On this day in 1989, two Mormon missionaries were killed by the Bolivian Marxist group Zarate Willka Armed Forces to protest US influence in Bolivia.
LA PAZ, BOLIVIA – As a Canadian I grew up on stories of the Catholic missionaries, mostly French, who came to this country beginning in the 16th century on the heels of the first efforts to colonise what they believed to be ‘terra nullius’: a vast open land ripe for them to take over. We all heard of Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit who spread the word of God to First Nations before he was captured, ritually tortured and killed in 1649.
What we did not hear about was the other side of the argument. How this area was not uninhabited (that is was terra nullius implies). How they brought diseases to which the original denizens had no immunity. How their territory was seized and they were forced to keep moving West. How they did not ask to be ‘saved’ by the new faith.
Those ‘bringing the word of God’ to the heathens may be disliked but that does not condone killing them.
As a result, we in Canada are living with the litany of child sexual abuse, residential schools and the almost complete usurpation of the cultures of many First Nations, often at the behest of, or at least certainly the cooperation of, Christians such as the Catholic Church. It is a stain that will not go away.
I have always been curious as to why people go on ‘mission’ to the Third World in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: they do bring medical attention and do help in other ways. But what’s with the ‘bringing souls to Jesus (for it is often Christians behind this)? Are the locals demanding this?
One of the groups best known for this kind of work is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS – better known as the Mormons). They have spanned the globe to spread the word and gather up converts, all in the furtherance, I suppose, of launching God’s kingdom on earth (like we need another kingdom!).
Sometimes the opposition to their efforts takes a violent turn. On this day in 1989 two LDS missionaries, Jeffrey Brent Ball and Todd Ray Wilson, were killed in La Paz, Bolivia. The self-styled Zarate Willka Armed Forces of Liberation, a Marxist group named after an obscure Indian rebel of the late 1800s, claimed responsibility for the killings as well as for a bombing of the US secretary of state’s motorcade.
The violation of our national sovereignty by “Yankee invaders” would not go unpunished. Our hate is implacable and our war is to the death.”
The US saw a link to Cuba as well. Recall that famed guerrilla and folk hero Che Guevara was gunned down by the Bolivian Army with the aid of US advisers in October, 1967. The Zarate Willka bunch could very well have been influenced by Guevara.
I knew a lot of Mormons when I worked in intelligence: they were very good linguists (a skill the church cherishes as it helps in missionary work). And while I find their history and religious claims wonky – it is not normative Christianity in my books – I do not think they should have to die for their faith. If you don’t want them proselytising just tell them no thanks and send them home. Problem solved.