In memoriam: martyrs of El Salvador

A certain shadow seemed to hang over the demeanors of the Jesuit priests at Our Lady of Guadalupe today: this is the twentieth anniversary of the brutal murders of six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her teenaged daughter at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

The sixties, seventies, and eighties were a bloody time for countless places across the globe, but no nation’s struggles have been so closely tied to those of the Catholic Church in its advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised as those of El Salvador. This country’s vast numbers of illiterate, uneducated peasants were ruled by a landed elite which clung to power through a series of rigged elections in the 1970s. Frequently the only educated individuals among remote and far-flung communities of farmers, diocesan priests and Jesuit missionaries took it upon themselves to establish so-called “Christian Base Communities,” whose goal was both to establish lay worship centers where parishes were few and far between and to empower the campesinos with literacy, education, and a certain political and social awareness. The existence of these autonomous self-educating communities outside of the purview of the ecclesial hierarchy marked the beginning of conservative European prelates’ not unreasonable distrust of what would come to be known as “liberation theology” (more on that in a moment); but for the time being, in El Salvador, it was the conservative secular government which had more to lose and which found a great nemesis in the Church. The fateful assassination of Jesuit Rutilio Grande in March of 1977 by agents of the Salvadoran government unhappy with Father Grande’s support of farm laborers’ rights unclenched a vicious, decades-long cycle of violence. Grande’s friend, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was shaken to the core by the murder; he vowed not to meet with any members of the president’s entourage or attend any state functions, and took up the battle cry for the rights of the poor. Three years later, he himself was assassinated, shot through the heart while celebrating Mass, and between thirty and forty mourners were picked off by a squad of anonymous snipers during his funeral. This was one of the major events marking the beginning of a bloody Civil War that lasted for the rest of the decade, over the course of which time the Jesuit-run University of Central America, rectored by theologian Ignacio Ellacuria SJ, took a leading role in championing the education of the poor and articulating meaningful political dissent.

The United States supplied the right-wing Salvadoran government with approximately $500 million annually to suppress the growing ranks of revolutionaries; it also trained Salvadoran guerilla forces at its infamous “School of the Americas” (still in operation today) in Fort Bennington, Georgia — guerillas whose newly acquired paramilitary sophistication enabled the death squads that prowled the countryside, massacring between 40-80,000 Salvadorans. (Father James Marshall SJ, associate pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, told me that he visited both Guatemala and El Salvador in the mid-nineties. Whereas Native American Guatemalans were omnipresent in that country, barely an indigenous face could be seen on the streets of San Salvador — so great was the ethnic cleansing that occurred in that country in the eighties. One would not, of course, be condoning this reign of terror in admitting that violence begets violence — that the guerilla counterinsurgency which arose on the left was itself guilty of ruthlessly bloody deeds.)

American policy towards the Salvadoran government only changed after Reagan left office and the government of George HW Bush was left to process the events of November 16, 1989, when the Salvadoran government, in sync with a wave of artillery attacks against leftist targets in the countryside, also struck at the left’s intellectual center of resistance: some twenty assassins infiltrated the UCA and tortured and killed six unarmed Jesuit professors — including Father Ellacuria — along with their housekeeper Elba Ramos and her 16-year-old daughter Celina. The government intended to shut the priests up, but as one of my housemates commented tonight, it was undoubtedly the loudest single event of the Civil War, which would finally result in a ceasefire in 1992. (Since then, civil unrest  has quieted down, but terrorism of local labor leaders does continue there to this day.)

So that is the story that we remembered today. I think it is also worth reflecting on the philosophical legacy of the protagonists of this struggle. I know precious little about liberation theology, not having read any of the works of its main proponents (from Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru to Leonardo Boff of Brazil), but it seems to my unschooled eyes that there are two nearly contradictory urges underlying it, which I’ll mention briefly.

First of all, liberation theology has been criticized for going beyond the Church’s stated support of a “preferential option for the poor” and radically politicizing its ministries of presence, solidarity, and healing. The Church’s spokesperson on this account has been no less than Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who views the movement as just another variant of Hegelianism, Marxism, and all of the other vanquished ideologies that have insisted on “immanentizing the eschaton” (to use Eric Voegelin’s powerful phrase). The idea is that liberation theology materializes the transcendent by laboring, always in vain, to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth, neglecting the fundamental truth that terrestrial justice will always be radically incomplete and that only spiritual peace can pave the way for us to Paradise. It is often according to the “orthopraxis” of liberation theology that some have criticized Christian figures like Mother Teresa, who, in contrast to the liberation theologians’ ideals, stands accused of counseling the poor to “put up” with their disadvantaged condition rather than to overcome it.

A second controversial thesis of liberation theology, which could (I think) run contrary to the first, is a central tenet of the thought of Jon Sobrino, SJ. Father Sobrino was a member of the community of Salvadoran Jesuits who happened to be abroad on the night of November 16, and so escaped execution. He has since become a leading voice in liberation theology, and certain ideas in his book “Jesus the Liberator” have earned him the Vatican’s censure. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the Vatican’s “Notification on the works of Father Sobrino”:

In his book Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological View, Father Sobrino affirms:“Latin American Christology…identifies its setting, in the sense of a real situation, as the poor of this world, and this situation is what must be present in and permeate any particular setting in which Christology is done” (Jesus the Liberator, 28). Further, “the poor in the community question Christological faith and give it its fundamental direction” (Ibidem, 30), and “the Church of the poor…is the ecclesial setting of Christology because it is a world shaped by the poor” (Ibidem, 31). “The social setting is thus the most crucial for the faith, the most crucial in shaping the thought pattern of Christology, and what requires and encourages the epistemological break” (Ibidem).

