Where is the School of the Americas and what is its purpose, and why talk about it from this pulpit? Let me answer the last question first: why talk about a military training camp from a pulpit? Isn’t this about politics, and shouldn’t we keep politics and religion or ‘spirituality’ separate? I’ve taken this question very seriously. By and large, however, I’ve been persuaded over the 29 years of my ministry that there are times when a responsible clergy person must speak out and speak up. Strangely, however, as the years go by, I feel a greater reluctance to bring politics into the pulpit. I did so with little hesitation in the early years. I was told I was ‘over-doing’ it.
Lately I’ve been accused of failing to speak out. One of those accusations has come from the man I see in the mirror every morning! I look back over my 28 years in the pulpitI remember issues with which I struggled, and brought into the pulpit: The war in Vietnam — it required a response – it sent me into the streets in Washington and Boston to demonstrate opposition; The nuclear disarmament effort which sent me to the same streets, and to five cities in the Soviet Union to join in round table peace talks.
Central America – our government’s military involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatamala, and our military training bases in Hondurasand I came to believe we were on the wrong sides for the wrong reasonsand there have been other issues closer to home where I came to realize that a religious response to political situations was in order — a woman’s right to choose, and have access to safe, clinical abortion
Indeed, after I arrived here in 1984 this congregation voted to become a ‘sanctuary’ church, helping to protect El Salvadoran and Guatamalan refugees from being sent back to an almost certain death in the countries they fled. And we voted for a woman’s right to choose, with only a single vote against by a person who said he believed in a woman’s right to choose, but he did not agree that we should take a stand as a congregationa position which I respected, but with which I disagreedwith some discomfort!
All this is to say, and to reaffirm that there are times when politics and religion come together; moral issuesand a clergy person’s hesitation to speak up and to speak out is a moral failure I spoke last Sunday about the work Albert Schweitzer and Thomas Jefferson did on Jesus – the man, the myth and the masteror moral leader/teacher. Jefferson affirmed Jesus as providing moral guidance in our day to day lives. Schweitzer summarized his religious views in a phrase he made famous: Reverence for Life. Jesus, the man, the myth and the master, sets a standard for ethics, combining one’s religious and political life.
Now to the School of the Americas. You should know some things about this school, which you support with $20 million a year, though that number is in dispute. The point is, American taxpayers support it. The school was established in Panama in 1946-about the time this congregation was being ‘formed.’ Since 1984 it has been based in Fort Benning, Georgia.
The school’s purpose is to show soldiers from Central America, and South America, how to counter Communist insurgency in their own countries. Over the past 50 years about 60,000 men from 23 countries in Central and South America and from Mexico have ‘graduated’ from training provided by our government. During the cold war, the training was used by increasingly repressive governments to stifle the legitimate desires of the indigenous and disenfranchised peoples of their own countriesthe soldiers have been trained to violently suppress voices for changevoices for progress in Latin American.
Well-known graduates of the School of the Americas include the infamous General Manuel Noriega, who is serving 40 years in prison for drug trafficking. He was trained and taught at Fort Benning, Georgia! Former Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galteiri, who headed Argentina’s military junta during a period in which thirty thousand people were killed or disappeared is a graduatemagna cum laude; Hatian coup leader Roaul Cedra graduated; perhaps the most notorious of all was Salvadoran death-squad organizer the late Roberto D’ Aubuisson.
In 1989, career military personnel who have taught at the school began speaking out against what happens there. Army Major Retired Joseph Blair, who taught at the school from 1986 to 1989, said that he personally witnessed education in torture at the now infamous schoolor should we say ‘miseducation!’ Our CIA insists the school teaches the so-called ‘students’ about democracy and human rights, which Major Blair says is a joke; and a bad joke, at that. He describes the teaching of torturehow to inflict physical pain to the point of death, without causing deathwhich would defeat the purpose, which is to get namesand information. and how to inflict psychological torture to take the victim to the point of no return
There’s a long list of graduates who have been identified by the United Nations truth commission as having direct involvement in the worst atrocities, including the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the rape, murder and mutilation of three religious sisters and a laywoman; the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America. Ten of the twelve officers responsible for the massacre of nine hundred civilians at El Mozote, which was perhaps the most horrific event of the bloody civil war in El Salvador, were graduates
The training these people received at the School of the Americas was equivalent, in the military world, to a Harvard MBA, and they went back to their countries the way an MBA goes to the Fortune 500 companiesto make their fortunes. I don’t mean to compare Harvard MBA’s to graduates of the School of the Americas, except to suggest the kind of influence these graduates have in their countries
The problem, of course, is that the graduates of the School of the Americas make their fortunes as killersmurderersplundering and pillaging as they go. And make no mistake about it, their motivation has to do with fortunewith money and power. Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, has been the most active advocate for the school’s closing. He has been arrested several times and has served years in United States prisons for his anti-assassin-training activities. He refers to the school as ‘the school of the assassins.’ It’s interesting to note that Father Roy was a career military officer who fought in Vietnam. He came back from Vietnam a changed man, left the military and went to seminarya very interesting man.
