Lenten Sacrifices: What Ernesto Cardenal Gave Up

Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal

Last week, I wrote about what Nicodemus gave up in order to pursue holistic liberation. I am struck by how much he reminds me of Nicaragua’s Ernesto Cardenal. For those of you who don’t know about him, Cardenal is one of the most widely-read poets in the Spanish language and a Roman Catholic priest.

To understand Cardenal, you need to know that throughout most of the twentieth-century, Nicaragua was the U. S.’s primary Latin American client state. I don’t think its hyperbolic to say that Nicaragua existed at the pleasure of the U. S. Nor is it hyperbolic to say that the Catholic Church in Nicaragua existed at the pleasure of President Somoza and the Nicaraguan National Guard. So, in my mind, there is something of a parallel between the relationship of the Nicaraguan Church to the U. S. and the relationship of the Jewish Temple leadership to the Roman Empire.

As a young adult, Cardenal participated in a plot to overthrow the Somoza / National Guard dictatorship. However, because of the excessive violence of the reprisals against the rebellion, like Nicodemus, Cardenal had a “born again” experience in which he disavowed violence and decided to enter the priesthood. He went to Kentucky to study philosophical non-violence with Thomas Merton. At Merton’s urging, Cardenal later returned to Nicaragua where he founded a commune devoted to contemplation, the arts, and strict non-violence.

Along with Daniel and Phillip Berrigan as well as Thomas Merton, Cardenal became one of the key figures of the philosophical non-violence movement. Philosophical non-violence was indeed that which made them such exemplary Christians. It was a principle they knew was right.

But by 1972, Cardenal reluctantly concluded that priestly calls for non-violence would not end violence. Indeed, he began to conclude, it would only prolong the intense suffering of the Nicaraguan people. And so Cardenal scandalized his international admirers with a decision to publicly support the guerrillas who were gathering strength in their effort to overthrow the Somoza / National Guard dictatorship. He longed for fullness of life for Nicaragua and concluded that hope for Nicaraguan life was inconsistent with philosophical non-violence and its bargain with the dictatorship.

His decision was most welcome among the young guerrillas with whom he read and discussed the Bible at the front and among many other Christians in Latin America. Yet, it was most unwelcome among good Christians outside Latin America including Daniel Berrigan and Pope John Paul II whose criticism was especially hurtful. When I see video footage of the Pope wagging his finger at a kneeling Ernesto Cardenal on a public runway in Managua, I hear an anxious caution from the Pope: “Surely, no prophet will ever come out of Nicaragua!”

As with Nicodemus’s turn from that principle on which he had staked a calling and a career, Cardenal’s turn from non-violence coincided with preparations for a major Christian festival. On the morning of December 23, 1972, a violent earthquake struck Managua as the city’s elite were preparing for a lavish Christmas. Later, Nicaraguan poet Tomás Borge wrote that Managua shattered “like a castle of cards constructed by a Peruvian sorceress.” Approximately 10,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were injured or left homeless. The devastation to property was nearly incalculable. National Guard soldiers, often led by their officers, engaged in extensive looting. They enjoyed tormenting desperately hungry people chasing them by showing them tin cans of food which they would not give up. Massive amounts of foreign aid poured into Nicaragua. Most of it ended up in the already deep pockets of Somoza, his family, and his business and Guard cronies.

Cardenal concluded that the Nicaraguan Church’s bargain with the National Guard and Somoza would never lead to fullness of life for Nicaragua. Cardenal, like Nicodemus, responded to a political temple-cleansing Jesus who was the full-blown, apocalyptic, Word Become Flesh, Son of Man. He recalled Liberation Psalm 118 and Mary’s Christmas Magnificat and became reborn once again.

We are entering into the final days leading up to the major festival of the Christian calendar, the Easter festival, the festival during which we Christians celebrate more than any other the promise that fullness of life can overcome even the politics of death, It seems appropriate that we remember Nicodemus and Ernesto Cardenal. It seems appropriate that we recall that the political Jesus who cleansed the temple and died on the cross is the apocalyptic Son of Man sent to bring the whole world liberation. Most importantly, it seems appropriate during what remains of this Lenten season that we, too, examine that which makes us a good Christian. If being a good Christian is inconsistent with the full liberation of the whole world, are we prepared to give it up?

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