Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 257 | Diciembre 2002



The Religious Question and the Myth of the Army

The Guatemalan army sees itself as both mother and father, as a god. But this “god” is a violent one that finds enemies everywhere and uses weapons and terror to defend a society dominated by wealthy elites. All we can expect from it is a deluge of violence, which is exactly what abounds today in Guatemala.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

On July 20, 1954, Archbishop Rosell believed he could still proudly say to those who had overthrown Jacobo Arbenz and put an end to the 1944 revolution that “the Church does not need to gain hegemony because it has it and never lost it in our country, where everyone trusts its word, believes in its doctrine and collaborates in its work.”

Religious statistics:
Pieces on the battlefield

At the start of the third millennium, however, even after the Pope’s visit to canonize Brother Pedro—an event that was an immeasurable, glorious affirmation of Catholic affiliation in Guatemala—no member of the Catholic Church would dare make a similar statement with such confidence.

The exact percentage of Protestants in Guatemala is unknown, but for many years now people have been throwing around the figure of 30%, one of the highest percentages in Latin America. Some even claim that Protestants make up 40% of the population, which would still be short of the World Evangelization Crusade’s 50% goal for the year 2000 but sizable nonetheless.

These figures may not reflect the real situation, however, since religious statistics are battlefield ammunition in this country. Based on Crusade figures, cultural anthropologist David Stoll, a specialist on Protestantism in Latin America, calculated that Protestants represented some 18.9% of the Guatemalan population in 1985, after growing at an annual 6.7% rate from 1960 to 1985. It is likely that today, at the start of the third millennium, over 25% of Guatemala’s population is Protestant. In several places around the country, such as the department of Escuintla on the southern coast or some municipalities in the western highlands, over 30% are Protestant, and in some locations, according to observations in certain villages in Santa María Chiquimula, the figure runs as high as 60%.

When the Liberal Constitution decreed religious freedom in 1879 and President Barrios facilitated the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala three years later, the goal was to encourage a culture of progress and dismantle the Catholic hierarchy’s ability to block the government’s political reforms. The mainline Protestant denominations that took root at that time—Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and others—have recently been eclipsed, however, by Pentecostal churches among the poor and neo-Pentecostal ones among the middle and upper classes.

Lost land and rivers of blood

The anti-clerical policies and opening to Protestantism were only part of the modernization policies promoted by Barrios and his coffee-growing friends. These policies took an enormous toll on indigenous people, robbing them of most of their communal lands and throwing them onto the job market with no protection whatever from either the state or the Catholic orders being expelled.

Nuns (except the Sisters of Charity), priests and even bishops were expelled from the country at the end of the 19th century. A hundred years later, toward the end of the 20th century, the anti-clerical measures went so far as the assassination of priests, nuns and laypeople in the Catholic Action movements, as well as some Protestants committed to the struggle for justice. The army’s policy of sustaining Guatemala’s backward capitalism by destroying towns and massacring people, especially indigenous people, who might have been supporting the revolutionary struggle created a culture of terror. This led to a proliferation of particularly Protestant, but also Catholic rightwing Pentecostal movements.

The army’s hand in
the rise of evangelism

The rise of evangelism in Guatemala over the past 50 years is particularly striking. In the early 1940s, Evangelists made up barely 2% of the country’s total population. The number has grown enormously in recent decades, especially since the 1976 earthquake.

Many attempts have been made by the Catholic camp to explain this phenomenon. It is often attributed to the state policy directed by the army, which saw the Catholic Church as a danger when it took the side of the poor and denounced social injustice and political repression. According to this theory, the policy was reinforced by governmental and private support from the United States, which ranged from the “roofing sheets for conversion” delivered after the earthquake, to the provision of a car or store or wage in exchange for harvesting export crops on the coast, to the chapel built during the war “in the name of our Lord the Commander,” just as they were built during the Spanish Conquest “in the name of Our Lord the King.” Underlying this view is the perception that what really unites fundamentalist Pentecostal Protestant groups, perhaps mistakenly described as sects, is their shared hatred of the Catholic Church.

