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All Saints Day takes on new meaning after trip to Chiapas


We were standing in line to check baggage when I saw the newspapers on the counter. I and 15 other members of the Interfaith International Peace Council were leaving San Christóbal, Mexico, the home diocese of Bartolomeo de Las Casas, the first great advocate of Indian rights. We had just seen for ourselves for the second time in two years the suffering and destitution of the Indians of Chiapas, as well as the government’s fear of them. Any government that moves 60 percent of its modern, technologically sophisticated federal army against peasants armed with machetes has got to be afraid of something.

There, in front of us, two major newspapers carried front-page stories and feature articles labeling 74-year-old Bishop Samuel Ruiz-Garcia of Chiapas, the Nobel Peace Prize candidate and hero to the Indians, a “guerrilla priest.”

Both stories were deceptively straightforward, apparently reportorial: Money had come into the diocese for the Indians, the first story alleged, but could not be accounted for. The second story was even more clever. It accused the bishop of orchestrating the Indian tribes’ rebellion. His purpose? To sustain an 8 million dollar stream of foreign donations for which there has been no public accounting.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The Peace Council itself is one of the 25 groups who are said to have donated to projects in the area. We gave $27,000 over a two-year period. To produce the amount the papers imply Ruiz received, each group would have had to have given a minimum of $80,000 a year for four years. Most active in the area are even smaller than we are. The situation hardly smacks of an economic windfall for Ruiz or anybody else, hardly a fortune with which to meet even the daily needs of a bereft population. It’s a scurrilous reading of international concern for an issue that draws little positive concern from local and national officials.

Clearly, Ruiz is a threat to someone. But why? I think I saw and touched and tasted the answer to my own question.

What I was not able to get out of my mind as I read the articles was the memory of pictures of murdered children and their mothers, pasted crudely on the wall behind the burial site we had just visited. What I could not erase from memory was the ravine where the gravesite was located, five times deeper than any I had ever seen. The army was armed to the teeth only miles behind us; the people lived there on a sharp mountainside in shacks on stilts. What I could not ignore as I studied the cold, devious articles was the memory of hundreds of Indians who stood patiently at the gravesite as we approached. What I could not drown out was the sound of them shouting “Viva, Dom Samuel” as we struggled down the slippery slope behind a procession of Indian banners and an old woman carrying incense while the wind screeched through the sugar cane slats of the huts around us.

The Peace Council, which boasts three Nobel Peace Prize nominees among its members -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Maha Ghosananda, the Buddhist Patriarch of Cambodia who organized the Land Mine pilgrimages; and the Dalai Lama of Tibet -- was in Chiapas as a group of religious figures from various denominations around the world, to bring a word of comfort, encouragement and hope. But looking around me on that mountainside, I had trouble finding words of comfort in my heart.

We were in the village of Acteal, in Chiapas on All Souls Day, the day on which Catholics remember those who have gone before us in the search for holiness. I had not a doubt in the world that these Indians knew a great deal more about saints and souls than I did.

All Saints Day and All Souls Day had never been much more to me than one more date on the liturgical calendar. I have always liked the idea behind the feasts, of course, but I have never had much personal understanding of either one. I do now. French existentialist and hero of the World War II resistance Albert Camus once wrote, “The Saints of our time are those who refuse to be either its executioners or its victims.” For the first time in my life, I was looking at both: living saints who refused victimization and who also refused revenge, as well as holy souls who had already gone defenseless down to death with prayers on their lips.

Acteal is the Chiapeneco Indian village where, 11 months ago, 45 women and children were killed in a bitter, calculated and bloodthirsty four-hour massacre by government-supported paramilitary forces. What’s worse, they were fired upon in the tiny wooden chapel where they were in the midst of an all-day peace vigil. Most were women and small children. The Indian men could run away from the killers. The women, their children clinging to their skirts, could not. Instead, the mothers attempted to hide under bushes in the woods around the chapel.

It was a pitiless operation. The women and their whimpering babies were hunted down and destroyed. Few people remember the incident, if they ever knew about it at all. But the Indians remember.

Committed to peace but intent on justice in an area where the basics of government support -- education, medical care, housing, economic development -- have never been extended, the Indians raised their voices to claim their humanity and their citizenship, their ancestral lands and their resources. And in this case, at least, the church heard them, made appeals in their favor, counseled them to be patient, taught them nonviolent methods of resistance.

At first, Ruiz was an acceptable liaison, a safe -- even benign -- bridge between the federal government and the people. But then he himself began to support the claims of the Indians. He, too, began to call the government to genuine, honest negotiation. Finally, aware that his own presence masked the inauthenticity of the process, he resigned from the position of chairperson of the government’s mediation commission in order to reveal the government’s stalling techniques and the repressive measures it was using to intimidate, divide and displace the Indians.

Now Ruiz himself is the enemy. Maybe that’s what happens to those who see no sin in curing lepers in the midst of the establishment. Nevertheless, launching an all-out effort to discredit the Ruizes of the world will not change the obvious. If Camus was right -- if the saints of our time are really those who refuse to be either its executioners or its victims -- the Indians of Chiapas qualify.

If Camus was right, the governments of the world have some answering to do and All Saints Day and All Souls Day should take on a completely different meaning. For all of us.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998