Archive for category Crime and Punishment

No Hell = No Jesus


As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

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Why the Right was against repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”


Because that’s how they handle the issue of sexuality themselves.  Keep it in the closet. (The other closet, not that ‘prayer closet’ – which doesn’t get used much by today’s crop of budding theocrats.)

It’s ironic. Although conservative evangelicals (who are now the power base of the Republican party) claim to be the champions of morality, they have such a hard time living up to their own standards.  Sure, liberals have their share of fallen angels, but rarely does the left claim to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet it is common for the most strident of the ‘moral majority’ to find themselves in the public spotlight with their pants down,  sometimes quite literally.

Why do so many conservative, evangelical, Republicans expose themselves doing precisely the opposite of what they say others should be doing? Henry Hyde, Helen Chenowith, Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, David Vitters, Glenn Murphy Jr. – the list goes on. How many of these scandals have resulted in the outing of aggressive homophobes?  After years of rumors that he might be gay,  it looks as if  Lindsey Grahamw will soon find himself in the same predicament. What ‘s the deal?

A 1996  psychology experiment conducted at the University of Georgia found strong evidence that (at least among males) “homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.” If this is true, and since most politically conservative evangelicals are  vigorously opposed to the ‘gay agenda’,  then it makes sense that a significant portion of these people might very well be closet homosexuals.  Of course, this is just speculation, yet it does hold up fairly well under the historical evidence.  But why would people who are confused (or in denial) about their sexuality gravitate towards the evangelical right-wing of the Republican party?

Is it because, having been forgiven for all their sins, both past and future, these closet homosexuals no longer feel the need to confront and conquer their inner “demons”?  That Jesus has already taken care of that for them? Yet eventually many of them will find out that their religion is not sufficient to facilitate lasting personal change (if this type of change is possible or even desirable).

A huge part of Christianity is the idea that we are all broken people who can be healed through the redemptive power of God, as revealed to us by Jesus. But that does not mean that we are somehow magically, perfectly, made ‘whole’ (i.e conforming to someone else’s orthodox world view) – that we are completely changed by God’s grace or the Holy Spirit or the love of Christ.  It doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down and expect prayer alone to obliterate years of habitual behavior.  Or obviate our personal natures.  Nor, apparently, will the threat of punishment, divine or otherwise, accomplish this.

I think a better guess might be found in the attraction they may have to the hard-line theology of neo-evangelism.  It’s as if,  though perhaps in denial, they suspect that they are ‘bad’ boys in the eyes of God and feel a need to be part of an ideology that embraces the clear-cut rules of stern father figures, from Yahweh to James Dobson.

‘We’ve decided the Bible is the word of God. We don’t have to have a General Assembly about what we believe. It’s written in the Bible. Alright, so we don’t have to debate what we think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible.” -Ted Haggard

‘Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted. . . Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, ‘You must obey me.’ ” – James Dobson

“Part of my life is so repugnant and dark, I’ve been warring against it all my life…the dirt I thought was gone would resurface … the darkness increased and dominated” -Ted Haggard

Christian fundamentalist parents, James Dobson included,  should know by now that children cannot be spanked into submission, not unless the goal is to create sadly warped versions of themselves.   Who has ever really benefited from this? What type of person is attracted to an intolerant,  domineering and violent task master? For many of these people violence comes to be associated with love.

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up” – Mark Driscoll

The threat of punishment, even the ultimate punishment of Hell,  apparently cannot compel people to change their natures beyond a superficial level.  It can, however, compel them to mimic the doctrinaire natures of their overlords, even to the point of absurd and shameful  hypocrisy.  Or develop an appetite for hate filled language, perhaps even violence.  History has provided us with an undeniable pattern.

