A History of the Gospel and Violence in El Salvador, with Prospects for the Future
WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic
January 23, 2019
by Kenton Moody
“Gang members force young girls into unwanted sexual relationships by threatening their families.”
“Businesses give $4.5 million per month to MS-13 gang members as part of an extortion ring.”
Headlines such as these appear in El Salvador newspapers almost daily. Stories encompassing the first seven to ten pages of the two daily national newspapers tell of attacks on police, murders on the buses, and corruption between gang members and politicians.
El Salvador is one of the many countries in the world that is mourning due to lack of the peace of God. If the church is to be God’s agent of shalom for El Salvador and respond effectively to the gang violence, then it is important that it understand the origins of the problem. This article will summarize the historical significance of El Salvador’s violent past in relationship to the current problems as well as explain the emergence of the evangelical church. It will also describe the biblical plan of shalom and what the church’s responsibility should be to best fulfill God’s desire for the church to be God’s agent of shalom for the Salvadoran society.
A Violent Past Begets a Violent Future
The obvious lack of shalom in this small Central American country reflects a violent past. The extreme level of homicides in recent years has made El Salvador one of the most violent countries in the world per capita (Jamarillo, 2018). Daily killings, disappearance of youth, and payment of “rent” to live in one’s own community are all commonplace and considered as “normal” day-to-day life in El Salvador. In 2015, the violence hit an all-time high with 30 deaths per day and more than 900 deaths in the month of August alone (London Guardian, 2015). El Salvador is one of the top 10 countries in the world, alongside of Syria and Afghanistan, for forced displacements in the society due to violence with 296,000 displaced persons in El Salvador in 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (Oliva 2018).
To best understand why the violence in El Salvador is off of the charts, one only has to look back historically and see the cause and effect. El Salvador is the smallest country in the Americas geographically but it is the most densely populated country. Named after “The Savior,” by Spanish conquistadors, its colorful history is plagued by violence from the time the Spanish began their conquest in the early 1500s. Indigenous tribes were subjugated or destroyed by the rich, and the poor obeyed or paid the consequences. Between 1810 and 1825, the large majority of Latin American countries achieved their independence from Spanish rule, but for most, it was not a change of behavior or true liberty, it was simply a change of governance.
After the Spanish rule ended, there were several attempts to unite the Central American countries into one republic through a series of wars and skirmishes, but with little lasting success. In the late 1800’s coffee became the new gold discovery for El Salvador with its rich volcanic soil and a cheap, suppressed workforce that made the coffee economy boom. Fourteen families became the “movers and shakers” of the Salvadoran economy and government, owning and/or controlling the majority of the arable land (Velasquez Carrillo 2009). Most of those families still hold considerable sway economically or politically in El Salvador today.
The coffee owners basically controlled the economy, and therefore the presidency, until the time of the Great Depression. A military dictatorship headed by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, took control in the early 1930’s and opened the door for subsequent decades of military coups and rule. Martinez also decimated the indigenous population by genocide during a socialist uprising shortly after he took power. Anyone who spoke the language or dressed like an Indian was suspect of being a socialist and was rounded up, killed, and dumped in mass graves. The estimate of deaths ranges from 10,000-50,000 (Chapin 1989).
This socialist revolution was suppressed, but the unrest and discontent with land reform and an economy run by the rich minority would resurface in the form of a civil war from the late 1970s until 1992 when the Peace Accords were signed. Tens of thousands were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and uncounted thousands immigrated, both legally and illegally, to the United States. The younger immigrants, as they struggled to assimilate into the crowded inner city of Los Angeles, California, birthed the two most violent and well-known gangs in the world, the Mara Salvatrucha 18 (MS-18) and the 18th Street Barrio Gang.
History of the Ineffective Salvadoran Church
One might think that a country immersed in deadly violence must be lacking spiritual presence, but that is not the case. El Salvador is a very religious country. Although the Catholic church is the recognized state religion, with about 50% of the population claiming membership, there is liberty of faith, with many Christian educational institutions as well as radio and television stations across the country. The evangelical church today encompasses approximately 37-40% of the total population, with a church for approximately every 1300 Salvadorans.