The army: “Father of the Motherland”

Francisco Beltranena Falla, a scholar whose specialization is the army, claimed in a 1990 interview with Harvard researcher Jennifer Schirmer that part of the strategic analysis used to counteract “one of the leading enemies of the system, the revolutionary priests and the catechists who are their agents,” was the spread of evangelism. General Ríos Montt, a born-again Christian, played such a “useful role” in this that the officers Schirmer interviewed refer to the internal coup of 1983, which replaced Ríos Montt with Mejía Víctores, as a change in the Government of the Word, referring to the neo-Pentecostal denomination of the same name.

In reality, the army made strategic use not only of evangelism but also of religious language in general and the Mayan cosmovision in particular. Schirmer reports that at the entry to the model village of Tzalbal in Quiché, “there was a big sign describing it as ‘a born-again’ village,” thus a piece of the larger plan for the highlands aimed at creating “a new man, a new country, a new Guatemala.” It was secular discourse using both religious terms from the New Testament and the language of revolutionary movements, which had a religious flavor as well (Che Guevara’s “new man”).

The army officers Schirmer interviewed often spoke of the army as both father and mother: the father of democracy, while also “the only institution that has been pushing to give birth to this baby.” In effect, the army appears in their discourse as the creator, the mother of the new country and the “Father Guardian and Protector, Father of the Motherland.”

The rotten egg

When talking to Schirmer, General Gramajo, one of the architects of the military’s offensive plans of the 1980s, eminence gris behind the National Stability Strategy and defense minister under President Vinicio Cerezo (1986-91), implicitly recognized the army’s need to purify itself in the wake of its enormous human rights violations. He illustrated this with what he believed to be a Mayan exorcism: “It’s like what the medicine men do to cure someone who’s sick. They take an egg and pass it over the person’s body and say a prayer, and when they’re done they break the egg and it’s rotten and they’ve gotten the sickness out.” Holding up a copy of the National Stability Strategy for Schirmer, he said, “This is the army’s egg! We are exorcising our sickness and are satisfied because we no longer have these [human rights] problems, we’ve already gotten rid of them. Now people outside have to see that this [the strategy] is the rotten egg.”

Religious symbols in army hands

The example chosen to show the army’s catharsis was not particularly judicious, since the National Stability Strategy was rotten at the time but was used anyway. It could hardly have been otherwise, when the evil to be exorcised by the purported Mayan “witchcraft” was in fact the evil that the army itself unleashed against the Mayan people.

The army’s effort to take on religious symbols at that time was enormous. This both testifies to their power and makes it impossible to forget the army’s use of blood and fire to subdue the strength and meaning of religion by burning bibles, killing priests and catechists and expelling religious leaders. Following that repression and persecution, the army installed army barracks, torture chambers and clandestine cemeteries in the emptied church buildings. The 1968 Rockefeller Report and Reagan’s 1980 strategy for Latin America known as the Santa Fe document had already revealed the hostility of US Republicans towards the Catholic Church that took shape after the Medellín Bishops Conference and was fueled by Liberation Theology.

The rise of evangelism
as a social movement

Army intervention through this evangelizing strategy is not enough to explain the impressive rise of evangelist religious movements that are at the same time a kind of social movement rather than just churches and sects.

These religious-social movements are arising within a society that has experienced varied and rapid changes aimed at modernization over the course of the last half century that far outstrip any others experienced in the four and a half previous centuries. The growth of evangelism was possible, according to one author, because of the “charitable nature (mental, social and economic) of the Evangelist churches.”
Another author seconded this notion, arguing that the growth of Pentecostal Protestant churches responded to the search for a secure, comforting identity at this time of rapid and at times cataclysmic changes that were putting traditional identities in doubt. “A new kind of identity was not very attractive while what we might call ‘traditional community’ remained more or less intact. But when this center of life and coexistence began to give way through erosive ‘development’ processes, migration and war, many beliefs, practices and institutions that constituted identity gave way along with it. At least in part, it was an attempt to recreate a certain measure of order, identity and belonging that has motivated so many people to turn to Protestantism in recent years.”

