Charlie Kenney On Guatemala's Poor And The Death Of Stanley Rother

Sep 22, 2017

Born in the small town of Okarche, Oklahoma, Father Stanley Rother was ordained into the Roman Catholic Church in Oklahoma City in 1963. He served as a missionary pastor in Guatemala from 1968 until 1981, when he was murdered.

The Catholic Church will be beatify him on September 23rd, 2017, in Oklahoma City.

Dr. Charles Kenney, a political science professor and expert on Latin American politics at the University of Oklahoma, says the beatification ceremony is a recognition by the church of Rother’s faithfulness.

“It's about a unique human being and the life that he lived,” Kenney told KGOU’s World Views. “It's also, I think, universal in the sense that while Father Stanley Rother was murdered in Guatemala in 1981, he was one of tens of thousands who were so murdered and in some way he also calls to mind the others.”

Father Rother believed specifically in dignifying, recognizing and loving the marginalized and ignored. He believed in this and followed it, regardless of the dangers.

Father Rother gave both practically and spiritually to the Guatemalans with whom he lived. He learned both Spanish and the Mayan indigenous language Tz’utujil. He opened a hospital, launched a radio literacy campaign, and imparted knowledge of improved agricultural techniques to his community.

“It is the most unequal region of the world”  Dr. Kenney said of Latin America, explaining the changing nature of the socio-political landscape in Guatemala during that time.

In Guatemala, with a massive population of poor people, the modernizing impact of the 20th century incited a shift in the proportion of power that belonged to the elite. Guatemala’s marginalized communities were finally learning how to make their voices heard, and seeking their own dignity.

Rother lived in the community of Santiago Atitlan during the violent Guatemalan Civil War. Left-wing guerrillas hid in the mountains around the community, while right-wing government soldiers occupied the town. Anybody suspected of supporting the rebels could be kidnapped or murdered.

The Guatemalan government saw anybody who was helping the poor, such as Father Rother, as a threat. He sought to help his community in a peaceful manner, but nonetheless would not back down when confronted.

“If you came along and said that things should be different and people should be treated equally, that caused huge conflict,” Kenney said. “He was, if you will, casting his lot with the downtrodden and that immediately produced tensions.”

Father Stanley Rother sought to show his people that they could pursue more dignified lives. He knew this would come at the expense of those at the top, who would be willing to do anything to preserve their positions of power. He understood the risks he was taking.

I think that the measure of what he was doing is not so much in Guatemala we see today, but in the witness that he left us with. Of someone who stood with his people at a time when it became very difficult to stand with his people, when it became very dangerous,” Kenney said.

“He was fully aware of the risks that he was incurring. He sought not to incur more risk than necessary, but what he felt at the end was that he had to be faithful to his people and stay with his people that he could not simply flee” Kenney said.

On July 28th, 1981, a group of armed assailants broke into the rectory of Father Stanley Rother’s church, and shot him in the head twice.

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Suzette Grillot: Charlie Kenney welcome to World Views.

Charlie Kenney: It's nice to be here.

Grillot: Welcome back to World Views you're a great guest. We love having you here. And we have something kind of special and interesting coming up very soon, that you know a little bit about, and you’re giving some talks about. And so I want to talk to you about Father Rother, a and a native to Okarche, Oklahoma, priest from Okarche that is being beatified on September 23rd by the Catholic Church. He's being beatified as him as a martyr. He's the only will be the only U.S. priest United States priest to have been beatified as a martyr. This is a pretty big deal. And we're going to get into why he's being beatified because of his murder in Guatemala in 1981. And so we're going to talk about Guatemalan politics and some of the history and its intersection with religion. But can you first just remind us all what it means to be beatified?

Kenney: The beatification is a recognition by the Church of the faithfulness of someone in their life, and in the case of father Stanley Rother, in their death, in giving witness to God. And, it is both something that's very specific, it's about a unique human being and the life that he lived. It's also I think universal, in the sense that while Father Stanley Rother was murdered in Guatemala in 1981, he was one of tens of thousands who were so murdered, and in some way he also calls to mind the others.

Grillot: So let's talk about what happened then in 1981 when he was murdered and how that happened because as you mentioned there were tens of thousands of others and there were a number of religious people other priests and nuns that were also murdered during this time. What was it that was going on in Central America and in particular in Guatemala at that time, that led to his murder? And I might just mention, knowing a little bit about father Rother from Okarche, and knowing some of his family members, he was warned, he actually knew that he was targeted. He knew these things were happening, and yet he put himself back in that position for a reason because of the things that he was working on. So give us a little bit of history here in terms of what was going on in Guatemala.

