In a new way, Christians are recognizing that they must bear their share of responsibility for the sores of society and the inhumanity of unjust government. God has commanded his servants to bind up the wounded and seek to free the captives.

Christians see, too, that their own freedom to bring the gospel to people in need cannot be taken for granted. They must battle for freedom for all if they wish to preserve freedom to witness to the redemption Christ alone can give.

Growth Should Arouse Interest

That is why we see Central America as an evangelical problem. And it is about time! Protestant missionaries first penetrated Central America a little over a hundred years ago. But they had tough going until the late 1960s. At the beginning of that decade, the total population of five Central American nations (Guatemala, Nicaragua, San Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica) was approximately ten million, of whom fewer than a half million were evangelicals. By 1982, their number had increased astronomically to 3,300,000.

During this period, the total population of the area doubled, but the evangelical church grew at an average annual rate of 13.5 percent and increased sixfold.

Church membership, it should be noted, has not increased so rapidly. For everyone officially listed on the roll of an evangelical congregation, three or four clearly belong to its fellowship. Some remain nominal Roman Catholics but still choose to identify themselves as evangelical Protestants.

The reason for this amazing evangelical growth is complex and need not detain us here. In its earlier period, Roman Catholicism identified itself closely with the traditional superwealthy who ruled South America and held the masses in poverty. In more recent years, a great many priests have sided with a liberation and a revolutionary theology that has turned off the upper-class Roman Catholics. However, a great many of the hierarchy have continued to support the older landowners.

Moreover, according to the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 7, 1982), evangelicals have also had great success in winning the poorer class. In the wake of natural disasters that struck in the late 1970s, they provided much-needed supplies and “picked up a lot of converts along the way.” The disasters shocked some evangelicals out of their excessive emphasis on peace and happiness in the next life and made them more concerned with the physical problems of this life.

A shortage of priests has further handicapped the Roman church. For example, a single evangelical seminary in Guatemala currently enrolls more than the total number of Roman Catholic priests in the whole country.

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The United States And Somoza

But evangelicals should be interested in Central America not only because of the amazing growth of their fellow evangelicals in those lands. They should also be concerned because of the injustice within the society and the terrible suffering that it has brought to all human beings. As they read of the death of innocent people and the grinding poverty of the poor, North American evangelicals should experience a feeling of helplessness and frustration.

The problem of Central America must be seen in the light of its 500 years of history. Spain colonized to exploit wealth, not to develop a nation. It brought to the new world a centralized economy, government by aristocracy, and exploitation of the people, with land ownership reserved for only the few wealthy. And all of this with the blessing of the church. When the colonies of Central and South America won their independence from Spain, they changed the top leadership but did not change the basic structure of society. The poverty of the masses, and especially land reform, remain hot issues throughout all of Latin America even today.

Enter The Marxists

These structural evils, the Marxists claimed, can be remedied only by structural changes—a Marxist philosophy, a communist economy, and violence. In Nicaragua the Sandinistas, dominated by Marxism, overthrew the Somoza regime with its economic oppression, denial of human freedoms, and exploitation of the people for the benefit of the Somoza family. No doubt the Sandinistas have broken promises. They have greatly restricted freedom of the press and the political and economic pluralism of the country. But they have also led Nicaragua into a kind of justice in many areas. They have administered land reform, opened up education and medical care for the masses, and eliminated the superwealthy; many Central Americans are grateful to them for the accomplishments they perceive.

The United States, on the other hand, supported the hated Somoza regime for over 40 years. We wanted a settled government and a reliable trading partner; Somoza brought a peace of sorts. Of course, it was at the price of tyranny. Now, all over Central America the United States is viewed as the defender of Somoza with his police state, of its destruction of freedom, and of the oppression of the poor. In spite of this, the United States is currently supplying arms to the Somoza followers who are fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government.

