The revolution turned against capitalism but not Christianity, posing new questions for religion and politics.

Pablo Santiago Picado Medina sits at lunch in a dark restaurant in Leon, Nicaragua. It is a tired old city of peeling paint and poverty, a place that swings from its last, rusty hinge.

But Pablo is a man with a mission. His church has learned to reach out to the poor, to help them procure food, shelter, and education, all the bricks and mortar of a dignified life. In its enterprise, Pablo’s church is in lockstep with the Sandinista revolutionary governmment, which also wishes to supply these things to the campesinos.

One detects here the strains of liberation theology—the unyoking of oppression as a counterfeit form of salvation. In his church, Pablo is president of the social welfare committee. Suspicion confirmed.

But liberation theology is a term Pablo cannot explain, for he has not heard much about it. His church is the Assembly of God, not exactly known to be a revolutionary brigade. Pablo is a diesel mechanic, unschooled in liberation literature.

There are evangelical Christians like Pablo all across Nicaragua. Their churches thrive in a country 95 percent Catholic. Like conservative churches in the United States, evangelicals here preach the historic gospel and freely evangelize. Since the Sandinistas took power in 1979, distribution of Bibles has increased fivefold, distribution of New Testaments ninefold. Hundreds of thousands now clamoring for the Word learned to read in the literacy campaign the revolutionaries conducted after their accession.

There is an anomaly here, then. Socialist governments are not supposed to tolerate these things. What brought this strange situation to pass? Exactly one earthquake and one revolution.

Two days before Christmas in 1972, a half hour after midnight, the capital city of Managua shuddered under a massive earthquake, then crumpled. Nearly 10,000 died; a quarter of a million were instantly homeless. At the time, the country was ruled by the monstrously corrupt Anastasio Somoza and his personal police force, the National Guard. After the earthquake struck, many of the guardsmen began deserting or looting. The city was prostrate.

Even darker days lay ahead. A year after the earthquake, after nearly $200 million in foreign aid had been rushed to the government, the city was still rubble, its people badly cared for. Some of the money was sponged up by Somoza’s construction companies, some of it purchased rebuilding sites from Somoza’s friends and family at bloated prices, some of it actually bought relief for the victims.

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The injustices shot adrenaline into the small revolutionary movement that bore the name of Augusto Cesar Sandino, the mountain brigand of the 1920s who battled against the occupation of the country by U.S. Marines. It was the American government that installed Somoza’s father in 1937 and trained and equipped the police force with which the Somozas suppressed political opposition. By the 1970s Nicaragua was still so dominated by the United States that the American ambassador’s picture appeared with Somoza’s on the Nicaraguan 20-cordoba bill. By then, the Somoza oligarchy had grown fat. The family owned the national airline and steamship line, two-thirds of the commercial fishing industry, half the sugar mills, and one-third of all the country’s tillable land. Its wealth was estimated at half a billion dollars.

Yet at the same time, most of the populace was neglected. In the 1970s, the infant mortality rate was nine times that of the U.S., 80 percent of Managuans had no running water, and there were 20,000 cases of advanced tuberculosis at one point. More than half the people were illiterate, and life expectancy was about 50 years. Only 5 percent of the people completed elementary school. Because of these circumstances, the rage rose and rose until the dam burst in rivers of blood. The Nicaraguan civil war in the seventies was so ferocious that by the summer of 1979, when Somoza fled for his life to Miami, 50,000 people had died, five times the number killed in the earthquake.

How A Priest Became A Revolutionary

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto, a Maryknoll priest, explains in an interview how the poverty and the killing in Nicaragua changed his faith and led him to participate in the Sandinista revolution, against the wishes of his bishop.

It came to me one day as we were preparing for Lent.… Everyone had left and I’m alone in my office and I’m saying, “Well, another Lent. And it’s the same old mediocre me. You say you’re not going to eat hot dogs or you’re not going to eat something else, and that doesn’t help anyone. And so what am I going to do for this Lent?” As a result of that meditation … a prayer was formulated. That prayer was, “Lord, help me to understand the mystery of your cross. Help me to love the cross, and give me the guts to embrace it in whatever shape or form it comes.” And I thank God it became a habit. Everything began to become different.… The cross … became a symbol of life. The beginning of life. And I began to see it inseparable and indistinguishable from resurrection. Why? Because we come to understand in John that life is love. We come to understand that greater love has no man than to give his life. The cross is the greatest act of love, therefore the greatest manifestation of life. We weren’t leading, we weren’t leading, at least the Catholic church was not leading the people in an analysis of this system of capitalism [under Somoza] … and this systematic development of selfishness.… We were not showing them more ideal Christian ways, by our example, to resist the cancer of oppression and exploitation.…

