This week, March 24, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of when El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass. A month before, he had sent a letter to then-president Jimmy Carter, imploring him to cut off military aid to his country, since that aid only resulted in the massacres of hundreds of innocent people. Carter ignored the letter.
Those were the days in El Salvador that witnessed the circulation of messages such as â€œBe a patriot, kill a priest.â€ In one of his last addresses, Romero made an urgent appeal to the members of the Salvadoran military, who were the ones committing these crimes against their Salvadoran compatriots: â€œIn the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!â€ Romero had been appointed archbishop because it was believed that he would not make waves. When priests in his diocese were murdered, the proverbial scales fell from his eyes. Throughout Latin America, Romero is regarded by many Catholics as a saint, because he stood up for the people. He put his status and skills at the service of defending the lives of campesinos, workers, and toilers for human rights as well as speaking out against the policy-makers and agents of torture and mass murder. He also denounced the institutionalized greed and violence of the status quo in which a few deprived the majority of the people of the means to have a decent life.
Itâ€™s sobering to realize that twenty-five years have passed since that fateful day in El Salvador. Romeroâ€™s El Salvador touched me personally three years later when a U.S. Catholic priest brought several disguised Salvadorans to our inner city parish in Louisville, Kentucky. Through the priest and them, we learned of the grave injustices in El Salvador and why these people had to flee. But these refugees were seen as illegal aliens by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and were in danger of being sent back to their bleeding country. Within in a year, that church, St. Williamâ€™s, offered Sanctuary to a family from El Salvador. Even though we, as U.S. citizens, were unable to stop the funding of the repression, we at least tried to offer safety and hospitality to one Salvadoran family.
A week ago marked the second anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, an American university student who, while working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Gaza Strip, was bulldozed to death by an Israeli soldier. She had been trying to prevent the illegal demolition of the home of a Palestinian physician and his family.
In a short amount of time, Corrie was introduced to the horror that Palestinians face while living under a brutal military occupation, one supported, like the El Salvadoran government of twenty-five years ago, by the United States. In one of her emails to her family shortly before she was killed, Rachel wrote about the callous Israeli disregard for Palestinian life and concluded, â€œThis has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers. But I also want this to stop. Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it.â€
While some have attempted to malign Corrie, many others across the world see her as the Latin Americans see Romero, a light in the darkness. When I worked in Rafah with ISM in the fall of 2003, I heard of Arab families naming their new-born daughters â€œRachelâ€ in memory of the American student who stood with the Palestinians.
At the time of his death, Romero was in his early sixties. He could have chosen the path of silence or prudence, like Pope Pius XII during World War II. But he didnâ€™t. Heâ€™d become clear-sighted as to what the historical crisis of El Salvador demanded of him: â€œI have the job of picking up the trampled, the corpses, and all that persecution of the church dumps along the road on its way through.â€
Rachel Corrie was twenty-three when she was killed. At a much earlier age than Romero, she saw the evil people and nations are capable of. In another email to her family, â€œWhen I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resister. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to themâ€”and may ultimately get themâ€”on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity–laughter, generosity, family-timeâ€”against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of deathâ€¦ I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and of basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstancesâ€”which I also haven’t seen before. I think the word is dignity.â€
In the last election, much was made of Republican religiosity and some votersâ€™ insistence on the primacy of moral values. Yet I think that in the very different lives of an Oscar Romero and a Rachel Corrie, we can discern, not a shared religiosity (marked by ritual, doctrine, and in-group identifications) but a shared set of moral values, a kind of social spirituality that is manifested in a solidarity with the victimized and the daring to stand up to their victimizers.
We are now moving into our third year of the war in Iraq. May we cross borders and boundaries and go where we are not supposed to go. May we hear the anguish of those who are being maimed and murdered by this filthy, rotten war. May we remain human in the dire circumstances ahead. And may more of us find our voice, like Oscar Romeroâ€™s, to intone, â€œStop the repression!â€ and Rachel Corrieâ€™s, to insist, â€œThis has to stop.â€
Mark Chmiel teaches at St. Louis University and is the author of Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership. (Temple University Press, 2001).