“Communal paradises”
in the global world

The sociologist Manuel Castells has demonstrated in a broader, global study what the above writer found in the case of Guatemala. Castells’ study of both Islamic and Christian Evangelist fundamentalism explains them as “communal paradises” in the midst of a society globalized by the networks of the information age. In response to the failures of capitalism, socialism and nationalism, “a fundamentalist Islamic project” has developed in the Islamic world as an identity of resistance. It is not a “return to tradition” but rather a “reworking of traditional materials to form a new, divine, communal world where the dispossessed masses and disaffected intellectuals can rebuild the meaning of a global alternative to the exclusionary global order.”
Castells has also studied Christian fundamentalism in the United States. The great perceived threats it is responding to include globalization, control of the country by world government bodies and the destruction of patriarchy in the family.

In Guatemala, fear of globalization translates into fear of an invasion of the home by the demands of selective military recruiting, whether by revolutionary movements or state institutions, and by national decisions linked to global organizations or ideologies, whether the CIA, the socialist movements or the IMF. The crisis of the patriarchy can also be found in our country, where so many homes are divided by alcoholism, among other things, which when fully overcome allows a return to the united, patriarchal home where the man can recover his lost respect.

Castells explains that “there is something more [than defense of male privilege] shared by men, women and children. There is a deep fear of the unknown, which becomes more threatening when it has to do with the daily basis of personal life.” This refers to the high rates of family instability because of divorce or the man’s abandoning the home; to the feminist movement, which erodes the man’s role as husband and father; and to public acceptance of homosexuality.

Some sociologists place Catholic Pentecostalism, the Charismatic Renovation Movement, in the context of a “perfecting religion.” It aims inward towards individual achievement and is counterpoised, as a Weberian ideal type, to a “religion of redemption,” which is turned outward toward messianic hopes. The Charismatic Renovation Movement is the Catholic camp’s response to the “New Age” trend in today’s global spirituality, an inward-looking religion counterpoised to messianic religion. The Charismatic Renovation Movement is thus a dialectical counterpoint within Catholicism to the base communities or Catholic Action, and should in no way be treated as a heresy.

The rise of Pentecostalism:
All that was allowed

The Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal movements in Guatemala were the only social movements allowed from 1954 to 1996. This was a period when union, peasant and indigenous movements, as well as Social Democratic political movements, revolutionary movements and grassroots communal Catholic movements, all of which aimed to bring about profound social change, were progressively and systematically hunted down and crushed.

The historian Matilde González has preserved part of the historical memory of those years by collecting the testimony of older community leaders who survived the war in San Bartolomé Jocotenango. They reported that the army and Civil Patrols killed those who “had the bible and the good people of Catholic Action.” This brutally intransigent reality led lay people and even some priests and nuns to leave what was for them the dead end street of public life to join the clandestine guerrilla movement. In the same context, “that terror became one of the endogenous factors that contributed to the growth of Pentecostalism.”
This opinion seems in keeping with reality: “It is more than likely that by not encouraging an ideology of submission to established power, the religious societies would not prosper in a political context of constant suspicion against any form of grassroots organization.” Submission in the Pentecostal movements that have flourished among the poor also manifests itself, for the moment, as a lack of interest in participating in society, since the “communal paradise” is enough. In contrast, for the neo-Pentecostal movements such as the Word, Elim or Shaddai, which are joined by members of the middle and upper classes such as former President Jorge Serrano Elías and army officers including General Ríos Montt, the “communal paradise” is not enough. They attempt to participate in improving Guatemalan society, although the efforts of the groups created around Ríos Montt and Serrano Elías have turned out to be tragic, grotesque or corrupt.

The stunning force of religion

One thing that is clear in this somewhat confusing scenario is that the Catholic Church has to coexist with an already deeply rooted religious pluralism in Guatemala today. And the pluralism that broke the Catholic Church’s hegemony comes not only from evangelism, but also from Mayan religion.

In fact, the Catholic Church probably never had any real religious monopoly in the country, since the Mayan religion was not totally conquered or Christianized. While participating in the Patron Saint’s Day celebration in Santa María Chiquimula, one of the Mayan villages of the Guatemalan highlands, I was struck as though for the first time by a sense of the force of religion among these native peoples. The religious spirit during these events is clearly mixed with other feelings and motivations, as they provide an occasion for business and for the various musical groups hired by the Merchants Association. But even so, the number of days people spend decorating the church, the altar and the images, doubling their usual workday since they do it at night and in the early morning, is stunning.