Kenney: There's a couple of threads to this history. The first we might talk about just in terms of what was going on in Latin America in general, and in Latin America we have a very large mass of very poor people, who have largely been excluded from the public arena, who have largely not participated in politics. Many don't speak Spanish. Many are rural people, many are indigenous people. And as the region undergoes economic development in the 20th century, many of these people begin moving to the cities, and in the countryside itself they begin organizing, and they begin to make themselves present in a way that they had never been present before. And so there is something that some people referred to is the eruption of the poor. It is the making president of a mass of people who've always been there, but who were not in the public light, and who were not making very effective demands on the public sphere, but are now beginning to do so. So this is happening in many places. So that's one thread of this history, and this was alluded to in the in 1963 when Oklahoma sent its missionaries off. This is before father Rother was involved directly it was the year of his ordination. The bishop commissioned them and in doing so he talked about this mission as being one of both giving and listening, talked about the importance of the church listening to the people.

Kenney: And he also said, that the what he called the have-nots, the poor in history, have, I'm quoting, “have aspirations put there by God and strengthened by a better human knowledge of the world which inspire them to want to move to a level in life more in keeping with their dignity as persons.” And then he said something quite prophetic. He said these aspirations are dynamite, he understood that when this mass of people began seeking a life more in keeping with human dignity, this was going to cause conflict. The situation, the status quo, the people who were benefiting from the current situation were not necessarily going to give up their privileges so easily. And it was likely to be highly conflictive. And so he was talking about the role of the church in helping to manage this process in as peaceful a fashion as possible. But he understood that underlying this there was this deep conflict.

Grillot: So just to clarify, the people when you say that people who were going to be affected by this movement, the indigenous movement, the people that are marginalized, if you're referring to them, the people, that are going to respond to that. Can you tell us a little bit about that regime, or what it was about that movement that was so threatening to them?

Kenney: Well since the times of Spanish rule, Latin America has been the region of the world with greatest inequality, in which the wealth and land are distributed in the most highly unequal fashion, its not the poorest region of the world but it is the most unequal region of the world. And there are people who benefit from that inequality, and those who suffer from it, and those who benefit often don't see with good eyes, the idea of all this changing. It's not that dissimilar than the attitude say in the South during Jim Crow. There was a way things were. It was a way things were supposed to be. And if you came along and said that things should be different, and that people should be treated equally? That caused huge conflict.

Grillot: So this, I mean I think there are so many examples of this. I mean obviously inequality around the world is something we often talk about, and how to address that how to solve inequality, but yet there's this persistent view on the part of those in power. Those, ‘the haves’, I guess, maybe father Rother would have referred to as the haves, as they have to lose something, in order for these marginalized communities to gain. For them to have a voice, for them to have a place in society, for them to be less poor that they're somehow has to be some sort of, you know, something that has to be taken away from those who have power. Is that necessarily the case? Well so in Guatemala that's clearly how they were saying it, whether it's the case or not, I guess as they viewed it as in order for these communities to have a voice and to be you know, less poor. I'm going to have to give up something and I'm not willing to do that.

Kenney: Yeah I think that's a fair, fair summary if you will. The social change doesn't always have to be as highly conflictive, but when things are so skewed, and when the benefits are so tightly distribute to a tiny group, to share those benefits means to give up at least their relative superiority, If not anything actually more than that. Guatemala as a country, was a country that had very little experience with democratic rule, that have been ruled by dictators up until World War II. In World War 2 there is a civilian elected president, and after him there are 10 more presidents until 1986. And of those 10, only one was a civilian elected president. All the others were military officers, and even that one civilian elected president in the mid-1960s, immediately installed a state of siege and proceeded to repress movements of change very drastically.

Grillot: So the Catholic Church obviously being involved in other, I would imagine other religious peoples, and others that were involved in the movement in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America. I mean this really wasn't necessarily about religion, as much as it was human rights that they were they were acting on behalf of these marginalized people, those that were not being well treated, that were being treated unfairly, that didn't have a voice so as they began to organize and as you mentioned, you know Father Rother mentioned that it was going to be dynamite explosive. Was their support was more about supporting human rights, or was there some sort of religious aspect to this?

