Bill Moyers tells the story of two different visions of Christianity and how each is finding a pulpit and battleground in Central America. In Nicaragua, the Sandanistas’ view of Christianity says that the poor must not wait for justice, and that the Kingdom of God can be achieved in this world. In Honduras, the poor are attracted to evangelical churches that promise a reward in heaven for the sufferings of this world, a view which poses no challenge to the status quo.
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BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Every morning they come to the garbage dump looking for food. It’s a familiar sight throughout Central America — the poor foraging for their daily bread. The vultures and pigs are fatter than the people. This is their habitat, their regular diet, their feeding ground.
These people have come to forage, too — for souls, not food. They are born-again Christians, evangelical and fundamentalist. They have come to preach to the poor, to preach and sing of Christ, salvation and heaven. If life is harsh and brutal on earth, they say, there is reward hereafter. The Lord will soon take you away from this place; accept Christ and be saved.
This, too, is a familiar sight. In the poorest nations of the hemisphere, evangelicals, supported by United States churches and sometimes by the U.S. government, arc working for converts.
But another version of Christianity has arisen here. Liberation theology tells the poor not to wait for a better life in the next world; they can create it here and now, through political struggle, even revolution.
Two visions of Christianity, two views of salvation, have come face to face. One encouraged by the United States government, the: other vigorously opposed. Christians are choosing sides.
Here in the United States, in the pews and pulpits of mainline churches, the conflict has split denominations. “Go ye and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus told his followers; but the missionaries sent forth from these churches serve a divided kingdom — a kingdom tom between God and politics. I’m Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: What is the main work of the church, to save souls, or society? Should missionaries preach Jesus only, or seek justice? And what is Christ’s word for the poor — redemption in heaven, or revolution now? We started out to report this debate through the large and powerful community of Methodists in the United States, but soon realized the story is much bigger than we had thought. Many Christian denominations are deeply divided by God and politics in Central America.
This is a story I’ve wanted to report for several years now. Because I grew up in a religious culture, went to a seminary, and spent seven years in politics and government, I’ve long known that what people believe about God, about the ultimate meaning of life, can determine their political behavior.
From Iran to Lynchburg, Virginia, from Southern California to the West Bank of the Jordan, there are news events that cannot be understood without knowing the religious forces behind them. Just look at the headlines from Central America: we read of war between the Sandinistas and .the Contras, but hardly anything about how events there are entangled with conflicting interpretations of Christianity.
[voice-over] To the casual eye, Central America appears a necklace of small countries strung around volcanoes and deep green jungles, between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. Look again: to Christians who live here and missionaries who’ve come to work here, this is the kingdom of God.
For 500 years, the Catholic Church has been sovereign in these countries, the defender of the status quo. But the old church is being shaken today; aggressive and political religions have become potent forces for change and conflict.
You can see the conflict most vividly in two countries. In Nicaragua, where the awakening springs from the grass roots, from Catholics and Protestants cooperating with the Sandinista revolution. They envision a new society, combining Christian doctrine with a Marxist analysis of Society, and demanding a better life for the poor. And in Honduras, where Protestant fundamentalists, converted from Catholicism in rapidly growing numbers, preach that God will take care of the poor in heaven, if Christians first defeat communism on earth.
HONDURAN EVANGELIST [translated] Listen well, Christians, because your nation is upon your shoulders…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] At this evangelical revival in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, the preacher enlists souls in the crusade against atheistic communism.
HONDURAN EVANGELIST [translated] Communism is advancing. The only thing that can keep a country from communism is not bombs, is not machine guns, not cannons, not generals, but rather is the church of Jesus Christ, filled with the power of the holy spirit of God.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Honduras is the cornerstone of United Slates foreign policy in Central America, the base from which the Contra rebels launch attacks against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Honduras is also the poorest nation in Central America.
Washington is trying to help the Honduras government fight poverty — and born again Christians are helping both fight communism. Here, all non-Catholic Christians are called evangelicals, and in the last decade their numbers have multiplied, with a church around every comer.
In Honduras, the message of evangelical Christianity is often pronounced with an American accent. Many local denominations receive financial and material support from conservative churches in the United States. In last two years, evangelicals have poured more than $10 million of private aid into Honduras.
ANNOUNCER: This is a special report, The Truth About Nicaragua.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This television show was produced by a non-denominational evangelical group working in Honduras — Gospel Crusade, based in Florida. Gospel Crusade is headed by Reverend Gerald Derstine.
GERALD DERSTINE, Gospel Crusade Leader: , Gospel Crusade Leader: I believe Americans need to wake up to what is happening in nearby Nicaragua, and to the very real threat that even our peace here in the United States is in jeopardy. The Soviet communists in their vicious and relentless thirst for power won’t stop with Nicaragua.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Gospel Crusade supports dozens of missionaries in more than 30 countries. Recently, Derstine launched a major effort in Honduras among refugees from Nicaragua.
GERALD DERSTINE: It’s obvious, obvious that if we don’t help them here, this is going to just keep-it’s going to keep expanding. This is going to be the same story in El Salvador, in Guatemala, here in Honduras, Mexico — it’s going to come right into the United States. We must stop it. We can stop it. I’m attempting to stop it with the gospel.
MAN: Christians need to get involved.
GERALD DERSTINE: Christians need to get involved.
PHILIP DERSTINE: Okay, let’s go, are we ready? Let’s do it. Move it out.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Gospel Crusade claims to have brought more than a hundred tons of food and clothing into Honduras for the refugees. Derstine’s son Phil, also a preacher, helps run the program.
On this trip, they went to Teupasenti in the Honduran mountains, just north of the border with Nicaragua. It’s one of two United Nations camps for Nicaraguan refugees. Some 4,000 people live here. Some left Nicaragua in open disagreement with the Sandinista government; others fled the fighting that destroyed their farms and villages.
Derstine, who says the Sandinistas in Nicaragua are promoting the work of the devil, arrived with the supplies and a group of evangelicals to help spread the gospel. “I have a friend who loves me,” the words mean, “his name is Jesus.” Derstine’s visits always include songs and a sermon.
PHILIP DERSTINE: [translated into Spanish] I love little children. Jesus loves little children. And I especially like to see your smiles. Let me see those smiles. That’s very nice, very pretty. And with Jesus in your heart, you can wear a smile, even in the middle of a very bad world. Even in the middle of much hate and much war. With Jesus in your heart you can wear a smile. Even when we don’t have much clothing to wear, even when we don’t have much food to eat, we have God in our hearts, we can come to him every day in prayer. We can believe that he’s leading and guiding our lives. I believe that, because of the much suffering that many of you have experienced, that there’s much reward for you up ahead.
CROWD: Amen, gracias.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This was Phil Derstine’s fifth visit to the Teupasenti camp. Each time he distributes Gospel Crusade Bibles, an edition of the New Testament called Good News America — God Loves You.