The celebration in honor of the Black Christ of Esquipulas—and the Mayan deity behind him—and the scenes of people venerating Christ and moving forward on their knees in a sign of adoration to kiss him are no less impressive than the celebration in the sanctuary of Esquipulas itself, in eastern Guatemala, which draws people from all over Central America and southern Mexico. The symbolic strength of the garden of candles is also impressive, representing lives that are burned, that offer themselves before God. All of this is a living memory of the ancestral sacrifices.

In the Eucharist, when people offer bits of paper asking not only to recover their health or remember the dead but also to ensure that their business goes well, one cannot help feeling a virtually seamless connection between secular life—that of the tailor’s shop and the market in this Quiché community—and spiritual life. One senses that the forces of technology and global communication, already so present, have not yet been able to undermine access to the transcendental.

The rise of the Mayan religious spirit

The religious force is even greater when there is a steady symbolic relationship between the Catholic and Mayan religions—“the costumbre,” as anthropologists and the people themselves have many years called describe the deep syncretism that characterizes this traditional Mayan-Christian religious practice. There, given the weight of “traditional” authority in the form of community leaders, the Evangelists suspend their usual aggressive rejection of images or saints.

The religious force is even greater when acculturation work allows people to approach the Catholic liturgy with a new understanding, in their own language and in the re-creation of their symbolic gestures. An example is the act of penitence before the altar by lay people who, in each petition for reconciliation, light candles aimed at the four cardinal points surrounding candles symbolizing the Heart of the Sky and the Heart of the Earth.

One of the most influential anthropological works in Guatemala focused on religious conversion, from Mayan traditions to Catholic Action. It was a transcendental but very painful experience, which also crystallized as a form of rebellion against the traditional community that prevented a person’s rise in society through business or politics.

There is now a certain ambiguity in the acculturation processes aimed at recovering the symbolic Mayan structures, when juxtaposed to the initial conversion from traditional practice: Hadn’t they told us that our traditional practices were the devil’s work? How can they tell us now that we must tolerate them and once again allow them into the Church? How can they tell us that beans, incense, candles and rum have a place in religion?
The problem is that not all that glitters in Mayan religion is gold. People remember jealousies and conflicts that were resolved through spells that created division and fear, especially in rural or marginalized urban areas. Of course such contradictions are also found in non-Mayan environments, where they appear in certain degraded kinds of spirituality or necromancy.

Traditional practice and evangelism

The changes that occurred in the Almolonga municipality near Quetzaltenango suggest the hypothesis that the force of Mayan religion cannot be sustained in the face of a massive conversion to evangelism. The cofradías or brotherhoods of Almolonga seem to have lost sway in a population that has become 90% Evangelical. The municipality has experienced something of a capitalist boom and the wealth of its small farms does not readily support the continued existence of the religious systems of economic egalitarianism underlying the organization of the traditional brotherhoods and practices. Once again, the spirit of capitalism and Protestantism are mutually reinforcing. Nevertheless, it is rumored that some Evangelists continue to ask indigenous priests to conduct rituals for them and go to other municipalities to ask priests who don’t know them to perform masses on their behalf. Further research is needed to find out if this is indeed the case and how often it occurs.

It would also be very important to examine how the force of religion is maintained or lost among Mayan immigrants in the United States. In comparison, there is probably little or no reduction in the force of religion among the Garifunas, who have traveled so widely and are thus so open to all the influences of secular civilization, who have settlements all along the Caribbean coast of Central America but whose largest community is in New York.

Mayan and Catholic

Naturally, it is not only this Catholic religion acculturated into Mayan traditions that adds to Guatemala’s religious pluralism. The pluralism is above all increased by the resurgence of the Mayan religion itself, which was for so long made invisible or enclosed in a semi-clandestine crypto-existence.

