Walking a peace witness in Bilbao

By Donald Schell

We’d just arrived in the Basque country for a visit with my daughter when an ETA car bomb killed Eduardo Puelles Garcia, a Spanish police anti-terrorism investigator in Bilbao. Patxi Lopez, newly elected president of Spain’s Basque autonomous region (Uskadi/Communidad Autonoma Vasca) called for a peace witness, and my daughter and her partner asked if we wanted to join them in the march, which is how we found ourselves marching with 60,000 secular and Catholic Basques and Spaniards to reclaim their city and community of for peace.

Half an hour before the witness was scheduled to begin we joined the growing crowd outside government offices by the Plaza Sagrado Corazon. A police line diverted traffic from the Gran Via de Diego Lopez, a broad two kilometer long boulevard across the city, and though the anti-terrorism squad had taped garbage cans and bins shut, I wondered what we were risking – were we and the Basque President making ourselves targets? Was it too easy to join this crowd? No random searches. Not even any evident perimeter security or observation.

President Patxi Lopez, other regional officials, and Paqui Hernandez (widow of the assassinated police officer) walked out of the office building and right past us to the edge of the crowd and the waiting people flowed after them, a slow-moving river of humanity flooding the full breadth of the boulevard and its broad sidewalks toward the river.

Seeing their president walk through the crowd to lead us, I felt both elated and uneasy at our vulnerable witness. I was in high school when JFK was shot in his open convertible in Dallas. The killings of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy marked my college years. What Patxi Lopez was doing leading us seemed fragile and compellingly true to the moment—like the King of Peace riding a donkey into Roman occupied Jerusalem.

We fell in with the crowd’s confident, simple ritual. For some minutes we walked together in silence, not shuffling but walking, slowly, deliberately; then we’d slow and stop to stand stock-still for a minute or more of deep silence until a long, spine-tingling swell of spontaneous applause stirred us like a wind sweeping across the water. Each time our applause stopped, after a moment’s pause we’d walk quietly onward.

Walking as one, the silence, and the applause formed our witness. Though it was his first time leading such a witness, Patxi Lopez had walked many walks like this, and so had much of this crowd over the years since the Catholic Church first called for silent witness for peace whenever there was a death whether the person who died was ETA terrorist or local Spanish magistrate, French or Spanish citizen, Spanish police or Guardia Civil, whoever it was, the people gathered to stand or walk for peace.

Though Basque country is one of the loveliest and most prosperous regions on the Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish/Basque conflict has marked it for decades and even centuries. In the 17th Century the Spanish Inquisition suspected the whole Basque people with their utterly distinct language and customs of witchcraft. The Inquisition burned Basque ‘witches,’ women, men, and children. But the medieval Basque Councils that med under an oak in Guernica pioneered participatory councils and democracy and is, in a sense, part of Spain’s Magna Carta. When Magellan died in the Philippines, it his Basque Captain who completed the circumnavigation, guiding their ship halfway round the world without charts. Ignatius Loyola was a Basque as were several of his companions in founding the Society of Jesus. And today Bilbao, commercial and industrial capital of the Basque country, is known for spectacular modern architecture like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and Santiago Calatrava’s spectacular pedestrian bridge over the Rio Nervion.

Peacemaking here is complicated. Spain reckons Eduardo Puelles Garcia was ETA’s 825th assassination. Both sides remember their dead heroes and count them innocent victims. ETA’s count of their deaths varies. Sometimes ETA starts with the 17th Century Basques the Inquisition burned. More recently they count all who died fighting Franco’s fascism in Spain’s Civil War including everyone who died when Franco bombed Guernica to break the back of Basque resistance. But there’s no government reckoning of exactly how many died that market day in Guernica, and the Spanish government still won’t acknowledge that Franco himself called on his allies, Hitler and Mussolini, to destroy the traditional Basque capital with their new tactical bombers. Basque mistrust of Spain grows from real grievances.

As we walked I prayed silently for Eduardo Puelles Garcia. The murdered police officer was himself Basque, a local guy directing anti-terrorism investigations for the Spanish police. In twenty years of police work, Puelles Garcia’s investigations put seventy ETA Basque terrorists in prison. Like many moderate Basques, he’d made some personal peace with Spain, welcomed Spain’s recent efforts to continue Basque language and culture, and as a regional police investigator had become a participant in the autonomous region’s self-governance.

