Grace in Times of Evil

I asked God about my 3-month-old baby, Sam, who would never know me.

Listening to former Vice President Dick Cheney defend mock executions on the morning news, my mind flashed back to Guatemala, just over 30 years ago.

I am sitting on a terrazzo floor, mostly naked, an interrogation hood covering my head. “OK, this is it. You’re not cooperating,” says the man in the sweat suit. He passes a rifle into my limited field of vision, asking, “Do you know what this can do?”

“Yes,” I reply. Having previously been drafted into the U.S. Army, I know exactly what an M16 could do.

The man chambers a round, and for a moment the rifle disappears from my sight. Then I feel it against my head. “Who are you?” the man demands again.

“James Boldenow,” I reply yet again.

“I am going to kill you unless you tell us who you really are.” Silence. CLICK. Silence. A chuckle. The man says, “OK, now tell us who you really are.”

I was abducted by a right-wing death squad during a trip to Guatemala in September of 1982 while conducting a field visit as the new Central American director of Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), now called World Renew. Still learning the culture and programs, my language skills were just adequate.

Political Turmoil

Guatemala that September was in political turmoil. Efraín Rios Montt, a general in the Guatemalan army, had taken power in a military coup five months earlier ousting President Lucas García. At first there was hope that Rios Montt, a confessing Christian, would bring reform, but within months, rumors of atrocities were being reported across the country. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration was pushing Congress to resume military aid to Guatemala, which the Carter administration had stopped in response to human rights violations.

One purpose of my trip was to explore collaborative work with Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM). This involved traveling in the CRWRC’s Land Cruiser with Moisés Colop, a national staff person, and CRWM’s Jim Dekker to some work sites with the National Presbyterian Church. In one remote area, Jim’s coworker was having trouble with a clutch, so we loaded it into the Land Cruiser to take to the capital for repair.

The trip went well, but along the way we heard some horrible tales of torture and mass graves. Arriving in the capital, Jim suggested that he take the CRWRC vehicle to bring the clutch to be repaired. Moisés and I could use Jim’s car and meet him at his house for dinner that evening.

Abducted

As the two of us, in Jim’s car, were nearing his house, three vehicles forced us off the road. Two men armed with fully automatic M16 rifles jumped out of a dark Suburban. They opened my door and pulled me out, yelling that they would kill me if I resisted. They covered my head with a smelly sack and threw me into the back of the Suburban onto a mat soaked with blood and vomit. They tied my hands painfully behind my back with wire and held me out of sight while speeding away.

When the Suburban bumped to a stop, the men hauled me out. They took my passport and wallet. Even though my vision was restricted by the sack, I could see the ground in front of me as they prodded me to the edge of a gully with the rifle. A stench came from below, where I could see bodies in what appeared to be a mass grave. I assumed I was at an execution site and that I would soon join those bodies. I heard radio chatter in the background.

Waiting for the bullet, time was suspended. I found myself reciting, “That I, body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; . . . that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can be blown from my head . . . he assures me of eternal life. . . .” I asked God about my 3-month-old baby, Sam, who would never know me. I heard God assure me that he would take care of my wife and kids. God told me not to be afraid. I visualized a comical picture of the resurrection with my large body rising up with a group of much smaller indigenous Mayan people. I awaited eternity with expectation, wondering what heaven would really be like.

Suddenly the reverie was over—it was almost a letdown. My captors demanded to know if I was Jim Dekker. More radio chatter, more questions. Once again I was thrown into the Suburban and brought to an isolated site for interrogation. During the transfer I flinched as I felt myself falling. Thinking that I was resisting, they butted me across the face with a rifle, breaking several teeth. My captors replaced the wire on my wrists with handcuffs and added leg chains stamped “Made in the USA.” They removed most of my clothing and put over my head a black interrogation hood that restricted my vision.

Then the interrogation began. A man in a sweat suit did most of the physical work while a man wearing a well-tailored suit asked questions. First they attempted to elicit an admission that I was Jim Dekker using an alias. Later they moved on to what I knew about Jim’s activities, as well as my own purposes for being in Guatemala. My interrogators assumed that I was withholding information that needed to be forced out of me, and they employed a variety of strategies.

They threatened to break my arms, legs, and ribs. The man in the sweat suit tapped me with a club in various places to show how it would be done.

