By Jon Cogburn
One of my fundamental life experiences happened right after high school when, over a few weeks in 1987, I helped to build a small church and medical clinic in the Dominican Republic. We stayed in a little compound and walked through the countryside to the building sites every day. There was running water about half the time and power less than that. When not setting rebar, cementing cinderblocks, or laying roofing I practiced my horrible Spanish with barefoot Dominican kids who wore weird mismatching, dirty and torn hand-me-down Kmart type clothes* and often had running sores on different parts of their bodies, in a few cases a constantly oozing eye. The Dominican kids practiced their English on me, which was much better than my Spanish. The nutrition was bad, so most of the people in the village looked like kids until their late teens and then looked like young adults for a very short period before starting to look old. Two things really stuck out from these conversations: (1) the depth of the racism directed at Haitians, real pride in not being Haitian, and (2) the resentment about the U.S. occupation (1916-1924) and later (1965) invasion of the Dominican Republic. As an American teenager during the Reagan years, of course I'd never heard of these things and would have reflexively thought them good had I heard about them in any other context.
But there was more than just political radicalization. The two missionaries were both also having severe crises of faith. Their work had been funded by American corporations and both of them could no longer separate their attempts to convert people from the companies creating, co-opting, and paying off elites (and their militaries) to destroy the land and steal the natural resources from the people converted. This is a very old story, and I can't help feeling retrospectively like a dope for having had a world view that could be so rocked by getting to know people who barely survived being part of that story.
My faith didn't survive it.** For a couple of decades I avoided churches as much as possible. The simple Marxist view about religion made the most sense of the testimony of the two missionaries and the Dominican kids. But, of course, the simple Marxist view is also a gross oversimplification.
In any case, one of the worst things that Christianity can do is become a tool for the powers and principalities that it is supposed to be opposing. I think a lot of good people get co-opted this way. People who are mouthpieces for Christianity IncorporatedTM pretty reliably end up, like everyone else, saying what those who pay them want them to say. It's a slippery slope, the end of which is either softening up the people for when the guys with guns start the genocide by removal, or making all of the people who benefit from the genocide feel OK with themselves.
Things don't change very much. Just this morning The American Conservative's Philip Giraldi has shared a story (HERE) broken by Mathew Cole of The Intercept about how Christian missionaries were co-opted in the Bush Administration to doing espionage work. What a stupid, terrible idea. Among other things:
Intelligence officers and combat arms soldiers pride themselves on being able to “get the job done” in spite of all obstacles, which often blinds them to the consequences of their actions. Boykin, a product of that tradition—and driven by his own conceit that he needed to do what was necessary to “save” the United States—inevitably failed to recognize that the eventual exposure of the scheme would produce a reaction among foreigners who are already inclined to be suspicious of proselytizing Christians. Now it will be plausibly believed that Christian charities are actually hotbeds of American spies and the likely response will be commensurate with that perception. Using a Christian charity to spy puts at risk all the employees and volunteers linked to that specific organization while helping propagate the myth that any indigenous Christian is a potential traitor.
HISG and its three cover support mechanisms were all disbanded in 2013-14, but not because the Pentagon was concerned about the possible consequences of its actions. It seems that the operation had provided little useful intelligence, not a particularly surprising outcome: Using unwitting and unfocused humanitarian charity volunteers and employees to smuggle in spy gear was a non-starter right from the beginning and should never have been attempted.
I am waiting for a sheepish Pentagon or White House to proclaim that it will never again exploit religiously-affiliated groups as intelligence cover mechanisms. But unfortunately, all I am hearing is silence.
Girabaldi is an ex CIA agent. So he understandably directs his ire at his own side. I wish I knew about the slippery slope that led the evangelical Christians to go along with this. Perhaps it's not too surprising in a country where identifying as Christian makes it much more likely that you will support state sanctioned torture. But a bummer nonetheless.
[*Years later, one of my jobs at Kmart was to periodically tag and box up each item of a huge mound of clothing no longer sellable because of customer depredations. We mailed the boxes to the Philippines, where a company paid us ten cents for each piece. It was really weird, because the clothing was made in China, shipped to Washington DC, destroyed by customers, then shipped back across the world to the Philippines to then be sold to the world's poor.
**Being raised in a church where the priests claimed to have conversations with God and the congregants would "prophecy" in a faux King James God idiolect surely didn't help.]