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A Zapatista Prophet Stays in Our Home for Ten Days!

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Last month my wife Peggy and I had a prophet in our home: Gustavo Esteva.

No doubt, the seer would be shocked by my characterization. After all, Gustavo says he's an atheist. He's a harsh critic of the Catholic Church -- and all religions for that matter.

Gustavo was once an IBM executive, and an official high-up in the Mexican government. At one time he was also a revolutionary guerrilla. Now he calls himself a de-professionalized intellectual and itinerant story-teller. He's the founder of an alternative university (Unitierra). He has authored more than 30 books, among them Grassroots Postmodernism and Escaping Education.

But I stick with my assertion: he's a prophet.

In the presence of someone like that, you can imagine the transcendent conversations we had around our dinner table each evening during his ten-day stopover in our home. Sometimes dear friends were there with us. At others, it was just Peggy and I. We talked of almost nothing else but politics, literature, spirituality and the direction of history.

Gustavo is from Oaxaca in Mexico.

Among his outstanding qualifications is his position as advisor to the Zapatista revolutionaries. Perhaps you remember them. They're the Native Americans who on January 1, 1994 captured the imagination of Mexico (and many of us outside) when their lightly armed military forces occupied five Mexican towns around San Cristobal in the state of Chiapas.

They were protesting the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they said spelled the death of their culture and way of life. Their courageous Indian Uprising made them instant international heroes. So did their eventual abandonment of armed struggle in favor of non-violent resistance.

On more than one occasion, Peggy and I have led students into Zapatista communities to experience their radically counter-cultural lives first hand.

According to the Zapatistas, women are leading the way they have embarked upon. In fact, 60% of their army commanders are women.

The importance of women's leadership was the heart of the extraordinary convocation Gustavo gave at the beginning of his "scholar-in-residence" stint at Berea College. It was a theme to which he returned often during his many classes and lectures there. Women are leading the way, he said, into the "other world" that is not only possible but requiredif our planet is to survive.

Our threatened survival is where Gustavo started. He said our world stands in a position of unprecedented danger. It is threatened by climate chaos, oligarchical governments, tremendous wealth disparities, an economic system that simply doesn't work, schools and communications media that propagandize rather than inform, and by an emerging and universal police state with its system of perpetual war that (suicidally) defends the status quo. Under the present world order, the line between governments, the military, the police and the judiciary on the one hand and the criminals and thugs on the other has completely disappeared. Not a pretty picture.

During his general convocation, Gustavo held us all spell-bound as he outlined the seven principles to guide us out of the morass just described. They represent the North Star that guides the Zapatista movement as Native Americans once again mark out the path to planetary survival. The Zapatista principles call into question our entire way of life.

Here they are as Gustavo explained them:

    1. To serve others, not self. For Zapatistas, the goal of life is the common good, not the accumulation of money or power.
    2. To represent, not supplant. The Zapatista model of revolution is not the seizure of power (supplanting one government with its mirror image), but the representation of the majority without reproducing old relationships of domination.
    3. To construct, not destroy. The new order cannot be built upon violence.
    4. To obey, not command. However, the Zapatista model of obedience is not that of servant to master or of soldier to comandante, but of mother to her infant child.
    5. To convince, not to win. The Zapatista way centralizes respectful dialog based not primarily on logical argument, but supplementing logic with intuition derived from the experience of life.
    6. To propose, not impose. Imposition represents the violence rejected by Zapatismo.
    7. To go down, not up. For Zapatistas the geography of social discourse and action has changed. Old categories of left and right, conservative and liberal are no longer applicable. The new more relevant topography directs our gaze up and down, north and south -- to recognize the gap between the one-percent and the rest of us.

Not surprisingly, not everyone welcomed that message of cooperation, non-violence, care and acceptance. During the Q&A following Gustavo's principal address, a particularly articulate young man posed a question that must have been on the minds of many "exceptionalist Americans" in the audience.

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is (more...)

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