Last Saturday, we were shopping in a small store downtown when the storekeepers suddenly began to close up shop all up and down the street. I helped the sales lady who was frantically trying to roll down the large metal door and safely lock us into the store.
Meanwhile, the manager explained that protesters were marching down the street. They would beat up the employees, destroy the shop and loot any business that they found open just like they did last year during the farmers´ strike. Many of these protesters were public school teachers and members of other national unions. They were protesting corruption in the government.
Saturday, July 28 is Peruvian Independence Day and normally the whole country is one giant celebration with pageantry, parades, processions, parties and fireworks. It is one of the bigger holidays in a nation that loves holidays. This Independence Day there was nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada. The whole city was doggedly glum, determined not to celebrate in the slightest. Everyone was so uncharacteristically unhappy, it was even worse than Father´s Day.
The protest movement prohibited any celebrations and tried to force every business across the country to shut down for three days. However, even if they can´t party, people have to make a living. Strike or no strike, folks need to work. So, only those business that were technically open while the marchers passed by them faced the ire of the protesters. The crowd pretended to have stopped the city. The businesses pretended to cooperate.
We bunkered down in the little store while the angry crowds filed past, watching them on a video surveillance screen as they chanted and marched down the street. About ten minutes later all was quiet. The sales ladies opened up the shop, let us out, and life went back to normal again.
Corruption is an epidemic in the Andes. Yet, Peru is a rich country, blessed with incredible natural resources. The population is young and energetic. The people are hardworking, creative and resourceful. For several years now, Peru has no real military threats from her neighbors. True, there are a few militant narco-rebels in the southern jungles but revolutionaries no longer pose a serious problem for the country as a whole. Terrorism was just a bad dream that most Peruvians are trying hard to forget.
Two decades of relatively sensible macroeconomic policies have lifted the economy out of the socialist stagnation of the 1970´s and 1980´s. Peru is one of the top countries in South America for foreign investors. For the first time in Peruvian history, there is an emerging middle class. To show how things have changed, we even have two new shopping malls in the city of Huánuco, this would have been unthinkable in the 1990´s.
And yet, the whole thing feels like it is about to collapse like a house of cards. Why? Corruption. Presidents, police, political parties, construction companies, congressmen, judges, district attorneys, hospital administrators, doctors, university professors, even school teachers, are notoriously, horribly, heartlessly corrupt. Every day I hear a new story.
A man in our church had paid state health insurance every month for years for his family. Last year his 10 year-old son had a urinary infection and he took his son to the state hospital. The only doctor in the city who could treat the boy told my friend that he, the doctor, was going on vacation the next day and wouldn´t be able to treat the boy. Then, the doctor took my friend in a room alone and told him that for 2000 soles under the table he would postpone his vacation and do the surgery. My friend did not have the money.
How would you feel?
An experienced public school teacher in our church applied for a salaried position as a school teacher. Based on her education and expereince she was told that she could have a job if she would pay the local School district administrator several thousand soles under the table. She did not have the money.
How would you feel?
Every day, we hear, see or experience personally these situations. It certainly starts to feel like everybody, everywhere, all the time are always trying to use their position to take advantage of others; demanding bribes, misappropriating funds, producing shoddy substandard work and pocketing the difference, cheating on the test, breaking the rules, committing adultery, fraud, graft, scamming, scheming, conning, deceiving, exploiting employees, abusing underlings, demanding favors, taking advantage of the weak, preying on the defenseless. The gears of civilized life together almost grind to a halt under such conditions.
Actually, most Peruvians simply desire to live normal, decent lives. They hate the constant corruption and want no part of it. However, the predatory culture is so prevalent that many are forced to adopt a posture of “eat-or-be-eaten.” These strikes and protests are just the latest manifestation of a deep underlying frustration shared by everyone I know in this country. Everybody wants a change. No one has a clue how to achieve it.
The Marxists behind many of these protests think that change will come through violence and politics. The 20th century already proved the futility and horror of that approach. And still, the whole country complains bitterly about the problems. Yet, no one has any real solutions.
Our message is one of hope. The root problem is moral and ultimately spiritual. Therefore, the solution must be moral and spiritual as well. Economics, politics, education; none of these alone will bring about the profound soul-change that transforms a whole society and makes life liveable. A prosperous, educated, democratic thief is still a thief. Something more radical must happen at the deepest levels of human existence.
Jesus Christ changes hearts, minds, and lives. Jesus Christ is the solution. Rage against Him, all you want, but He is the answer we were seeking all along. Christ is the only one who can save us from ourselves.
Last night I talked to a new Christian brother out in the street who boasted that he has been free from alcohol for 14 months now. He confessed that God taught him this year not to take advantage of people in his business. Nowadays, instead of deceiving his customers, he charges them a fair price and does good work. Instead of wasting all of his money on drinking and partying, he invests in his wife and kids.
This is the kind of individual transformation that culminatively remakes whole nations. The living Christ as the lord of life; this is what Peru needs. This is what every country needs.
This is what we all need.