A People Without a Temple: Pentecostals, Nonviolence and the Chilean-Mapuche Conflict

by Elvis Castro Lagos.

On June 9, 2016, while a small Evangelical congregation in a rural area, about 2 miles from Temuco, La Araucanía, in Chile, was celebrating an evening service, a group of at least 5 people broke in, and shooting in the air with heavy guns drove the parishioners violently out of the building, proceeding to put it to fire. A note left in the site stated: “Christianity, accomplice of repression to Mapuche people”. It was the third evangelical temple burnt, but this case was special since the congregation (most of them Mapuche people) was in the building in the moment of the attack. The suspected perpetrators were imprisoned and are still being prosecuted. Up to this day, near 30 Catholic and Evangelical church buildings have been burnt in different rural sites in La Araucanía.

These attacks to church buildings have been occurring during the last couple of years, but are linked to a very long, ongoing conflict —centuries long, indeed, between the Mapuche people and the Chilean state. In the last few years, there have been dozens of attacks to trucks, heavy machinery and big farms, where an old couple of landowners resulted dead. Mapuche spokesmen’s basic complaint is the usurpation of their land, chiefly since the so called “pacification” of La Araucanía, when the Chilean state, aided by its army, took over the Mapuche territory, then known as “The Frontier”. Besides, they accuse large foreign forest planting and hydroelectric dams and facilities to have been causing serious ecological damage and draught.

In a year of political campaign —no wonder—, the delicate situation has been used to posit political views and attract votes, and the public debate has turned highly polarized, with one buzzword emerging as the acid test of any politician’s stand: terrorism. You either claim to defend the victims by categorizing the attacks as terrorism, or you claim to be on the part of the Mapuche activism by denying its being terrorism (and maybe validating violence to some extent). The conflict, however, remains unsolved and the word terrorism simply proves futile: it has lost any useful meaning —except to extend the judicial processes.

In the face of this scenery, the evangelical church finds itself in a dilemma. In recent times, there has been intense debate on the so called “values agenda”, concerning topics as abortion and same sex marriage. Most of evangelicals have been publicly supporting the conservative political wing, and this, we think, has also influenced their position in the case of the Mapuche conflict in La Araucanía. Evangelicals in this region have publicly supported conservative candidates that openly advocate the use of military force to repress the Mapuche activism and violent actions.

This measure, we think, would prove thoroughly disastrous and counter-productive. Up to this day there has been enough police abuse against innocent, civil Mapuche people, including illegal arrests, shootings against underage unarmed people, and raids in primary schools and communities. The use of military force could only make this bad situation even worse. And for sure, the presence of soldiers in the area would increase the displeasure and sense of repression among the Mapuche communities.

Recently, the council of evangelical pastors from La Araucanía issued a statement calling the government to guarantee security in the region, religious liberty, and prosecute the persons and groups causing violence in the area in a fair trial. They mentioned in passing their concern for the suspects in strike. But there was not a word calling to a real political action intended to dialogue with Mapuche leaders and seriously address their concerns and petitions. Neither has been a call to peace between the Chilean and Mapuche peoples. Moreover, the council has also invited to a special meeting to the presidential candidate who has been vocal in advocating the military deployment in the region, a politician who, it is assumed, is “the closest to our Christian values”.

Fortunately, the official evangelical stance is not the only one, maybe not even the majority view among evangelicals in the area. There are many evangelical churches, mostly Pentecostal denominations, working in the rural areas where Mapuche communities are, and actually a considerable number of Mapuche people claims to be evangelical. There are interesting instances of the transformation the gospel has brought about among these communities.

Two weeks ago, Pastor Daniel Matus, interviewed by the blog Pensamiento Pentecostal, pointed out his willingness to visit the suspects in the burnt temples case (at that moment in a hunger strike) and mediate for them. This minister works in the very rural area where several evangelical church buildings have been burnt. He stated that the community around the temples would rather have them back at their homes. Pastor Daniel has a congregation made out entirely by Mapuche people, about 120 members in three different local churches, high figures for a rural ministry. The gospel of Jesus Christ has brought deliverance from family conflict, illness, spiritual oppression, as well as economic relief.

A couple of remarks by pastor Daniel are noteworthy, addressing subjects that Chilean church, particularly in La Araucanía, should give more thought. It concerns the suspects of the attacks, and the meaning of the temple as such. About the suspects who were in a hunger strike, he points out: “There is no resentment… towards these people. All there is compassion and love for them, with eyes of mercy so that they can know the Lord as well… We have been silent in this. Maybe we should influence a bit more in this regard”. As the evangelical church, instead of taking a position for or against particular political stances, we should rather give voice to an alternative way, the way of the gospel of reconciliation and peace. This not necessarily means releasing the guilty of the attacks —if and when they are so declared—, but showing compassion for those who are in a deplorable health situation after a very long imprisonment previous to the trial. Moreover, the evangelical church should be advocating an authentic dialogue between the state and Mapuche people, as well as the addressing of the various problems Mapuche communities are enduring (poverty, harassment, land decline).

The other subject concerns the place of the temple or church building for the work of the church, something that may seem obvious, but we not always reflect on all that this implies. As Pastor Daniel puts it: “A temple is just a construction. The church is constituted by the body of Christ, each member, each brother or sister, they are the church. They can burn the structure, but will never burn the church”. Now, it is interesting that the Mapuche aversion to temples is not only political but religious. The temple, or the Catholic chapel, represents not only the Western invasion, it implies the loss of their traditional cultural practices. Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf interestingly notes: “We the Mapuche people have not built a State, nor have we built temples, for nature provides us her mode of organization, and she is our ‘temple’”[1]. This statement summarizes the Mapuche view on political organization and religion, and gives us pause to ponder what it means for us a “sacred place” like our temples. ¿What could we answer?

In the Scripture, the temple or sanctuary was the place of the presence of God, where God and men could encounter, within certain conditions of mediation; a place of atonement and prayer for all the nations. Now, after the coming of Christ, he claims that he is the temple of God, the place where God showed his glory, grace and truth (cf. John 1:14; 2:21-22; Rev. 21:22). But his church, his body, is also said to be the living temple of God (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16). There are important implications to this. It is the people of God who has to fulfill the functions of the temple among those to whom they preach and serve, wherever they are, whatever the place they do it —the street, the workplace, a home. Therefore, we evangelical do not have temples, either; for Jesus Christ is our sacred place. Our buildings are merely a shelter or a seat. This is what pastor Daniel means, and surely his congregation has been acting as the temple for the communities where they serve, bringing reconciliation, forgiveness and life to families and individuals.

In conclusion, the role of the evangelical church in circumstances like those described above is not following particular political figures who seem to share “some” Christian values —too few values, indeed—, but striving to voice actions that serve all those involved in the conflicts, specially the weaker of them, to mediate even for those who might oppose the church, to speak for dialogue, the authentic peace of the gospel, and reconciliation. Moreover, the evangelical church can serve the Mapuche people in a contextualized fashion by being the temple for them instead of just building physical temples in the middle of their communities. The church can gain or recover insight by reflecting on the worldview of a people as the Mapuche.

Elvis Castro Lagos is Collaborator at the blog Pensamiento Pentecostal, Chile. Member of the Iglesia de Dios (Church of God, Cleveland), Temuco, Chile. He works as Translator at Nehemiah Project.



[1] Chihuailaf, Elicura. Recado confidencial a los chilenos. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2ª ed., 2015, p. 117. https://www.amazon.com/Recado-confidencial-los-chilenos-Edici%C3%B3n/dp/956000610X.

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