They staged three mock executions, including the one I described earlier.

They used sexual humiliation and abuse. An M16 was held to my genitals with the threat to blow them off if I did not talk. I was fondled with the barrel of the M16 and called a homosexual. I was stripped naked except for the hood; my captors discussed and ridiculed my physical attributes and threatened worse consequences if I did not start cooperating.

They applied sensory deprivation. I was kept on the floor of a dimly lit room and left alone for periods of time between sessions.

They withheld food, water, and toilet facilities.

Although I was not subject to waterboarding, my captors demonstrated the equipment as a threat.

Released

Suddenly there was a radical change. The man in the well-tailored suit brought my clothes and told me that some important people were looking for me. He said I should call my embassy as soon as I was free. After bringing me food and water, I was blindfolded, loaded into a vehicle, and dumped into an alley behind a hotel.

I called the embassy.

They asked if I needed medical attention and said that the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala would be at the hotel in 20 minutes. The State Department did a debriefing. They explained that Secretary of State George Shultz had contacted President Rios Montt to release me, as killing a missionary would jeopardize future military aid.

The State Department was surprised I was alive; my release confirmed that the right-wing paramilitary had abducted me. Had they captured Jim Dekker, they said, he would have been assassinated. They explained that the Israeli intelligence agency, doing surveillance work for the Guatemalan government, had picked up Jim’s activities, probably through a phone tap. Jim had been helping people escape from the army and writing articles about the situation in Guatemala under a pen name. My interrogators, the State Department believed, were likely Argentines of German Nazi heritage. They were concerned about the use of Suburbans, military M16s, restraints, and other U.S. equipment in Guatemala.

Grace

Because we had traveled together earlier, I knew that Jim Dekker had helped some Presbyterian Church leaders escape oppression. I also knew that throughout Guatemala, people were being displaced and killed. But none of us knew the extent of the genocide that was taking place. And Jim had no idea of the dangers his activities were causing to himself and, inadvertently, to others. Had I been in Jim’s place, I hope I would have acted similarly to the save the lives of fellow Christians.

The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala was the first of many to call my experience a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only God knows whether Jim Dekker would have been killed if I had not been in his car. But I believe that I was the right person in the right car in the right place at the right time. God used these events to build his kingdom, weaving together my best interests and those of Jim Dekker, Moises, and many others, according to his just and merciful will.

Initially I tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. Over time, though, I experienced the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. My own sinfulness, and weaknesses including attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, combined with several life-threatening events to result in real brokenness. I experienced frequent flashbacks, reliving the events of my abduction, especially the mock executions and sexual humiliation. I was anxious and easily startled. I tended to avoid situations and people who brought back unwanted memories. Most destructive was my escapist behavior. Within a year I realized that I was drinking too much and had to stop using alcohol altogether.

But God provides peace and grace. The prayer that I uttered when I expected to die was a form of communion with God. Though in mortal terror, I was completely at peace, anticipating eternity.

This ongoing intimacy with God in prayer is a gift I continue to receive. There is grace in knowing that Christ bore not only my guilt but also my sorrow and shame. There is grace when I have unwanted memories of abuse, when I need to read or spell in public, when I am anxious, or when I fall into sinful behavior. God pulled me from the pit of alcohol and other self-destructive behaviors long before they could destroy my career or family. He gave me a supportive and patient wife. On my own I am weak and broken; only God’s grace gives me strength. Of course, this is true for all Christians. My gift is being able to realize it in my life.

Speaking Out

Rios Montt’s dictatorship lasted less than 18 months, during which tens of thousands of people were killed. Most of these were indigenous people in the countryside caught between the guerillas and the army. He has been named the worst among the modern Latin American dictators, condoning the indiscriminate murder of men, women, and children by the army and death squads. There is evidence that many women were raped before execution, and children were reportedly thrown into burning homes or tossed in the air and speared with bayonets. Rios Montt’s scorched earth policy left millions homeless and hungry. Now he is under house arrest, awaiting trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

In December 1982, President Reagan called Rios Montt a man of integrity and said that he was getting a bum rap on civil rights issues in spite of abundant evidence—including some CIA memos that later came out—that atrocities were being committed in Guatemala. It is hard to believe that the president and his administration were unaware.