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Comandante [Daniel] Ortega … publicly has said, “I went to the revolutionary struggle because I understood what was demanded of me if I was to be faithful to Christ.” He was only 14 years old when he first was in jail. You know Thomas [the apostle]. Most people are like Thomas. They don’t just accept that the Lord resurrected. So the Lord said, “You come and put your finger in my wounds.” Christ wanted to show his credentials because Thomas demanded to inspect the credentials. We preach the message of our Lord, but the people want credentials. Where are the wounds?… You know who in Nicaragua was showing those wounds? Daniel was only 14. He had great big wounds to show. Our bishops didn’t have them.…

Eight years before the insurrection, after the earthquake, I remember talking to the archbishop … and I was saying, “Don’t you see, this is going to explode.…” I said, “Why don’t we go into the streets? You lead us—you are the bishop—armed with the rosary in our hands and prayers on our lips, in repudiation for what is being done to our people.” And I said the worst that can happen to us is the best, to share with Christ the cross if they shoot us. It won’t happen because we don’t deserve that. That is the grace that God reserves for the very privileged. But if it happens, well, blessed be the Lord … and if it happens there will be a consciousness aroused internationally … and maybe the people of the United States will pressure their government so they won’t support Somoza as much as they do. The archbishop said, “No, Miguel … this [violence] is not going to happen.” Then when the revolution happened, they [the bishops] were insisting on nonviolence.

That earthquake not only demolished the capital city, it demolished complacency in the hearts of many evangelicals. For the first time, the Protestants began working together. Evangelical pastors in the city organized 1,100 volunteers who cooked 30,000 hot breakfasts in the days following the calamity. The pastors surprised themselves at what they could accomplish together.

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This was the beginning of CEPAD—the Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development—a nationwide alliance of Protestant churches. It is led by a devout American Baptist physician, Gustavo Parajon, who took medical degrees at Case Western Reserve and Harvard. Under his leadership, CEPAD has grown to be the largest nongovernmental relief agency in the country, with projects in 400 communities reaching 100,000 people across the country.

In 1974, 300 Protestant pastors gathered at a retreat, to reflect on what they had accomplished after the earthquake, and what their Christianity should mean to them in the black days ahead. During their meditation, pastor after pastor swallowed hard on the parable of the Good Samaritan. This outcast had not only salved his brother’s wounds, but he willingly bore the cost of the convalescence. Deep within themselves, the pastors recognized that the young Sandinista revolutionaries, full of Marxist idealism though they be, were excelling the Christians—the spiritual heirs of the Samaritan—in healing wounds of injustice. These evangelicals could never become revolutionaries themselves, as had some Catholic priests, but how long could they ignore the Somoza system and preach only about the next life?

“As Christians, we were surrounded by wounded people, injured people,” said Rodolfo Fonseca, a Church of God pastor in Managua, as he recalled that time. “It is not revolution that should teach us social responsibility; it is the Bible.… How [could] we Christians be preaching only the spiritual part and let the so-called Marxists and atheists do what we were supposed to be doing? It was that kind of Christianity [emphasizing only spiritual matters] that our missionaries with blond hair and blue eyes and the fragrance of heaven taught us. If we preach only the spiritual side, then [the revolutionaries] are showing themselves to be more Christian than are we who claim to be Christian.”

Fonseca was one of about 20 pastors who gathered several months ago to explain themselves to a group of visiting North American evangelicals. There was misunderstanding in the North because the CEPAD evangelicals were working shoulder to shoulder with the revolutionary government on a variety of social projects. During the meeting, the skepticism of a few of the Americans strained the patience of one of the pastors, Nicanor Mairena. He had this to say:

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“I was educated under the control of the North Americans. They prohibited us from politics. I accepted that. But after three years of the revolution, I have become convinced of the opposite. North Americans don’t suffer lack. Your main necessity is that of the soul, and your culture was transmitted to us. In the first place, it is necessary for the soul to be saved. In the second place, it is necessary for the body to be saved—from illness, from malnutrition, from illiteracy. How can someone serve the Lord well if he is undernourished?”

Not all Protestants talk this way. A large group, perhaps a slight majority, do not emphasize social concerns. But most of the others, particularly the younger ones, have become sensitized by the deprivation. CEPAD represents about 80 percent of the 400,000 Protestants in Nicaragua, an Iowa-sized nation of 2.8 million people.

Although many evangelicals in Nicaragua claim no alliance with liberation theology (to them it is a Catholic issue), it did play a part in the Sandinista liberation. The Second Vatican Council (1961–65) raised the Catholic conscience about the tribulation of the world’s poor. In 1968, Latin American bishops meeting in Medellín, Colombia, put their imprimatur on the liberation movement. The lot of the poor, as a special concern of Christ, began to be emphasized in Latin American Catholic schools. In Nicaragua, Catholic high school students became sensitized to the injustices of the poor, and many students threw in with the Sandinistas, swelling their ranks in the early 1970s. (From this student group emerged the present leader of the armed forces, as well as the head of the government, 37-year-old Daniel Ortega.) Encouraged by Vatican II, the Nicaraguan church began training lay ministers, called delegates of the Word, while other Catholics, under Jesuit tutelage, worked on agrarian reform. These movements provided more radicals for the revolution. Today, a few evangelicals in Nicaragua have become enamored by liberation theology as well.