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

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Jesus’ Radical View of Divorce


Next to homosexuality the issue that seems to be most contentious for the Christian church is that of divorce.  I’ve heard people say, when arguing for Christian tolerance of gays, that in the Bible Jesus never spoke out against homosexuality but he did specifically condemn divorce, a practice widely accepted within (if not a prime motivation for) the mainline Protestant tradition. Those Christians who do consider divorce to be a sin often refer to these same scripture accounts, such as this one from chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel;

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.”“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

But why is it that the Gospels are so specific about Jesus’ outspoken remarks on divorce when there are other ‘sins’ that are not mentioned?  His condemnation of divorce would even appear to disregard the Mosaic laws permitting divorce, laws that are counted among those that Jesus says he did not come to abolish.  Are the Gospels telling us about something rare happening here– Jesus expressly overruling an earlier Biblical instruction? (unless you think that  his Sermon on the Mount is doing the same thing). But why this one? And why was the Pharisee’s question regarding divorce so tricky?

Perhaps we have a clue from chapter six of the same Gospel:

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’

John the Baptist was arrested and eventually beheaded for his outspoken criticism of Herod. In effect John was saying that Herod and Herodias were not worthy of their ruling status, that their illegitimate actions made their office illegitimate.  This was not just a scripturally based Jewish perspective, Herod Antipas was not an authentic ruler but actually a puppet of the Roman Empire.

When Jesus publicly condemns divorce he is implicitly, and dangerously,  condemning Herod and Herodias.  He surely was aware of this and considering the fact that the Pharisee’s were trying to ‘test’ him one can assume that this was another  of Jesus’ prophetic responses calculated to aggravate the Jewish people’s oppressors as well as their collaborators.

Herod’s marriage to his brother Areta’s wife was openly contentious and eventually erupted into war between their two provinces so Herod was not held in the highest favor by his Roman bosses. This was in spite of his immense and expensive construction projects designed to please the Emperor. The Roman buzzword was ‘peace’, a peace provided by Caesar Augustus, the “Son of God”, and Herod was expected to help maintain it.

So Jesus (also proclaiming to be the Son of God) was giving not only a teaching response but also a politically radical one, as insanely radical as a Parisian publicly criticizing Marshall Petain and Hitler during the reign of Vichy France. Herod was much more bloodthirsty than Petain and the Romans were every bit as brutal as the Nazis.  While a firing line would inevitably be the fate of any such French political dissident, John would meet the edge of an Herodian blade and Jesus would hang on a Roman cross.

Jesus’ teachings on divorce, like many of his other teachings, are not expressly about theology.  Unless you happen to believe that we are all motivated by our ‘theology’.  Certainly Jesus’ understanding of God’s will was instrumental in his radically dangerous criticisms of empire.

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Does the Doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Promote Torture?


Not for the first time have I been perplexed by the Church’s long affair with torture. Is this just a case in which  flawed and sinful men, having taken control of the Church, used brutal and violent means to achieve their own ends? Or is there some warped thread woven into the very fabric of Christian doctrine that twists the Church’s understanding of the Gospel?

Heather Kirk-Davidoff,  pastor and writer, raises this question in her blog article entitled “Why Do Christians Love Torture” :

Rosa and I were in the car yesterday when the top-of-the-hour news came on with clips from President Obama and Vice President Cheney’s speeches about torture.  Rosa started paying attention when Cheney’s said:

“I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work…”

At which point Rosa broke in and said with total incredulity, “Who said THAT??”  At ten, Rosa still has a sense of how ridiculous it is to say that anyone would be proud of torturing anyone else.  I know that some would argue that torture could be justified, but to say that it’s praiseworthy?  How have we come to that?

Rosa’s comment stayed on my mind because, like her, there is part of our nation’s conversation about torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques” as Cheney likes to call them) which I just don’t get.  It’s not just that I disagree–I simply can’t figure out how anyone could agree with the use of torture.  I can’t empathize with the proponents of torture which makes me pretty useless in public conversation on the topic.  My opposition to torture is based on two things that are utterly essential to my morality:  the importance of the rule of law and the sacredness of human life.  (Plus, everything I’ve read leads me to be opposed on pragmatic grounds as well.  I just am not convinced that torture leads to any useful information.)

