“If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people” said Oscar Romero.
Oscar Romero and the Justice of God.
When Oscar Romero was elected Archbishop of San Salvador and the leader of the Catholic Church in El Salvador in 1977, there were many people who were very pleased. On the whole they were the rich and powerful classes in the country- they were pleased because Romero, as Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador from 1970, and then as Bishop of Santiago de Maria from 1975, had established a reputation for strong opposition to the “base Christian communities” that were springing up throughout the country.
Those “base communities” had begun in the 1960s, initially as a response to the “threat” of communism after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959. Many in the Catholic Church of Latin America realised that the rural poor had been long neglected by the Church, and could fall easy prey to Communist teaching. Churches and priests were found mainly in the towns, ministering to merchants and middle-class families. Parishes were often vast, and rural hamlets, with their populations of poor peasants, received rare visits from their priests, who would conduct baptisms and weddings, hold a Mass, and then go away again.
But some within the Church, particularly religious orders such as the Jesuits and Dominicans, were determined to do something about this situation. In the parishes for which they were responsible they would go to the villages and encourage local people to elect from their number trusted people, to be called “Delegates of the Word”. They would be trained to conduct worship in the communities every Sunday- not a Mass, because only a priest could do that, but a service based on the reading and discussion of the Gospel for the day. Through the 1960s such “Celebrations of the Word” began to develop in many rural communities, and also in some poor parts of towns and cities.
As the rural people began, Sunday by Sunday, to listen to and discuss stories from the Gospels they came to surprising conclusions about the implications of their faith. More and more they began to say that the agricultural way of life they were being forced to live in El Salvador was against God’s will- it was an unjust system that had been imposed on them for generations.
For nearly five hundred years, since the Spanish invasion of America, the land had been in the hands, not of the whole people, but of a few wealthy and powerful families. In the early days rural workers had lived mainly by “share-cropping”- they cultivated the land and paid a proportion of the harvest, often up to half, to the landlord. In the nineteenth century, however, landlords saw opportunities for greater profit and wealth for themselves by turning their landholdings from sharecropping to the growing of export crops, indigo, sugar and especially coffee. The labourers were forced off the good agricultural land and onto rocky, barren soil to grow their own food, and the men travelled to the plantations for work, which was usually only available at certain times in the year, especially planting and harvest. Landowners who took advantage of this export trade, mainly to the United States, but also to Europe, consolidated their power. In El Salvador they became known as “The Thirteen Families”. All political life was controlled by them.
In the 1930s the prosperity of this system had come under threat. The impact of the 1929 Wall Street Crash in the United States meant that the prices of agricultural exports, and especially coffee, fell catastrophically. The landowners in El Salvador tried to protect their own incomes by forcing the rural workers to take a cut in wages. The workers rebelled, and the landowners responded with fierce repression, in which an estimated thirty thousand rural workers were killed- known as the “Matanza” (the Slaughter), this repression secured peace and quiet in the Salvadorian countryside for a generation. It was this rural “peace and quiet” that began to be challenged in the 1960s by the thinking of the new Base Christian Communities. As the villages began to set up rural trades unions to struggle for better wages and conditions, and some even to argue that land should belong to the whole people, not to a tiny elite, the landowners began to react once more with intimidation, violence and repression.
It was this whole development that Oscar Romero opposed. He held to a traditional interpretation of faith, that people should be content with their lot in this life, and hope for a reward in heaven after death. Perhaps he was also concerned for the people, that their increasing demands for justice would bring violence and suffering onto their families. The threats of violence were indeed growing, as the landlords began to hire and organise armed thugs, the “Death Squads”, to go into villages and kidnap, torture and kill the leaders of the rural workers’ movements. El Salvador found itself descending rapidly into civil war, as groups who began to arm themselves to resist the Death Squads began to unite, and eventually (in 1980) to form themselves into the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)- Farabundo Marti had been a leader of the rural poor in the 1930s.
By this time the leadership of the Catholic Church in El Salvador was deeply divided. Some, like Romero, were opposed to the new-style “liberation theology”. Others, like Archbishop Chavez, Romero’s predecessor at San Salvador, were more sympathetic. Many priests who worked in parishes with Base Communities were growing resentful of those in the hierarchy who they saw as being on the side of the rich and powerful. But others took great care to maintain contact across the bitter divides, and to try to explain what was happening. Such a one was the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, the parish priest of Aguilares, a large parish to the north of San Salvador which was dominated by sugar plantations, and in which Base Communities had taken firm root. Grande has at first been unsympathetic to the growing “political” understanding of the Gospel his parishioners were developing, but he believed it was important to trust people and take their experience seriously. He had maintained a good and respectful friendship with Oscar Romero through it all.
