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Today is the 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

March 23, 2020

In the early 80s, I cut my political teeth because of the Central American Solidarity Movement. While I was a seminary student at Aquinas College, we hosted a Salvadoran labor organizer, someone who had just survived a bomb attack, with a piece of shrapnel lodged in her head.

This was the first time I had heard about Oscar Romero, just 3 years after his assassination. Romero’s death was a huge catalyst for the thousands of people who got involved from the US in the Central American Solidarity Movement in the 1980s. Like lots of people, I participated in demonstration, distributed information, went to meetings, got arrested at government facilities, was part of a group that declared itself a sanctuary in 1986 in Grand Rapids, and eventually this work led me to do accompaniment work in Central American and Mexico on 13 separate trips between 1988 and 2006. I wrote about those experiences in the book Sembramos, Comemos, Sembrmos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time

Part of why so many people were moved to be part of the Central American Solidarity Movement, was due to the fact that priests, nuns and other religious workers were now being targeted by death squad governments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Not that people who relied on the national news sources were privy to this information in the 1980s. In fact, Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman, in their masterful book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, provide a powerful news comparison to make this point about what the New York Times, CBS, Time & Newsweek were reporting on.

Herman and Chomsky did an 18 month study of these news sources and compared the amount of coverage that all of the 72 religious workers who were killed in Central America received, compared to the amount of coverage that one Polish Priest who was killed also received. In each of the four major national news sources, the Polish priest’s death received more news coverage than all 72 religious workers killed in Central American combined. This study demonstrated the disparity of US media coverage between violence that was happening in a Communist country, compared to the violence happen in US client states.

However, despite the fact that major US news outlets were not providing comprehensive news coverage about US-financed state terrorism in Central America, there were hundreds of thousands of religious groups, labor organizations and other sectors of civil society in the US that became engaged in the Central American Solidarity Movement. Also, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, this was the first time that large numbers of Americans actually went to Central America, not as missionaries, but as participants in acts of solidarity with the people who were being targeted.

Of course, most people did not go to Central America directly, but their religious communities became sanctuaries, hosted speaking tours of Central Americans who were educating people about US policy, providing material and financial aid, organized marches, did collective fasting and even got their local governments to make Central American communities a Sister City. In fact, in 1984, a national group called the Pledge of Resistance, even got thousands of people to commit to doing civil disobedience if the US if the US escalated the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. This meant doing Direct Action at government offices, US military bases and private weapons contractors that were profiting from those wars, as can be seen in this map.

And there was the image and message of Archbishop Oscar Romero right in the middle of it this. Romero was an inspiration to the movement in so many ways.

Romero then began to challenge the power structure in El Salvador, mostly through his Sunday sermons and his weekly radio broadcast. Romero understood all to well that the poverty and violence that people endured was because of the unjust economic power that the country’s wealthy possessed.

Romero also understood that the political violence that was terrorizing the country’s poor and working class people was a direct result of US military aid to El Salvador. Five weeks before Romero was assassinated he wrote a letter to then US President Jimmy Carter. Part of that letter states: 

For this reason, given that as a Salvadoran and archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador, I have an obligation to see that faith and justice reign in my country, I ask you, if you truly want to defend human rights:

To forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government;

To guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people;

Noam Chomsky writes in the book Manufacturing Consent, that after Romero sent the letter to Carter, the Carter administration put pressure on the Vatican to try and curb the activities of the archbishop. Five weeks after Romero sent the letter to Carter, he was assassinated.

Romero also understood that many of the foot soldiers in the Salvadoran military were poor people who had been forced into the army. The day before Romero was assassinated he made a special appeal to the soldiers in El Salvador to not kill their fellow Salvadorans. Romero ended his sermon with these words:

“Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. …In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.”

It was precisely because Romero was willing to die for the people of El Salvador, that so many people were inspired to be part of the Central American Solidarity Movement.

I share these thoughts on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, not out of pious reasons, but to say that his example impacted millions around the world and that when we engage in radical, transformative acts of collective liberation, who knows how far reaching those acts will be.

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