall along the border to keep people from immigrating illegally. But you can put up all the walls you want, and hire all the patrol guards you want, and sick all the dogs on people you want; when they are poor enough, hungry enough, desperate enough, people will keep trying to make it across, no matter what, because if they don’t, the only alternative they have left is to die of poverty.
That is basically the situation of the indigenous people throughout Mexico, particularly in places like Chiapas. When the Zapatista army rose up in 1994, an army made up of people who literally have nothing, they insisted, “We are dying in our villages, dying of hunger, dying of disease, dying of despair. If we are going to die, we do not want to die like that; we prefer to fight back against this system that is decimating and destroying us. We would rather die from bullets than from starvation.” That situation has not been resolved, even though many would have us believe otherwise.
To understand this reality fully, one has to live it. For that reason, one of the programs of the ELCA which I feel is so important is the mission education or immersion program which we have at the Lutheran Center in Mexico City. The purpose of this program is to let people see and experience first-hand the reality that people in contexts such as Mexico are living, and to learn more about what types of ministries need to be carried out in the various contexts in which we find ourselves, both in other countries and in the U.S. itself. It is vital for people from the U.S. to get out and see the effects that the current political and economical system is having on those who live in countries like Mexico. No amount of pictures or videos or readings can compare to actually visiting with people and spending time in their homes and the contexts in which they live. The DGM has talked of expanding programs like this, and hopefully we will see this happen, so that people in the U.S. can be made more aware of how decisions made in the U.S. and other first-world countries are effecting those elsewhere.
The demonic forces that we face in Mexico are at work on many different levels. The present political, economic and social system is generating tremendous amounts of suffering throughout Mexico, benefiting some at the expense of others, concentrating the wealth and power in the hands of a few. The intense competition which strengthens some and destroys others, the thirst for larger profits which can only be attained by exploiting people and God’s creation more and more, is wreaking tremendous havoc. It is doing great harm, not only to those who are being impoverished, but also to those who apparently being enriched, but in reality are becoming impoverished in other ways. That system is supported by many forces, both inside and outside of Mexico, forces that claim that it is the best system for all, that it is the hope for the future; forces that have the power and resources to propagate their arguments, views and ideas and gain widespread acceptance for them, even among those being victimized by that system. Most of us who are here have benefited from that same system, which has concentrated resources in our hands, so that we are the ones who have the power to administer them. As I work in theological education in Mexico, I am constantly aware of how unfair all of this is. It is unfair that I have had so many opportunities to obtain a high level of education, to travel, to study, to share my ideas by teaching others and having those ideas printed and published, to live in relative comfort and be supported from abroad, when similar opportunities for those whom I teach and alongside whom I work are so rarely to be found. It is unfair that the churches in Mexico have lost so many of their best people because only in the U.S. can they earn enough to live decently. It is unfair that our churches and organizations in the U.S. have been able to concentrate in their hands so many human and monetary resources in comparison to the churches and organizations in other countries. It is unfair that this country amasses so much of the world’s wealth and resources, wondering at the same time why everyone wants to come here, yet builds different types of “walls” to keep people out so that they cannot share in the abundance, like the countless walled neighborhoods or gated communities which are being built around the U.S. to keep the wealth in and the poor out. Unfortunately, however, that is the system in which we must live and work, because currently it is the only system that exists for us.
In the face of so many forces of evil, what are we to do? Paul says to take the whole armor of God and to fight against those forces that are dominating and oppressing us. For the reasons just mentioned, that means fighting against an entire system, the same system from which we are benefiting. That’s something we don’t want to do; we want to help others, but maintain the system that concentrates the resources in our hands as we do so. The way wars are usually justified is by affirming that we have to protect our interests; but that is contrary to what the gospel teaches. As followers of Jesus Christ, who taught that we must love our neighbor as ourselves and be willing to give up our lives for others instead of attempting to save our own lives, we are called, not to protect our own interests, but those of others, of all people throughout the world. That is true, not only on an individual level, but on the level of churches and organizations and countries. And that means fighting to change the unjust system from which we are benefitting so as to seek a new system that benefits others just as much as it benefits us. As Christians, it means learning to stand up and speak out for the justice and peace for all that God desires and demands, no matter how unpopular that may make us among those closest to us. As American Christians, it means learning to say “God bless Mexico,” and “God bless Cuba,” and “God bless Africa” and even “God bless Afghanistan” with the same intense passion and devotion with which we exclaim “God bless America.” In the war God calls us to fight, we seek the blessing and wholeness of all people; and that can only come when we fight against the demonic systems that not only enslave us, but at the same time enrich us and give us power over others. To do that in the present context, or even to propose that, is certain to make many of those around us angry and generate fierce opposition; but if we are faithful to our calling as Jesus was, that must not stop us, just as it did not stop Jesus.