For most Catholic Church officials, or most of its ministers—using religious rather than sociological language—it is one thing to gradually accept the acculturating of Catholicism into Mayan traditions and languages, and quite another to participate in Mayan celebrations of important days in their calendar on hilltops, in caves, or in church courtyards. It is harder still to come to understand the Maximons, those figures representing a mixture of Mayan deities and Judas Iscariot that are so important in Mayan culture, and to differentiate them from the rightly repudiated malicious spells. Nonetheless, the fact is that increasing numbers of people, including non-Mayans, come to those places where the Mayan religion is experiencing a resurgence to participate in ceremonies of purification by fire or other kinds of rituals.

The violence at the
root of religious pluralism

What is the nature of religious pluralism in Guatemala? The two first moves towards it, the introduction of Catholicism with the Conquest of 1524 and the introduction of Protestantism with the Liberal Reform of 1882, were both marked by violence. Militarily, the Liberal Reform’s violence cannot be compared to that of the Conquest, which was much more severe. Nevertheless, the laws that suppressed the emphyteutic census, expropriated communal lands and institutionalized forced indigenous labor, politically subjected the Mayans’ heirs to an economic and cultural violence that resembled the Conquest. The expulsion of bishops and religious orders, some of which still owned large plantations, was aimed at stripping the indigenous villages of the Catholic Church’s protection. It is for this reason as well that the country was declared open to Protestantism.

Within the Catholic Church, the pastoral movement based on the Medellín documents—Latin America’s translation of the Second Vatican Council—and Liberation Theology developed around 1970. The Medellín documents went back to the roots of Christianity, seeking to follow Jesus Christ and build the Kingdom of God with justice, compassion and loyalty. This pulled the rug out from under the religion of prayers and rituals, more specifically the Constantinian religion of power and support for the social and political hierarchies, the religion of the status quo.

Despite this turn, the ties between religion and the search for power were not broken, but now the goal was revolutionary power. The indigenous people acquired increasing political consciousness in this new context. Some formed a strongly combative and committed peasant social movement, while others joined the political-military revolutionary organizations. The army responded by unleashing a scorched earth policy of massacres that emulated and perhaps even surpassed the violence and cruelty of those carried out during the Conquest some 460 years earlier.

The idolatry of the
state’s military power

Underlying all the responses—to the Quiché resistance in 1524, the Catholic resistance in 1882, and the Catholic recovery of Christian roots and increasing indigenous awareness in the 1970s and 1980s—is the idolatry of a form of social organization that perpetuates the monopolies of wealth and power. The idol of the Spanish empire, the later idol of progress through the capitalist coffee economy, and the idol of state security that protects one of the most inequitable and racist social structures in the world today, where a tiny and extremely wealthy first world coexists in the heart of an immense, unprotected fourth world—are all the same idol.

Idols and the powers sustained by idolatry have always demanded bloody victims. Jennifer Schirmer wrote that the difference between the military officers that former President Cerezo called “intransigent” and those he called “less intransigent,” the so-called institutionalists, did not lie in the use or rejection of violence: “It is not the question of killing that distinguishes them, but rather the lack of strategic planning and control over who is killed once the decision has been made that it’s necessary to kill to maintain order, (‘We’re not renouncing the use of force but we don’t have to kill everyone to complete the job’).”

Who will the next enemy be?

The advent of religious pluralism is not that important as a religious phenomenon in itself. It can, however, amount to progress towards more tolerant attitudes, which is certainly very difficult today, and to an atmosphere of ecumenicism based on compassion, which will require many imaginative efforts to bring about. Within today’s pluralism, the army will see any kind of religion that is profoundly sensitive to the established order’s injustices—certain branches of Catholicism, Protestantism or Pentecostalism, the Mayan religion, or the attitudes of people with a secular agnostic cosmovision—as an “opponent of the state,” an “enemy.” And this has dramatic importance.

The army’s idolatrous power treats all dissent under the paradigm of enmity. Schirmer cited an intelligence colonel who reflected aloud, after the Peace Accords were signed, “We don’t know who our next enemy will be.”
As currently conceptualized, the army will always have to have enemies, even in times of peace. On the list of potential enemies in the immediate future, this colonel named “peasant farmers,” while retired General Sergio Camargo spoke of drug trafficking “because, unlike communism, it’s profitable.” The National Defense General Staff included “repatriated people” in its 1996 analysis of “factors that are adverse to the Guatemalan state,” along with the “rise of a pan-Mayan movement.”
In the early 1990s, General Gramajo spoke of “the possibility of a religious struggle in Guatemala.” He dismissed it, however, because it seemed unlikely that anyone would rise up to encourage “religious fundamentalism against the Protestants.” In Gramajo’s view, the Catholics would have been the belligerent fundamentalists.

