A letter from Jed Koball in Peru
“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” Isaiah 65:24.
“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” Romans 12:18.
As it has been told to me on several occasions, the story goes something like this: When Francisco Pizzaro, the Spanish conquistador, arrived at the Incan city of Cajamarca in 1532, he asked to meet with Inca Atahualpa—that is, the emperor of the great Incan Empire. Standing with Pizzaro was a priest; after all, the Spanish Conquest was supposedly a “Godly mission.” Upon greeting one another in the central plaza, the priest presented a Bible to Inca Atahualpa. Having never seen a book before in his life, the Inca looked curiously at the Bible. He felt it. He smelled it. And then he took a bite out of it, and he quickly spit it out on the ground.
Suffice it to say, any pleasantries between the Spanish and the Incas quickly terminated as the Inca was then captured and held hostage by the Spanish.
As you might well know, this story does not have a happy ending. The Incans called for the release of their emperor, offering as ransom a room full of gold. The Spanish took the gold but had no intentions of releasing the emperor and eventually executed him. Thus commenced hundreds of years of Spanish occupation of what is today Peru.
Recently I returned to the U.S. for several months of mission interpretation work following my first three-year term in Peru. I’ve often asked myself over these first three years, “What has changed since I arrived in Peru?” A dear friend of mine in Peru suggested that before trying to answer what has changed since I first arrived, perhaps I should first consider what has changed since the Spanish first arrived nearly 500 years ago.
Sadly, many Peruvians will say that very little has changed over the past 500 years except the people involved.
Today, in the very same city of Cajamarca, there is a conflict between the people who live there and a U.S.–based mining company that wants to operate there. The people want to defend their universal right to water, which is threatened by the mining activity. The mining company wants to defend its state-granted right to extract gold.
This is not a conflict isolated to just one corner of Peru. This is the context of Peru today. The Peruvian Andes mountains are home to one of the richest reserves of metals and minerals in the world: gold, silver, copper and more...generating billions of dollars and the hope that such wealth will trickle down to the people below.
The Peruvian Andes mountains are also home to 12,000 mountain top lagoons....generating life and livelihoods for millions of people and the hope that such water will trickle down cleanly to the valleys below.
It is precisely beneath these lagoons where the gold and silver can be found. And so, as of July of this year, 243 social conflicts have been registered in Peru over the past year and 17 people have been killed by guns of the State trying to defend their waters. We live in a world of discord. Indeed, some things never seem to change.
Nonetheless, the question before us is: How will we respond? As our God who “so loved the world” calls on us, how will we respond to a world that never seems to change?
During these days of heightened conflict in Cajamarca, the government has declared a State of Emergency. In response, the National Council of Peruvian Evangelicals (CONEP) has issued a call for dialogue, while condemning the violent actions of the State, and it continues to assert itself so that it might help facilitate conversation.
Conrado Olivera, executive director of the Joining Hands network in Peru, indicates that the root of this conflict and so many other conflicts like this throughout Peru is a fundamental difference in belief of what constitutes “development.” As Conrado argues, the predominant model of “development” that shapes the world today is one in which humanity exploits the gifts of God’s Creation to build a bigger, better and more technologically advanced society. But, as Conrado notes, this model is not sustainable. Ultimately there is a finite number of resources in the world, and the race to exploit them leaves the most vulnerable left behind in a wake of waste. What we need is a new vision of “development,” says Conrado—a vision defined less by progress and advancement and defined more simply by harmony. Indeed, our mission should be that: a mission of harmony—not only with one another, but harmony with all of God’s Creation.
In the town of La Oroya, Peru, where another conflict rooted in contamination by the mining industry continues to consume the people, there is a group of youth who have a vision of such harmony. They imagine a world where responsible industry exists in more limited ways alongside the people. They imagine a world with alternative industries, if not a return to older industries—farming, fishing and other activities that sustained the people for millennia. They imagine a world where everyone does their part to care for God’s Creation. They imagine a world where clean water trickles down to the valleys below.
Before returning to the U.S. for these last few months of the year, I visited the youth in La Oroya one more time. They sang a familiar tune in Spanish, which made me recall the English version of my childhood:
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.
As I looked at the very youth standing before me, singing out every lyric loud and strong, I thought to myself, “There is nothing weak about these youth.” These youth have power. They have power in their words and power in their voice. They have power in their Isaiah-like prophetic vision, and they have power in the Paul-like zeal to live peaceably with one another. These youth have power. They are empowered by the love of Jesus Christ.
I pray that we, too, may be so empowered. I pray that we too, may find our voice, our vision, our mission. Perhaps the key to such empowerment is by not looking at the last three years or even the last 500 years and considering what has changed; rather, perhaps the key is to consider what has NOT changed.
The Good News of Jesus Christ has not changed: the good news that the world does not have to live in discord; the good news that we are free and empowered to do something about it; the good news that God has called us to live in harmony with one another; the good news that such hope, such faith, such love has not died but continues to live and grow today.
Indeed, some things never change.
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 23