Friday, January 21, 2022

Juan Gattinoni: Methodism and Democracy

Today's post is written by Rev. Juan Gattanoni, pastor of la Iglesia Evangélica Metodista Argentina (the Evangelical Methodist Church Argentina).

The themes of Methodism and democracy have sailed together in harmony since ancient times. I belong to a family with a long history of Methodism in Argentina. In fact, hymns and the Wesleyan spirit accompanied me from the cradle. For more than 180 years, the Evangelical Methodist Church has been accompanying the history of Argentina with its presence, being one of the first Protestant Churches to develop a missionary task.

My intention is to speak from a testimonial perspective and from the facts that show the commitment of the Methodists in Argentina to democracy.

I would like to make a preliminary distinction. We talk about "politics" and "the political." Politics is the set of activities that people associated with a group (political party) do to accumulate power that allows them to govern, make decisions, and direct the destinies of a society. The political is what "happens in the polis" and therefore is of concern, interest, or need to the people in their daily lives. I understand that the church is not called to govern and get into the tug-of-war of politics. But she is called to get into the political, that is, with what happens to the people.

We speak of democracy when we say that the populace (demos), the people, have participation in the decisions that govern them. Elect and be elected. Delegate authority to exercise on your behalf.

The Iglesia Evangelica Metodista Argentina (Argentine Evangelical Methodist Church) (as well as others in the world) is conceptually democratic and it has been since its inception. We would say that we value democracy as a system of government "in its own flesh."

The Iglesia Evangelica Metodista Argentina (IEMA), already autonomous since 1969, takes for its own government a broadly democratic system, where its representatives (bishops, superintendents, work commissions, etc.) are elected by the representatives of the churches gathered in General Assembly.

Argentina since 1816 (its Independence) has had different governments, some with "a certain level" of democracy (only in 1950 was the female vote and its participation approved), and a large number of coups d'état, softer or harsher dictatorships, but nothing democratic. Probably the most ferocious dictatorship in Argentina was during the years 1976 to 1983, with more than 30,000 people kidnapped and disappeared, and that came to an end involving us in war with Great Britain for the recovery of our Malvinas Islands, which, as was supposed, was lost, leaving a balance of 650 Argentine troops dead.

That said, it is worth affirming that democracy in Argentina really begins in December 1983. And uninterruptedly since that date, not without various crises, we have lived under a democratic government regime for 39 years! This means that democracy as a way of life, for Argentines, is something very desired, valued, and necessary.

I keep a clipping from the conference journal of 1938, where the Methodist Episcopal Church South America Conference, gathered in the 46th annual conference, tells us through its Bishop Juan E. Gattinoni (my grandfather): "The Methodist Church must fight to maintain democracy and therefore will resist dictatorships, as they decapitate the opposition. On the contrary, the former dignifies the latter. Creative minds are destroyed by dictatorships, and the entire nation marches under such regimes to the most absolute mental sterility. On the contrary, in democracy, the creative mind is protected and preserved, because it wants freedom, equality and fraternity to be a fact of life consciously enjoyed by all." ... "We must fight for democracy, so that within this regime of coexistence, men can use their freedom to obtain economic justice for all" ... "The Methodist Episcopal Church does not endorse, sustain, or participate in war. Its components are convinced that good understanding and goodwill can bear better fruit and can save precious lives." It is worth mentioning that this statement of the MEC arose in a context in which, in Europe, Communism and Nazism were firmly and violently questioning democracy as a system of government.

Each Assembly of the IEMA since autonomy has spoken in favor of democracy, the participation of the people, and the inclusion of those most in need in the objectives of government in the country.

But it is not only a question of pronouncing oneself in favor of democracy, but of having an action/mission that has to do with the needs of the people. It is in this sense that the Missionary Strategy outlined and approved in the General Assembly in 1973 by the IEMA pointed out that it is the state that must meet the needs of its people and that the church is called to cover in a supplementary way what the state would not be able to attend to, that is, education, health, social problems, etc.