While such a preoccupation for the poor and oppressed is admirable, in these quotations the “Church of the poor” assumes the fundamental position which properly belongs to the faith of the Church. It is only in this ecclesial faith that all other theological foundations find their correct epistemological setting.

The ecclesial foundation of Christology may not be identified with “the Church of the poor”, but is found rather in the apostolic faith transmitted through the Church for all generations. The theologian, in his particular vocation in the Church, must continually bear in mind that theology is the science of the faith. Other points of departure for theological work run the risk of arbitrariness and end in a misrepresentation of the same faith.

Now, while it would be mere sophistry to protest that one cannot advocate the abolition of poverty and insist on residing in the Church of the Poor at the same time (by means of a simple syllogism, this would suggest advocating the abolition of the Church), might it not be possible for the “Mother Teresa” idea of solidarity with the poor to find some overlap with the “Jon Sobrino” idea of what seems to amount to the same thing? Laying aside the quite true fact that a redefinition of the medieval notion of theology does run the risk of arbitrariness, couldn’t it be that accusing liberation theology of immanentizing the eschaton might overlook a certain awareness of its own limitations which underpins its flashy rhetoric, and a desire throughout all this to proclaim the Gospel precisely in the face of its own worldly defeat?

This idea occurs to me in part due to an interesting conversation I had with Father Marty last night. He is a man who has been involved in local politics and community organizing for decades — whether it’s protesting the local energy company’s rush into nuclear investment or advocating for the abolition of the death penalty (in this, Texas: the death penalty’s stomping grounds). I guess he is the kind of Jesuit you could crudely categorize as “one of those liberal social justice Jesuits.” Yet last night Father Marty, in reflecting on his own vocation as a priest, pastor, and organizer, mused that he’d probably achieved very little actual social progress in his career. People’s hearts and minds are slow to move. Looking back on the sides he’s taken, he implied, he may be able to say that he’s supported the right cause, the right cause, and the right cause, but he can just as easily say he’s supported the losing cause, the losing cause, and the losing cause.

There is something sadly beautiful here. W.G. Sebald, writing on Peter Weiss’s monolithic novel about failed communist resistance to Nazi fascism, “The Aesthetics of Resistance,” suggested (in a phrase which haunts me still) that it represents “an expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time.” This could as well be the slogan of Christians, whose God is a crucified one, an essentially failed political hero, as of communists. And it seems to have been the principle for which the Salvadoran martyrs died. Whatever their theology taught about the need to abolish social injustice, its real orthopraxis — the real test of its mettle — was in its ability to “put up” with an injustice that it couldn’t, for the moment, overcome…by dying a heroic death.

This weekend, my housemates will join thousands of others in Fort Bennington, Georgia, for the annual protest of the School of the Americas (now euphemistically renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation“). Due to work-related responsibilities, I won’t be able to join them; but I will pray for this manifestation of their desire — like that of the martyrs of El Salvador, religious and non-religious alike — to be on the side of the victims, now and at the end of time.

Padre Ignacio Ellacuria, Padre Ignacio Martin-Baro, Padre Segundo Montes, Padre Arnando Lopez, Padre Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Padre Juan Ramon Moreno, Julia Elba Ramos, y Cecilia Ramos: oren por nosotros.

4 thoughts on “In memoriam: martyrs of El Salvador

  1. great post, nicholas! and, honestly, that’s one of the best catholic blog i have ever read! (absolutely the best among the new ones). i am amazed and link you right now.

    yours in christ.

  2. Hello

    I’ve just uploaded two rare interviews with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. One was made for the Christophers [1971]–i.e., Christopher Closeup– and the other for WCVB-TV Boston [1974].

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues with Catholic Worker homes in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable lay minister.

    They may be located here:

    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

  3. These are just some thoughts that came into my head while reading.

    First off, liberation theology cannot truly be equated with what Fr. Marty is doing. Although El Salvador and the Westside populations are both suppressed, both conditions cannot be equated. Conditions in El Salvador were not tolerable to the poor, which is why they chose death/war to fight off the conditions.

    The conditions on the Westside are such that people are suppressed and disenchanted, but the conditions are nonetheless tolerable. When conditions are tolerable, people do not feel the need to work for their rights. (It is like the frog in a tub of warm water that is slowly heated up until it is finally boiling. Since the frog gets used to the minute increments in degrees, it does not jump out and instead gets cooked to death.)

    Also, let us assume that the conditions on the Westside can be likened to the ones in El Salvador, Fr. Marty does not use Freire’s methodology to educate the poor so they can come to an understanding of their situation. Freire’s methods were used extensively in El Salvador (and other Latin American countries). It was the people’s knowledge of their own situation that helped unite them for change. AND the church had to be a part of this because without the church, the people would not have had education. AND without the church, the government would not have listened to the plight of the poor. Hence, liberation theology was necessary. And it has taken 20 years, for the underdogs to rise in political position… The government is now Frente for the first time since Arena last took power. Conditions may not change too much, but fear has at last been overcome and the people’s voice has been heard.

    This is to say that the fruits of our labor can be seen over time and with patience … it is all an evolution… even an evolution that will someday fruition as eternal life.

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