Friday, November 14, 2014

El Salvador Martyrs: Valuable Educational Resources Now Coming Online

I'm posting material as an educational offering today — a resource to help all of us educate each other and the groups with whom we interact, and to educate ourselves first and foremost. There's been a spate of articles lately about the murder of three American nuns and an American lay missionary — Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan — in December 1980. The video at the head of the posting was recently published by New York Times as a "retro report."

As Raymond Bonner notes for the Daily Beast, the "question of justice" remains in El Salvador, and it remains "likely to be frustrated" there, though dogged persistence has brought at least some rough justice for the families of these four American missionary women, who have cried out over and over for justice since the murder of their loved ones in 1980. The problem of justice: every indicator points to high-ranking members of the El Salvador military as those who ordered the rape and killing of the four missionaries.

And the role of the United States government for years was obstructionist rather than helpful, when it came to seeking justice for the four murdered women. From the get-go, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a top foreign policy advisor to Ronald Reagan and his appointee as ambassador to the UN, tried to divert attention away from the heinous crime committed by the Salvadoran military by claiming that the nuns were not merely Catholic religious women engaged in missionary work, but "political activists."

They became "political activists" deserving to be targeted by death squads, this noxious suggestion seems to imply, because they sought, in respose to the imperative Jesus gives to all his followers in Matthew 25, to feed, clothe, house, and educate the poorest of the poor in El Salvador, including many children at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig, a Catholic, added fuel to this noxious fire, by claiming the four women may have run through a roadblock (and therefore deserved to be raped and shot?), and weren't like the good sisters, the real nuns, who taught him as a boy.

Haig actively obstructed the attempt of the U.S. government to bring the killers of the four nuns to justice. As Bonner notes, flash forward to the 1990s, and human rights activists found the two Salvadoran generals at whose feet ultimate responsibility for the murders has been laid — Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova — living happily in retirement in Florida, with the full knowledge of the U.S. government. After years of wrangling, the two were finally deported. 

As the Times video notes, Ita Ford's brother Bill Ford was especially dogged in his perseverance about bringing the killers of his sister and her missionary companions to justice. He spent years demanding justice and challenging the attempts of the Salvadoran and U.S. government to cover up, and died not seeing justice accorded to his sister. 

The Vatican, under Pope John Paul II, was frankly no help at all in this quest of the nuns' family members for justice. John Paul tended to view priests and nuns working for social justice in Latin America as communist-leaning, and his crackdown on liberation theology in Latin America (a crackdown actively abetted by his right-hand man Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI) left the struggling poor of Latin America undefended by the top officials of the Catholic church — and so exposed to serious danger from repressive military regimes. The Vatican's refusal to support Catholic movements working to ameliorate the conditions of the poor of Latin American also exposed anyone within the church who sided with the poor to the same danger. 

As Bonner notes, not only were these four nuns murdered by the military, but the archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was shot at the altar while saying Mass after he issued pleas to the military to stop repressing the poor, and to hear the cries of the poor for bread and for justice. And as another recent documentary produced about the struggle for justice for the poor in El Salvador reminds us, a group of Salvadoran Jesuits who had also taken the side of the poor were slaughtered in 1989 by members of the national military, along with their housekeepers. 

The murdered Jesuits and their housekeepers will be commemorated this weekend at the 17th annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ) in D.C. The documentary below was produced for this event:

I'm happy to see these stories from the 1980s once again receiving attention in the American media. For years, as I taught theology in Catholic universities, I shared these stories with my students and challenged them to think about the implications of the stories.

I have the impression that too few Catholic (and other) young people today know a great deal about these important sagas from the history of the late 20th century. To those of us who lived through the events, they will perhaps always remain seared in memory.

It becomes our responsibility to pass this information on to subsequent generations, I think. As Amanda Marcotte points out in an article at Salon today, for weal or for woe, the internet makes available masses of information about religious groups, information that causes it to be increasingly difficult for any religious group to obfuscate, ignore its history, hide from the free dissemination of information, etc. As she also notes, many religious groups, including the Catholic church at an official level, are only now waking up to the recognition that obfuscating, ignoring, and hiding from the free dissemination of accurate information are less and less possible in the internet age.

To my way of thinking, the attempt of the media and various Catholic groups to inform the internet-savvy generation of younger people today about these stories of what happened in El Salvador in the 1980s — and about how far we still are from seeing full justice done to the families of those murdered in these cases — is all to the good. These initiatives demonstrate the power of the internet to educate in the field of religion in a positive way.

P.S. For me and I suspect for many other Catholics, it remains a great scandal that all of the El Salvador martyrs have not been canonized. While the pope who exposed them to danger, John Paul II, has been canonized by Pope Francis . . . . For me, the current pope's determination to carry through on the canonization of John Paul II (and Paul VI) cheapens the entire process of canonization within the Catholic church.

P.P.S. (Later in the day): I'm just now seeing Mary Jo McConahay's good article in National Catholic Reporter about the Jesuit martyrs. I recommend it as another valuable educational resource. She notes that this is the first of a two-part series on this story.

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