Three weeks after Romero had been installed as Archbishop, on 12th March 1977 Rutilio Grande and two parish workers were murdered by gunmen as they travelled to a remote village in the parish. Romero was called to conduct their funeral. On the night before the funeral and burials the coffins were brought into the church, as the custom was, and Romero and the parishioners kept vigil through the night. During that night Romero listened in a new way to the stories and experiences of Grande’s people, and when he returned to San Salvador it soon became clear that this had had a profound impact on his thinking.
Soon people began to notice a change in his sermons. In the first place, they grew longer, as he began to speak about the acts of violence and repression that were being perpetrated against the people, events that otherwise would have gone unreported. He would relate these events to the Gospel readings of the day. His sermons were broadcast through the Archdiocese radio station, and soon vast numbers were listening. A United States advertising agency working in El Salvador at the time calculated that 73 percent of the rural population and 47 percent in urban areas were listening every Sunday.
Events in El Salvador were becoming increasingly of concern to the leadership of the United States. Since the nineteenth century the USA had seen Latin America as its own “backyard”, and the so-called “Monroe Doctrine” (James Monroe was President of the USA from 1817 to 1825) stated that efforts by European nations to colonise or interfere with states in North or South America would be viewed as acts of aggression, requiring US intervention. Latin America was regarded as offering great potential for United States commercial expansion, and especially since the Second World War the Monroe Doctrine was interpreted as requiring intervention to prevent the spread of Soviet Communism in the region. In 1954 the Arbenz Government in Guatemala, which had proposed land reform and the nationalisation of fruit plantations owned by US companies, was overthrown. The ousting of Batista in Cuba in 1959 and his replacement by Fidel Castro heightened the sense that Central America, at least, faced a danger that must be dealt with by all means possible.
Authoritarian dictatorships were supported, and the needs of the rural poor sidelined, or seen as only able to be answered by an extension of capitalism to the region, which the spread of socialism would hinder. The Presidency of Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1980 brought a limited rethink of the effectiveness of this policy, and an emphasis on the importance of human rights. But some thought this “softness” was the reason the Somoza regime in Nicaragua was allowed to fall in 1979, and the “Communist” Sandinistas to gain a foothold in the region, from where they could spread their poison to the rest of the continent. When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, policy returned to normality, though it was recognised that gratuitous acts of violence were counter productive, and would enrage world opinion. Judicious violence to contain the situation and suppress radical movements would be far more efficient, but the US always found it hard to moderate the outspoken violence of the Salvadoran elite, such as that expressed by the leader of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) political party, Roberto d’Aubuisson, who declared that it would be necessary to kill between two and three hundred thousand people to restore peace in El Salvador.
Gradually Oscar Romero’s sermons became more insistent, more challenging to the power and violence going on. He soon became aware that his life was under threat. “I have frequently been threatened with death” he said. “I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.” The violence in the country continued to escalate. On Sunday March 23rd 1980 he issued a clear challenge to young soldiers in the army to disobey the orders of their officers: “We are your people. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the voice of the man commanding you to kill, remember instead the voice of God ‘Thou shalt not kill’. In the name of God, in the name of the tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression.” This was a step too far for the powers in El Salvador. On the next day, as Romero celebrated mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Sisters’ hospital where he lived, he was assassinated by a single rifle shot. It was the signal for a massive outburst of repression in the country- with their protector now out of the way the number of killings escalated and the civil war was fought on to a stalemate.
New economic developments have come to El Salvador since the death of Romero- in particular textile factories (“maquiladoras”) exporting goods to the United States and other countries. This has reduced the dependence of the country on agricultural exports, but poverty persists, and large numbers of young Salvadorans emigrate for work, often illegally, in the USA. The Vatican, led by a Pope whose experience of Soviet-style Communism in Poland made him deeply suspicious of any developments that appeared to follow the same trends, has sought to counter liberation theology and disrupt the work of Base Communities, and has been very successful in its efforts. The justice sought by the Salvadoran Base Communities (and those in other countries) seems as elusive as ever, unless a new Pope who has taken the name Francis promises a change. Or will it simply mean a fresh emphasis on the responsibility of the powerful and rich to “care for the poor”, without in any way changing the structures of power that create poverty in our world?