He traced graduates of the school of the assassins to the death squads in El Salvador, the Contras in Nicaragua, the murderers of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murder of four American church women, one of whom was from Westport, CT. and to atrocities in Peru, Argentina, Columbia and so forth. It was the 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests that prompted the expose of the school, and since then opponents of the school have gathered at Fort Benning’s main gate each November to demonstrate, doing things like throwing blood or red paint on the sign in front of the building.
There is growing opposition to the school of the assassins in Congress. Joseph Kennedy introduced a bill to cut the funding of the schoolwhich you and I pay for $3,000,000 a year. Kennedy said, “The Pentagon revealed what activists opposed to the School have been alleging for years-that foreign military officers were taught to torture and murder.” While many of the graduates have achieved important political as well as military status in their countries, not one has been elected democratically.
We have been training assassins to take power and control through murder, torture, repression During the cold war we justified this work by saying that the communists would take over these vulnerable countriesand we wanted people there who were on ‘our side,’ so to speak. The cold war is over. But the school of the assassins continues to do its terrible work.
I did a little digging into the word assassin Do you have any idea of the origin of the word in our language? Here’s an interesting paragraph on the etymology of the word assassin, which fits the School of the Americas:
At first glance, one would be hard-pressed to find a link between pleasure and the acts of assassins. Such was not the case, however, with those who gave us the word assassin. They were members of a secret Islamic order originating in the 11th century who believed it was a religious duty to harass and murder their enemies. The most important members of the order were those who actually did the killing. Having been promised paradise in return for dying in action, the killers, it is said, were made to yearn for paradise by being given a life of pleasure that included the use of hashish. Hence, the name for the secret order as a whole, hasssn, “hashish users.”
After passing through French or Italian, the word came into English and is recorded in 1603 with reference to the Muslim assassins. Well-intentioned as it may have seemed to our military and political leaders, the School of the Americas has been a disaster-at least from a human rights point of view. The list of murders, rapes, tortures and other human rights violations goes on and on. Human rights groups have been doing the investigating and the accounting. Amnesty International has been actively involved for years and helped to provide the informationpage after page of horror stories of assassinations
The Presbyterian church was the first to pass a resolution at their general assembly in 1994 calling for the school’s closure. Last year Martin Sheen, who spoke at the rally there, led more than 2,000 protestors in a march into Fort Benning to protest the school. Last summer our General Assembly in Rochester passed a resolution calling for the School of the America’s to be closed. Unitarian minister Nick Cardell, who served our ministry for over forty years, has also served time in jail for his part in demonstrations to close the School of the Americas. He was recently released, and continues to speak out against the school of the assassins.
What shall we do, as a congregationas individuals? Now you know about the School of the Americas, or you know enough to find out more. Don’t take it from me. I urge you to take steps. Poets help put things in perspective. E. E. Cummings has written a few:
When God decided to invent Everything he took one Breath bigger than a circustent And everything began. When man determined to destroy Himself he picked the was Of shall and finding only why Smashed it into because. ——————————— Why must itself up every of a park Anus stick some quote statue unquote to prove that a hero equals any jerk who was afraid to dare to answer ‘no?’ quote citizens unquote might otherwise forget (to err is human; to forgive divine) that if the quote state unquote says ‘kill’ killing is an act of Christian love. ‘nothing’ in 1944 A D ‘can stand against the argument of military necessity’ (generalissimo e) and echo answers ‘there is not appeal from reason’ (freud)-you pays your money and you doesn’t take your choice. Ain’t freedom grand. ——————————————— Hello is what a mirror says It is a maid who says Who And (hearing not a which) replies In haste I must be you. Bang is the meaning of a gun It is a man means No And (seeing something yes) will grin With pain You so&so True wars are never won.
A documentary film: “The School of Assassins,” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1997. Martin Luther King, Jr, in whose honor and memory I dedicate this sermon, put it this way: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjustedMore than ever before we are challenged by the words of yesterday. “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”