Kenney: That is one of the most important questions. This is absolutely a religious question. If we think of the heart of the teachings of Jesus Christ, and the Gospel, and the Jewish tradition as well, that the central commandments are to love God and to love ones neighbor. This is all about loving one's neighbor. This is all about recognizing in one's neighbor, the face of God. It's all about the dignity of the others. And we see in in the ministry of Jesus, that he consistently moved to the ones who were not highly considered, to the poor, to the outcast, and brought them in. And so as the members of the church did this in societies of great inequality and injustice, this caused resentment. An example in Father Rother's own experience, where he lived most of the people were to hear indigenous Mayan people who spoke Tzutujil language and some spoke Spanish, Many did not. In that same setting, about 10 percent or so maybe a little bit less of the people who were there, were mixed blood people, who were socially superior to the Tzutujil. And he when he went there, he learned both Spanish and Tzutujil ,but quickly became more comfortable in Tzutujil, and became more comfortable with the Tzutujil people. He was if you will, casting his lot with the downtrodden and that immediately produced tensions with the Ladinos, who didn't see him as being on their side. This was a problem for them and created tensions and jealousies and suspicions about him.

Grillot: Was there some debate among those in the Catholic Church or in his in his church? What was the guidance that he was receiving in terms of the role of the church in Guatemalan politics? Because it sounds to me, like they were definitely you know, father Rother and others were doing these things because of their religious beliefs. Obviously that's their job, and that's what they’re there to do and that's their belief. But was there any concern about where this was going, and was the Catholic Church at all responsive in a way of you know trying to minimize their role there?

Kenney: There was tremendous discussion about the role of the church in society at this time, that had begun years before in the 1950s. It was greatly accelerated by the renewal movement known as the Vatican, the second Vatican Council, which re-examined the role of the church in the world. And that question of the role of the church in the world, was carried to Latin America with great vigor, and produced a great deal of theological reflection, many statements by bishops conferences, many statements by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Guatemala, but also the Latin American Bishops Conference as they tried to wrestle with these issues.

Grillot: So I mean we had to ask maybe can we bring it a little bit further towards today, kind of where we are in Guatemala. I mean we've talked about Guatemala recently on this show regarding some of the corrupt activities that are going, or potentially corrupt at least the corruption investigations that are happening in Guatemala about the president who ran on an anti-corruption platform and is now being investigated for that. You know, I guess one would like to think that the work of a father Stanley Rather and others, that that gave their lives to change things in Guatemala, did it work? Did things change? Have things changed? How do we look back today, and can we say Guatemala is a better place today because of the sacrifice that father Rother and others made?

Kenney: I think I would cast it slightly differently. I think that that Stanley Rother went to Guatemala to share his faith and to improve the lives of the people he lived with, and he made many improvements in people's lives, and the community of people from Oklahoma and other and other places who work there made many improvements. They began a hospital that improved health care. They launched a literacy program, they began a radio program broadcast the local language. They translated Tzutujil, the Bible and other texts into Tzutujil for the first time. And they improved agricultural techniques. He was a farmer, and so he was very keen on improving agriculture. So many things were going along those lines but I think that the measure of what he was doing is not so much in Guatemala we see today, but in the witness that he left us with. Of someone who stood with his people, at a time when it became very difficult to stand with his people, when it became very dangerous, as you say, he was fully aware of the risks that he was incurring. He sought not to incur more risk than necessary, but what he felt at the end was that he had to be faithful to his people and stay with his people that he could not simply flee. That it was the role of a pastor is that you stay with your people in times of danger and that is how he died.

Kenney: Guatemala today, is a country that in many ways, one of the things we talk about a country like Guatemala we talk about his problems and we forget its beauty and its people. I spent a week in Guatemala in April in Santiago Atitlan, where father Stanley Rother served. And I was overwhelmed, by the beauty of the people, the strength of their culture. If you go to santé, what you learn today most people speak Tzutujil. They also speak Spanish, but they speak Tzutujil and their culture is alive. It is healthy, it is growing. And yes they struggle with poverty, and they struggle with crime, and they struggle with corruption as do many Latin American countries, but if you spend any time among those people you get a sense of hope that there is here, something that's worth fighting for, and that they may be able to make some progress.

Grillot: All right. Well Charlie Kenny thank you so much for shedding light on this really interesting story on an Oklahoma native. It's really important. Thank you. Thank you.

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