PHILIP DERSTINE: We try to instill in them some-some feeling of hope. Of course, they feel hope just in seeing Americans walk into the camp.
[to children at camp] You’re all looking for candy, aren’t you? I’m sorry, I don’t have much. And the children just press up around you and follow you wherever you go. They
just want to touch you, they just want to look at you. And of course some of them put their hands out, and they believe maybe you’ll have something to give them, which we’ve had candy, I bring candy in my pockets, I give out candy.
[to children] What am I going to do? I don’t have much more, what am I going to do?
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Honduras army truck on loan to Gospel Crusade brought in donations that had been collected at the Derstine’s Florida headquarters.
PHILIP DERSTINE: We got mostly clothing, but we focused on children’s clothing and shoes, that seems to be the greatest need, for the children, and shoes. There’s some food in the boxes as well, but we found that for the most pan there’s pretty good sources for minimum amounts of food. We don’t get as much financial help as I wish, but because of the many times we’ve done this now, we’ve been able to reduce our cost, the actual cost of getting it here, to almost nothing.
WOMAN: Look at what a beautiful day we have.
PHILIP DERSTINE: Yes, even that, no rain, everything turned out perfect. People are happy just by our presence here, by white Americans coming in, it gives them hope, a good feeling of hope. To me, bringing the humanitarian aid is more of a way to get people’s attention. I believe it’s very difficult for me to preach the gospel to somebody who’s dying for physical hunger, or who’s sitting there naked and destitute. I believe I’ve got to put clothes on their back, food in their mouths, and then share with them why I’m doing this at this time.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the role of a missionary, in your judgment?
PHILIP DERSTINE: A missionary, well, we believe that the most important thing we can be doing on Planet Earth is ministering to the hearts of people. We believe we can change the world by changing people, because people are the problem. And we believe that the answer for problem people is to change people from the inside out. And this is why we’ve gotten involved in-indirectly in politics and military issues, is because we believe the solution is not a military one, the solution is not one of diplomacy, but it’s one of changing ,the hearts of problem people.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In Honduras, the people they’re trying to reach include the masses who’ve been moving into barrios like this one above Tegucigalpa. Once a week, the pastor of this little church hears the gospel preached by an American evangelist.
JIMMY SWAGGART, Television Evangelist: If you want to believe in kings, and you ask him to help you to believe, he’ll help you. He’ll pull you up, he’ll put faith in your heart. Because he loves you.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Pastor Jose Angel Estrada and his family rise at 6:00 every Sunday morning to watch TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Swaggart began broadcasting to Central America five years ago. Now his show, with instant translation, is sent to every country, except Nicaragua.
JIMMY SWAGGART: [on television] For Jesus is El Presidente, he is the general, he is the field marshal, if we must die, every tongue must confess, that he is the son of the living God. Right now, in Jesus’ name, I command the devil to get out of your life. To get out of your home, to get out of your heart, to get out of this city, to get out of government, to get out of your country, in the name of Jesus. If thou canst believe, all things are possible unto him that believeth. Hallelujah.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Anything is possible to him who believes. That is the message act Pastor Estrada’s own service. The Church of Peace, Love and Truth is Pentecostal, as are most evangelical churches in Honduras. Pentecostals believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in faith healing, speaking in tongues and prophecy. Joe Eldridge, a Methodist missionary assigned to Honduras, has been watching their numbers grow.
JOE ELDRIDGE, Methodist Missionary: It is a phenomenon allover Central America, allover Latin America. It’s a distraction, it is a diversion from the grinding every day existence, it is some theater, it is their social hour, their recreation time. It fulfills a lot of important needs.
BILL MOYERS: Do they have services at night here?
JOE ELDRIDGE: They have service every single night
BILL MOYERS: Every night.
JOE ELDRIDGE: From 7:00 until 9:00. People come to this church to praise God.
BILL MOYERS: Seven nights a week?
JOE ELDRIDGE: Seven nights a week.
BILL MOYERS: Two hours a night?
JOE ELDRIDGE: Two hours a night. Yeah, these churches are proliferating, they are spreading like wildfire. This church has two years of existence, has already created, spawned two additional churches. These people feel the holy spirit calling them and go preach. They have no preparation, they have no education, many of them are lucky to have finished the sixth grade, are barely literate, and yet that doesn’t impede them. To the contrary, it propels them out to evangelize.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over]
PASTOR ESTRADA: was a Catholic before he was convened to evangelical Christianity three years ago, after he and his family started watching the TV preachers. His wife, also Catholic, converted first. She had been ill, and was told she’d need an operation.
Sra. ESTRADA. Wife of Pastor: [translated] I came home very sad. I started to watch the PTI Club on television. And I saw how God was healing these people. And they were-people were testifying that Christ was-was healing them. And I asked the Lord to heal me, my uterus. And the Lord worked a miracle. And when I went back to the doctor, he said, “Well. you don’t need an operation now.”
PASTOR ESTRADA: [translated] They see the fruits of prayer. And they tum away from all worldly things.
BILL MOYERS: Does he think that Jesus Christ would want Christians to change the world, or accept it as it is?
PASTOR ESTRADA: [translated] If God-if Jesus Christ does not change the heart of a human being, the wars will continue, the struggles, the fights will continue, the wrath, the resentment, the hatred, the vengeance will continue. The exploitation of man by man will continue. The rich above in exploiting the poor. And the kingdom that God comes to announce is not like this world that we currently live in. The kingdom of God will be beautiful, is beautiful. There will not be sadness, there won’t be pain, there won’t be hunger, but it will be exactly as he has announced.
BILL MOYERS: The kingdom of God is not of this world. it’s not Honduras, it’s not Central America?
PASTOR ESTRADA: [translated] Yes.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From time to time, Joe Eldridge preaches in Pastor Estrada’s church and helps him interpret the Bible. There are no Methodist churches in Honduras, and Joe Eldri!1ge is officially assigned by his mission board to work on economic and social projects.
JOE ELDRIDGE: The fundamental problems in Central America, economic, social and political, they’re not military. The Reagan administration and coming particularly from the While House, since 1980 has placed an emphasis on military solutions. And by placing an emphasis on military solutions, has only aggravated the problems.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the role of religion in all this mix that you’ve just described?
JOE ELDRIDGE: Well, religion in Honduras is interesting, in that Honduras is, first of all-one of the reasons Honduras is of such concern to Washington and Central America is its proximity to the United States. And I think that it becomes an inviting possibility for a lot of fundamentalist and conservative church organizations in the States, who see this as a bulwark against the spread of communism. After all, Honduras is cooperating fully, or has been cooperating fully, with the Reagan plan for Central America, as a-to create a buffer, to stop the spread of this dreaded Sandinista communism. And as a consequence, it is seen as an inviting place for a lot of folks to come, to preach the gospel, to set up missions, to work with the Nicaraguan refugees. It’s a good way to fight communism — come to Honduras and fight communism. Because you have, after all, you have these two and a half million so-called communists knocking at your door. That’s the image at least that’s depicted in the States.