When one lives in a context such as Mexico, and sees the enormity and complexity of the problems, it’s hard not to feel impotent. During my time in Mexico, I’ve been involved in a variety of different social ministry programs, helping people meet their physical needs, build their own homes, solve their own problems. I’ve been involved in Word and Sacrament ministry as well, sharing the gospel of peace that brings people hope, strength, forgiveness, reconciliation, comfort and new life. The Division for Global Mission is also actively supporting ministries of these kinds in Mexico, working with organizations such as AMEXTRA who seek to be agents of transformation in numerous communities throughout Mexico, and also supporting the efforts of the Mexican churches in various ways. At times, of course, one feels like all of this is just a drop in the bucket, that with the limited resources we have, at most we can touch the lives of a small handful of people. When we feel like that, we need to remember that every single life, every little lamb, is of priceless worth to our Lord. We also need to remember that we are not the only ones fighting this war; we are part of a large army. For that reason, we need to continue to work closely with other Christians and with all those who wish to join us in waging this holy war. We also need to work with others so that congregations may be built up and new Christian communities may be planted as a result of a faithful proclamation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. What we want to see, and what God wants to see, is that the ranks of this army be swelled, so that many more may join us in the struggle for wholeness, justice and peace to prevail in the life of every individual, every family, every community, every nation; and, according to our Christian faith, that can only occur when we call others to join us in following the path laid out for us by Jesus Christ, our Lord, Savior and King.
While I have participated and continue to participate in a number of ministries, the one to which I am particularly called is that of working together with others in preparing and equipping leaders to lead God’s people in their struggle against evil. For us to overcome evil, we need many weapons. We need knowledge and technical know-how. We need to have the skills necessary to perceive reality as it is, and to transform it in the way God desires. That is how I understand my ministry at the Theological Community: it involves helping to equip others with the spiritual weapons they need to wage war effectively against the forces of evil that dominate, enslave and oppress. To do that, they need to know the Gospel inside and out, just like good soldiers need to know their manuals. They need to be able to think critically, to react to new situations that arise with wisdom, discernment and creativity, to have the capacity to analyze and resolve all sorts of problems with God’s guidance. We are currently working with over 150 different students, about 30-40% of whom are women, at primarily two different levels. One is the Licenciatura degree, which is a four-year program at the university level for full-time students preparing primarily for full-time work in the church. The other program is the Diploma program, which is offered in the evenings for those who work during the day. Our students in both programs come not only from the Seminaries I mentioned previously, but from over 15 other church denominations as well.
The Theological Community is unique to Mexico in many ways. Perhaps what most sets it apart is its ecumenical character. However, it is also quite unique in its theological stance. In Mexico, Christians are divided into two main groups, a majority which is Roman Catholic, and a minority which is Evangelical or Protestant. Unfortunately, the Catholic church in general has often tended to be quite anti-ecumenical, traditionally seeing Protestants and Evangelicals as enemies and interlopers on its terrain. Many Catholics continue to persecute Evangelicals.
There have been several cases in recent years of children of Evangelical families who were refused burial in the village cemetery, because it belonged to the Catholic church. We had one student a couple of years ago arrive to the Community from his home in a rural area with bruises; he and his family had been beaten up by a mob headed by the local priest because they were Evangelical. In the southeastern part of Mexico, particularly Chiapas, families that become Evangelical are expelled from their communities, losing everything they have. Such forces of hatred are found, not only in society, but in the church itself.
The Evangelical churches in Mexico are growing rapidly, and take many different forms. While they strive to be faithful to the gospel, at times the gospel they preach is one which also does violence due to its fundamentalistic nature, both by excluding and marginalizing certain people and groups, and by supporting and even promoting oppressive systems and structures. Among those most affected are women, who are taught to assume roles in the home and in society which make them objects of various types of abuse and discrimination, all of which is justified on the basis of Scripture. They are also excluded from the pastoral ministry in the majority of churches. Here, then, as well, forces are at work in Christian communities which seek to turn the gospel of life and liberation into one of domination and enslavement, and to justify this in God’s name.
