«Oscar Romero and the Nonviolent Struggle for Justice At one a.m. on November 16th, 1989, twenty-six soldiers, nineteen of them trained at the School ...»
Oscar Romero and the Nonviolent
Struggle for Justice
At one a.m. on November 16th, 1989, twenty-six soldiers, nineteen of them trained
at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, stormed the Jesuit
community at the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador. They
forced the six Jesuits to lie face down on the lawn, and shot them dead. They
ransacked the house, and destroyed the word processors, file cabinets, theology
textbooks and bibles. Afterwards, they discovered Elba Ramos, the cook, and her fifteen-year-old daughter Celina hiding in a room on the edge of the Jesuit compound. They shot them on sight.
Several days later, the surviving Jesuits noticed the large black and white photograph of martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero which had hung in the entrance foyer to the theology center. The soldiers had first entered the building through this basement doorway; the Jesuits lived on the top floor of the theology center. On closer inspection, their friends noticed a bullet hole in the center of the picture. It appears that the first act of the soldiers that fateful night was to shoot Oscar Romero in the heart. Later, when the soldiers came across another large, glass-framed photo of Romero, they used a blow torch to set it on fire.
The deaths of the six Jesuits and their co-workers stunned the world. These scholars and priests and good women had publicly advocated for an end to the brutal war within El Salvador and the daily $1.3 million in U.S. military aid that funded it. They had spoken out on behalf of the poor and oppressed, had urged negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the rebel forces of the FMLN, (the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), as well as the U.S. embassy. They had preached the gospel and comforted the poor, and paid the price for their witness.
Though the Jesuits had long been proponents of justice, it was the life and death of Oscar Romero that propelled them to a faithful proclamation of the truth in the face of such overwhelming evil. They had known and loved Romero, directed his retreats, gone on vacation with him, written his homilies, dined regularly with him, suffered with him, mourned his death, and taken up where he left off. When Romero was assassinated in 1980, his spirit rose in them. They picked up his works of solidarity, peacemaking and truth-telling. When I visited those Jesuits in 1985, they told me about Romero’s impact on their own lives, their work, their theology, their faith. Now they, too, like countless thousands of Christians in El Salvador, have joined Romero in martyrdom.
The government death squads knew that Romeo’s life gave strength to the Jesuits.
That is why they stopped first to shoot another bullet into Romero’s picture.
Since 1980, despite their most brutal efforts, those soldiers had one great problem:
Romero, like Christ, refused to stay dead.
What those Salvadoran and U.S. government death squads did not know was that bullets cannot kill the spirit. Bullets could not kill the spirit of Oscar Romero, just as they could not kill the spirit of Jesus, the four churchwomen, the 75,000 Salvadoran martyrs, or the Jesuit martyrs. Those who murdered the six Jesuits and their coworkers are believed to have been connected with the murder of Archbishop Romero, the four churchwomen, and thousands of other unknown Salvadoran poor. They killed the bodies of these Christians, but they can not kill their spirits.
Perhaps these purveyors of death are beginning to learn a basic Christian lesson.
Christianity maintains that those who love life and live a life of love, live on in the love of others. We Christians call this great truth, resurrection, the eternal spirit of nonviolent, revolutionary love that insists on justice and peace. It grows in the human community of love and truth that sides with the poor in the nonviolent struggle for justice. Whoever dies in that nonviolent struggle lives on in the spirit of those who take up the struggle anew. Someone always picks up where a martyr leaves off. The spirit of love and truth lives on, the coming of God’s reign of justice and nonviolence gets closer and closer. Peace and justice become reality. Such is the lesson of martyrdom, the practice of resurrection, the essence of Christian love.
Just before I went to El Salvador in 1985 to live and work in a church-run refugee camp for displaced victims of the war, the Salvadoran military raided the camp and interrogated the church workers. These death squads found incriminating evidence among the few possessions of the church workers: they found an icon of Romero. To own such a picture was to take part in subversive activity. It was to side with the illegal, resurrected spirit of Romero, and could mean suffering the same fate as Romero, the fate of the poor, the fate of the Christ.
Oscar Romero lived and died in that nonviolent struggle for justice. His life message was a call to conversion, solidarity with the poor, a speaking of truth to power. He proclaimed life when the system around him demanded death. He announced peace when the government and the guerrillas waged war. He exuded hope when despair ruled the day. Because of this magnitude of spirit, he lives on in every Christian who enters God’s nonviolent struggle for justice. The message of the Christian community today is as dangerous as the message of Romero: Jesus lives! The Salvadoran death squads, the Pentagon and the U.S. warmakers know it too: Romero lives! The nonviolent struggle for justice continues!
*** For years, a story about Romero’s conversion circulated among the Jesuits. Once, while visiting a desolate rural village in the poorest outlands of El Salvador, Romero, the newly appointed archbishop of San Salvador, was presented with a half-eaten tomato by a farm worker, a campesino. Romero was repulsed at the sight, so the story goes. He turned to a priest who was accompanying him and whispered, “Why would anyone offer me a half-eaten tomato?” “This is all they have to offer,” the priest replied. “It is their last possession, their sign of love, their gift to you.” Romero was stunned, and learned then and there once more the pain of poverty, the war of systemic injustice, the heartbreak of the poor. It was a moment of conversion, one encounter among many on his road to transformation. Slowly he began to understand the plight of the poor, their selfless love and faith, and the Gospel mandate to preach justice. Slowly Romero accepted that call to denounce the “principalities and powers” of violence and to announce God’s reign of peace. Once Romero joined the nonviolent struggle for justice, he never quiet. For him, the journey to conversion was forever.
