Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Advent, Week I: Hope

213px-oscararias.jpgWhile juggling the GLBT inclusion series and the evolution series, I have decided that for Advent reflections each Sunday, I will profile a Christian peacemaker:  One whose life bears witness to the Word Made Flesh–to the in-breaking Rule of God and thus, to the hope of Second Advent while we celebrate the First Advent of said Word Made Flesh.

The first week of Advent is traditionally celebrated by the lighting of the Hope candle. We wait in hope for the Coming One.  Ecumenical lectionaries (as my pastor reminded us this a.m.) usually highlight passages about John the Baptizer asking us to prepare the way, to repent, to flee from the wrath to come, and warning that the axe is already laid to trees not bearing fruit, etc. 

Many peacemakers’ lives symbolize hope, but I thought I would profile someone not well known to U.S. Americans–The Honorable Oscar Arias Sanchez (a.k.a., Oscar Arias), 1940-.  Born to wealth in Costa Rica, Arias’ family assumed that Oscar would grow up to inherit the family coffee plantation, but the serious child wanted to be president of his country.  When Oscar was 8, the president at the time declined to leave office.  As would become all too frequent in the 2nd half of the 20th C., in Central and South America, this plunged the nation into civil war.   Jose’ Figueres Ferrer, a democratic socialist, led the army that deposed the ruling junta, but then did something few victorious generals have ever done–dissolved the army that brought him victory.  Costa Rica became one of the few countries of any size without a standing military–and the government used the money saved to invest in universal education and healthcare. 

Arias studied in the U.S., studied economics at the University of Costa Rica, and earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Essex, in the U.K.  He returned home and ran for parliament as a member of the moderately socialist National Liberation Party, and became Minister of Planning for the Ferrer government in 1972.  In 1986, he successfully ran for President of Costa Rica, campaigning as the “peace candidate” against an opposition that wanted to re-institute the army. He served from 1986 to 1990.  When Arias won, the U.S. pulled out it’s economic investment, saying that a country without an army was not viable.

As president, Arias worked to reduce Costa Rican indebtedness to foreign countries and alleviate poverty, but his main focus was to work for peace in war-torn Central America.  During the 1980s, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were all undergoing civil wars–with the U.S. supporting different factions in each country.  The Contra terrorists of Nicaragua would attack from bases in Costa Rica, along an undefended border.  Arias was critical of the ruling Sandanistas of Nicaragua, but he nevertheless stopped the Contras from attacking from Costa Rican soil. He worked to create peace throughout the region, eventually hammering out the successful Arias Plan for peace in 1987. It was signed  by all parties and led to Arias receiving the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, but U.S. opposition to parts of the plan prevented full implementation.  Arias used the Nobel Peace Prize money to create the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in 1988 and he helped establish a United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Arias has also been active in various international Non-Governmental Organizations promoting economic justice, human rights, and peacemaking, including the Carter Center in the U.S., and service on the Board of Directors for the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims.  He is a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security and is a recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism.

After Costa Rica’s Supreme Court ruled that presidents may serve more than one term, Arias ran again for president in the 2006 general elections, and won again.  In his current term in office, Arias has forbidden any citizens of Costa Rica to train in the U.S. School of the Americas (re-named the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation) at Ft. Benning, GA–which has been notorious for training many state-sponsored terrorists and human rights abusers and is working to get countries throughout Latin America to refuse enrollment in SOA/WHINSEC. 

Arias is a committed Christian, a rather traditional Catholic (though criticized by conservative Catholics for continuing the legalization of artificial birth control in his nation and, for cases of rape, incest, and threat to a mother’s life, the legalization of abortion).  He has talked in interviews about how his passion for peace and economic justice is fueled by his faith, but he talks less about this than many U.S. politicians because religious differences (especially between Catholics and Protestants and between Christians and indigenous religions) have often been used in Central and South America to divide people or to gain power. Arias’ works to promote religious tolerance and respect in his nation while honoring the historic role of Catholicism in the nation’s history and heritage.

Compared to Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or the U.S., Costa Rica is still a poor country.  Yet, unlike most of Latin America, it has a 90% literacy rate, free health care that focuses on prevention and rural clinics, and a mixed-economy that promotes eco-tourism rather than traditional cash crops.  Arias’ leadership in Costa Rica gives hope that it can be a model, an alternative to prevailing trends in either Latin America or in the so-called “developed Western world.”

“Because our country is a country of teachers, we closed the army camps, and our children go with books and not rifles under their arms. We reject violence.” Dr. Oscar Arias Sanchez, President of Costa Rica and 1988 Nobel Peace Laureate.

December 2, 2007 - Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, peacemaking

1 Comment

  1. Costa Rica became one of the few countries of any size without a standing military–and the government used the money saved to invest in universal education and healthcare.”

    What a great country! Thanks for writing this to remind us that peace is not an impossible dream, but a realistic alternative.

    Arias sounds like a Costa Rican version of Dennis Kucinich, except Arias actually won presidential elections. Oh that we could be so fortunate in the U.S.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | December 3, 2007

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