The Catholic influence has lent the revolutionary government a humanitarian cast. One of the first acts of the Sandinista junta following the triumph of 1979 was the abolition of the death penalty. Tomás Borge, a hero of the revolution and now the country’s minister of the interior, caused an uproar in 1979 after the victory. He strode into the prison where he had suffered for years and spotted his former torturer behind bars. Borge forgave the man and freed him.

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Five Catholic priests hold important positions in the Sandinista government, a nettlesome problem for Pope John Paul II during his trip to Central America last month. The Pope has forbidden priests from holding political positions.

One of the priests is Miguel D’Escoto, born in Hollywood of Nicaraguan parents and educated in the United States. He is the foreign minister. An other is Ernesto Cardenal, who entered the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, in 1956 to study under Thomas Merton. Cardenal founded a community of poets in Nicaragua and is now the cultural minister. His brother, also a priest, ran the national literacy campaign and is now a member of the Sandinista assembly. Edgar Parrales is ambassador to the Organization of American States, and Jesuit Alvaro Arquello is a member of the Council of State.

All this humanitarianism did not prevent the Sandinistas from committing their most spectacular blunder in the realm of human rights—the forced march of the Miskito Indians. That single incident turned much of the Western world against the Sandinistas.

Moravians had converted the dark-skinned Indians to their Protestant faith in the last century. The Miskitos inhabit the remote northwestern Atlantic coastal area, and they developed an animosity for the Catholic “Spaniard” majority inhabiting the Pacific coastal lowlands beyond the mountains, which bisect the country.

This cultural and geographical isolation caused Somoza to leave the Miskitos alone, but the Sandinistas tried to organize them. When they discovered the Indian leader, Steadman Fagoth, to be consorting with the political opposition, they arrested him and the entire Indian leadership as well. Four gunwielding soldiers entered a Moravian church on a February evening in 1981, in the middle of a service, to arrest one of the Indians. They began shooting. Four Indians died, and all four soldiers were battered to death. Some Indians fled into Honduras. Others launched a peaceful protest in a church building, and the soldiers pushed them out. Fagoth was released from jail, and promptly fled into Honduras where he joined the anti-Sandinista guerrillas. Fighting grew, and the government marched the entire Miskito population inland to clear the hot spot, burning villages and killing cattle lest they be used by the counterrevolutionaries. Thousands of Miskitos went to Honduras.

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Despite their proclamation of religious freedom, the Sandinistas mistrusted and misunderstood the country’s Protestant minority. Some of the denominations were closely tied to United States churches, and the U.S. government was barely concealing its secret efforts to topple the revolution. In the spring of 1982, opposition leaders preached that the harsh spring floods that year were God’s judgment on the regime. Faith-healing, charismatic pastors urged followers to ignore the government’s vaccination program, and Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to honor the flag or pledge allegiance to the government. The Sandinistas suspected CIA subversion behind all this activity, and the official newspaper carried an inflammatory article headlined “The Invasion of the Sects.” to arouse hate.

CEPAD immediately protested, and the protest was heard. Its letter explaining the nature of Protestantism was published in the Sandinista paper, and one of the leaders, Rene Nuñez, apologized, but tensions did not cease immediately. Protestant churches were taken over, but almost immediately returned, after CEPAD again protested. This time CEPAD arranged an assembly of pastors at which Ortega himself, the chief of the government, spoke. He admitted the mistakes and once again affirmed religious freedom. Since then there has been calm, although the uncooperative Jehovah’s Witnesses were ordered out of the country.

The future of Sandinista Nicaragua seems grim. Its economy is moribund, its currency virtually worthless on foreign exchanges. The country’s opposition newspaper is heavily censored and the presence of hundreds of Cuban teachers and technicians makes Americans nervous. Firefights with anti-Sandinista guerrillas along the Honduran border, widely believed to be financed by the CIA, sap what little vitality does exist. The country seems to be sliding into a socialist orbit, although the hard-line Marxist-Leninists in the government are not in clear control. The Catholic majority is deeply cleft between the traditionalist hierarchy on one side and the pro-Sandinista “popular churches,” which are springing up in the barrios.

Despite Nicaragua’s sharp list to the political Left, even a skeptic such as the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua does not believe the Christian faith is in jeopardy as long as the Sandinistas hold the government.

And that gives evangelicals reason to pause. For the soil that allows the gospel to grow in Nicaragua has killed off the politics of Western capitalism. Many North American Christians have believed that without that system, the faith cannot flourish. In a time of escalating debate in this country over the relationship of Christianity to politics, this small Central American country is testing some cherished convictions.

TOM MINNERYin Nicaragua

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