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The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in Central American Revolutions – Phillip Berryman

April 24, 2015

TRRORI read this book in ‘short doses’ and I was impressed by its careful documentation of the history of the struggles for liberation in Central America. It gave the lie to those who say that Marxist ideology is the chief motivator. True to its message, the book starts with praxis and then reflects, describing events and then discerning. It does not start with eschatology or with a political ideology and then seek to ‘apply it’. I was challenged by its scrutiny of the meaning of the term ‘democracy’ and its analysis of the concept of ‘human rights’ as a liberal and individualistic ideal which bore little relation to the thought and needs of most of the world’s population. Whilst wishing to disagree with its critique of nonviolence, I am convicted by the fact that I have not experienced the situation at first hand and have, therefore, not needed to think through the issue in any way that really costs me and need to suspend judgement. I am pleased to see its avoidance of a form of neo-triumphalism which seeks to work from a Christendom concept and stresses that the Church is not an agent of the kingdom but a celebrator of it whose members have to identify, discern and join in with its struggle. It is clear that we cannot import liberation theology as a package but we need to use its methodology in secular Britain. Non-stipendiary priesthood has a key role in the doing of this.

The author was born in 1938. After his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in 1963, he spent two years at a church in Pasadena, California, before working in pastoral ministry in the Panama City barrio of El Chorrillo from 1965-1973.

That year, he left the priesthood and married. He later worked with the American Friends Service Committee, living in Guatemala but travelling throughout Central America. He returned to the United States in 1980 and began writing the next year. He became a professor of Latin American Studies at Temple University.


It was the Coca-Cola strike of March 1976 that proved to be the opening wedge of what became a broad opposition movement. When the management fired 154 workers to break the union, the workers decided to occupy the plant. Arriving around midnight, the police entered the plant and forcibly ejected the workers, injuring some and jailing fourteen… President Laugerud met with a CNUS [National Committee for Labor Unity] delegation, thus in fact recognizing it, although legal recognition was never given. On April 7 the government ordered the company to rehire the workers and recognize the union. However, from that point on the union suffered direct violence from the company. Both sides (management / government and labor) saw the Coca-Cola case being not so much over specific worker demands as over unionization itself.

On June 25 the police attacked the headquarters of the CNT [National Workers Federation], which was becoming the spearhead of the renewed labor movement. Knocking down the door with a jeep, they came in shooting and arrested some leaders… All the labor leaders were eventually released, since the charges against them had been absurd…

These events formed the backdrop for a pastoral letter of the Guatemalan Bishops Conference titled “United in Hope”…

Most of the arable land is in the hands of an insignificant minority of the population, which the bulk of the peasants lack even a bit of land of their own for their crops….

The oligarchy, which has insistently tried to maintain its privileged situation at the expense of a whole population being marginalized, has been upset even over the few labor reforms in our laws….

Present legislation seems to be designed above all to defend the untouchability of private property, impeding a better distribution of land, which, we should not forget, God has given to all his children and not just to a few privileged ones.

[Four years later…] Several union members had been murdered. When European unions organized a boycott and workers in Sweden threatened a work stoppage at a Coca-Cola plant, the parent company in Atlanta, Georgia, moved to solve the problem by forcing John Trotter, the owner of the Guatemalan franchise, to sell…

Two days after Romero’s funeral, the Carter administration’s move to restore large-scale military aid to El Salvador passed a significant vote in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations… The aid was called “non-lethal”: vehicles, communication equipment, and so forth. For many months the administration, echoed by the media, portrayed the Duarte government as centrist, albeit besieged by extremes on right and left – and precisely for that reason deserving of United States aid. It was not noticed that no one on the right was ever brought to justice, or that there was no sign that Duarte or the other civilians had the slightest quota of power – even though Romero had raised these issues clearly…

The Carter administration had paved the way for a military approach… In early 1981 the incoming Reagan administration seemed to regard Central America, and specifically El Salvador, as a “test case” it could win easily… The Reagan administration tried to downplay its military aid by insisting that economic aid was three times as large. However, in 1982 U.S. economic aid equaled approximately 80 percent of El Salvador’s commodity exports and seemed likely to exceed 100 percent in 1983. Since those commodity exports are the mainspring of the economy, aid from Washington was now propping up not only the government but the economy itself…

The United States government’s policy of supporting the ruling groups (despite a professed concern to support or even to create a political “center”) has been ethically wrong and, in opposing it, the churches have been faithful to their mission. In both their liberal (Jimmy Carter) and their conservative (Ronald Reagan) forms, United States policies have ignored the real roots of the struggle and have supported the brutal tactics of the military and oligarchy used against the unarmed population.

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