GERALD DERSTINE: [on television] To me, it’s a moral issue. Let’s keep America great and free, and help our brothers and sisters in Central America before it’s too late.
ANNOUNCER: So please, get involved. Call now. To do nothing could allow this to happen.
ANNOUNCER: Derstine is trying to bring the word of God to all in Central America, and in that effort …
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Derstine family’s ministry in Honduras has taken them beyond the refugee camps into the camps of the Contras, the rebels who are fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
GERALD DERSTINE: We are doing this to bring blessing and encouragement to these men who are giving their lives for freedom.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] On this trip, the Derstines were flown to a Contra base camp near the Nicaraguan border. They preached to the troops and prayed with wounded soldiers.
PHILIP DERSTINE: Lord, bless this man in a special way. Let your presence come over him. Let your presence come over this room here. Let these men have comfort, let them know that, Father, you are with them.
[preaching] Even though we are separated by many miles, we are brothers. God has given us a supernatural, we believe, open door to minister to the Contras. If we had that open door to minister to the Sandinistas, we would take that, also. But we can’t in this–unfortunately in this conflict, we can’t minister on both sides, so we pray that some other organization will have open doors to minister to the Sandinistas.
BILL MOYERS: I heard a report that Oliver North, Colonel North of the White House, came and asked you to come preach to the Contras.
PHILIP DERSTINE: Well, right now Colonel North is a hot subject, of course, and people are trying to connect us with him, and I don’t want to make any greater connection than what there was. But Colonel North heard that we were interested in ministering and preaching to the-the Contras, and I believe he opened some doors for us. He in fact telephoned us and introduced himself to us as a born-again believer, and he was impressed with our interest in preaching the gospel down there. And he just encouraged us and said that he was in favor of our efforts.
BILL MOYERS: So he helped you get to the Contras to preach.
PHILIP DERSTINE: He helped us make the contacts with the Contras.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think his motive was?
PHILIP DERSTINE: Well, he was knowledgeable of our help among the Nicaraguan refugees in the refugee camps, and he was knowledgeable of our ministry and our desire to preach the gospel.
BILL MOYERS: What about those reports that have come out, saying that on the other side of the border in Nicaragua, Contras have been attacking not only the Sandinista army, but campesinos, farmers, co-ops, innocent people. What-what’s your response to that? These are men you’re preaching to.
PHILIP DERSTINE: It’s very unfortunate, and I believe in any war situation there’s innocent civilians suffering. However, I believe as well, I believe the stories that I’ve heard that the Sandinistas literally dress up sometimes like Contras, and play-act and create some of these situations, create some of these atrocities, to-to make a statement to the villagers that the Contras are people that they should not be supporting. And so, you have to realize that the communist mentality is one that says that the end justifies the means, that if I can get away with it, it’s okay; as long as I don’t get caught, it’s okay. Even in their government, they’ll lie as quickly as they tell the truth, and really, they perhaps believe it’s okay as long as it’s not discovered. That’s an anti-God mentality.
BILL MOYERS: To be frank, I think that’s why so many Americans were shocked to discover that Colonel North, whom as you say is a born-again believer, Christian, admitted that he lied and shredded documents and misled his own peers as well as Congress and the public. Were you concerned as a Christian by those admissions of Colonel North? You wouldn’t approve those things as Christian, would you?
PHILIP DERSTINE: No, but Christians aren’t perfect. They’re just forgiven. When a Christian gives his life over to Jesus Christ, his spirit is changed immediately. But his soul is being changed, that’s why God saves us right where we are, right in our sin. See, I don’t make a big issue on where people are in their lives, sinwise.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t make a big issue of a Christian not telling the truth?
PHILIP DERSTINE: Oh, yes, I believe that a Christian, when he-when he performs a sin, when he lies and doesn’t tell-tell the truth, as Oliver North does, he has to repent. But God is forgiving, God forgives him, God knows the heart of a man.
BILL MOYERS: Is God taking sides in this war!
PHILIP DERSTINE: No. God is for people. God doesn’t like to see war, but I believe God — uses war. That’s why I can’t be against war. I believe God uses war.
BILL MOYERS: For what purpose?
PHILIP DERSTINE: God uses war to-to bring people to him. God is not as interested in our circumstances as he is our heart.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Derstines are not the only evangelicals working with the Contras — and others are doing more than preach. Presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the former TV preacher and head of CBN — the Christian Broadcasting Network — has reportedly raised millions of dollars in humanitarian aid for the Contras and their families. CBN denies giving money directly to any military organization. In 1985, a TV crew documented Robertson’s visit to one of the Contra camps.
PAT ROBERTSON: This is one of the most moving experiences of my life, to be here today. To see your faith, your desire for freedom and liberty, your courage, and your discipline. We want to help those who are the victims of communism.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] CBN admits to giving $2 million to distribute aid to Nicaraguan refugees.
Rev. ROBERTSON: There has been oppression and there has been repression of religious matters in a shocking way inside of Nicaragua. And I think that if we can do something to help these men fight for freedom, I think it’s perfectly in God’s plan.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Another American evangelical was in the Contra camp the same day as Robertson. Bill Murray is the son of the well-known atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare. Murray was born again, he turned to religion, and started aiding anti-Communist forces around the world.
BILL MURRAY, Freedom’s Friends: If the Contras lose, if the Contras lose, the very nature of the Sandinistas, from their formation in Cuba in 1962, is going to be to overthrow the other democratic governments in Central America, principally San Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. And once those reach the edge, we’ll have no choice but to use American troops.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] He runs an organization called Freedom’s Friends, based in Dallas, Texas. He began shipping medical supplies and other humanitarian aid to the Contras three years ago. To Murray, it’s part of his Christian duty.
BILL MURRAY: I think it has a lot to do with-with being a Christian. If a Christian has sincere political beliefs that they feel that they have a right to-they have the right to fight and die for those-those beliefs. Let’s be honest about it, I am a conservative, and I am going to-food is a political weapon, medicine is a political weapon. The Soviet Union uses it as a political weapon, the United States uses it as political weapon. We take all of the big relief organiza- how do you decide? You don’t give everybody food, you can’t get everybody medicine, you have reasons why you give people. We don’t give, the United States doesn’t give medical supplies and food to our enemies. The Soviet Union doesn’t give food and medical supplies to their enemies.
BILL MOYERS: But Christ did say love thine enemy.
BILL MURRAY: Yes, he did. Yes, he did.
BILL MOYERS: Have you thought about taking this aid to the Sandinistas?
BILL MURRAY: No, I have not. I have not, because they have Christian ministries that supply them very well.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Murray says he gets his money and supplies from private donors. Freedom’s Friends is a nonprofit organization. Murray makes several trips a year to the Contra camps, and he has an a1bwn filled with photos of his visits and other events, like a meeting with President Reagan.