In January 1983, within hours of the Republican Senate being strengthened by the 1982 elections, a military aid package for Guatemala was passed. A lingering question is how I was abducted using new U.S. resources prior to lifting the ban on military aid.

Creditable evidence, including a 2004 U.S. inspector general’s report, suggests that the CIA was teaching interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual abuse, mock execution, and sensory deprivation as early as the 1980s. When, almost 30 years after my abduction, I see newspaper photographs of naked men in chains and interrogation hoods being ridiculed by U.S. personnel, and when I hear a former vice president defend mock executions, I am called to speak out.

As citizens of the kingdom of God, Christians must condemn torture—including the “enhanced interrogation” carried on by the U.S. This includes torture by U.S. contractors, shipping people to other countries where torture is allowed, and torture in secret prisons. As citizens of the U.S. and Canada, blessed with the priceless privilege of speaking freely and voting, we are called to use our influence to stop the practice of any torture.

Many Christians seem to be afraid that the world is collapsing around them. Some of them may agree with Cheney that the war on terror will not be won by turning the other cheek. But the kingdom of God on earth is not built by might or by power, but by the Spirit of God.

Condemning the use of torture does not in any way justify communist or terrorist governments and groups, which need to be restrained. At the same time, restraining evil can never be accomplished by practicing similar evils.

It is not only wrong but shortsighted for a government to condone torture or support corrupt and oppressive regimes. Violating God’s commands, even in the service of boosting security, is never right. By their very nature, such actions will come back to trouble us.

Web Questions

  1. Boldenow comments that “many Christians seem to be afraid that the world is collapsing around them.” Does Jim’s story make you fearful or hopeful? Why?
  2. Examine Boldenow’s prayer when he thought he would be executed. What struck you about the prayer and his sense of the presence of God?
  3. Does God put us in dangerous situations? How can we make sense of this, especially when the situation causes us years of suffering?
  4. Boldenow condemns the use of torture, saying that “restraining evil can never by accomplished by practicing similar evils.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  5. If we abuse and debase other people, even for our protection, will our inhuman actions come back to trouble us? Why do hatred, fear, and cruelty continue to have power over us if we give in to them?

About the Author

James Boldenow is Network and Helpdesk Team Manager of Information Services for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Previously he worked as a contractor with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

See comments (14)

Comments

Argh!  Another high steepler inspired poke at all things that are not politically left wing.  This Banner article could have just as effectively illustrated its title (Grace in Time of Evil) without the pokes at Dick Cheney, Ronald Regan, and the Republican Senate, but the temptation was apparently just too much.

OK, so let's give time here to ask some of the other difficult questions this article doesn't, and this magazine won't (the Web Questions above don't include these).

Our current president Obama condemned against harsh interrogation methods but then used their fruit to locate and kill bin Laden.  Evil?  Speaking of killing bin Laden, Obama gave a "kill on site" order for the raid (in a country we were not at war with no less), which in fact resulted in bin Laden's death instead of his capture and trial.  Evil?  And speaking of killing in general, Obama has killed countless people around the world with drone attacks, including in many countries we are not at war with, and including inocent people who were not the intended object of these attacks, knowing that the attacks would kill innocents.  Evil?  (I'll bet many innocent but surviving victims of drone attacks have resultant PTSD signs).

Or we can go back to rarely criticized wars, like WWII, when allied bombers bombed not only military targets but also civilian targets in Germany and Japan. Evil?  For that matter, the US went to war in WWII, knowing they would be killing many enemy solders who were literally children forced into combat by the Nazis, not to mention civilians.  Evil

So exactly when is it righteous to kill an enemy solder you've never before met?  And exactly when is it good to drop a bomb knowing civilians may be killed?  Could we not apply this author's last paragraph to these questions as well?

Wars are certainly messy when it comes to applying simplistic ethical platitudes -- and that's an understatement.  Even messier when they involve dysfuntional political societies, like Hitler's Germany, or Guatemala of 30 years ago.  The Banner ought not take that messiness as opportunity to score cheap points for its favorite political party.  It should also keep in mind that the CRCNA has not yet officially declared itself a political action committee, even though many high steeplers would like it to be.

With all due respect to the previous commenter, I do think that it's a bit reactionary to presume that this column is condemning a political ideology. The Banner, to me, seems FAR from a political left-wing publication. I suppose that's my perception, in part, because I don't necessarily espouse a political leaning.