But a couple of weeks ago, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life came out that really disturbed me.  You can go to the link to see the actual survey results, but in summary, the more often a person goes to church, the more likely they are to support the use of torture (and they used that word–not “enhanced interrogation techniques”).  The Americans most likely to support torture are white evangelicals (62%) and those unaffiliated with a religious group are the least likely to support torture.

As I was ranting to Dan about this, he pointed out that the study showed that party affiliation is a MUCH stronger determinant of support of torture than religious affiliation is.  Basically, Republicans are likely to support torture, and the survey just showed where the Republicans are.  And while his point is correct, I don’t think it’s the whole story.

Here’s the thing:  Jesus was tortured.  This is one of the reasons while it blows my mind that any Christian could support torture since we all know that at least one innocent person has been tortured under false accusations by the state.  But what if our religious teachings tell us that while it was unfortunate that Jesus was tortured, it did, in fact, serve a good purpose.  It had a good outcome because (in the words of Isaiah 53:5):

…he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Could it be that by talking so much about what we’ve gained by way of Jesus’ torture we’ve actually taught ourselves that torture can actually be a good thing?  A useful and important thing?

This is serious, people.  Obama and his people have their work to do rooting torture out from the practice of our government.  But I think Christian churches and Christian leaders have our work to do too.  We need a better theology of suffering, a better understanding of Jesus’ suffering, if we’re ever going to clearly oppose it’s use by our government.

-by Heather Kirk-Davidoff, “Grounded and Rooted in Love”

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There is Something Fundamentally Wrong with Christian Support for the Death Penalty


For  years I strongly believed that capital punishment was a viable crime deterrent and a just form of punishment.  This was coupled with a sens of satisfaction that the death penalty provided me with; the serving of just desserts.  I was not a Christian nor a believer in any sort of God, but I appreciated those conservative religious people who understood the obvious necessity for a legal death sentence.

cross-and-chair

Upon entering one of they many streams of the  Christian faith ( a very conservative one) I was pleased to find  that many of my long held political  convictions fit in quite nicely with my new found religion.  It was not long before, after overcoming my initial fear of heterodoxy,  my understanding of Christ’s teachings began to take me in new ‘liberal’ directions  both theologically and politically.  I guess it really is a slippery slope.

Now I am firmly opposed to the administering of the death sentence.  Not that I don’t think the state has the right to take life under extreme circumstances;  I am certainly glad that the Baltimore police as well as the Marine Corps are fully armed and trust (and hope) that they expert in the use of those arms.  Nor do I think that no one ‘deserves’ to be executed.  Plenty of people deserve no less than death for their crimes- those who commit single as well as multiple murders,  those who kidnap and rape and  torture, not to mention the world’s horrendous genocidal despots.   I think, tough, that taking this final irrevocable step -of killing the guilty –  in some way diminishes our own humanity.  More objectively,  I am opposed to capital punishment on the grounds that the state certainly has executed innocent people, and continues to do so.

I have tried to make that last point many times when talking with Christian fundamentalists. For the most part, they are very much in favor of capital punishment.  Many of them firmly believe that there is a biblical  imperative for the death sentence, that God not only does not forbid it, he mandates it.  I’ve found that there is little value in arguing against these Biblical points, as there is usually an unbridgeable gulf of scriptural understanding between us. They read the Bible much differently than I do and so long as east is east and west is west….

But what confounds me so much is that, even if you get some of the most rigid fundamentalists to admit that our judicial system is humanly flawed and at times corrupt, even after being confronted with the growing testimony of numerous death sentences being commuted due to new DNA evidence, they will remain firm in their support of capital punishment.  Righteousness trumps mercy yet again.

There seems to be a sense that those innocent people killed by the state are in some way negligible and acceptable losses for a system that firmly metes out justice.  Surely, they will say, the death penalty is an effective deterrent (highly disputable) and those murderers left alive might kill again (even though no one is suggesting that they be released). I often hear that the cost of keeping these convicts  alive is not in our economic best interests yet that very argument receives  their righteous criticism when the abortion advocates use it.  I even had one good lady tell me that my concern was misdirected, because even if the innocent person was executed, if they had made their peace with God, then they (like the Good Thief ) would receive their reward in Paradise.  Couldn’t this same argument be used for abortion, or even for infanticide?  This is the type of perverted theology that drives tragic stories like that of Andrea Yates, who drowned her own, still innocent, children rather than chance their falling into Hell.