[interviewing] Did the President know what you were doing?
BILL MURRAY: I believe that the President knew what all of us at that particular meeting were doing.
BILL MOYERS: What were you doing?
BILL MURRAY: Well, all of the-that particular gathering that that photograph is from, every single person in the room had something to do with some organization of freedom fighters, somewhere in the world.
BILL MOYERS: Is your organization, Freedom’s Friends, a political organization or a religious organization?
BILL MURRAY: It is fundamentally-Freedom’s Friends is fundamentally the relief division, a relief agency division, of an evangelistic ministry.
BILL MOYERS: But aren’t Christians in this country injecting their politics into their faith, when they use their church-churches, to help the Contras?
BILL MURRAY: We are American citizens, we are citizens of the world. And whether we are Jews or Buddhists or Catholic, we are entitled to and should practice our political beliefs. And this whole idea of somebody coming along, “Well, you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t get involved in politics,” does that mean no Christian in America should vote? All Christians should be prohibited from running for-for elected office? Because if you’re a Christian, you should not be involved in politics? I have a feeling that’s not what Christ intended.
BILL MOYERS: And you are acknowledging that therefore, Christians will wind up on opposite sides of the political-
BILL MURRAY: Of course, of course.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In Nicaragua, across the mountains from Honduras, the images of faith are everywhere. So are the symbols of revolution. Since 1979, when the people of Nicaragua were liberated from the despotic rule of the Somoza family, this country has experienced a religious and political upheaval unlike any in the hemisphere.
It is part Christian: Catholics and Protestants joined in the revolution and serve it today. And it borrows from Karl Marx the vision of a classless society. All this merges — the Christian conscience and the revolutionary ideology — in Nicaragua’s own version of liberation theology…I sing to you, oh Lord,” the words go …I sing your praises because you were a rebel fighting against injustice.” It’s a song of liberation theology, written by Nicaraguan Catholics. In Managua, the capital, this is the Church of La Merced mercy, it means.
La Merced is part of what’s called the People’s Church in Nicaragua, a church that supports the Sandinista government
Padre ANTONIO: [translated] Our lord and father, help us now to find you in our daily work., in the voice of our brothers, in the pain and the struggle of these people, who are fighting to win peace.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Like other priests of the People’s Church, Padre Antonio speaks out against the Contra rebels, fighting the Sandinista army with U.S. support.
Padre ANTONIO: [translated] This God speaking to us is also manifested in life, in the reality and history of each one of us. And so we see many women living here in our parish who have lost sons. The son of our sister Bertha fell in combat two years ago. A son sacrificed, not for dollars, but for love of his people. We also have our sister Conchita Zuniga; three months ago, on May 13th, her son also perished.
CONCHITA ZUNIGA: I’m asking you to pray to God on behalf of those mothers who have sons fighting in the mountains. Pray that their sons come back to them alive. Pray, pray also that my remaining son fighting in the mountains will come back to me alive.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In the People’s Church, the congregation always takes pan in the mass. They call their God EI Dios de los Pobres, the God of the poor, a God concerned with the hard realities of life.
Liberation theology arose in Latin America out of church communities like this. They’re called base communities, centers that organize projects of work and learning. At this one in Managua, the children have painted the story of their country — a story of revolution and faith. The blackbirds symbolize the long oppression of Nicaragua by the Somoza dictators, who came to power half a century ago, with the help of the United States government. The white dove of freedom soars with the Sandinista revolution, whose heroes included Jesus Christ, George Washington and the nationalist hero August Sandino, long martyred by the Somozas.
It is the vision of rebuilding society through religion and revolution that has drawn many North American Christians to support the FSLN, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation. Liberation theology has become to them a 20th century reformation, placing the church squarely on the side of the poor. They come as if to Mecca, to stand with the People’s Church and the Sandinistas.
Throughout the country, Christians from the United States work alongside Nicaraguans. Some are missionaries, assigned by the mainline churches to help with Sandinista government projects, like this reforestation effort to fight soil erosion. It’s a joint venture between the government and a Christian aid group. The supervisor is Methodist missionary Howard Heiner.
HOWARD HEINER: One of the basic problems that we’re having throughout the world is hunger, and that is a growing problem in Latin America. In this particular area here in Nicaragua, the soil was eroding away from wind and water, and so we’re planting trees here to stabilize the soil and allow the lower areas to have water for drinking and for irrigation.
BILL MOYERS: Planting trees, soil erosion, reforestation — that’s not what you usually think. of as the mandate of a missionary. He’s supposed to be out there winning souls, winning converts, building churches.
HOWARD HEINER: Well, some of the missionaries are doing that, but also part of the Christian mandate is to live out that word, and we’re living out that word in being here with the Nicaraguan people.
BILL MOYERS: What do you say to people back in the United States who admit that you’re well-meaning, earnest, sincere, but they say you’re naive, you’re being exploited by the communists who are behind the Nicaraguan government.
HOWARD HEINER: Well, of course, again we do not agree with that point of view. I come out of a rather conservative background, having been in the Air Force, having served there for 11 years.
BILL MOYERS: Fighter pilot?
HOWARD HEINER: Fighter pilot, yes, in the Korean war. I was an executive for St. Regis Paper Company, and I was an active member of the Republican Party in the state of Montana. I don’t think you can come out of a more conservative background than that.
And I came to Latin America in 1969 and I was shocked, because the world I knew in the United States was different from the world that I found in Latin America. People living in unjust conditions. And so these people are struggling for a better life, and the church has joined with them in that struggle. Now, if you want to call us Marxists because we’re joining in the struggle, that’s a problem that those other people are going to have to do, because we feel it is a Christian commitment that we are fulfilling and doing as we work with these people.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Paul Jeffrey and Lyda Pierce, who are married, came to Nicaragua as Methodist missionaries three years ago. Like Howard Heiner, they work with CEPAD, a Christian organization engaged in relief and development work. It’s a coalition of churches, begun in 1972 for the relief of earthquake victims.
The member churches of CEPAD are Protestant. The missionaries help enlist congregations in a sister church program run by the United Methodist Church. No money is involved — just ties of friendship. Methodist bishops in North America began the sister church program after visiting Nicaragua. This church in 1..OOn is matched with one in Peoria, Illinois.
Rev. LYDA PIERCE, Methodist Missionary: [speaks in Spanish to congregation, translated] Our governments have limitations, be we know that our God does not have limitations. We know that between our countries there are walls, but we know that among the people of God, there are no walls.
Rev. PAUL JEFFREY, Methodist Missionary: [translated] Now, I don’t want to tell you that Nicaragua is perfect, because you and I know that it isn’t. We know that we have problems, but we work together at solving the problems we have. We can make a Christian contribution to the process of bringing peace to this country that is suffering so much right now.
I believe more in the power of the gospel. I believe more in the power of faith to change people’s lives and to change the world-change people to change the world around them, than I did before.
