Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Skillen Lectures in El Salvador

Lou Wagenveld


By Lou Wagenveld

March 14, 2014

In a recent letter, President and CEO John B. Hardman of the Carter Center writes of “… build[ing] a world where…the greatest fruits of peace - free and honest elections, … transparent governance…traditions like human rights, rule by law, and equal access to justice - can take root.”

That vision offers a perspective on a series of lectures delivered by Jim Skillen, the Center for Public Justice’s former president, before a cross section of religious groups in El Salvador during the week immediately following the presidential elections in February. I had attended the elections as an international elections observer and then accompanied Skillen on his lecture tour. A run-off election on March 9 between Sanchez of the National Liberation party and Quijano of the Republican National Alliance is still being contested, although the Election Tribunal has called in favor of the former by the razor-thin margin of Frente 50.11% and Arena, 49.89%.  The results demonstrate the need for deepening the adherence to principles of democratic and just governance. 

Skillen spoke on varied topics with the hope that something in each lecture would resonate with listeners on a wide political range. Indeed, the audiences reflected the diversity of Protestant and Evangelical groups in the country, and the talks attempted to speak to the interests of each one. In one instance, I was cautioned, “You know that the Salvadoran Lutheran University holds to liberation theology, don’t you?” So when Skillen addressed why the United States is not an ideal model for government and politics, his views disarmed many and drew a very positive response from the seventy attendees. 

The historic churches grouped as the Salvadoran expression of the Latin American Council of Churches asked for Skillen to speak about why Christians need to develop a mature and realistic political philosophy. Two bishops who responded gave evidence of having considerable perspective on this, but it was clear that much more discussion would have to take place to come to some north-south consensus.

At the Evangelical University of El Salvador, a large gathering included the rector, board members, and students from the theology and social science departments. To this audience, Skillen offered first-time exposure to some Kuyperian categories and the important differences between the responsibilities of citizenship and those of churches, families, schools, and business. The presentation included much of the sweep of the biblical narratives pointing to the blessings of covenant and kingdom, with clear allusions to excerpts from Skillen’s new book “…that kingdom does have everything to do with human life in this age because our lives here and now have their entire meaning within the order of God’s good creation and Christ’s fulfillment of it.”

Skillen was also interviewed on the television channel of the largest mega church in El Salvador, which was important not so much for the topics discussed, but for the significance of a shift that is taking place in that church. Pastor Mario Vega was influenced years ago by Reformed theology, yet under his leadership the Elim cell group church of over 100,000 members grew as Pentecostal. Only last year in an interview did this influential leader define himself as “hybrid Reformed.” It appears that his growing involvement in national societal issues comes from that source, and observers note that he is increasingly engaged with addressing those concerns. In a brief coffee interview, Vega and a national ministry director expressed hope that a movement will grow out of an initiative by an array of Christian leaders and churches to address violence in the country.

The hope behind the lecture series is that more conversations will take place around the biblical ideas and foundational principles of which Skillen spoke. Copies of his book The Biblical Theme of Justice, translated just in time for the series, sold out quickly; a revision and second printing is underway. If some of those diverse sectors – all fruit of “mission” of the last fifty years but also a result of tensions and polarization – can talk more openly with each other and seek common biblical understandings founded in justice, the future of El Salvador could be very different. Some of those ideas must surely “take root.”

- Lou Wagenveld (D.Min.) served as a missionary in El Salvador 1995-1999 and continues involvement there with a widening circle of leaders interested in the reformed faith and its implications for society. He coordinated and translated the Skillen lectures. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”