We could debate these issues all day long and never come to an agreement.  But if we can concede that it is at all possible (and the evidence PROVES that it is not only possible but likely) for the state to take the life of an innocent person, how can anyone, much less a Christian, tolerate capital punishment?  Do we agree with Mr. Spock when he upbraids the illogical and emotional Captain Kirk,  saying that  “the good of the many outweigh the good of the one” ? Perhaps Caiaphas said it even better; “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:49-50).

I think it is worth considering that this willingness on the part of many Christians to risk sacrificing  innocent lives for the benefit of the majority, coupled with an eagerness to bestow a punishment of death on the guilty, are the toxic byproducts of a traditional and orthodox view of  Jesus’ undeserved execution as the legal and  substitutionary sacrifice for our own individual, as well as collective, guilt.  Once again, the secular world seems to have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness.

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Dr.King’s Prophetic Condemnation of the Church


King in JailAmericans (some begrudgingly) recognize Dr. Martin Luther King as the leader who was the driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement. Few of them may recognize him as one of the few Biblical prophets of modern times, much less a martyr for the Gospel. What follows is an excerpt from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“, in which he responds to criticisms of his campaign for civil disobedience, as expressed by some leading religious leaders of the South. If you have never done so I recommend that you read the entirety of this important letter, especially if you claim to follow Jesus. http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/letter.html

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions….

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips for Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion to inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.”

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Blood Bananas


I found this article by Ryan Beiler on Sojourner’s website:

 www.blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2007/11/blood-bananas-by-ryan-rodrick.html

red bananas

A recent USA Today article summarized the scandal well. This was my quote of the week for SojoMail today:

Chiquita’s money helped buy weapons and ammunition used to kill innocent victims of terrorism. Simply put, defendant Chiquita funded terrorism.

That’s the U.S. Justice Department, in court filings last month against Chiquita for paying off right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia. Here’s the rest of the story, Harpers Index-style:

  • $1.7 million – amount Chiquita paid the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), a right-wing paramilitary organziation responsible for the majority of human rights abuses in Colombia’s armed conflict
  • $25 million – amount Chiquita was fined after pleading guilty of paying money to a terrorist organization
  • $49.4 million - profits reaped by Chiquita from its Colombian operations between Sept. 10, 2001, when the AUC was designated a terrorist group, and January 2004, when its payments stopped. That’s a number to keep in mind when Chiquita protests that it was merely trying to protect its workers.
  • 173 – Colombians allegedly murdered and in some cases tortured by right-wing militias that received payments from Chiquita, whose families are now suing the company.
  • 4,000 - number of people killed in the Uraba banana-growing region during the period when Chiquita admits to paying the AUC.
  • 1989 until 1997 – years during which Chiquita paid left-wing guerillas before the region in which they operated was taken over by the AUC

And if this makes you not want to eat Chiquita bananas, here’s some more bad news:

A spreading investigation in Colombia into what is being called the “para-politics” scandal may ensnare other corporate targets. Former AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso in May told the newspaper El Tiempo in Bogota that all banana producers had paid for protection, including Dole and Del Monte. Mancuso, who was jailed after turning himself in as part of an ongoing government-backed demobilization, said his group received 1 cent for every dollar of bananas exported. “All of the banana companies paid us. Every one of them,” Mancuso told the newspaper.

And one more closing thought:

“It may be true (that) you could not operate in these areas without paying the AUC. If it were al-Qaeda, that wouldn’t be a defense,” says Terry Collingsworth, an attorney with the International Labor Rights Fund, which has filed lawsuits against several corporations, including Chiquita, over their activities in Colombia.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the web editor for Sojourners. He traveled to Colombia in 2003.

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