BILL MOYERS: What is your understanding of liberation theology? How would you describe it to a Methodist sitting in a Methodist church in Carrollton, Texas?
PAUL JEFFREY: You know, even-even better than telling them, I would say what Jesus said so many times, and that’s come and see. Come and see for yourself what happens with people who have been poor for so long and downtrodden for so long, and have been told that, that that was their station in life, but who pick up the Bible and begin to, read, maybe because they’ve just learned to read, they’ve just become literate at 30 or 40 or 50 years of age.
And they read in the Bible how God believes that all people are children of God and are loved equally by God, and they go, “God loves me? And if God loves me and loves us equally, then why do we have — ” and they look up from their Bible and see the class divisions around them — “Why is our society the way it is? Why am I poor and why is that person rich? Why do my-40% of my children die before they reach the age of six from diarrhea? But the dog ‘who eats, you know, at the master’s table at the plantation house, eats better than my children do.”
And so, the change that takes place as they go from the scripture to look at the world around them, and to see the contradictions between those two, that’s what we talk about when we’re talking about liberation theology. And it’s out of that fertile soil, that fertile interchange between revelation and the world in which people live, that revolutions are born.
BILL MOYERS: It’s going to astonish people to hear you say that this revolution came when they opened the Bible. Most people think it came when they opened Das Kapital.
LYDA PIERCE: Right. Because of the information they’re being told.
PAUL JEFFREY: But come and ask, come and walk the streets of Matagalpa and ask people about their histories. Ask people what’s changed their life, ask people what caused the revolution.
LYDA PIERCE: Look at the Bibles for sale in all the grocery stores.
PAUL JEFFREY: Look at the Bibles that are on people’s tables. Not that many people here have read Marx, but a lot of people have read the Bible, and that’s what’s changed Nicaragua.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Elda Sanchez is seven years old. She’s the daughter of a local Protestant pastor, so she sings “I will praise the Lord.” The Sanchez family lives now in Matagalpa, in north central Nicaragua near the war zone. Part of Paul Jeffrey’s assignment as a missionary is to report and photograph stories about Nicaraguan Christians. He met Elda and her father Amancio about a year ago in a hospital. Father and daughter each lost a leg, when the public bus they were riding hit a land mine.
PAUL JEFFREY: He and another pastor were two of the people who were injured; the other pastor had his leg fractured. There were seven people killed, 43 people injured. Of the 43 injured, II lost at least one leg.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Pastor Sanchez was on his way to a prayer vigil for peace. His daughter-in-law Carmen was also on the trip. She lost both legs. The bus route crossed an area frequently mined by the Contras.
Pastor AMANCIO SANCHEZ: [translated] We were about a kilometer or less outside the south end of Fantasma, the town we were coming from, when the mine went off, and we sort of heard an explosion, but didn’t feel anything, at first, just this boom.
I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t feel any pain, I didn’t know what was going on. As I looked around after the explosion, I tried to lift myself up at one point and look-and tried to walk, but I couldn’t walk, and I looked down at my leg and it was just all destroyed, my leg just was all in pieces.
I first thought about, oh, what’s happened with Carmen and Elda, and all I could think about was that they too had been-had been destroyed in this explosion. And then the people were looking at me, and they were so surprised to see me, because they think that things like this don’t happen to pastors. And they said, “Ah, the pastor there, he’s been hurt” So I said, “Please, would you look for Elda, my daughter.” And when they brought her to me, they drug her to me, I saw that her skin was very dark from the smoke of the explosion.
BILL MOYERS: Didn’t he know it was dangerous to be in a war zone’!
PAUL JEFFREY: First of all, they were leaving the town that they live in. I mean, the war zone is where they live.
Being here has helped me to understand in a new sense how it’s Christ that suffers. Nicaragua is like Palestine 2,000 years ago, and the United States today is like Rome was then. And to be here is to see the world from the other side. And to see how the wrath of the empire exercised against this poor, bankrupt little country makes people suffer here. And in a very real sense, they are Jesus, and their suffering is Christ suffering. And I think we North Americans, as we can somehow open ourselves up to that, it can have a redemptive value for us, just as the suffering of Christ does.
BILL MOYERS: Do you understand how that kind of talk offends people back in the United States who take it to be your talking against the United States, against your country’!
PAUL JEFFREY: But I’m not talking against their country. I’m not-it’s my country and I love it, and it’s got to change, because it’s-it’s-in Nicaragua, in Central America, in El Salvador, it’s doing some very evil things.
BILL MOYERS: What about your own belief’! Marxism justifies the use of violence 10 achieve justice; do you accept the use of violence to achieve social revolution?
LYDA PIERCE: That’s something we struggle with all the time. But I don’t feel like I can answer that for the Nicaraguans as long as my country is funding the Contras that are attacking this country.
PAUL JEFFREY: Both Lyda and I, because of our faith in Jesus Christ, are pacifists, and we could not personally participate in violence. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war in the States. But here we find ourselves in the position, because of living in Nicaragua today, when we sit down at the table to eat dinner with our Christian sisters and brothers, and we hold hands and we say grace, most oftentimes someone asks God’s blessing on the boys in the mountains-in the mountains, who are protecting us, protecting us from my government, from my government which has invaded this country and has killed 20,000 people. And I find myself joining in that prayer. So for us to be here, it’s a fertile ground for us, and we’re really wrestling with a lot of those issues about violence and nonviolence, and what the role of violence in revolution is and can be, and what the dangers of that are.
BILL MOYERS: This village where you are, this dirty, unhealthy, poor village in Nicaragua, is this the kingdom of God?
LYDA PIERCE: It’s part of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is among us everywhere.
PAUL JEFFREY: It’s beautiful. I don’t think it’s ugly and dirty. I mean, this isn’t the kingdom of God, but the kingdom of God is being worked on here. We’ve come here to be converted by the people with whom we work. We’ve-we brought the gospel to them, but-but they’re also people who already have the gospel, and are sharing it back with us. And to us, to come here is a conversion experience.
BILL MOYERS: Nicaragua and its revolutionary Christianity have led others on a long and personal journey. Three years ago, George Baldwin, a Methodist minister, came here from Kansas City and wrote home that he would not return.
GEORGE BALDWIN: Strengthened by grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I am choosing a new direction in my journey of faith. I am claimed by the invitation Jesus offered the rich young ruler. It says in Mark, chapter 10, verse 20: “Jesus looked upon him, loved him, and said to him, You lack one thing. Go sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and “Come follow me.’ ”
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Baldwin renounced his ordination, gave away all his belongings, and set out into central Nicaragua. He had been 26 years a pastor and was a respected teacher of theology at St Paul’s Seminary.
GEORGE BALDWIN: God was not calling me to do something, not even in the guise of servant hood. He was calling me to be something. God has anointed me to be poor, simply that, no more, no less, to be poor. MOYERS /voice-over] Baldwin headed into the war zone, over roads where every rut could hold a land mine. It’s territory constantly fought over by the Contras and the Sandinista army. Baldwin settled in the village of Paiwas. It’s one of several resettlement villages for people displaced by the war. They’re called assentimientos.