An army contaminated
by an idolatrous endemic

It is possible that Guatemalan religiosity is less influenced by globalization’s secular trends thanks to its proximity to a profoundly religious Mexico, and to Mexico and Central America’s connection with the United States, one of the countries at the cutting edge of globalization least touched by the kind of secularism that excludes religion.

But the state security doctrine—born of US imperialist policies and now aggressively reincarnated in the war against terrorism—is an idolatrous endemic disease that long ago contaminated the Guatemalan army and especially its military intelligence apparatus, closely linked to the CIA.

The army’s belief that anthropologist Myrna Mack was responsible for lifting the veil off the existence of the Communities in Resistance and off the constant military harassment of them triggered the conspiracy to assassinate her. Bishop Juan Gerardi was condemned to death for beginning to unmask and deconstruct the myth of the army as father of the motherland through the Recovery of the Historical Memory (REHMI) project.

They believe themselves gods
and reproduce a violent “god”

This is Guatemala’s true religious problem: the army’s mythic conception of itself as father and mother of the nation, its treatment of any who dissent from its doctrine as ideological heretics, and the refusal of its highest officers to be held accountable for their acts because they believe themselves to be gods.

“The army is the only institution that refuses to accept its own historical responsibility for the genocide,” Schirmer concluded. “We will not be flayed alive like the Argentine generals!” she was told by retired General Gramajo, who was determined to maintain the military’s impunity under civilian presidents.

Naturally, to carry out this plan, the army—like all power structures that are religiously-mythically transfigured into a kind of pontifical power structure, mediator between heaven and earth—must be based “on official [though not confessed] disdain for Guatemalans’ basic rights, especially the right to life.”
The problem is that when there is a mythically semi-deified “father and mother,” which conceives of politics as “war in another form”—as General Gramajo put it—its children, that is, Guatemalan society, will resolve their problems through violence. The “god” these children have to imitate and whose protection they seek is a violent one that constantly finds enemies instead of friends. From this “god” that uses threats and terror and weapons to defend a society of exclusion dominated by wealthy elites, we can expect only an unstanchable deluge of violence. And that is exactly what we have in Guatemala today.

Not to remain on our knees
before military power

The vital importance of renewing compliance with the 1996 Peace Accords, decreasing the military budget and applying the savings to education and health, dismantling the Presidential General Staff, distinguishing between internal and external security, dismantling the many military bases that are no longer needed to secure the country’s borders, strictly separating military and civilian intelligence and strengthening civilian power lies in the fact that if we do not do all of this, Guatemala will remain on its knees before the state’s military power.

This also explains the importance, which cannot be overstated, of the cases of Myrna Mack and Monsignor Gerardi. They have laid the first cornerstones against the impunity of top army officers, which means that many other high-ranking officers may also be required to testify before state tribunals for their responsibility in the massacres, disappearances and tortures, all of which are imprescriptible crimes against humanity.

Only then

In the Gerardi case, this must be done without playing the game of his assassins, who sought to divert attention from his work, from REMHI, by focusing it on his assassination instead. Three months ago, the Appeals Court suspended the 30-year prison sentences handed down against three military officers, including a retired colonel who was the former head of military intelligence, for ordering the crime, and the 20-year prison sentence against Father Mario Orantes for complicity pending a new oral trail. However, the Supreme Court’s criminal division has provisionally accepted the prosecution’s appeal against this suspension, so everything is again up in the air pending a definitive verdict on the appeal.

While waiting for justice to be done in this emblematic case and so many other cases, it is the preservation of our historical memory that will lead us down the long path towards the building of a non-repressive democracy. There must be a transition toward a democracy with authentic reconciliation, concerned not only with elections but also with public participation and people’s economic, social and cultural well-being. Only then, when the army is no longer seen as the mythic father and mother of the nation, will the nature of the religious question in Guatemala truly change.

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