A wave of accusations against evangelical Christians has broken out in Peru. In the last few months several articles in newspapers of fairly wide circulation have had the obvious intention of discrediting evangelical churches and institutions in the eyes of the public by making them appear to be spearheads of American imperialism.
An initial article in the Correo of Arequipa categorically stated that certain missionary agencies of American origin are being used by the Central Intelligence Agency to undermine the Peruvian government’s revolutionary program. That article was followed by a series of diatribes published in different papers. The picture of evangelical missionaries and pastors that emerged was that of people at the service of foreign interests, whose main activities are financed either directly by the U. S. government or by groups representing U. S. economic power. Evangelical believers were said to be “useful fools” innocently adhering to an imperialistic religion that prevents them from helping to build a new Peru.
Wycliffe Bible Translators was the target of the most virulent attack, in two articles published in the Expreso of Lima. The articles claimed that WBT was created as a means of imperialistic penetration under the cloak of a purely scientific institution. (The fact is that WBT has for many years had government recognition as an institution pursuing anth opological and linguistic purposes in Peru and has consequently enjoyed a number of benefits.) Both the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS) and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the first article claimed, are but ghost “cultural organizations”—the Peruvian base of an American missionary institution (WBT) that through AID has received grants for its activities in Peru, Viet Nam, and Nepal.
In the second article WBT was further criticized for including in its contract with the governments the stipulation that it expects its work to be recognized as involving “the moral improvement of the native population.” According to the article, this is based on the assumption that the natives are people without morals and in need of regeneration and that (as explicitly stated in Translation, the WBT magazine) they are “children born in a culture marked by sin and lostness and living in the kingdom of Satan.” These views were considered to be in open contradiction with the concepts held by the revolutionary government with regard to the moral and cultural values of the native population. Finally, the work among the Peruvian jungle Indians was judged to be motivated by financial interests. “The WBT,” concluded the article,
is in charge of making contact with, concentrating in and converting the natives in order to move them out of zones coveted by national and international corporations, thus providing technical assistance to hold in check all native resistance.
The most articulate response to these accusations was a letter addressed to the director of Correo and signed by Felix Calle and Pedro Merino, president and general secretary of the Concilio Nacional Evangélico del Perú—an organism representing most of the evangelical churches and agencies in the country. The writers rejected the identification of evangelical Christians with foreign interests and affirmed their support of “all those actions realized by the Revolution that are meant to dignify and uplift man’s situation.” But the letter was neither published nor answered.
A newspaper in the city of Chiclayo published a declaration signed by evangelical leaders from various denominations. The document pledged support to the government program and claimed that evangelical participation in social efforts reflects a genuine concern to improve living conditions for all, according to biblical principles. (The example cited, however, was ALFALIT, a literacy and literature program that often has lacked support among local evangelical churches.) It also affirmed readiness “to defend the national interests without depending on foreign missions and ideas.”
Some people have seen in the harassment of evangelicals an insidious and untimely replay of the attacks that the Roman Catholic Church used to wage against Protestants in Latin America before the Second Vatican Council. Others have thought it is inspired by resentment on the part of people once active in evangelical churches but now identified with Marxism. Whatever its source, the attack has brought into bold relief the need for evangelicals to face a number of problems related to the mission of the Church in today’s world. Among them are these:
1. A lopsided emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel, to the neglect of works of love, has left evangelical Christians open to the accusation of lack of interest in the material needs of people and in the development of their nation. If in the rich countries of the West the divorce between faith and works is a denial of biblical teaching, in the poverty-stricken countries of the Third World it is a denial of the most elementary human concerns. It is high time for evangelicals to recognize that good works are not optional but are an essential aspect of the Christian mission.
2. A few years ago a Latin American Protestant writer stated:
No missionary work can be developed in Latin America that fails to take into account the tension between the two sections of the American continent and the need, felt by Latin Americans, to seek true independence from the United States. Missionaries have to understand that they have come to identify themselves with people who are struggling to establish their own personality and to be liberated. Only in the measure in which they fully accept this situation will missionaries ultimately be useful to Latin America.
The recent events in Peru confirm these words. The question, however, is whether American missions are really attempting to understand the tensions between the United States and the Latin American countries and whether they are willing to adjust their policies and programs to the situation. All too often missionary work is conducted in a way that creates the unavoidable impression that (a) for missions the national political context is totally unimportant, and (b) the Christian mission is dangerously entangled with U. S. political and economic interests. The assumption seems to be made that the cause of American democracy and institutions is identical with the cause of the Gospel.
There is no doubt that in the hostile articles recently published in Peru the facts have been distorted so as to place evangelicals in a bad light. That this has happened, however, should be taken by evangelicals as a warning against the assumption that they can remain indifferent to the search for political and economic freedom that is gaining momentum in the countries of the Third World.
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