GEORGE BALDWIN: Jesus was poor. I think that most of his life was lived in a struggle for justice for the poor and with the poor, and that-that when we don’t live with the people who are poor, and we live with the privileges that the system provides, it’s real hard to-to struggle against that system when you-when you receive the privileges that the system offers.
BILL MOYERS: The system being, in this case?
GEORGE BALDWIN: The system being, those systems, economic, political, military, that create poverty and exploit the poor. My life with the people in the assentimiento is-is to share their life, that’s what I’m trying to do, and that means getting up about 5:00, and then after breakfast there’s various tasks to do. Maybe dig in a ditch to put in a water system, which we got done this year, or maybe riding horseback out, bringing the cat lie in for various things, or it may be fixing fence. Other times you’re out all day with the cows, and you come in at 4:00, go to the river and take a bath. It’s a very simple life, the life I share with these people.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It’s a life centered around the church. U’s part of the People’s Church, and George Baldwin, former Methodist minister, attends the Catholic mass as just a member of the congregation. He does not preach. He listens to the people read the Bible and relate it to their revolution.
WOMAN: [translated] Today in Nicaragua, we as Christians, as revolutionaries, can guide the people. Before, they did not have hygiene living quarters. but they do now. What is being lived here is the Christian faith; what is being lived here is a revolution.
GEORGE BALDWIN: They have analyzed their reality and they’ve decided to do something to change it. They understand their role is to participate in the building of the kingdom of God — or, the reign of God is a better word, because it’s less sexist. But it’s the concept of the reign of God that they think they’re participating in.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] With the help of a Christian aid group, the people of Paiwas organized to build a system that would bring fresh, healthy water to the community.
MAN: [translated] All those water spigots and sinks here, all that was done to improve the community. We hadn’t been able to do that in the past, but now, after the revolution, thanks to our efforts, our organization, we’re a little bit better off. We never managed it in the past, because we were just peasants living abandoned and in isolation.
GEORGE BALDWIN: As you read the Bible, and you read it from this base position, it’s real easy to see in the Bible that God takes sides in the struggle between the rich and the poor. And God takes the side of the poor. That’s expressed in the struggle between Pharaoh and the slaves in Egypt and their liberation, and for those who see this perspective of liberation in the Bible as they read it, it’s expressed in Jesus’ life. His was a life that was led in the direction of liberating the people.
We read the phrase in the Bible, “Jesus says, ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’ “Well, that was no uncommon awareness in the people; in their political consciousness they knew that the streets and highways of their own towns and cities were lined with crosses, which were political instruments for political prisoners. And Jesus was saying, take up this cross, take up the political struggle, it’s part of the religious experience.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t this what scares a lot of people back in the United States, that this liberation theology threatens their way of life, it threatens the traditions, it threatens the system?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Yes, it does that
BILL MOYERS: The complacency, the comfort?
GEORGE BALDWIN: It will do that. And in fact, the danger of what’s going on south of the U.S. border is not communism; the threat is in fact that God takes sides. And the point is, inside the United States, there’s also poverty, and those who are poor need to hear the word that they can begin to raise up and claim their human dignity and their human worth.
BILL MOYERS: You think that God takes sides, that God is on the side of the poor against the rich’!
GEORGE BALDWIN: I believe that God is on the side of the oppressed against the oppressor, and that generally cuts down to the rich and the poor.
BILL MOYERS: And our role is what’! Are you suggesting that-that we all do what you’ve done’!
GEORGE BALDWIN: I think, Bill, I grew up in a church where in fact I heard the prophetic word of Jesus preached — the struggle for justice, the living with the poor, the release of the captives. I heard the gospel from the time I was an infant in the Methodist Church. My grandfather was a pioneer Methodist pastor. The problem that I am kind of faced with is that same church taught me, by its behavior, that I could also participate in the struggle for American success dreams, and to be competitive, and to cooperate with systems that in fact exploit others. So I think one has to-to begin to try to decide where we cooperate and where we don’t, and as far as the Bible is concerned, we’re forced with a pretty clear, difficult decision. You cannot serve both money and God.
BILL MOYERS: You’re taking this thing pretty far, you know.
GEORGE BALDWIN: Yes, I am.
BILL MOYERS: That’s radical.
GEORGE BALDWIN: The gospel is revolutionary, in my view. It is radical.
BILL MOYERS: You’re a dangerous man, you know that.
GEORGE BALDWIN: I don’t know that.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, if-if your example were followed, multiplied, if your ideas spread, they’re subversive to this world.
GEORGE BALDWIN: They’re-I like the way you put that. They’re subversive to this world, if we conceive of the world as a world defined by the powers that currently are in control. That’s right. I do want to be a danger to that world.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Baldwin says he remains good friends with his four grown children in the United States, and with his former wife. They were divorced 10 years ago. But these villagers are his new family. Money he receives from a pension fund comes to Nicaragua, to a Christian aid group, the Christ the King Project that Baldwin works with in the war zone.
The project helps people in the resettlement villages who have lost their land and possessions. Now, they’re organizing cooperatives to help produce income. In this village, Wilike, Don Santos Soza is a co-op member and a church leader, a delegate of the word.
GEORGE BALDWIN: They are organized in groups, they’re called esquadres. And they all participate in the work.
BILL MOYERS: And those children?
GEORGE BALDWIN: And the children? Los niòs? Tambien trabajen.
BILL MOYERS: Why are there militia here? Are there Contras nearby?
GEORGE BALDWIN: They are crossing all the time in this zone. A fellow was killed over here just last Tuesday, he said.
BILL MOYERS: Campesino?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Un campesino? There were six in the family, and they went to his house and killed him.
BILL MOYERS: Why do they do that? Why do they attack-why do the Contras attack villages like this and civilians like him?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Because he was participating in a revolutionary organization, which is what these cooperatives are considered.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Nearly 200 families live in Wilike. The cooperative has organized several projects. They raise livestock and there’s a bakery, turning out several kinds of bread for sale.
GEORGE BALDWIN: There are 11 members of the cooperative. [speaks in Spanish] This is an oven, it’s a real primitive type oven, and the man who’s working the oven right now is the male member of the team.
See, these campesinos were like slave laborers before the revolution. I mean, not all of them worked as farm laborers, but most of them. And now these women have their own future ahead of them. That’s a real revolutionary phenomenon.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] To George Baldwin, this is a revolution that has grown like the mustard seed from the faith of the Bible.
GEORGE BALDWIN: Historically, these people have been kept illiterate. That’s been the political process, to keep people from learning to read and write and to think, therefore to have power and to act in their own processes. And the church in Latin and South America, Central and South America, has been a church which historically used Latin for its liturgical expression, and it wasn’t the language of the people. So it’s been since Vatican II that the people have begun to hear the liturgy and the Bible in their own language.
