I looked around at my surroundings in this remote corner of El Salvador and was in pure delight as I saw the Salvadoran mountains with Honduras in the distance.
Faraway volcanoes etched the skyline as a nearby tree made a nice frame for the picture I was trying to take through a barbed-wire fence.
That feeling of joy was in such contrast to the feeling I had felt only an hour before about a mile away as I stood on the foundation of a house in which more than 800 people died for no reason.
I was in El Mozote, the location of the largest massacre during the Salvadoran civil war during the 1980s.
Income disparity had become so bad that those in the rural, poorer parts of the country felt they had no choice but to rebel against a government that continued to take what little they had to give more money to the wealthy.
They created a guerilla military force in the woods complete with weapons, primitive radio technology and a drive for justice and equality.
But as structures in power typically do, the government retaliated by killing innocent people to stop the rebellion.
Teenage girls were raped, children were hung and stabbed, and the town was destroyed in a matter of days.
Only one woman survived. The other 800 ended up buried beneath a foundation like the one I just stood in.
I kept asking myself the reasoning behind such an event. Can humans really be this evil? Is anything worth all those lives that were taken in this very place?
This wasn’t an event from hundreds of years ago, or even 50 years ago. This happened in my lifetime. How was such a beautiful place deleted from the map simply to make a point?
I kept thinking back to the things we had studied about Salvadoran history before departing on our Mission Immersion Experience trip through the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Income inequality increased heavily as the government allowed the wealthier people and companies to take the land of the poorer farmers.
The rich grew increasingly comfortable with the sufferings of those in poverty while they continued to live in extravagance.
Churches continued to prosper as they gave priority and value to people based on their income.
As I continued looking at the history leading up to the war and the massacre, the only reasoning I could come up with for such violence was a love for power.
That comes in lots of ways, whether it is political, financial or physical, but whichever perspective you wish to use, the victims of El Mozote were killed to take power from some and give it to others.
While I do not see as radical of actions in my surroundings today, I still see the trend of taking power away from those who have little.
I see it when we take healthcare away from people who can’t pay for it.
I see it when our city schools are in disrepair because they are surrounded by poorer neighborhoods.
I see it when a Dreamer is deported from the U.S. simply because he or she was born in the wrong place.
How are our churches to fight such a war for power?
Do we fight more for ourselves to make more money, attract more people and have more publicity?
Or do we choose to do the opposite and give some of our power away?
Do we sacrifice some of our wealth to make sure the hungry in our community are fed?
Do we cancel some of our own activities to volunteer our time to tutor students who need extra help?
Do we even shut our doors to combine with another congregation to help save resources, even though we may lose our name and part of our identity?
I don’t know what you may choose to do with the power you have, but I keep looking back to the religious leaders in El Salvador that paved the way for peace during the war for guidance.
Archbishop Oscar Romero gave up his life advocating for peace and justice for the people in poverty in El Salvador.
“Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down,” Romero said.
Christians are called to be upside down; so maybe instead of looking to gain power, the best place to start is by giving it away.
Justin Pierson is a student at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond. He is on staff at Richmond’s First Baptist Church in the ministry of compassion, serving those in the community who are facing crisis. You can follow him on Twitter @justinpierson92.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the BTSR Mission Immersion Experience to El Salvador in January 2018. Previous articles in the series are:
Harsh U.S. Laws Put Many Immigrants in Harm’s Way by Joseph Furio
Salvadoran Families Pay Price When Loved Ones Emigrate by Greg Smith
How the Pupusa Church Serves Town in El Salvador by Nathanael Blessington Thadikonda
A Horrific Slaughter That Must Never Be Forgotten by Cadance Tyler
How U.S. Exports Violence into Heart of El Salvador by Joseph Furio