The Struggle for Justice Continues: Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador

The Struggle for Justice Continues: Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador

A Talk By John Dear, SJ

St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO. Sept. 29, 2009

In 1985, I went to live and work for a summer in war-torn El Salvador. I was sent to help out at a refugee camp in the countryside under the guidance of the Central American Jesuits. During that time, I visited with the University Jesuits, who were later assassinated on November 16, 1989. Now twenty years later, I call them to mind and heart:

Segundo Montes. Head of the UCA sociology department, director of the new human rights institute, superior of the Jesuit community, Segundo worked every weekend with the poor in Quezaltepeque. He had a big red beard, and the people called him Zeus. “I consider it a duty to work for human rights,” he once said. “It is the duty of every human being who has the sensibility and sensitivity to the suffering of people.”

Ignacio Martin Baro. Vice president of the UCA, social psychologist, expert in the field of public opinion in El Salvador, he worked every weekend in the poor parish of Jayaque

Juan Ramon Moreno. Assistant director of the pastoral institute at the UCA, secretary of the Jesuit province, teacher of novices, .he founded a Jesuit newsletter and set up the library in the Romero center which was completely destroyed that night by the death squads. “The vocation of the church and of the followers of Jesus,” he wrote “is to be the innermost recess of Christ’s compassion.”

Amando Lopez. Former head of the San Salvador seminary and of the Jesuit University in Managua, Nicaragua. He worked on weekends among the poor in Soyapango. I remember having lunch with him and asking him about his spiritual directee, Jean Donovan.

Joaquin Lopez y Lopez. The oldest, he had recently been diagnosed with cancer. One of the founders of the university, he also founded “Fe Y Alegria,” a network of thirteen schools that served eight thousand impoverished Salvadoran children, as well as two clinics which served 50,000.

Elba and Celina Ramos. Elba was the cook of the Jesuit house down the road, who brought her 16 year old daughter Celina to the UCA that night thinking they would be safer during the rebel offensive among the university Jesuits.

Ignacio Ellacuria. University president. There was a reason the Jesuits were killed, and to my mind, it was because of the prophetic work of Ignacio Ellacuria, known as “Yaccu.” A world class theologian, philosopher, and intellect, he helped write Romero’s pastoral letters; negotiated the release of the kidnapped daughter of President Duarte; and organized a nationally televised open forum at the university which systematically analyzed and attacked the right wing government and military.

Ellacuria was fearless, outspoken, and very public, a true prophet of justice and peace. He disturbed the so-called peace of the U.S.-backed junta, so the warmakers killed him. He was a true disciple of Jesus.

So there’s the lesson. If we want to follow Jesus, if we want to remember the martyrs, if we want to work for justice, we have to disturb the peace, say No to war, and accept the consequences. We have to take public risks for justice and peace, as Jesus and the Jesuit martyrs did.

One of the statements Ellacuria made to our small group of visiting Jesuit scholastics was shocking: “The purpose of the Jesuit University in El Salvador is promote the reign of God. But you can no longer be for the reign of God unless you are also publicly actively against the anti-reign.” In other words, he said, you cannot claim to be for peace and justice unless you are publicly actively against war and injustice. “So we are against violence and injustice on all sides, working for peace and justice, and everyone hates us.” I well remember seeing the bullet holes in the house where they lived, remnants of the many times they were strafed and attacked.

So twenty years after their deaths, as El Salvador’s war has subsided but its poverty and crime have increased, after 2 wars on Iraq and September 11th and Bush and Clinton and George W. Bush and now Obama: what can we learn from these great Jesuit martyrs that will help us today, in this terrible moment we find ourselves? I offer a few basic lessons.

First, they were concerned with the world, what they called “Reality,” and the world they saw is the world we live in today, a culture of violence and war and empire. They studied it and named it, and talked about it, we should do the same. And this is what they said and what we have to say: El Salvador has become the world. The whole world is now like El Salvador.

Today there are 30 wars currently being fought with our country involved in all of them. According to the United Nations, over one billion people are currently starving to death; some 40,000 people die every day of starvation. Nearly three billion people suffer in poverty and misery. We live in structured, systemic, institutionalized violence which kills people through war and poverty. From this global system comes as the litany of violence, from the death penalty, sexism, racism, violence against children, guns, abortion, to the destruction of environment, global warming.