BILL MOYERS: And what has it meant to them?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Well, it’s just broken open the word. It’s broken open a new life for the people. Now, here in Nicaragua, the literacy campaign was the first thing that the Sandinista government undertook as an expression of social concern.
BILL MOYERS: And did the revolutionary government, did the Sandinistas allow the Bible to be read?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Interestingly enough, they produced Bibles and had them distributed. It’s true; you can find Bibles that were presented by the Sandinista government as part of the reading material.
BILL MOYERS: What about reports of human rights violations by this government? Just this summer there were reports by two respected American organizations that peasants here have been moved against their will, because they supported the Contras. And there have been reports of Protestant ministers harassed because they spoke out in a way that the Sandinista government didn’t like.
GEORGE BALDWIN: This is not a perfect government. I’m not here to protect and say that they are. But in-essentially there is freedom of religion. I also think we have to remind ourselves we’re living in a war here, and that in fact emergency measures have been taken by the government, and most people would say legitimately so.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t there a danger of going too far in mixing religion and politics? During the First World War, German soldiers wore helmets and belts that said, “For God and the Fatherland.” Isn’t there a danger of the Sandinistas becoming tantamount to the Christian revelation, and the state becoming the object of people’s affection?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Yes, there’s always the danger. I think that-that in the Biblical witness, we see that God is a jealous God, and that in fact we should have no gods before the God of our creation. And that indeed God’s concern is not atheism, not the issue of those who choose not to believe, but those who choose in fact to believe in idols. And it’s one of my perspectives, having stepped out of the United States and looking back, that patriotism can be one of those idols. Misplaced patriotism, the real confusion of God and Fatherland.
BILL MOYERS: Isn’t there a danger that idolatry can develop toward the Nicaraguan government?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Oh, yes, yes. I keep saying, you know, I try to discern-the Nicaraguans see themselves very much involved in Nicaraguan revolution, and-and an appeal to a nationalism. I do hear one other message, and that is, they have a vision of in fact other people who are in fact still oppressed, having freedom one day.
BILL MOYERS: Spreading the revolution?
GEORGE BALDWIN: Yeah, I think it would be one way the Sandinistas would say it spreading the revolution.
BILL MOYERS: Does that bother you?
GEORGE BALDWIN: No, it doesn’t bother me.
BILL MOYERS: But it scares Ronald Reagan, and —
GEORGE BALDWIN: Yes, it should. You see, people who are poor in this world are rising up, Bill. I mean, it’s happening. It isn’t happening because I say it’s happening, it’s happening because we can all see it happening. In this hemisphere, it comes out of more out of a biblical awareness than out of any introduction of Marxist philosophy. That’s my perspective.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In the United States among conservative Methodists, the idea of a Christian revolution seeking liberation in this world is not only a political threat, it’s heresy. These Methodists are also evangelicals; to them, the first work of missionaries should be evangelism, bringing sinners to spiritual salvation through Christ. And they are critical of the missionaries working in Nicaragua, and of the denomination’s official agency which sponsors them, the Board of Global Ministries.
Evangelicals have organized a movement called Good News. At their convention this summer in Upland, Indiana, they challenged Methodists to spread the gospel, to offer them Christ. It’s a literal reading of Christ’s Great Commission: “Go ye and make disciples of all nations.” The evangelicals accuse the denominational leadership of betraying that commission.
1st MAN: Many of believe that there needs to be a renewed emphasis upon winning persons to faith in Christ.
2nd MAN: And that’s really what the Christian faith is called to, to deal with the moral and spiritual. If we get back to the moral and spiritual, a lot of the social problems would take care of themselves.
1st WOMAN:Liberation theology, boiled down into a nutshell, is nothing but communism in Christian clothing. And this is what the Board of Global Ministries is training our young missionaries in.
2nd WOMAN:I think they get too critical of our country. And they don’t support it like I think they should.
3rd WOMAN:Christ wants you to be saved, and it’s better to be saved and go to heaven than to save the world and go to hell.
ED ROBB, Evangelist: [preaching] It’s time for evangelicals to give positive leadership. We say Yes to the Great Commission. We are appalled [at] the decline of the missionary force of the United Methodist Church, down from over 1,500 to now less than 500. We are appalled at liberation theology, that equates the Marxist Leninist analysis with the Christian faith.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Evangelist Ed Robb has been traveling the country, rallying Methodists against the Board of Global Ministries, and denouncing missionaries who support liberation theology.
ED ROBB: How, in the name of God, can the church be on the side of Marxism Leninism? As evangelicals we are saying this, and I want to say it loud and clearly to the church today: we intend to fulfill the mandate of the Great Commission.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Good News board of directors includes pastors who practice what Ed Robb preaches. Their churches are withholding funds from the missionary agency.
Dr. PAUL MORELL: — Pray that you would bring forth your spirit in our midst, that we shall be bold for you.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The pastor of one of the rebel churches is Paul Morell.
PAUL MORELL: — sharing what we have experienced of your grandeur and greatness.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] His church, in Carrollton, Texas, First United Methodist, refused to pay the $30,000 contribution it was supposed to make to the official missionary program. Instead, the congregation is financing their own Methodist missionaries.
PAUL MORELL: They were convinced that with the shortage of good Christian dollars that any church has, that there has to be some effort of prioritizing, making value judgments, and it was felt that to support that kind of movement and that kind of program, and then leave undone some other things, that that was not what Christ would have done. ,
BILL MOYERS: And you believe that mission is? You believe God would have you do what?
PAUL MORELL: To take the good news to the world that Jesus is able to transform a person, regardless of his economic situation, regardless of the kind of government under which he lives, and that through Christ and through the power of God, there is in his holy spirit the power for the transformation of any society and any national government over a period of years. And certainly we feel, in terms of the Protestant understanding of Christianity, take here in America, most people found Christ in poverty, they found Christ on the frontier, and out of that God built an America that was strong, not just because we had good land, but because we had people that were willing to be a part of what God wanted to see happen to all people. And I don’t think God has changed. I think the God who helped America become a great land wishes to do the same thing in every land around the world.
BILL MOYERS: You signed this letter, you and other Methodists signed this letter, asking for the recall of four Methodist missionaries working in Nicaragua. Mentions them by name: Howard Heiner, Peggy Heiner, Lyda Pierce and Paul Jeffrey. You signed this letter asking for their recall-why?
PAUL MORELL: Because I was convinced that they were there under an alien agenda to what was the agenda of the church of Jesus Christ.
BILL MOYERS: What was that alien agenda?
PAUL MORELL: They are there serving a Marxist-type government, and they are trying to defend that Marxist-type government, and they are not building the church of Jesus Christ. We have no Methodist work there, we have no Methodist churches there, and they are part of the CEPAD organization that is there. It is doubtful that CEPAD is truly trying to serve the cause of Jesus Christ as we perceive it.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think. CEPAD is doing?