The evangelical church in El Salvador was established in the late 1800’s through efforts by the Baptists and the American Bible Society (Las Asambleas de Dios 2012). Affected by heavy opposition by the Catholic church, the first years were slow, but they began gaining momentum when missionaries were sent from mission agencies in the United States. In almost every community in El Salvador, local churches conduct services every night of the week. They publicly read the Bible, pray, sing the old hymns of the church, give an invitation to accept Christ, and encourage their members to share the good news with others. However, the theology of pre-millenialism, imported to El Salvador by evangelical missionaries, has created a church that focuses on someday being raptured from the world prior to the arrival of the antichrist. Instead of the good news of the gospel bringing hope for change in society, the desire for societal reform has been exchanged for church preservation awaiting the second coming and rescue from an evil world. The values of the Salvadoran evangelical church can be seen in its stance on personal holiness which shows a hyper sensitivity to anything that might be associated with the world and possibly “stain” the believer. Even accepting certain sinners (such as a gang member) into the church can be seen as a sin.
Avoidance of gang members is the norm for evangelicals. Leaders within the author’s evangelical denomination agree the church in El Salvador has a responsibility to love and win the gang members, yet when they were asked if the gangs and the church should exist in the same community, the response was divided almost 50/50 (Executive Committee 2018). As most evangelical churches have services nearly every night, it is common to see church members, who are noticeable by their distinctive dress, walking to church and passing by gang members congregated on the corner smoking marijuana. Very seldom will they make eye contact with the gang members, let alone give any greeting or acknowledgement. There seems to be an attitude on the part of the church members that “if we ignore them, maybe they will go away.”
Pervasive Gang Influence
But the gangs have not gone away. The difficulty facing the Salvadoran church in their responsibility to be shalom for their communities and nation is this very attitude of avoidance. Rather than being an instrument of God’s peace, the church has yielded its influence, power, and status in the community to the gangs in El Salvador, allowing the country to become one of the most violent in the world. In spite of being a very religious country with churches in almost every community, gangs have infiltrated almost every aspect of society. Gang members commit violent acts with little fear of being apprehended. They control many communities, dictating who can come in and out. They charge rent to people to live without interference in their own homes. They live side-by-side with the church in the community. Gangs recruit children as young as 4-5 years old, having them take extortion messages to families and businesses. Other youth are used to watch for police or an outsider coming into the community and are supplied with a cell phone to notify the gang members.
A Way Out of the Gang Lifestyle?
Although the gangs have not gone away, and in fact are increasing in number, a recent survey done among gang members in El Salvador revealed that 68.6% would like to leave the gang lifestyle (Cruz et al. 2017, 54). The average gang member is in a death spiral. The jails are full, more violence is called for by gang leaders (most of whom are imprisoned), and there seems to be no way out. This pressure, uncertainty, and even terror cause these youth to consider one of the few ways out of the gang lifestyle. To leave the gang generally evokes the “morgue rule” or certain death. Brenneman says in his studies he has found an “evangelical exemption.” The gangs tend to respect the strict lifestyle of the pentecostal/evangelical churches, but the gang members who choose this path, have to live the life 100 per cent, as they are being watched closely (Brenneman 2014, 115-16).
Although the church may be an immediate way out of the gang, the future is very uncertain for the former gang member who is without a job, job training, or education. Will the church accept and forgive? Will the gang member be able to forgive himself and forget his past and crimes? Will society accept him and allow him to turn over a new leaf? Will he ever be free from his past as rival gang members will never see him as anything other than their enemy who deserves death? Brenneman calls these issues, “Wrestling the Devil” (Brenneman, 118).
El Salvador is obviously a country overrun with violence. The national government and international governments and agencies are at a loss to bring peace to the country. And yet nearly 70 per cent of gang members say they would like to change and the large majority of those see the church as an answer, not a rival force. Unfortunately, many Salvadoran Christians and pastors are terrified by the gangs and the evil they represent and have been corralled into remaining in their churches and not confronting the power of Satan directly.
How Can the Church Take the Shalom Initiative?
Evangelicals in El Salvador face the stark reality that “The thief [or evil one] comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). They are faced daily with those whose mission is to steal, kill, and destroy them, their children, and community. When facing such evils, how can the church and the individual Christian be an effective instrument of shalom and transformation, taking back both physically and spiritually what Satan has taken?
The first step is to recognize and accept God’s role for the church believers to be peacemakers, “bringing order out of chaos and defeating evil” (Snodderly 2014, 35). The church cannot remain in denial or détente towards the waves of evil that encompass them. The church is called to be an aggressive instrument of spiritual warfare in order to bring shalom, but with the realization that the power source is always God and his authority. The power source is the Kingdom of God and God’s promise that Satan is ultimately defeated. In any country or community where evil dominates and manifests, God searches for that person or group through whom he can declare war on the enemy (Matthews 1978, 62). The earth was given to man and his descendants to occupy, inhabit through multiplication, and rule over every creature. All of man’s surroundings were to be a blessing and help to him and he was made in the image of God in order to reflect God’s character of shalom in all that he did. Although the earth remains Satan’s territory for now, the Christian’s mission is to suffocate the rebellion of Satan and through righteous living, attitudes, actions, and prayers which reflect God’s will (Mattera 2014, 3).