The coup d'état and dictatorship of March 1976 in Argentina was one of the many that spread throughout Latin America. In Argentina, it was really tragic as we mentioned above. The IEMA not only did not support that dictatorship (it is worth mentioning that other churches did, including the official Roman Catholic Church), but also committed several of its leaders in the struggle for human rights, as a form of struggle for the restitution of the democratic system.

The coup d'état in Chile in September 1973, which ended democratic life, was also bloody and immediately generated thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives. Most found their way out more accessible in Argentina, mainly in Mendoza, but also other cities in Argentina.

The IEMA was inevitably compelled to get involved in the political and risk organizing refugee care committees together with other churches (not many). Bishop Federico J. Pagura (elected in 1977) tells us what that experience was, being a pastor in the city of Mendoza. "In view of the reality of thousands of Chilean refugees who crossed the mountain range claiming refuge in our country, with the risks involved[1] at that time to receive, accompany, and defend them against the dictatorship that was already beginning to show its teeth and claws, I asked my Bishop Carlos Gattinoni (first bishop of the autonomous IM) for an urgent visit to Mendoza, and in a more than secret conversation, I asked him if he and our Methodist Church would be willing to support us and accompany us in this dangerous adventure to which we were challenged. And he answered me, 'Go ahead Frederick, with those who are willing to commit out of love for Christ and the people. We will accompany them to the end, whatever the consequences.'"

The IEMA, with the firm decision of its bishop, not only understood that the cause of human rights and political refuge has to do with the democratic conception of life, but also encouraged the formation of different human rights organizations that played a very important role in politics in our country. The church understood it this way, in her fidelity to the Lord and other Protestant churches accompanied this position as well. Resonating behind this firm decision is that "the world is my parish." This was the way to get involved in "the political." Other evangelical churches did NOT understand it that way and continued to worry about "heavenly things."

One of the things that distinguish Argentina from other countries that went through oppressive dictatorships is that, once democracy returned, the genocide perpetrated by the dictatorship was judged in national courts (76-83). The genocidal dictators were found guilty and convicted under Argentine law. The Methodist Church also has something to do with this process. It happened that, with the advent of the new democratic government, on December 10, 1983, President Alfonsín made an important decision just 5 days after his inauguration (December 15, 1983). By Decree of Necessity and Urgency, he created the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), whose objective was to investigate the issue of disappeared persons and violations of human rights that occurred in the period 1976-1983.

It was composed of a group of 10 people, known for their honesty, among whom were three religious leaders: a rabbi, a Catholic bishop, and Methodist Bishop Carlos Gattinoni. CONADEP was based in Buenos Aires, but several subcommissions were created in different cities of the country, in which there were Methodist pastors serving as well. The importance of CONADEP's investigative work lies in the fact that its report was a fundamental input for the Civil Court that tried the dictators months later.

The concern for the decline of democracy in recent times fundamentally goes through the judicial power.[2] With the advent of the "low fare” widely practiced in judicial venues and the power of media corporations that shamelessly practice "fake news," confusing and manipulating the thinking of the people, the role of the judicial branch (one of the three branches of the democratic system) has effectively taken preeminence over the other two powers. This shakes the democratic system in our country. If justice is not there to protect the right of the weak, it is not justice.

As Psalm 85:10-13 says:

"Mercy and truth meet; justice and peace kiss. Truth will spring from the earth and justice will look out from the heavens. Jehovah will also give good and our land will bear its fruit. Justice will go before him, and his steps will set us on the road."

[1] On September 5, 1975, at 3 am, a bomb was placed in the Methodist Temple of Espejo 423, in the heart of Mendoza, destroying five doors and all the glass in front of the building.

[2] When the military dictatorship was established (1976-83), all the judges were forced to sign fidelity to the "Acts of the National Reorganization Process," led by the military junta, and that was the way they made sure to commit all the abuses they wanted.

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