Our criticism of this article should not be silenced. And I do not seek to do so to the previous commenter, however I feel it only fair to identify that the commenter above relies on hyperbole rather than fact in his rhetoric. I'm reasonably confident that we CAN count the number of innocents killed by drone attacks. I will wager that the commenter is correct, that number is not zero. Such injustice should infuriate Christians. However, I don't believe the commenter needs to query whether this (or the killing of civilian targets in WWII) is evil or not (i.e. "Evil?"). It is evil. Period.

It's all evil. But to whip out the cannon of political conservatism and to frame the above article into a partisan hack job misses the point. The article posted here is a personal testimony. Frankly, no one would find it that interesting if the bulk of the Christian Reformed Church didn't accept political conservatism as an idol. So, to be called to repentance is, I think, holy.

To have the sin in our lives identified is fundamentally shameful, painful, and embarrassing. That's probably why the longest serving prophets of the old testament were adept at dodging stones. However, let's not belittle the testimony and prophesy of Mr. Boldenow. He had a story to tell. God's grace is the only reason he's here to share the story, and he calls us to repent of sin. Personally, I find the inference that his call to repentence is politically biased hackery an adventure in missing the point.

The Westminster confession reminds us that the chief aim of humankind is to bring glory to God. If we're so tied up in defending our politics that we miss an opportunity to reflect the glory of creation back onto our Maker, to whom is it we're trying to bring glory?

bviede: I didn't say, as you claim, that "his column is condemning a political ideology," but rather only that "This Banner article could have just as effectively illustrated its title (Grace in Time of Evil) without the pokes at Dick Cheney, Ronald Regan, and the Republican Senate, ... ."  Indeed, in reading the article, those comments seem almost awkward, and certainly gratuitous.  Just read the very first sentence.

I'm not, as you accuse, defending my politics (I'm not a registered Dem or Rep, and voted for Obama in '08) as I am insisting that the CRCNA, including the Banner, not take political sides, but rather leave the arguing about politics (and many other non-ecclesiastical matters) to its members. As you claim for yourself, "I don't necessarily espouse a political leaning," either, but I do protest when our denomination, including the Banner, takes political sides for CRCNA members.

You say, "To have the sin in our lives identified is fundamentally shameful, painful, and embarrassing," as if this article does that.  Huh?  The only sins declared in this article are not in "our lives" but are specifically and clearly attributed to others, namely (besides Montt of course): Dick Cheney (who defended these heinous things), Ronald Reagan (surely he knew, as the author says), and the Republican Senate (the author could have just called it the Senate, especially when it was made up of Dems and Repubs, but he needed to use the modifier "Republican" for some reason).  This article condemns only others, not "our lives," and they all happen to be persons clearly identified as Republicans.  (Carter is also mentioned, again gratuitously, but as a good guy).

I also think it certainly not as clear cut as you seem to think that all acts of war are evil.  OT themes like the Year of Jubilee are fashionable to cite these days, but there are plenty other OT accounts where Israel is commanded by God to kill men (not just soldiers), women and children.  My broader point was that these questions (like enhanced interrogation methods) are not so easily answered, even when we search the Scriptures.  Jesus is not recorded as condemning the Centurion or and other Roman soldiers, despite knowing what they did.  And the NT, in the few times that it addresses these kinds of questions, affirms the authority of government, again despite that the pattern existing for government at that time was nothing less than the Roman empire.

Again, I'm not saying there is no value to this article, but the gratuitous political pokes, whether you recognize them or not, are typical of the Banner in past years.  Maybe you are more "political leaning" than you recognize.

 

Thanks James for calling us again to be holy

Thanks, Jim, for stepping forward with this message.  After serving in Argentina during the "Dirty War" (70s) and working among Central Americans in Los Angeles and El Salvador for 20 years, your story, questions, and the directions your suggestions point to all ring very true with me.

Thank you for the courage you showed in sharing this article, and these moments of your life, with us. May the Lord open the eyes of our hearts to see His grace.

Wow, what an experience and a telling.  Thank you.  I just read Hugh Cook's "The Homecoming Man" which tells of similar torture.  I can't imagine. 

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.

Dave Vroege, Halifax

Thanks for sharing your story, and for your courage to share what you see its importance for our culture and times. This helps expose the spirit of our times.

