Weekly Edgework #79 - January 3, 2006

Bolivia, Bethlehem and the Babe

I have often been unable to be attend a certain function because it conflicted with another commitment on my calendar. With a justifiable certitude, I suppose, I simply stated that I could not be at more than one place at a time. In most cases people have accepted this logic as an appropriate excuse for failing to show up. However on Sunday, December 18th I actually was present at three places at the same time. Let me explain.

December 18th was the day Bolivians voted in a presidential election of monumental consequence. It was also the day I played the role of Joseph in the Christmas pageant in our local congregation. Although the 190 pounds that make up my physical anatomy remained in Steinbach, my heart and mind spent considerable time both in Bolivia and Bethlehem. At some points during the day my sense of “being there” was so acute as to make the absence of my body quite irrelevant.

I have actually lived in Bolivia for about four years. When my family and I first arrived there in 1975 I was quite ignorant with regards to Bolivian economic and political realities. I knew that although it had large oil and gas reserves it was the poorest country on the continent. That didn’t make sense to me. Something, I thought, must have gone wrong somewhere. After thirty years of study and reflection I now know that my hunch was correct. Beginning with the Spanish conquest of the region in the 16th century until today Bolivia has endured an almost continual exploitation of its people and resources by outside forces in cahoots with a few wealthy countrymen of its own.

In the early days, Spanish conquerors stripped Bolivia of all its gold and silver, making virtual slaves of its inhabitants in the process. Three hundred years of subjugation by Spain and the Catholic Church created a culture in which bribery and corruption was the common currency of survival. So it is no surprise that although Bolivia gained independence in 1825 it suffered years of instability at the hands of military dictators who enriched themselves while further impoverishing their own country.

When tin was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, three large mining companies added their weight to the oppression of the people. A half-century later, in the wake of the revolution of 1952, some measures were taken to better the life of the masses. But a 1964 coup returned an oppressive, elitist regime to power. And since the discovery of massive oil and gas reserves in the latter half of the 20th century, internal dictators, foreign oil companies and the US government have regularly conspired to maximize their profits while keeping the masses in perpetual, abject poverty. December 18th raised at least the possibility of electing an indigenous president who promised to reverse this cycle of oppression if elected. Aware of how much the poor suffer in Bolivia, I waited all day with baited breath.

My waiting turned to agitation when prayer was requested in church that morning to help keep the “communists” at bay in Bolivia. Why is it always necessary to label as communist those who side with the poor? (I was labeled a communist myself in Bolivia in the 1970s by fellow missionaries when they discovered that I supported the cooperative movement organized by Mennonite Central Committee for the benefit of poor farmers.) In my own subversive way I prayed that morning instead that this election could spell the “beginning of the end” of foreign exploitation of one of the poorest countries on earth.

Meanwhile, I dressed up in the outlandish garments of Christmas pageantry and proceeded down the isle on cue with my pregnant wife, Mary, on my arm. We reached the stage right on time and I pressed the innkeeper for a room, only to be shown to the stable. Later we returned to center stage where Mary kneeled before the manger and I hovered over her, paying close attention to the baby lying in the hay. I must say the genetic codes for baby dolls have improved significantly since I was a child. Baby Jesus looked up at me with bright blue eyes and a slight smile. If I had taken off my glasses, as someone suggested I should have done to appear more authentic, I would have sworn the doll was a real baby!

A choir, or was it the congregation, was singing a familiar carol as I fixed my gaze on the new-born Christ. I thought of hungry and homeless Bolivians and wondered whether Jesus would be born in a poor barrio of Santa Cruz if he were born again today. I thought of the Song of Mary in which she declared that this babe has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. Hope runs high when Christ appears on any scene. And I knew that hope was running high in the hearts of most Bolivians that very moment as well.

For a moment I was gone from the church. Gone from the carefully crafted pageant. Yes, my body stayed put, but no one noticed the flight that took my heart to Bethlehem and Bolivia at the same time. No one saw the fusion of these two places like I did that instant, I’m sure. I saw angels hovering over a Bolivian countryside singing about peace on earth and good will toward all. I don’t think the audience saw the tear that rolled down my cheek and landed in the hay – a tear that bore my hope that the reality of Mary’s song about Christ’s mission would find root on Bolivian soil.

I will leave it up to you to figure out the theological implications of my experience of being in three places at the same time. But please don’t tell me that my vision was simply naďve fantasy.