Romero’s journey took him from the spoiled life of a quiet, conservative pious cleric whose silence blessed decades of poverty into a prophet of justice, “the voice of the voiceless” in war-torn, politically explosive archdiocese of San Salvador. He represented no political party or ideology, only the suffering people of El Salvador.
He became a stunning sign of God’s active presence in the world itself.
*** Oscar Romero was born in the town of San Miguel on August 15, 1917. He entered the seminary at an early age, was ordained, studied theology in Rome, served as a parish priest, and by the 1970s worked at the archdiocesan seminary in San Salvador, where he befriended the seminary rector, a charismatic Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande.
As the Jesuits began to speak out publicly for an end to hunger and poverty, the conservative archdiocese replaced Grande with another Jesuit, Amando Lopez, who started to agitate for justice as well. He too was replaced (and would be assassinated that November night in 1989).
Romero believed that priests should not rock the boat, but say their prayers and support the government. Yet his best friend Rutilio thought otherwise. He moved to the countryside and started organizing campesinos against the military and corrupt political establishment. Romero was named a bishop in 1974 precisely because he was so conservative, a chief proponent of the radical center, a friend of the wealthy elite, and thus a supporter of the military. He appeared oblivious to the conditions of the poor and the growing military repression, but later he confessed that he was just plain too scared to speak out. Still, he had a great gift of pastoral care and kindness to any person in need.
Rutilio Grande’s demonstrations for justice attracted national attention, and he often met with Romero to urge him to speak out. On February 22, 1977, Romero was named archbishop of San Salvador to the delight of government officials, military personnel, and the death squads. He was deliberately chosen by Vatican officials because the Salvadoran bishops wanted a candidate who would not cause controversy. Like most priests and church workers, the Jesuits despaired of any hope for social change coming from the church.
*** All that changed overnight on March 12, 1977, when Rutilio Grande, a young boy and an elderly farmer were assassinated as they drove from Aguilares to El Paisnal for evening Mass. When Archbishop Romeo arrived that night and saw the bloodstained body of his friend, scales fell from his eyes. In a flash, he realized that Rutilio’s prophetic work for justice and peace was right, that Rutilio, not himself, had been faithful to the Gospel. As Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino later wrote, “If Rutilio had died as Jesus died, if he had shown that greatest of all love, the love required to lay down one’s very life for others--was this not because his life and mission had been like the life and mission of Jesus. Far from being a deluded, misled follower of Jesus, Rutilio must have been an exemplary one! It had not been Rutilio, but Oscar who had been mistaken! It had not been Rutilio who ought to have changed, but himself, Oscar Romero!”(1) All at once, Romero understood that Grande had been murdered because he called for justice on behalf of the poor. Romero understood that Jesus had been executed for the same reason. In this moment of realization, Oscar Romero was born again.
At the local mass the next day, Romero preached a sermon that stunned the Jesuits and the people of El Salvador. Like the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., Romero defended the work of Rutilio Grande, demanded justice for the poor, and called everyone to take up Grande’s prophetic solidarity. In protest against the government’s suspected participation in the murders, Romero closed the parish schools for three days and cancelled all masses in the entire country the following week. Over one hundred thousand people attended the single Eucharist at the Cathedral in a bold call for justice. While the government and military were concerned, the campesinos were inspired and many returned to the faith. On that day, a church was born again with Romero’s conversion.
Within six weeks, Romero issued his first pastoral letter urging all Salvadorans to take up Jesus’ radical demands in the Sermon on the Mount. “I cry out against injustice,” Romero declared, “but only to say to the unjust: Be converted! I cry out in the name of the suffering, of those who suffer injustice, but only to say to the criminals: Be converted! Do not be wicked!”(2) As more priests and church workers were assassinated, Romero spoke out more intensely, even publicly criticizing the president on several occasions. As the government death squads began to take over villages, attack churches, and massacre campesinos, Romero’s protest became louder and more regular. In the growing climate of fear and war, his word of truth in a culture of violence and lies was nothing less than a subversive act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Within a period of months, everywhere Romero went he was greeted with applause.
His Sunday homilies were now broadcast nationwide on live radio and heard by nearly everyone in the country. Letters poured in from every village, thanking him for his prophetic voice and confessing their own new found courage.
As Romero gained strength in his role as spokesperson for justice and truth, and as he exhorted the Salvadoran people to the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace, he never lost his simple faith and pious devotion. He prayed his rosary, paid homage to Our Lady of Peace, and joined in parish celebrations and local feasts. From this devotional piety which he shared with all Salvadorans, he paved a new way into active Gospel peacemaking. He preached God’s preferential option for the poor, justice and peace. In his opposition to the government’s silence, he refused to attend the inauguration of the new Salvadoran president on July 1st. The church, he announced, is “not to be measured by the government’s support but rather by its own authenticity, its evangelical spirit of prayer, trust, sincerity and justice, its opposition to abuses.”(3) “Peace is a product of justice,” Romero preached, “but justice is not enough. Love is also necessary. The love that makes us feel that we are brothers and sisters is properly what makes for true peace. Peace is the produce of justice and love.”(4) As the months passed, many more were arrested, tortured, disappeared and murdered. Romero made two prophetic institutional decisions which stand out for their rare Gospel vision. First, on Easter Monday, 1978, he opened the seminary in downtown San Salvador to all displaced victims of violence. Hundreds of homeless, hungry and brutalized people moved into the seminary, transforming the quiet religious retreat into a crowded, noisy shelter, make-shift hospital, and playground.
Second, he stopped construction on the cathedral until justice and peace are established. When the war was over and the hungry were fed, he announced, then we can resume building our cathedral. Both moves were unprecedented and historic and cast judgment on the Salvadoran government.