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God and Man (and Joe Stalin) in Chiapas

22 January 2010

Jason Dormandy (Secret History) writes on what is probably the most under-reported social issue in Mexico:

Demonstrators in San Cristobal de las Casas entered their seventh day of protest for expulsions and violence done to them by local Catholics in Chiapas since mid January and earlier. Some families have been expelled from communities while others have been detained for failure to participate in Catholic community festivals.

Such violence is not new – we’ve seen Catholic on Protestant expulsions for twenty years now as well as pro-government Protestant on Catholic violence since the Zapatista revolution started…

Jason is THE go-to guy when it comes to discussions of religious minorities in Latin America (Mexico in particular) and, while I’ve mentioned the religious persecutions in Chiapas, admit I completely missed the latest twist in an on-going story.  This is a complex situation, and needs to receive more discussion, but outside of the Evangelical press, isn’t much talked about.

While I might not react as strongly as my former co-writer, Lyn, did to  U.S. style Protestants, and their evangelizing in Central America, I agree that there has been a “hidden agenda” at work:

Evangelical missionary work is a “glorified” pyramid scheme that keeps on giving! Their real goal isn’t to “save souls”, it’s to build their army. The real “mission” is to put up high numbers in order to influence governments for their own self-interests. The end-game is world domination. It’s a lobbying movement to end all lobbying movements. The Catholic Church did it in Mexico centuries ago and now the Evangelicals, the Mormons, the Muslims etc, are back (in Mexico) to increase their own flocks…. full steam ahead.

Evangelism is unethical. It is dishonest and arrogant to impose ones beliefs on another culture by the use of trickery and deception. Whether they come with guitars, or candy, on skateboards or in caravans…. they bring trouble. Every man, woman or child, peasant or scholar has the right to his/her own spiritual beliefs and practices.

All true in a way, but cultures are going to change, and cannot be isolated against the outside world.  It would have been no more possible to “save” Chiapas from Evangelism than it would be to save it from telenovelas and rock-n-roll… or the rural electrification that made such “corrupting influences” possible.

The issue isn’t much discussed outside the Evangelical press for a couple of reasons.  First, many of us feel as Lyn2 does, that U.S. Evangelical organizations seem bent not just in selling the “American Way of God”, but an economic and cultural mindset that we abhor… and which we made a decision to leave behind when we moved abroad.

Secondly, what many of us see of U.S. Evangelical efforts in Mexico (and Central America) makes us suspicious of these groups as imperialist agents.  It’s impossible not to note that U.S. based Evangelical organizations have tended to support the most reactionary regimes in the region (think of Guatemalan dictator, and murderous loon, Efrían Rios Montt’s support by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — or the support given the coup in Honduras by “The Family”).

However, as Jason sort of takes for granted, and harder to wrap our minds around, is that the Evangelicals in Chiapas as “native” groups… or, rather, are local adaptions of imports to meet local needs.  Sort of like the local variants on Roman Catholicism, or even the traditional religions of Chiapas.  As it is, even the “traditional” Mayan religions of the pre-conquest included “foreign” — mostly Nahautl — influences.  As to their political stance, if they have one, evangelicals in Mexico tend to be leftists… ironically, considering the politics of the better known (or noisy) U.S. groups, out of fear of the Mexican “traditional values” right-wing, which is Roman Catholic.

We tend to write off claims of “Christian persecution” in the United States as whining — and it usually boils down to complaints that the majority has to recognize the rights of  minorities. In Mexico, the persecution is very real, and can’t be so airily dismissed. Of course, in the United States, we think support for, or at least tolerance of, minorities is a “leftist” or progressive value.  But, in supporting minority rights, we ignore the rights of minorities within minorities.

This creates a real conundrum for the wannabe sympathetic foreigner.  Most of the intelligent conversation about Mexico comes from the left (the exception was the now-defunct satirical “Surreal Oaxaca”), and in Chiapas, that tends to mean support for the indigenous COMMUNITIES in opposition to the state.  And — to be honest about it — a good deal of romantic nonsense.

During the Oaxaca uprising, I was part of a “Yahoo Group” discussing the situation.  I was appalled by some of the plain misinformation being disseminated by one regular poster (who was considered a reporter on a widely read Mexican alternative media source) and — correcting the information (specifically, referring to a  private security guard as a state official, misleading readers into assuming state sanctioned violence in one incident) led to a ridiculous demand that I sign an “confession of good faith” supporting the APPO.  I thought — but did not say — “fuck you”, limiting myself to telling the group that I only made confessions to my priest and dropping the group.

What I learned from that ridiculous situation is that foreigners writing about Chiapas and indigenous rebellion in the Mexican south have to be taken with a very large grain of salt (and an aspirin).  The fact is, much of the writing from the region has either been co-opted by the myth of the noble savage … that a “return to nature” means peace and harmony for all … or, the commentators are simply propagandists for one of these groups, usually the Zapatistas.  When I received my demand for confession, I joked that the Stalinists were sending me to Cyber-eria, but it wasn’t completely a joke.  Like it or not, the Zapatista movement includes a fair share of Stalinism (Marcos, aka Rafael Gullien, being exhibit “A”) — an adaption of a foreign import to Mexican conditions, by the way — and even more of a forced imposition of “traditional values”.

I’m not going to get into a thesis on the Zapatistas (and why I consider them a reactionary, not progressive, movement), nor riff on the Mexican constitution and the contradiction between “communal” and individual rights.  Nor, am I unconscious of the fact that within even a small group (whether a “Yahoo Group”, expats within a given geographical community or a small village in Chiapas)  dissenters and non-conformists are always  unpopular and vulnerable to  acts of intolerance.

I suppose there might be some kind of defense for burning people’s houses down for not paying some local tax, but it’s rather extreme.  But I haven’t seen any defense mentioned by anyone.  Nor will I expect to.  But that comment on situations that challenge our preconceptions and ideology about Mexico is so very rare … that is a real problem that needs to be addressed.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. otto permalink
    22 January 2010 11:01 am


  2. otto permalink
    22 January 2010 11:10 am

    Don’t forget the Cathars in 12th century France, RG.

    Beziers, Carcassonne, de Montfort and of course Machael Palin, Cardinal Biggles and Cardinal Fang.

  3. 22 January 2010 12:30 pm

    A lot of the interesting work on religion in Mexico is on how it becomes “Mexican” when it gets there. Matt Butler’s introduction to his Faith and Impiety in Revolutionary Mexico has some really good discussion on how the Revolution of 1910 created an ambiance of experimentation that has persisted in Mexican spirituality – really taking what Lyn sees as American religion and turning it on its head. Gaston Espinosa has looked at how those Mexicans then take that religion and re-export it to the United States. Luz del Mundo is a great example of that: taking Pentecostalism from the Azusa Street Revival (via Chihuahua) LDM now EXPORTS Mexican style Protestantism back to the United States. And LDM is just one example. Scholars on religion in Korea have seen the same thing. Korea has the largest Protestant congregations in the world not (gasp) Texas and they regularly come to the US to evangelize.

  4. 22 January 2010 12:31 pm

    Oh, and one of these days I’ll be back here plugging my own manuscript on religion in Mexico if it ever finishes winding its way through the halls of publishing power. Wahoo.

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