From Afghanistan to Georgia
By Tripp York, PhD Student and Research Intern
Center of Ethics and Values, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary
Dorothy and Gwen Hennessey, sisters both biologically and as members of Dubuque's Sisters of St. Francis, received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award last October. The Roman Catholics nuns share company with a distinguished list of other recipients: Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sister Helen Prejean, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day and many others. The Sisters' Hennessey also happen to be recent convicts.
After being banned from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (originally named the School of Americas), the sisters violated the ban by joining in with more than 5,000 other demonstrators advocating for the school's closure. Following a six-month prison sentence, the sisters have been released and are now being honored with the award that commemorates Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris. It is in this letter that Pope John invites all people-regardless of particular faith or nationality-to strive for peace. It has been in the sisters' active persistence for ending those things that perpetuate violence that have led them both to prison and this award. It is precisely such service to what the sisters' claim is simply "faithfulness to Christ" that truly renders them, in the words of Aristotle, "political animals."
For those who do not know what the WHISC is, a little history lesson-along with a brief list of the kind of graduates it has produced-may be illuminating. The U.S. Army School of Americas (SOA), as it was dubbed in 1946, was founded in Panama as an effort to promote friendly relations between the U.S. military and its Central and South American counterparts. In 1984, the school moved to Ft. Benning, Georgia, where it has continued to train Latin American soldiers in counter-resistance to drug trafficking and insurrection. After the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used at the school (revealing the encouragement of torture, extortion and execution), Congress authorized the WHISC to replace the SOA and in 2001 the name was changed. Its critics, however, have viewed this change as an attempt to diffuse public protest. It remains apparent that, though the name has changed, the tactics remain the same.
It is often said that one can know a teacher by the kind of students they produce. This school reflects this aphorism well. Graduates of WHISC are responsible for some of the most notorious human rights abuses in Latin America. Among the WHISC's infamous alumni are dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia and Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru. Some of the more mediocre students have not faired quite as well. Their list of atrocities include (but are in no way limited to): the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; the slaughtering of nearly 1,000 civilians in the El Mozote Massacre; the killing of more than 3,000 people during Augusto Pinochet's 17-year reign in Chile; and the torture of Carlos Mauricio-a science teacher at Balboa High School in San Francisco who, paradoxically, fled to the U.S. in the early 1980's to escape soldiers trained by the U.S.!
It is true that, due to public protests, the school revised its curriculum in 1989 to integrate training on human rights. Critics, however, claim that this is hardly enough. Respect for human dignity barely stands a chance when one is taught how to torture and kill fellow human beings. Which brings us to the bottom line: WHISC operates as a school that trains its students how to deal with its enemies in a very particular manner-by any means necessary. This kind of formation is not only directly at odds with the Christian narrative, but it also trains people how to locate enemies that are not even deserving of such a title. How is it that Christians in America can-in good conscience-support this school when it trains soldiers how to kill fellow Christians (like Romero) in other countries? The question is one of allegiance: Does baptism link us to all Christians regardless of nationality? Or, does patriotic fervor blind us to our own disobedience to Christ?
This brings me back to our good sisters. Their witness reminds us that following Jesus is hardly an apolitical affair. True political behavior is concomitant with a bodily imitation of Christ. An imitation that, as it placed Jesus in the center of political controversy (his kingdom is, after all, a rival kingdom), places his followers in the position of narrating the world in such a way that may lead them to the same place it led him: the cross.
What have we learned from not only these two witnesses, but also from a church that recognizes them as witnesses? What does this demand that we as Christians must say to the U.S. government? Perhaps we can say that if it can destroy terrorist training facilities in Afghanistan, it could do the same in Georgia.