But on August 6, 1945, we crossed the line in this addiction to violence when we vaporized 130,000 people in Hiroshima and another 40,000 people, 3 days later in Nagasaki. Today, we have some 25,000 nuclear weapons and we send radioactive materials into outer space and are planning even more destruction weapons. Meanwhile, as we ignore global warming, we are literally destroying the planet, wiping out thousands of species, and preparing for a future of infinite war and poverty. And this global violence is considered the normal, legal, and perfectly legitimate.

Second, they knew from studying the Gospels that this world of war and violence is not God’s will, and so they denounced it as social sin.

Underneath this culture of war and injustice is a sophisticated spirituality of violence, a spirituality of war that has nothing to do with the living God of Peace. In this false spirituality, we believe violence saves us, war brings peace, might makes right, nuclear weapons are our only security, God blesses wars, we seek not forgiveness and reconciliation but victory and domination, and the good news is not the love of enemies but the elimination of enemies.

And the culture of war, the empire, always tries to instruct the church on sin and morality, telling us that certain personal behavior is sinful or immoral, while saying nothing about the murder of a million Iraqis, as if that were not sinful or immoral. The empire wants the church to be indifferent and passive and silent; to be divided and fighting; ideally, to bless its wars and injustices. It wants us to have a private relationship with God, to fulfill our Sunday obligations and go along passively with the mass murder of our sisters and brothers around the world.

The martyrs were not afraid to name this false spirituality for what it is: heresy, blasphemy and idolatry. They called war and injustice and our silent support of the culture of violence “social sin.”

Third, the Jesuit martyrs taught that God is calling us to reject violence as immoral, illegal, and downright impractical.

With the martyrs, we are learning a new truth: Violence doesn’t work. War doesn’t work. Violence in response to violence always leads to further violence. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. As Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword. Those who live by the bomb, the nuclear weapon, will die by bombs and nuclear weapons.” You reap what you sow. The means are the ends. What goes around comes around.

War can not stop terrorism because war is terrorism. War only sows the seeds for future wars. War can never lead to lasting peace or true security or a better world or overcome evil or teach us how to be human or deepen the spiritual life. War is not the way to peace.

Not only that, but war is not the will of God. War is never blessed by God. War is not endorsed by any religion. War is never justified. War is the very definition of mortal sin. War is demonic, evil, anti-democracy, anti-human, anti-creation, anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-life. It’s illegal, but just downright impractical. For Christians, war is not the way to follow Jesus. Peaceful means are the only way to a peaceful future and the God of peace. From now on, to be human, to be Christian, is to reject violence, to turn from violence toward peace.

Fourth, the martyrs call us to stand in solidarity with the world’s poor and margainalized.

If we want to follow the Gospel and remember the martyrs, we have to make a preferential option for the poor. We have to learn that poverty is not the will of God, that what we do or do not do to the poor, we do or do not do to God. So we need to befriend the poor, serve the poor, defend the poor, struggle with and for the poor, and ideally practice a downward mobility that leads us to become one with the poor. That was the journey of Jesus and the Jesuit martyrs, and that’s our journey too.

Fifth, the martyrs teach us to undertake the journey from charity to justice.

Yes, we have to help concrete suffering people, as Lopez y Lopez did, as the Catholic Workers do, but we have to also ask why they are poor, and to learn about what Dorothy Day called the “filthy rotten system.” On that journey, we move from charity to justice and the long haul work for the elimination of poverty itself. We have to confront global, systemic, institutionalized injustice which leaves one billion of our sisters and brothers starving to death right now.

Sixth, likewise, the martyrs teach us to make a preferential option for peace and nonviolence.

As we move from charity to justice, and wonder where the money is going, we discover that all the world’s resources which should be used to feed and help the poor go instead to war and weapons. So we start working for disarmament, and that leads us to become, like Gandhi and Dr. King, people of nonviolence.

I urge you to reflect on this clumsy word, to define it and practice it in your life like Dr. King and Gandhi. For me, active nonviolence begins with the vision of a reconciled humanity, a vision of the heart, the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, all one, all already united, and so, we could never hurt or kill another human being, much less remain silent while our country wages war, builds nuclear weapons, and others starve.

So nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy; it is a way of life. It is not passive but active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race; resists systemic evil; persistently reconciles with everyone; disarms our hearts and the world; but insists that there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of any human being; and instead of killing others, we are willing to undergo being killed in the struggle for justice and peace; instead of inflicting violence on others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to retaliate as we pursue justice and peace for all people.

From now on, we reach out to every human being on the planet with unconditional, all-inclusive, all-encompassing, non-retaliatory, sacrificial, universal love. And as King said, “Unearned suffering love is redemptive.”

The world says there are only two options in the face of violence: you can fight back or run away. Nonviolence gives us a third option: creative, active, peaceful resistance to injustice. We stand up and resist violence with creative love, trusting in God, willingly suffering but insisting on the truth of our common humanity until the scales fall from the eyes of our opponents and we are reconciled. Nonviolence is not passive; it is active, creative, provocative, challenging! Gandhi says it’s a life force, more powerful than all the weapons of the world combined, that when we organize it, it becomes contagious and can disarm the world, that we’re just beginning to tap into it.

So nonviolence begins in our hearts, where we renounce all the violence inside ourselves. From now on, we‘re going to be nonviolent to ourselves, our spouses and children and parents, our friends and neighbors, everyone in town, everyone in the church, our nation and the world. We practice it personally, and we have to organize it in grassroots movements for social change to transform the world, as Gandhi demonstrated in India’s revolution, as Dr. King and the civil rights movement showed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines, and as Archbishop Tutu and the churches of South Africa showed against apartheid.

The night before he was killed, the mighty prophet of peace and justice, Martin Luther King, Jr., said “The choice is no longer violence or nonviolence. It’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” I think that’s where we stand tonight–on the brink of global destruction, called to become people of Gospel nonviolence.

Seventh, the martyrs call us to follow the nonviolent Jesus on the way of the cross in pursuit of God’s reign of justice and peace

Mahatma Gandhi once said that Jesus was the most active practitioner of nonviolence in the history of the world, and the only people who don’t know Jesus was nonviolent are Christians.

I see Jesus as the greatest teacher, prophet and practitioner of nonviolence. If we want to follow him, we have to be people of active, creative nonviolence. We need to do what he says. The martyrs did that. They served the poor, worked for peace and justice, spoke out against injustice, and were willing even to lay down their lives, as Jesus did by marching to Jerusalem, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, and being arrested and executed. Jesus was a true nonviolent revolutionary, a threat to empire. So were the martyrs. They were a threat to the death squads, to the junta, and to the Pentagon. They were dangerous in their nonviolence.

We need to practice that same dangerous, civilly disobedient nonviolence, which means we need to be willing to give our lives in the struggle for justice and peace, even to be willing to suffer and die in our nonviolence for a new world of justice and peace. This goes against our American sensibility, but for Jesus, the ultimate way for nonviolent social change is through his paschal mystery, through the cross and into the resurrection. The martyrs were aware of that, having learned it the hard way from Archbishop Romero himself. We have yet to learn the lesson, but we need to try to follow Jesus and the martyrs on that way of the paschal mystery.

Eighth, the Jesuit martyrs call us to be students and teachers of active nonviolence, to study and teach the movements and ways of nonviolent resistance and nonviolent social change.

If you have not studied Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothy Day and history’s countless movements of nonviolence, get to work. You’ve got your homework to do. And once you start studying nonviolence and the lives of the peacemakers, you need to start teaching nonviolence to everyone, everywhere, to your families and friends and communities and congregations and groups, so that we can learn the wisdom of nonviolence and begin to practice it more and more.

Ultimately, every Jesuit university should become like the UCA, a training camp in the work of justice and peace. St. Louis University and every Jesuit and Catholic university should be a school of nonviolence, a school of justice, a school for peacemakers, where there is no cooperation with the U.S. military (through ROTC or funding), and where everyone is encouraged to become a practitioner and prophet of Gospel nonviolence.

Ninth, the martyrs call us to get involved in the great issues and struggles of our times, to become activists of nonviolence, full time nonviolent resisters!