Our struggle in the Theological Community is to a great extent that of attempting to promote alternative ways of understanding and living the Christian faith in this context. We provide a space for men and women of different churches, primarily Evangelicals but also many Roman Catholics, to grow together in seeking to be faithful to the way of life that our Lord Jesus Christ taught us, under the power and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. At the Diploma level, for example, we offer a program in Women’s studies, as well as one in Pastoral Psychology, which focuses on training people to listen to and care for one another, and on helping them to establish communities of healing and mutual empowerment. The same type of emphasis is found throughout our curriculum; in all that we do, we seek constantly to integrate the biblical and theological aspects of the Christian faith with the pastoral ones, so as to train women and men who are capable of carrying out faithfully the task of service to which our Lord has called us.
To do theology in Mexico and Latin America is itself a struggle. Our students have so few resources; for some, even to pay their tuition of about $200 a semester is a real sacrifice. Many know that when they graduate, it will be very hard to find any kind of decent employment in the church; yet in spite of that, they are hungry to study theology and prepare themselves to serve. You can’t imagine what a joy it is to have students like that! Few of our professors have the luxury of dedicating themselves full-time to their teaching ministry; they must be active in other ministries and jobs, both in the church and at times outside of it, to make ends meet. Needless to say, there is little time for research, writing, publishing, and at times even preparing for class. Yet while there are disadvantages to this, it is also one of our strengths, since it produces a theology which is in constant dialogue with the world around us, dealing with everyday issues; our feet remain firmly planted on the ground as we carry out our theological task. Other factors limit us as well. The present global economic system has dried up much of the funding in Mexico for public spending, since if taxes are high, businesses can’t compete. This has meant severe cuts in areas such as health and education, which used to be very good in Mexico. Now many of our students come to us with serious deficiencies in some of the most basic skills, such as reading and writing, even though in many cases they have studied not only at the high school but at the university level previously; this makes it even more difficult for both them and their professors. If you are unable to express yourself in written form as you should, then you cannot articulate your ideas well; and if you cannot articulate your ideas well, you can’t have a voice in the world and society, so that you are reduced to silence and thus impotence. Yet we continue to fight on in spite of these obstacles, doing the best we can with what God has given us.
To do theology and prepare leaders in this context is thus a constant struggle, full of hardships and frustrations, but for the same reasons, full of much joy and satisfaction. What gives joy and satisfaction is the fact that we are preparing well-qualified leaders who have the knowledge, weapons and skills necessary to lead God’s people in carrying out war against the forces of darkness. Most of our students are also involved in training others, which means that the leadership training we are involved in reaches much further than the students who study at the Theological Community. Together, under God’s guidance and with the power of God’s Spirit, we are raising an entire army of people who believe that in Jesus Christ nothing is impossible, who have faced all kinds of seemingly insurmountable obstacles yet have refused to be overcome by them, who have learned to wage God’s war effectively with the few resources at hand so as to rout the forces of oppression and death, just like David defeated the giant Goliath with a few stones and a sling, an army of people who have shown time and again that no sacrifice is too great in order to bring hope, peace, justice and well-being into the life of others. That is the war we are waging in Mexico and elsewhere, together with your support which comes in many ways, particularly through funding for our programs, for my position and that of another professor, and for scholarships for students. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that, instead of being called something such as the Department or Commission or Office for Global Mission, this is called a Division; that is a military term. I am proud and honored to be part of this Division, just as I am proud and honored to be part of another division of God’s army serving in Mexico. But what gives me the greatest joy and satisfaction is knowing that all of us, together with countless legions of sisters and brothers throughout the world, form an army that in Christ is invincible, an army for whom victory over all the forces of evil and death and destruction and despair is absolutely certain, because we belong to him of whom it is written in the Book of Revelation:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems… He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses (19:11-14).
Of this array of heavenly and earthly hosts to which you and I belong it is also written:
They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (7:15-17).
That is our objective in the war we are waging under Christ, a world free of despair and
tears and hunger and suffering. And as part of that great celestial army, arrayed in white linen and washed in the blood of the Lamb, we can have full confidence that that objective will one day be reached. May God give us the strength and the courage to stand fast and firm, and remain faithful and true, as we contend, not against flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil, whose ultimate defeat is ensured in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thank you.