Below is an edited version of a piece I wrote for Tribune last year on political and social heroes.
The strap line to my blog reads as follows: ‘Aspire not to have more but to be more.’ These are the words of one of personal heroes, the late Oscar Romero Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 by the pro-US military junta who then ran El Salvador.
Romero was murdered because he provided moral direction to a grassroots movement for social change and sought to pierce the silence of repression and inform the population at large of ‘the facts’. Why should people on the left of the political spectrum be interested in a relatively obscure Catholic Archbishop who was shot to death in a tiny Central American republic over 30 years ago? Perhaps the words of a rather more famous Latin American may serve to elaborate the significance: Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet famously uttered words to the effect that “We have nothing against ideas. We’re against people spreading them.”
What were the dangerous ideas Romero espoused? He was a passionate advocate for civil and human rights and his advocacy for justice for the poor was bound to bring him into conflict with powerful interests. Romero could variously be described as a ‘prophet of the people’, a mobilizer and a voice speaking against and into a violent void. Romero was an implicit supporter of what became known as liberation theology, a movement which took root throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and focused on helping the poor and oppressed, even if that meant confronting political powers. It was a theology that was later to be severely criticised as a ‘fundamental threat’ to the church by one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became better known as Pope Benedict XVI.
Prior to his appointment as Archbishop Romero was considered to be a quiet, bookish and non-controversial figure and his elevation to the position of Archbishop was welcomed by many business, government and military figures who believed that he would be a ‘safe pair of hands’ who would ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.’
By his words and actions Romero consistently attempted to unmask and denounce the ‘culture of silence’ imposed upon the oppressed majority of people in El Salvador by an oligarchic minority that was unaccustomed to opposition from such quarters. In doing so he was forced to confront a genocidal military-armed, trained and financed to a great extent by the United States of America.
In August 1978, four Salvadoran bishops issued a statement condemning a peasant’s popular organizations as ‘Marxist.’ Romero distanced himself from their comments and wrote in defence of the peasants .
In a pastoral letter that was read out in all Roman Catholic churches in El Salvador he defended the right of all working people to organise and criticised the fact that this right was consistently violated in El Salvador. In writing this letter Romero was publicly siding with popular, peasant led organizations and – more dangerously – becoming perhaps the most high profile mobiliser to their cause.
Aware of the implications of restricted press ownership Romero used his weekly radio address to condemn the numerous killings, abductions and incidents of torture.
Romero wrote directly to the then US President Jimmy Carter arguing that given the level of human rights abuse by the military, aid to the junta should be suspended. In a sermon broadcast live on the radio on March 24 1980 he outlined what was in effect a moral justification for mutiny. After providing a theological framework for the statements that were to follow, Oscar Romero related some of the hundreds of cases of genocidal military action occurring during the previous week, citing an Amnesty International press release to confirm his accounts. Towards the end of this sermon he addressed the military directly:
‘I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when 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 recovered you consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you – in the name of God: stop the repression.’ (Cited in Leiken & Rubin 1987: 377-380)
Later that evening whilst saying mass at a small church attached to a cancer hospital a lone gunman shot Romero dead.
Romero was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 1979. When nominated he was asked about his humanitarian work, he told reporters:
‘When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.’
Romero is a hero of mine because he accepted that to fight against injustice; to commit one's life to the poor is not simply about taking a religious stance but a political and moral one. Romero understood that the true message of hope, the promise that the world can be fairer, more just and less divided often results in giving comfort to the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.