As Archbishop Romero said, none of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. Everyone of us is needed. Everyone of us has something to offer. Everyone of us, like Rosa Parks, can make a difference. Each one of us needs to be involved in some public action against war, for peace and justice. I urge people to vigil, organize and march against the current U.S. wars and say bring the troops home now; to join the protest to close the School of the Americas; to get rid of RTOC; to join Pax Christi, the national Catholic peace movement; to join the One campaign to abolish hunger and poverty; to support local campaigns to abolish the death penalty; to work with environmental groups; or to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Pick one cause, and get involved, and do what you can in a spirit of love, hope, truth and prayer, so that you are part of the global movement of active, creative nonviolence.

Tenth, Ellacuria, Romero, and the martyrs call us to be visionaries of justice, nonviolence and peace.

One of the casualties of this culture of violence, injustice and war is the loss of our imagination. People across the country can not even imagine a world without war, poverty or nuclear weapons. But that is our job. We have to become like our ancestors, the Abolitionists, who announced an astonishing new vision, a world without slavery, the equality of everyone on earth. We are their heirs, New Abolitionists. We have to announce the coming of a brave new world without war, poverty or nuclear weapons, a new world of nonviolence!

Eleventh, Ellacuria and the Jesuit martyrs call us to become prophets of justice, peace and nonviolence!

We need to break through the silence, complicity and acceptance of our culture of war, denounce the false spirituality of violence and speak the truth of peace and nonviolence, which means, from now on, we speak out publicly against our country’s wars and call for nonviolent alternatives. That means saying the unpopular truth, like this,

“In the name of the God of peace, stop the war and occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bring our troops home now, let the UN resolve the crises, and make massive reparations to Iraq. Seek nonviolent solutions for peace. Stop the militarization of the Mid-East, end all U.S. military aid to Israel; stop funding the occupation of the Palestinians; stop supporting Israeli war criminals; and start supporting nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, saying we’re not anti-Semitic nor do we support suicide bombers–we want the Jewish vision of shalom, we want human rights for Palestinians.

“And stop U.S. military aid to Colombia; close our own terrorist training camps, like the SOA in Georgia, close the 740 US military bases around the world. Close Los Alamos, Livermore Labs, and close the CIA, NSA, and the Pentagon. Leave the World Trade Organization, lift the entire Third World debt, house the homeless, give away free medicine to anyone with AIDS/HIV, give free universal healthcare, welcome every immigrant to our country, support the undocumented, abolish the death penalty and abortion, undertake treaties for total nuclear disarmament, join the world court, obey international law, sign the Kyoto accord, find alternatives to fossil fuels, stop global warming, end the Star wars program, cut the military budget, and abolish every nuclear weapon and weapon of mass destruction.

“And then, redirect those billions and billions of dollars toward the hard work for a lasting peace and feed every starving child and refugee on the planet, end poverty, and fund the education of nonviolence for the whole world.” This is what we need to say.

Twelfth, Ellacuria and the Jesuit martyrs call us to be people of true hope in a time of total despair.

I invite us to reflect on what gives us hope. Hope for me is costly. It’s not a cheap hope, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer. It’s the hope of Jesus on the cross, the hope of the Jesuit martyrs. We are people who place our hope in God, who trust in the God of peace and justice, who welcome God’s reign and who know that the outcome, the results of our work, is in God’s hands, that, in other words, our survival is already guaranteed, that love is stronger than hate or indifference or fear, that peace is stronger than war, that life is stronger than death, and that nonviolence is stronger than violence. We already know the outcome, and so we can go forward, like the Jesuit martyrs, and do what we can to work for a new world without war, poverty, nuclear weapons and global warming, even if we seem to be making no difference whatsoever, or that we might just end up in jail or dead, complete failures. Our hope rests with the God of peace and the nonviolent Jesus, and that is more than enough to go on.

Let me end with a quote from Ellacuria: “We are people of the Gospel, a gospel that proclaims the reign of God, and that calls us to try to transform this earth into as close a likeness of that reign as possible.”

And so in memory of Ellacuria and the Jesuit martyrs, in discipleship to the nonviolent Jesus, with our hearts set on the God of peace and the coming of God’s reign, let’s keep going forward, let’s walk the road to peace and justice, let’s do what we can to create a new world without war, poverty, nuclear weapons or global warming, a new world of justice and peace, to welcome a whole new world of nonviolence.