Bombs and balm

Remembering Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffit

by Ken Sehested

        Recently declassified documents confirmed what many had long suspected, that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet ordered the 1976 assassination of former diplomat Orlando Letelier, along with his colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffit, in Washington, DC. This news is of especially personal significance.

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       Surely I was not the only church-going, hymn-singing preschooler who wondered why a “bomb in Gilead” was worthy congregational music. Mine was a faith tradition which mostly kept the news of “the world” at bay, except of course when liquor by the drink was on the electoral ballot. It would take a while to dislodge those habits of piety.

        Within two decades, by the mid-‘70s, the last remaining shingles of my sheltered upbringing were being ripped away by the gales of history and my own intellectual ferment. Among the first significant foreign policy intrigues elbowing its way into my awareness was Letelier’s and Moffit’s deaths, victims of a car-bombing.

        In 1973 the US Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a military coup d’état toppling the democratically-elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende, installing the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. After the coup, Letelier, formerly an ambassador for the Allende government, was imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet regime. He was not alone: Some 3,000 people were “disappeared,” and upwards of 40,000 were arbitrarily imprisoned, many enduring torture. Letelier eventually made his way to the US and become an outspoken critic of Pinochet’s barbarous rule.

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        When Chileans hear “9/11,” their memories turn not to New York City but to Santiago, to 11 September 1973, a day that not only shook their country but also sent their nation into a 17-year reign of political repression. Allende’s election, then displacement, was entangled with US “vital national interests.” In October 1970 US President Richard Nixon said, “if we let the potential leaders in South America think they can move like Chile [speaking of Allende’s election] . . .  we will be in trouble.”

        There’s a long history behind such conclusions. In 1927 State Department Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds, speaking here specifically of turmoil in Nicaragua, wrote, “We do control the destinies of Central America. . . . Until now, Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those we do not recognize and support fail.” (The US dispatched troops to Nicaragua alone eight times since 1894 and funded the 11-year-long “Contra” war through the 1980s, bankrolled by the Reagan Administration’s secret, and illegal, weapons sales to Iran, despite its enemy status.)

        Allende’s offense? His was a socialist government, determined, like Cuba, to escape the “sphere of influence” the US established back in 1823 with US President James Monroe’s “Doctrine,” ostensibly shielding “our” hemisphere from European meddling. I learned in school that this was another example of American protection of freedom. The policy functioned less innocently: The freedom we desired was privileged access to Latin America’s veins. The reality was more like what we in the West used to refer to as the Soviet Union’s “satellite” states in Eastern Europe.

        By the time Pinochet died in 2006, still under house arrest, some 300 criminal charges were pending against him in Chile.

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        Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. And if we are to rightly interpret our condition, we simply must take seriously the whole story.

        Just what—you may ask—does this have to do with a life rooted in God, redeemed in Jesus and quickened by the Holy Spirit?

        The short answer: God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven. Which means we pay attention to “worldly” matters, like regime change in Chile, and like—just recently—when Texas classroom textbooks magically transform the state’s history, referring to its former slaves as “immigrants.”

        The recovery of memory is the prerequisite of truthfulness. And truth is the birthmark of the children of God.

        Submission to such truth-telling comes each time we approach the Lord’s Table, done “in remembrance” of Jesus. Confession is our prologue; pardon, our anointing; the bread and cup disclosing our mandate—not confirmation of a divine bookkeeping transaction but to a mobilization: a Way, a walk, a witness to God’s incarnate reclamation of a bruised and broken world.

        Our calling unfolds beyond campfire songs and tearful sentiment. The Way entails blisters, calluses, maybe broken hearts, occasionally deadly threats. The truth will indeed set us free, but first it’s likely to make us miserable. Chile, and slavery, are but two items on a long list needing a recovery of memory.

        So we return to the Table, over and again, sometimes discouraged, wearing our wounds and tears, heartache and fears—pleading, alongside Jeremiah, for Mercy’s embrace of Gilead. Just when we think our work’s in vain, balm is granted, reviving again.

        For people of the Way, bombs are inevitable; but balm is promised.

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Listen to the Soweto Gospel Choir's rendition of “A Balm in Gilead

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