Paul Pierson once said, “God wants human life [to include] grace, health, education, safety, and well-being for all people” (Snodderly 2009, 161-62). This should be the starting point for the Salvadoran church, great prayers of faith taking authority over evil while at the same time being a catalyst for these five goals of the Kingdom of God.
The Salvadoran Evangelical church as a whole, has an incredible opportunity to make an impact on the society by being a leader in shalom for the Salvadoran community. Confronting evil is the mission of the church. Prayer is the instrument which the church uses to dominate evil. By incorporating specific, targeted, and united prayer, the church can take back each family, school, community, city, department, and the nation by praying and binding the spirts. Although Daniel 10:12-14 reveals that prayers can be resisted or delayed by Satan, ultimately he has no power over them, as it is a direct conversation with God. The Apostle Paul talks about the vast variety of the church in giftings and responsibilities, but the means of accomplishing everything the church is to do, begins with prayer as the point of action. “The prayer of a righteous man is [must be, should be] effective and powerful” (James 5:36).
How can health and healing come to Salvadoran society? “God’s love is made evident through works that meet human needs” (Snodderly 2014). The needs assessment begins with prayer.
Christian “Presence” in the Community
The church must invade Satan’s territory using deliberate, focused love. Philosopher Jacques Ellul emphasized: “One way to bring God’s presence into a society [or community] is by welcoming, rather than rejecting the stranger.” He calls this an authentic Christian “presence” (Fasching 2014). El Salvador is a country that still allows the church and biblical values to be present in the public education system. Every pastor and church member should be trained to utilize programs like “Sowing Values,” which is a Ministry of Education approved Bible-based values course for use in the local public school. The prison system of El Salvador is overrun with tens of thousands of men and women and the doors are open to churches to be involved in building relationships with prisoners, many of whom are gang members.
But how can one be an authentic Christian “presence” to a gang member when they have caused harm to one’s family and friends? When some gang members were brutally attacked by a rival gang and hospitalized, local church members were asked to pray for them. One of the church members responded to the author, “I find it very hard to pray for these two young men because they killed my grandfather last year.”
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
So the next step is to lay aside any prejudices, fears, and religious legalism that would keep the church from reaching out or the gang members from reaching in. In order to bring health and healing to the Salvadoran society, there must be reconciliation. Without forgiveness, there is no forgetting the past, and without forgetting the past, there is no clear future. Ken Sande suggests six peacemaking steps which are very applicable to the Salvadoran church and the gang crisis:
1. Overlook an offense. “A prudent man overlooks an insult” (Prov. 12:16). The church must overlook the outside appearances (tattoos) and language, as well as past offenses.
2. Reconciliation. “First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:24). Biblically the church must take the first step.
3. Negotiation. “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). The church should be a voice of justice for the gangs as well as those affected by them. There can be no prejudice.
4. Mediation. “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16). The nation needs a neutral source such as the Evangelical church to be involved in mediation because of their esteem in the eyes of the gangs.
5. Arbitration. “Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church” (1 Cor. 6:4). The church must be willing to offer themselves, their programs, and their time to help solve this situation.
6. Accountability. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:16). The church, even though apolitical, must hold their leaders and government accountable to the current law, to make just laws, and to enforce the law fairly (Sande 2004, 22-27).
The needs of El Salvador may seem overwhelming. The current Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, Reverend José Luis Escobar Alas, has been quoted as saying that El Salvador is close to being a failed state. Throughout the Bible, however, we see that God never gives up on a country or person. Dr. DeLonn Rance, Chair of the Global Missions Department at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and former missionary to El Salvador, said in a personal e-mail to the author, “Certainly it is God’s desire that every gang member come to repentance and new life in Christ. Who and how that gospel should be communicated, and the role of local churches are complex—it requires discernment. God calls and directs people to specifically engage, like David Wilkerson, but requires that all God’s people love gang members and intercede for them and witness to them.” The evangelical church is key to the victory of shalom in El Salvador and the restoration of its society. The only answer for the gang-related issues crippling El Salvador is that the evangelical church would awaken and adequately respond to the opportunity that is available to them to pray and take loving action.
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