And with each new ETA assassination over the last two decades, Puelles Garcia and his wife had wondered whether he’d be targeted next. A careful, committed man doing dangerous work asks those questions and learns to take what precautions he can. Puelles Garcia constantly changed his route to work and deliberately altered his departure time, and before ever getting into his car, he would get down on his hands and knees to inspect the undercarriage.

That morning last June he said good-by to his wife and sons and walked down to the apartment’s car park. He checked under his car, saw nothing, got in, started the car and began to back out. The motion-activated bomb was hidden above the axle and right next to the gas talk. Its force broke open the car’s steel frame and the secondary explosion of the gas tank engulfed the twisted wreckage in a fireball.

When Paqui Hernandez heard the explosion and felt it shake their walls, she knew her husband was dead, just as she knew what would come next, some shocked neighbor shaking with grief and rage weeping words of Eduardo’s death at her door. As we walked I wondered how she felt up ahead of us all, carrying such raw memories in silence next to the President.

It took us more than an hour to reach the river and begin crossing the Puente del Ayuntamiento, the bridge to Bilbao’s Town Hall up against the mountain. The crowd was still gathering when President Lopez and Paqui Hernandez reached the waiting podium and microphone.

What would President Lopez say to the crowd? The new Conservative-Socialist coalition had elected this peace-making President only some weeks before. Many speculated that Puelles Garcia’s death had been ETA’s brutal response to that election. Newly in office to make peace, and now facing another killing, this was a moment to show what he was made of.

No one, perhaps not even the President or the widow herself anticipated that she would touch the President’s elbow and nod toward the microphone. The crowd stared and waited for an anxious moment. What was she doing? What would their new president do? Honoring the widow was one thing, entrusting this crucial moment to her unscripted grief was another. Silence reached its deepest point as he yielded the microphone to the slain officer’s widow.

Speaking without notes in a steady, forceful voice Paqui Hernandez defied the assassins, honored her husband’s courageous work, gratefully acknowledged his brave colleagues who would carry the work forward, and said his murderers had accomplished -nothing – nothing but making two orphans and a widow. That was her speech, all of it. Then, holding her head high and speaking straight to the crowd, she acknowledged she was speaking from anger and holding back tears the tears, she said, she would save for home and family. She wanted to deny her husband’s assassins the satisfaction of even seeing her cry.

That was it. Paqui Hernandez hadn’t called for vengeance but peace. She had insisted police work would continue to put terrorists in prison where criminals belonged and she had praised her husband’s friends and colleagues, people brave enough to work for community and talking – for ordinary political conflict, legal justice, and civil compromise – at risk of their lives. Her fierce defense of peace and the peaceful means of achieving it reminded me of Desmond Tutu’s angry witness in South Africa’s Apartheid years, that angry, loving voice that earned him the title ‘Rabble-Rouser for Peace’ and a Nobel Peace Prize. We’ve heard Tutu’s angry voice again in global Anglicanism’s current struggles. Again and again he has insisted that Jesus really meant he would draw ALL people himself, ALL people, people of every color, straight and LGBT people, ALL people.

Academic theologians and Biblical scholars have provided rich answer to conservatives’ (and Canterbury’s) demand for a theological rationale for the LGBT part of that inclusion, but Tutu’s direct rabble-rousing for peace and his stubborn reminder of God’s unreserved embrace of ALL is theology too–theology like a widow of just thirty-six hours speaking to the whole Basque Autonomous Region and Spanish national television to ask her neighbors to make her terrible loss another step toward people talking past their disagreements and making compromises, finding provisional ways to work together – in peace.

Paqui Hernandez’ fierce witness for peace adds essential energy and texture we sometimes miss when we use courageous Anglican words like “communion” and “community,” “solidarity in conflict,” ‘inclusion and witness,” and even “bonds of affection.” In the global struggle to find human unity and peace,

– a struggle for the place of the other among us as sister/brother, friend and leader,

– a struggle that is changing religion and civil society,

our church is just one witness among many. The radiant power of Patxi Lopez leading our walk for peace and Paqui Hernandez’ words belong to the same blessed, just future our church (at our best) seeks to live into. King Jesus riding into the city of peace didn’t end the Roman occupation and terrible deaths by crucifixion, but riding the donkey, like Patxi Lopez and Paqui Hernandez walking through Bilbao, Jesus showed us the path, a path of peace-making justice for all.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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