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Taking Action

What, then, can North American evangelicals do? First, we must disabuse ourselves of the illusion that, sitting in comfort far from the scene of action, we can dictate a panacea that will cure all the ills of Central America and bring perfect peace and justice to all. The Central American evangelical church has wise and godly leaders, and we need to trust them. In any case, only they can work out, with God’s help, a truly satisfying solution to their area’s complex problems.

Second, we must not seek to treat the problem of Central America as merely a sinister communist plot. Basically it is a struggle for justice and economic survival. Marxists are simply using this more basic struggle to their own advantage. The tragedy is that because they support what is on some counts good and right, they may win out. But if they win, they will only betray the people they have duped, for they will not bring freedom and justice: they will only substitute one form of tyranny or oppression for another.

Ríos Montt And The Atrocity Stories

Third, we must read the news with extreme caution. This is especially true when secular newsmen try to understand evangelical Guatemalan leader Ríos Montt. At first glance, some may think he is a carbon copy of a banana republic dictator from the past. He is an army man, he is powerful, his power came through a coup (although he did not take part in it). The pattern is all too familiar. Yet he puzzles newsmen by his apparent good will, by tempering the excesses of the army through his efforts to lessen (though he has not stopped) the harsh suppression of those he considers enemies of the government.

Even the alleged factual accounts that stem from Central America cannot be trusted to give an honest picture. The U.S. embassy recently made a study of incidents cited by several human rights organizations. They found numerous instances of a single event reported as several different occurrences, atrocities blamed on the army but really perpetrated by armed guerrillas; many news stories were completely without foundation, and frequent reports of slaughtered civilians or peasants turned out to be guerrillas.

All this does not mean that the government forces in either El Salvador or Guatemala are without fault. There have been a number of proved military atrocities. But some of the horror stories printed in our North American publications represent undocumented Marxist and guerrilla propaganda.

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Fourth, evangelicals should support the officially stated Carter/Reagan economic policy of peace with justice and hold President Reagan to it. Mr. Reagan insists that he is seeking peace with justice through persuasion, pressure, and rewards. We should support moves that serve this policy and urge Congress to do the same.

The United States must make its goals abundantly clear to its Central American neighbors. Mr. Reagan must not scuttle those goals by concessions that will bring only momentary advantage. This may well require us to refuse help from those whose support would tar us with the brush of tyranny. We cannot be too careful, for we have to live down our 40-year support of Somoza’s tyranny. Nicaraguan Marxists reap an immense propaganda harvest by tying the United States even indirectly to a repressive cause hated by every democratic lover of freedom in Central America.

Fifth, evangelicals should covenant to pray for the troubled people of Central America. Evangelicals in those lands are caught in an awful struggle with very ambiguous choices before them. We must pray for all their leaders, not just Ríos Montt. Their godly pastors carry on their work only at great danger to life and safety. Yet they continue day after day to witness faithfully to the gospel and to offer helping hands to those who suffer so much from both government forces and guerrilla insurgents.

Ríos Montt And The Army

Sixth, we North Americans must not expect perfection from either side of this complex and bitter struggle. Ríos Montt, for example, is an evangelical, and personally, we trust, a godly man of good intentions. But he cannot really dictate. He is thwarted by army leadership; he does not control his “irregular” regulars; and he has made mistakes.

Finally, seventh, we must cultivate patience. Injustice, political corruption, and social abuses are not corrected easily. If we insist on a quick solution, we shall eventually find ourselves with no solution. We must be willing to work steadily over the next decade or more if we are to see any long-term remedy.

We Americans are notorious for being impatient people. God can deliver miraculously and instantaneously but he often takes a lifetime to complete his work of sanctification.

Social evils are even more difficult to cure. We must commit ourselves to persevering support for our evangelical brothers and sisters in Central America and the need of these nations undergoing such turmoil.

KENNETH S. KANTZERAssisted by William D. Taylor, professor and director of world mission, Central American Theological Seminary.

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