PAUL MORELL: It is an organization, a front organization for Christians and semi∑ Christians and persons who can be enticed through that organization to be supportive of Christian-Marxist analysis for the solution of the problems as they are perceived in the Latin American part of the world.
BILL MOYERS: It’s a front for the Sandinista government?
PAUL MORELL: Well, for communism and socialism throughout Latin America.
BILL MOYERS: Is this merely a fight among Methodists, an internal denominational feud, or do you think. it has implications for the country as a whole?
PAUL MORELL: Oh, it has implications for the country as a whole. Basically, Methodism has often been very close to what has been the opinion of America as a whole, and I think that’s true today. You have what we will call for the moment the liberal way of thinking about Christianity, and then you have a conservative and often even a fundamentalist view. And these two are at fair distance from each other, and they have fairly different answers.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] One liberal Methodist church is here in Brooklyn, New York, Park Slope United Methodist.
FINLEY SCHAEF: [preaching] The world is filled with people who are heavy laden, as has been testified to here, and our mission is to be like Christ, to lighten the load, to ease the pain. Very often, to do this we must take action that is political, write letters-
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Reverend Finley Schaef has spent 15 years as Park Slope’s pastor.
FINLEY SCHAEF: — withdraw, divest, slow down-
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Last year, he and the church made news headlines across the country.
ANNOUNCER: Enthusiastic cheers and applause greeted Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. The Marxist leader spoke from the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Methodist Church.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] President Ortega was in New York to speak to the United Nations. Reverend Schaef gave him a different kind of pulpit.
ANNOUNCER: From the standing ovation he received to the singing of the Sandinista hymn, the members of this liberal middle-class congregation made it clear that in the battle between the Reagan administration and the Nicaraguan government, they were on the Sandinistas’ side.
FINLEY SCHAEF: With every fiber of our being, we oppose funding the Contras.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] To Schaef and his wife Nancy, Ortega is part of a revolutionary Christian tradition.
FINLEY SCHAEF: Jesus defined his mission in very clear terms. In Luke 4, he said, “My friends, this is why I am here. God anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to set at liberty the oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” You know what that is? It was land reform. “I came to preach good news to the poor, set at liberty the oppressed and land reform.” He says it, at the beginning of his ministry.
BILL MOYERS: Jesus also said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
FINLEY SCHAEF: He didn’t mean not of the earth, as opposed to heaven. He said, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” You know. If his kingdom was not of this world, he wouldn’t have bothered healing people, he would have said-you know, they lowered that man down through the roofs and asked Jesus to heal him? Jesus could have said, “Look, my friend, I can’t help you now, you know, grin and bear it, when you go to heaven you’ll be better. Things will be okay if you just hang in there for the time being.” That’s not what Jesus’ philosophy was. His philosophy was now, you heal; you don’t tell people wait till you die. That’s not fair, that’s not true to Jesus. Wait till you die. If you accept Jesus now, I guarantee you you’re going to go to heaven. That’s all? That’s all you got to do, accept Jesus now? No, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to be saved. You wake up. The world’s not organized right. We’ve got to reorganize it. God doesn’t want it organized like this, we’ve got to reorganize it. That’s what salvation is.
BILL MOYERS: Finley, when I listen to you and listen to the others, I get a sense that this issue is severely dividing the Methodist church, that neither side understands the biblical basis for the other’s position. Do you have that feeling, that Methodists are being irrevocably divided and damaged by this controversy’]
FINLEY SCHAEF:It’s between two different theologies. Are we going to accept the status quo, or are we going to take up the cross and challenge the status quo? That’s what’s going to maybe divide, because we’re going to have to sacrifice in this country to bring about justice for the world. We live off poverty. The comfort-my comfort is off of the backs of poor people in the Third World.
BILL MOYERS: And you feel that the church has to take up the cross, as you say, and fight the poverty and injustice in the Third World.
FINLEY SCHAEF: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] In that world, amid the poverty of a nation like Honduras in Central America, it’s not easy to determine the true mission of the church. The word is made flesh in countless ways. But to missionary Joe Eldridge, a place like the barrio of Bella Vista is not for Christian soldiers or saints. Faith begins and ends here in service, miracles in bread and water.
JOE ELDRIDGE: I think what our brothers and sisters in the United States forget sometimes is that there is a profound relationship between one’s theology and Sunday dinner.
BILL MOYERS: How?
JOE ELDRIDGE: In the sense that as we come to know about Jesus Christ, as we sit in our Sunday School classes and as we listen to our preachers preach, and as we sing the great hymns of our faith, we know that our material needs are going to be met. So that even as we learn about Jesus, we learn about Jesus on a full stomach. And to the extent that we can appreciate the efforts by the poor of this earth, which are the majority, to come to grips with Jesus calling them in their own setting, I think there is a power, as people interpret the scriptures as one in which Christ feeds the five thousand, Christ heals the body.
We’re talking about justice, we’re not talking about charity. One must realize that there are systems which are in place and at work, which have condemned two-thirds of the Honduran people to suffer malnutrition, illiteracy, indecent housing, lack of potable water, et cetera, et cetera. And these are instances in which I think the claim of Christ on our lives calls us to respond to the larger picture, the big picture.
BILL MOYERS: Charity is the drop of water on the parched lip, and justice is the water system that’s there long after.
JOE ELDRIDGE: Justice is the water system that keeps on going after the missionaries, or whoever it is, leaves
BILL MOYERS: But good conservative Methodists back in the States are going to say, Joe Eldridge is obviously sincere, he’s very persuasive, he’s very eloquent, but he’s also naive on this. Because if the communists come across that border and take over Honduras, there won’t be freedom in which in the gospel can be preached.
JOE ELDRIDGE: I think that the Lord calls us to be in ministry, and to find out where there is suffering, and find out where there is no peace, and to see what can be done to be peacemakers. And if you look outside this door, you’ll see a beautiful view. If you look around, the view won’t be so-nearly so pretty. But as we accompany these people, we must also bear in mind that United States Christians have a responsibility, first of all, to be informed, because if you don’t have good information, you can’t make good decisions. This is God’s world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” It’s our responsibility to know that world. God gave his life for this world. Well, what’s this world about? Let’s find out what the world’s about.
BILL MOYERS: Joe Eldridge was right. Christians should learn how societies work, who has power and why. The world looks different from the ground up than it looks from the pulpit down. The example of Jesus is that to save the world — to love the world — one must live in it.
For 30 years I’ve been unable to forget the words of the philosopher Pascal, whose writings I first encountered in seminary. “Truth on this side of the mountain,” he said, “is falsehood on the other.”
Given the infinite variety of all those who cry, “Lord, Lord,” the kingdom is bound to be divided. But the judgments would be less severe, and the casualties fewer, if every believer first looked at the world from the other side of the mountain.
I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 28, 2015.