And of course everything that is going on in Guatemala, who is pulling the strings behind this? It is our government. The Guatemalan government would never have been able to get away with half of what they have done in Guatemala to their people if it were not for the United States foreign policy that supports every bit of it.
In 1954 we sponsored the overthrow of the government of Guatemala, and since then they have had one military dictatorship after another disguised as democracy. And right now we are financing the destruction of those who have right on their side. If there is any justice in Guatemala, it has to be on the side of those in the mountains fighting for their lives and for their people. Although I believe that the nonviolent response — the response of Jesus going to the cross — is a more powerful response than that of taking up the sword, given their situation, I can’t condemn those who have armed themselves and are fighting back rather than sitting down and waiting to be killed.
I take the attitude of archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil. The problem is not the violence of the guerrillas, but the causes of their violence: the structures that condemn people to starve to death, babies to die of malnutrition — what the Medellin conference called institutionalized violence. The violence of the guerrillas is a response of people who feel that their lives have been threatened, their property seized, their relatives assassinated. Their natural reaction is to take up some kind of arms, and Camara says that he can understand that kind of violent response. And then you have the repressive violence of those who would come after them, calling them criminals and subversives, and claiming the right to wipe them out. I have no sympathy for that type of response because it does not deal with the initial violence.
I never had any contact with the guerrillas, but the people on our team would be constantly confronted by their friends and relatives, and would be forced to reassess their stand on nonviolence.
We used to meet every day for our morning prayer, and once a week we held a planning session and reviewed our work. In those sessions invariably there would be reflection on the violence that was going on and what people’s positions were. Then we would state that if people could not live with our position, if there was some change of mind, if they really felt that the violent response was the legitimate one, then they would be better off leaving our team for some other situation. We respected that choice, but to be on our team you had to be committed to nonviolence — to the response of Jesus going to the cross.
Copyright 1984, Richard Bermack. An edited version of this interview was first published in the New Oxford Review.