Indigenous Peoples Living Jubilee Opened My Eyes
by Lee Van Ham
The first time I went to the Highlands of Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, was Holy Week, 2000. Some of us visited Tzajalchen, a remote mountain community of a few hundred Indigenous people (Mayans) who had lost family and friends in a Dec. 23, 1997, massacre of 45 women, children, and men in the nearby community of Acteal. On that day they had heard the gunfire of paramilitaries on mountainsides across the valley. Hours later their worst fears were confirmed. Even so, they were resolutely committed to nonviolence. Though agreeing with the Zapatista objectives, they shunned weapons. They called themselves the civil society of Las Abejas (The Bees). Like bees in a highly functioning community around their queen, so, they reasoned, were they around their Divine Queen.
We gathered in their chapel on Holy Thursday and talked with their elders. They told us why NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) was yet another way that the Dominant System was removing them from their ancestral land and its wealth of timber, oil, and uranium. They wanted us to hear how global corporations, with the full complicity of the Mexican and U.S. governments, treated them as “backward” and as an obstacle to “modernization.” They explained, however, that modernity was destroying the eco-system, something they were obliged to protect by Divine commission. This message of the elders was formalized later in a Holy Thursday service of worship when one of the elders read a charge to us, commissioning us to be a voice for them, since, as Indians, they were voiceless in the Dominant Culture, most especially in the North.
By the time we had retraced the roads to the city of San Cristobal, scales were falling from my eyes. I saw that they were living the Jubilee, and had been doing so for centuries—no, millennia. Here we were, part of a delegation sponsored by Jubilee Economics Ministries, committed to living the biblical Jubilee in our time, having our eyes opened to seeing it being practiced in the “traditional ways” of the indigenous. I had not made this connection before I went to Tzajalchen. Furthermore, I saw how the current economic powers worked against it in very one-up ways. I recalled the professors I’d had who said that the biblical Jubilee was mostly a quaint ideal that was too utopian to ever have been truly practiced. I realized that my teachers had been blinded by the Dominant Culture’s economic ways. Indigenous people have been living versions of the Jubilee since the arrival of our homo sapiens ancestors.
An Indigenous Invitation to a New Humanity within Earth Community
My second trip to Chiapas, a month after 9/11 (Sep. 11, 2001), took me to another community of Las Abejas, Nuevo Ybeljoj. This was a community of Mayans who had been displaced by paramilitaries four years ago, and only one year ago had begun to build on this new land acquired with the help of international groups. JEM was among those groups, so we were there to celebrate their one year anniversary. For one week we rose in the morning, already hearing the rhythmic sounds of tortilla-making. We walked among coffee trees laden with ripening beans.
One day we accompanied still other Las Abejas returning to their communities. They too had been displaced by paramilitary threats and violence four years earlier. As we processed, two abreast, along the mountain miles from Acteal to Canolal, we sensed the holiness and the daring of this pilgrimage for them. When the procession arrived, the first act was worship. We joined in a wonderful outdoor service of music, prayer, Mayan culture, and political speeches. One indigenous man described their choice to return: “In the U.S. we hear them say that they will destroy their enemies. But we believe, rather, in dialoguing with our enemies. We know that God is asking us, along with the international groups with whom we are in solidarity, to create a new humanity.” Wow! Those words resonated in my heart and continue to live there. In contrast, two hours later on radio I listened to the president of my own country invoke nationalistic spirit and civil religion to win the new war on terrorism. My heart rebelled.
In an irony that both surprised me and had me laughing at myself, I became aware that not only was I seeing Indigenous people living Jubilee now, they were also inviting us to join them in creating something new—living together a new humanity on our one planet home.
These experiences with the Indians of Chiapas have brought me to confession, repentance, and a new profession of faith. I confess the sin of “social Darwinism,” believing that Indian cultures have been superceded by our superior culture. I see now that such thinking is yet another form of racism, personal and institutional. I repent. And shaking off the call to domination that I hear from my president, I accept the invitation to construct with indigenous sisters and brothers, just as they long for, God’s new humanity of harmony among cultures, races, and with Earth. In this new wholly/holy arrangement, superiority and domination yield to the deeper truth of oneness in the mysterious, sacred web of life.