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In January of 1992 I joined a week-long educational trip to El Salvador. That same month marked the end of a fifteen-year civil war in this Central American country. In fact, our plane landed in San Salvador, the capital, on the same day that peace accords were being signed. We went downtown that night to take in the national celebration.

We knew that being in El Salvador would involve risk. As foreigners, our presence could be viewed with suspicion by those in authority. The civil war may have ended but the social and class conflict had not. We encountered a heavy military presence almost everywhere we went.

So, what kind of skill set does it take to survive in this environment? Here are three of the lessons we learned:

  • Never reveal your connections. Our travel host issued these pre-departure instructions: “Destroy all your briefing notes. Never reveal your sources; you might inadvertently endanger them. You’re a tourist; that’s your cover. Act like a tourist.”
  • Always be on guard. Our host at the guest house in San Salvador called out this situation: “Look out the window. See that man on the corner? He’s assigned to watch us. You’re dangerous. You have ideas. Ideas are dangerous.”
  • You will be challenged. Our travel plans called for an excursion outside the city and into “guerrilla territory.” At the government check point our passports were collected and held for an hour. The following morning the taxi wasn’t allowed back in and we had to walk out. Our host deciphered the incident: “It’s a message. They want you to remember who’s in charge.”

El Salvador got me to thinking about John the Baptist. He wouldn’t have had the luxury of naiveté. Palestine was a militarily occupied country. He knew what that knock on your door in the middle of the night means: You’re going to become one of the “Disappeared.” You’ll be arrested and disappear into the prison system. Nobody will ever see you again.

Under arrest and facing death himself, John has questions—maybe even regrets. Was this whole forerunner thing an illusion? A lifetime of loyalty and now this? Faith hanging by a thread, he sends a message to Jesus: “Are you the one?”

Jesus answers with what reads like coded language:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.

Is the political situation so volatile that even Jesus is using code? How comforting is this supposed to be for a man facing execution—”Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me?”

Really? It’s as if Jesus was chiding John: You’re seeing me do what God has always done. You should know this stuff; it’s all over the scriptures! Just hang in there. Is that Jesus’ message?

Anxiety over pending disaster isn’t a new phenomenon. Perhaps we have to endure bitter realities, but when does it get better? John isn’t going to survive, he knows that. Is there any sense in which this message, for John, is a flicker of light in the darkness?

John’s question lingers in my thoughts. Wouldn’t you like to think that we could have made more progress by now? Shouldn’t the Kingdom of God be more in command than it is? War in Ukraine. Increasing poverty. Threats of nuclear attacks. Racial tensions. Climate crisis. I’m looking around. I don’t like what I see.

When I was an elementary school child, our social studies class covered World War II. I came home all excited to tell my mother about it. Battles. Big ships. Generals and submarines. And of course, the big finale—we won! Mother looked at me and said, “You need to understand that it wasn’t like that for those of us who lived through it. We didn’t know that we were going to win.”

I spend a lot of my time these days lobbying for climate change legislation. But I have to tell you that it isn’t at all that clear that we’re going to win. In fact, being a rational person, I wouldn’t bet on it. It took Pharaoh only ten plagues to take action. What are we waiting for?

I don’t know if I’m living in the beginning, middle, or end of time. The thin thread of hope that I hold on to is knowing that—” …we are God’s children now…” even though “…what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

Peter Boogaart

Peter Boogaart is retired and living in Zeeland, Michigan. He has been active in the Creation Care Ministry at Hope Church, Holland, Michigan, as well as the Holland Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Peter has served as a consultant to both county and city governments for planning a responsible energy future. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary.  


  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Jesus did give John a coded message because the quote from Isa 61:1 just mentions the poor, but not freedom for the captives nor release for the prisoners (like John). And for us, what are we waiting for? The record heat waves and the warming of the oceans killing off the coral should be enough for us to act NOW.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thanks for this. That dynamic between the cousins is precious, and honest, suggesting the deep integrity of the gospels. Honest not only to their relationship, but also to our own predicament, as you point out.

  • RZ says:

    Pete, Thanks for your persistent gospel work and thanks for this excellent reflection! Ironic, isn’t it, that the issue that could one day soon make most of our debates irrelevant is the one most ignored! I guess the torturing realities are not yet hitting those on the privileged corners of the planet.

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