 

It is most unfortunate that the follow-up conversation to this excellent article slid into a American political discussion. Also most unfortunate is to bring the discussion to the level that the events related within the story relate to any legitimate type war, if war is ever legitimate?  To suggest that wars can be messy and sometimes evil also totally misses the point and the need for self reflection and repentance is long overdue on this sad story of America meddling in Central America.

America as a "Christian nation" really missed its calling of protecting the poor and being a shepherd of the light to its neighbours.  An act of deep repentance to the Guatemalan nation is most warranted.   Such an act, accompanied by much prayer, will bring true peace and grace to both countries involved in this conflict.

Henry: Your post bemoans that the "the follow-up conversation to this excellent article slid into a American political discussion", but then you ultimately conclude with an American political conclusion, that being that "repentance is long overdue on this sad story of America meddling in Central America," and that "America as a "Christian nation" really missed its calling of protecting the poor and being a shepherd of the light to its neighbours," and that "An act of deep repentance to the Guatemalan nation is most warranted."

And of course, your comments coupled with those of the article itself, point to Republicans as bad guys and Democrats as good guys, and America as the bad nation.

These articles are reviewed/edited by Banner staff.  I very much doubt that the political pokes escaped their attention.

I do of course agree with your sense that is was unfortunate that the article had to get political.  As I said in my first response post, the point of the article (although I'm not now sure what it was supposed to be, given your comment, but I think it was supposed to be about grace, not which party/country was the bad guy) could have been made without the side trip into the usual denomination level political bent.  In that sense, it wasn't the follow-up conversation that started the slid into political partisanship, it was the article, which was apparently no problem to the Banner editors.

I'm not wishing for Banner articles to be political, even political on "my side" or anyone else's side.  What I'm arguing for is that the Banner not take political sides, which has been its tendency over the years. 

Yes, I would agree. Our beloved Banner Magazine need not stipulate or espouse political directions. Instead it should continue to be the light of the word just as James and Jim showed by living example in their work in Guatemala. As individual Christians and organizations we should live the word and by this example will draw more people to the word. What is so disturbing about this story is how a perceived Christian leader of Guatemala strayed so far from the word. By his and his MAJOR partner actions he proved to be a canker sore on the body of Christ , doing long-term damage to the Christian church.

When we listen to the word, live by the word, taking care of the weak and poor, it becomes rather obvious by the spirit living in us on which way we should vote and who to stand amongst and support.  And to end on one a small example Jesus was sitting next to Rosa Parks on that bus in Montgomery Alabama in 1955.  There are many more Rosa's in our world and in our community and we should be so bold as to be willing to stand and sit among them. Thank you James and Jim.

 

Henry: Amen, to all of what you said.

I would like to further the testimony of God's grace demonstrated here. 30 years after Efrain Rios Montt's "reign of terror", when James Boldenow found himself working with Moisés Colop in Guatemala, I had the chance to work with Colop in the church that he remains a pastor of in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, for a year. I certainly did not have any experience like that of James. Yet the year I spent working largely with Moisés changed me (hopefully for the better) and taught me uncountable lessons that I will never forget. Had the events of that night in 1982 turned out differently, I never would have had the chance to learn from Moisés myself (nor would have hundreds, if not thousands of others) during the intervening 30 years.

I would also like to defend the James' "political comments." I don't believe that questioning our country's actions in Guatemala 30 years ago is favoring either political party. If our nation supports a dictator who massacres his own people - such as Montt, it is only correct to question why. The issue is not which political party was in charge when it happened, but how to prevent it.

As far as the Dick Cheney quote is concerned, and one should note that neither the republicans nor democrats currently, in reality, are against torture. Could the article have done without the mention that it was a republican senate? Probably yes. However, it is a lot easier for me, sitting comfortably in a safe office typing on a laptop, to criticize an article than it is for someone who was tortured and nearly killed by a dictatorial regime that had the support of the US government. 

Sorry I pasted the wrong version, and unlike facebook I can't edit a post I alread made:). The last sentence should read:

However, it is a lot easier for me, sitting comfortably in a safe office typing on a laptop, to criticize an article than it is for the author, who was tortured and nearly killed by a dictatorial regime that had the support of the US government, to be apoltical.  

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