Pinochet, Culture of fear and the Church

I grew up in a divided country. I grew up under a military regime. I was born in 1969 and I as a young boy I do not have any recollection of the political environment of that time, all I know is this: I was born in democracy and grew up under a dictatorship.

I do remember long lines of people waiting to get into the local market to buy groceries for their families. I remember going with my mother to get some chicken but we waited a long time to get it.

I remember that people were not happy… waiting in lines to get food was hard.  Despite the fact that Chileans have a very good sense of humour, people’s expressions were of disappointment and sadness. Why queueing when the country had enough food to feed the population? I was too young to understand what was going on and Allende’s government was going through serious problems and breaking down.

I do remember that we were not allowed to play on the streets during evening time and that was disappointing since September is when Chile celebrates its independence from Spain. September means Spring! It gets warmer and colourful. We were not allow out because of a military curfew.

I remember hearing my mother telling us that we were not allowed near the windows and she was worried because my father sometimes worked during the night.

I remember helicopters above our house and the army and police patrolling the streets.

I remember that sometimes there was a blackout and everything went dark.

I remember clearly one night that I was not allowed to sleep in my bed so my sister and I slept with my mum and dad.

I remember the radio being played not with music but with a strong commanding voice, that was the 11th of September 1973. The day of the coup, when the Chilean Military took control of the country.

I was too young to understand what was happening but now I realise that I grew up in a culture of fear. Fear is a powerful dark force.

I remember that after the 11th of September the new president of Chile,  A Pinochet was wearing an army uniform.

I remember watching him speaking to the crowds telling them that Chile was at war against the forces of communism, socialism and marxism, but on my street I did not see any signs of war. I only wanted to play football with my friends. Yet years later I realised that some parts of my city were like a war zone.

I saw him, at the opening of an international fair, he was so close to me … He came with the Argentinian Military President, they were surrounded by strong bodyguards, (who did not look Chilean but Asian, for me it was like watching Ultraman!) But somehow I managed to squeezed through all the reporters, photographers and  I saw this military man who was now in charge of the nation.

He created a culture of fear.

As I grew older I was afraid and I did know why. I was subconsciously afraid. The kind of fear that was strong enough to let you know that it is better to be quiet, silent and do what you are told. Fear of knowing the truth. In a way you became an” accomplice” of the truth.

But fear has the capacity to divide families, friends and football teams! To divide a Nation. The fear of those who did not want ever to go back a socialist government like the one of Allende and the fear of those who felt oppressed and not able to speak.

Freedom of speech was taken away.

I remember a breaking news story from the national television channel that a group of radical extremist, terrorists, were being chased by the national security forces. I think this was live on tv and you could hear the sound of bullets and explosions. The camera never got a clear picture of the terrorists but then later the national security forces found weapons, guns, pistols, bullets… but it was all a big lie. It was all fake, it was the national security forces and the television crew who orchestrated everything  making us believe a lie, we were at war! Reinforcing Fear at all cost!

I also remember an attempt to assassinate Pinochet that failed.

As I became aware that I had to live with this fear, many people of my generation and older begun to push fear away. Some of them paid with their lives others with exile.

I used to write songs and I wrote one called “A la Libertad” -“To Freedom”. With that song I won a school music festival. I never felt fear when I sang it. Freedom is a spiritual force.

In the mist of all this I came to faith in Christ, I was 18 years old and I remember going with my father who was a lay leader in the Church to many of the national pastor’s breakfasts in Santiago. These pastors came from different parts of the Capital, from different backgrounds. We were all united in one faith, I don’t remember feeling fearful. I experienced a great fraternity and a sense of belonging!
I saw  firsthand the fearless attitude of the Catholic Church, a Church that was defending and protecting those without voice, those who were being persecuted, their families: the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and wives of those who were forever silenced. They found a voice within the Catholic Church. Was the Catholic Church at the time being influenced by the Theology of Liberation? Yes, I think most of South America Continent was.

I have often thought about the brutality of the military regime and the role of the church. The Catholic Church, with the Vicaria de la Solidaridad (Solidarity Vicarage), protected individuals and the families of those persecuted by the military government. It was evident that the regime was not happy with what the Church was doing.

I have often thought and wondered where was Christ when Chileans were tortured and murdered? I have often thought and wondered where was Christ when young policemen where shot and killed by extremist groups that sought to fight the regime?

Where was the prophetic voice of the church and where was the Evangelical Voice? I am sure there were many pastors that suffered under the regime. Maybe I was too young but I don’t remember if there was a prophetic voice of the Evangelical Church denouncing the brutality of the regime.

I could be totally wrong, I stand ready to be corrected on this, but it seems to me that Pinochet was the first military president, not elected, to recognise the Evangelical Church in Chile. By celebrating a Religious Protestant Evangelical Service in the biggest church in Santiago that can seat up to 15,000 people, Pinochet sent a strong signal to the growing Protestant Chilean Church that they were now an important  part  of society. Suddenly it became acceptable to hold another belief.

When you live in a culture of fear your are conditioned to think and to act accordingly.

That is why I find it hard to get President Trump and the culture of fear he is reinforcing. It sounds too familiar to me and I find it difficult to hear the prophetic voice of the church. Not all refugees are terrorists like not all Chileans who opposed Pinochet were communist terrorist, I know that because I wasn’t and many other like me weren’t.

But in a culture of fear which is reinforced by the message of “war” then there are only two groups of people, the good ones and the enemy! Fear defends at all cost, it protects at all cost and it does not dialogue. In a culture of fear there is no room for stories, there is no room for hope, there is no room for valuing life and people. It is protectionism at all cost. When President Trump said that he sees nothing wrong with the idea of torture I find this difficult to reconcile with the fundamental teaching of the Christian faith. Torturing someone is basically robbing a person of her/his humanity and it destroys every social tool that we are equipped with, so that those who are tortured are handicapped to live in community.

Jesus said:
““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3–10 NIV11-)

Is Jesus wrong? Is this declaration only to be academically believed but never applied?

Fear causes division and raises up a culture of suspicion which creates hostility.
Perfect loves cast away fear!
What if we act accordingly to our beliefs?
What if we take onboard Love and we radically live by it?
What if we say the truth in love in the context of community?
What if we believe God and his sovereign power?
What if we are prophets not of gloom but prophets who edify, strengthen and encourage?
What if we pray for our elected leaders so that they know that they are supported by people who may not agree with them but in obedience to a higher call,  raising up above our divisions and we offer to bless them and pray for them?

What if we radically believe this and live it out : “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9–10 NIV11)

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