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The Death and Life of Oscar Romero

March 23rd, 2010

By Gary G. Kohls, MD

This coming Wednesday will be the 30th anniversary of the assassination of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, a pivotal moment in the modern history of Central America and a moment that deserves reflection among U.S. citizens regarding the role their own government played in the ghastly bloodshed that surrounded Romero's death.

Gunned down while saying Mass on March 24, 1980, Romero died because of his outspoken condemnation of militarism and injustice. He had emerged as the highest-profile defender of impoverished campesinos and idealistic members of the Catholic clergy who were demanding an end to centuries of inequality and repression in El Salvador.

Romero's murder also demonstrated how far Salvadoran rightists were prepared to go in stopping the growing movement for social and economic reform. The brazenness reflected, too, how confident the anti-communist security forces were in their eventual support from the U.S. government.

Yet, Romero was an unlikely martyr for justice. He had begun his rise to power in the Salvadoran Roman Catholic Church as a lowly, rather naïve and very conservative priest who was elevated to the episcopacy partly because he was thought to be an obedient servant for the wealthy Salvadoran elite.

Romero was expected to protect the elite's tradition of maintaining power and control, by any means necessary, over the exploited working classes, especially the rural peasants, most of whom were practicing Catholics who had been told for centuries to look to the after-life for their reward.

However, these campesinos had begun to show signs of revolt, finally demanding freedom from their centuries of oppression. They formed quasi-revolutionary groups deriving inspiration from Jesus' gospels praising the poor and rejecting greed.

Romero saw how the Salvadoran security forces were resorting to torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances to silence and intimidate the liberation movement, including young clergy assigned to Romero's archdiocese. Each night, mutilated bodies were being dumped along the streets.

In the face of this cruelty, Romero's politics and theology did an about-face. He began a courageous three-year ministry openly opposing the Salvadoran military, the wealthy elites and his compromised Catholic Church hierarchy, which had long sided with the rich and powerful.

His path to martyrdom was set, and he knew it.

Romero became a Christ-like figure, who followed Jesus' example of unflinching anticipation of martyrdom. Romero also adopted the methods of Jesus, a strategy of active nonviolent resistance. He repeatedly called on the security forces to stop the repression.

He pleaded directly to the soldiers, who would change into plains clothes before heading off onto their death-squad missions. He told them, in the name of God, to refuse orders to shoot their countrymen. In his last Sunday sermon, a broadcast he knew was being monitored by the Salvadoran military, he said:

“Before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God.”

Romero knew his days were numbered, but that knowledge didn’t stop him from speaking out for human rights, on behalf of the poor and helpless. In one of his last interviews, Romero said:

"If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people ... A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”

Romero maintained his Christ-like, nonviolent stance to the end, even challenging the ethics of leftist rebels who felt that they had no recourse but to exact violent revenge against the fascists who controlled the security forces.

On March 24, 1980, after ending his final homily, Romero turned to the congregation to consecrate the Eucharist. And he said:

"May this Body immolated and this Blood sacrificed for Mankind nourish us also, that we may give our body and our blood over to suffering and pain, like Christ -- not for Self, but to give harvests of peace and justice to our People."

Then, the assassin’s bullet pierced his heart.

And like Jesus who urged forgiveness for the obedient Roman soldiers who were “only” following orders as they carried out his torture and execution, Romero’s last words were: “May God have mercy on the assassins."

Romero's assassination was widely believed to be the work of former Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, who, like other Salvadoran death squad operatives had trained at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas and who reflected the intense anti-communism that had long pervaded U.S. national security policies.

After Romero's killing, the reign of terror grew worse. Opposition political leaders and unionists were hunted down and murdered.

The rightists also were emboldened by the election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980. The next month, Salvadoran security forces kidnapped, raped and murdered four American churchwomen, an act that some members of Reagan's inner circle found reasons to excuse.

Once in office, Reagan escalated U.S. military assistance and training for the Salvadoran security forces while going on the offensive against human rights activists who reported on the repression.

In December 1981, the first U.S.-trained Salvadoran army unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, conducted the systematic slaughter on the entire village of El Mozote in northeastern El Salvador. The victims included women, some of whom were raped first; their children; and unarmed men. The total of those killed was believed to have exceeded 800.

When reports of the massacre surfaced in the U.S. press in early 1982, Reagan officials denied that a massacre took place and set out to destroy the careers of journalists who reported such stories. (It would take nearly a decade before a United Nations forensic team was allowed access to El Mozote where it dug up the skeletons, including tiny ones of little children.)

The Reagan administration also escalated military support for right-wing regimes in Honduras and Guatemala, where other death squads and extermination campaigns kept control for right-wing elites. And Reagan's CIA organized support for a terrorist anti-communist force known as the contras which ravaged border areas of leftist-ruled Nicaragua.

Before the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency in El Salvador ended in 1992, some 75,000 people had died and D'Aubuisson's right-wing ARENA party had become the country's dominant political force. In 1993, a U.N. truth commission determined that D'Aubuisson had ordered Romero's assassination. (D'Aubuisson, however, had died a year earlier of throat cancer.)

A number of key U.S. officials who participated in the Central American butchery – the likes of Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte and Otto Reich – have remained active in American politics and some landed prominent jobs in George W. Bush's administration.

Last year, the leftist FMLN, the political heirs of the revolutionary movement of 30 years ago, finally ousted ARENA from power. In their electoral victory, the leftists hailed the inspiration they drew from Romero's martyrdom.

After winning the presidency, FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes said, “I will govern like Monsignor Romero wanted the men of his time to govern, with courage, but with prophetic vision. Bishop Romero asked the rulers to listen to the cry of justice from the Salvadoran people."

An hour before his inauguration, Funes prayed at Romero's tomb, a reminder of the power of non-violent inspiration even in the face of the worst forms of brutality and injustice.


Dr. Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, Minnesota, and a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org). He writes about issues of religion, militarism, peace, justice and mental health.

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