Sunday, April 04, 2010

Oscar Romeo's resurrection and lessons for the United States

On March 24, 1980, Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was murdered by agents of the government. The right-wing government at the time regularly murdered its citizens and received significant military aid from the U.S.

I've blogged about Msgr. Romero before. A National Catholic Reporter article by John Dear, SJ, offers theological insight, as well as a criticism of then-Pope John Paul II's handling of the situation; many priests who supported the poor in El Salvador were associated with Marxism, which was anathema to the Catholic Church. Oscar's martyrdom offers many critical lessons for Christians.

His martyrdom also offers a critical lesson for U.S. foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Romero's preaching reached biblical heights. "Like a voice crying in the desert," he said, "we must continually say No to violence and Yes to peace." His August 1978 pastoral letter outlined the evils of "institutional violence" and repression, and advocated "the power of nonviolence that today has conspicuous students and followers." He wrote: "The counsel of the Gospel to turn the other cheek to an unjust aggressor, far from being passive or cowardly, shows great moral force that leaves the aggressor morally overcome and humiliated. The Christian always prefers peace to war."

Romero lived in a sparse, three-room hermitage on the grounds of a hospital run by a community of nuns. During his busy days, he traveled the country, met with hundreds of poor Salvadorans, presided at Mass, and met with local community leaders. He assisted everyone he could. Later, he said that one of his primary duties as archbishop had become not just challenging the U.S.-backed government and its death squads, but claiming the dead bodies of their victims, including priests, nuns and catechists.

On one of my visits, a Salvadoran told me how Romero would drive out to city garbage dumps to look among the trash for the discarded, tortured victims of the death squads on behalf of grieving relatives. "These days I walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope," he said.

In particular, Romero took time every day to speak with dozens of people threatened by government death squads. People lined up at his office to ask for help and protection, to complain about harassment and death threats, and to find some support and guidance in their time of grief and struggle. Romero received and listened to everyone. His compassionate ear fueled his prophetic voice.

By late 1979 and early 1980, his Sunday sermons issued his strongest calls yet for conversion to justice and an end to the massacres. "To those who bear in their hands or in their conscience, the burden of bloodshed, of outrages, of the victimized, innocent or guilty, but still victimized in their human dignity, I say: Be converted. You cannot find God on the path of torture. God is found on the way of justice, conversion and truth."

When President Jimmy Carter announced in February 1980 that he was going to increase U.S. military aid to El Salvador by millions of dollars a day, Romero was shocked. He wrote a long public letter to Carter, asking the United States to cancel all military aid. Carter ignored Romero's plea, and sent the aid. (Between 1980 and 1992, the U.S. spent $6 billion to kill 75,000 poor Salvadorans.)

Augusto Pinochet of Chile was on the U.S. payroll - the CIA acknowledged involvement in his repression in this link. Saddam Hussein was on the payrolls as well, as a counterweight to Iran - by the way, the U.S. supported the Shah, who was unpopular and who repressed his people. The U.S. has particularly sinful relationships with the Middle East and Latin America that will take generations to mend. But if Msgr. Romero has a lesson for U.S. foreign policy, it is that we must indeed mend those relationships.

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