By Scott Wright
This past November 21-23, for the nineteenth consecutive year, thousands of people from across the United States and from all walks of life converged on the military base in Ft. Benning, Georgia to call for the closing of “the School of the Americas,” a school that has trained so many assassins and torturers in Latin America. It was a fitting way to remember the legacy of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, and the four US churchwomen-all martyred in El Salvador.
What do the martyrs have to teach us today? Would they be silent in the face of so much violence in the world? Would they accept a world in which torture is justified, and war is proclaimed as the path to peace? Is the world any better off today than it was 19 years ago? Do the poor still matter?
These were some of the questions that filled my heart as we gathered in that silent procession on Sunday, reading the names of the victims, holding up their pictures and crying in unison: “Presente!” Even though people have fasted, prayed, marched, been arrested, served long months in prison – and the gates of the school are still open – I could not help but feel profoundly grateful that a handful of people-20,000!-stood up that day to say no to violence, no to torture, no to war-no to death-and yes to life!
This year, we were privileged to have in our midst Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ, whose six Jesuit brothers were martyred nineteen years ago in San Salvador by soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion, trained here at the School of the Americas.
As Fr. Sobrino reminded a packed auditorium upon receiving the 2008 Pax Christi USA Book Award, the divide between rich and poor in the world continues to grow wider, even in an age – or especially in an age – of corporate globalization. We live in a “civilization of wealth,” which cannot be sustained for the entire population of the planet. A very few are very wealthy because a great many are very poor.
That’s what Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J. taught us. Only a “civilization of poverty” is sustainable, one in which the fundamental needs of all human beings on earth are met, freedom flourishes, and a fundamental option for the poor is at the heart of our personal values, diverse social relations, and global economic structures.
We are increasingly approaching “a permanent state of war,” in which the war against terror becomes an irreversible dynamic of our political life. Already, the social polarization, the institutionalization of lying, and the reliance upon violence to resolve conflict that Ignacio Martin-Baro, S.J. described have become an integral part of the practice, if not the doctrine of national security of the past political administration in the United States. The logic of the Bush administration seemed to be, “If you want peace, prepare for war,” a direct affront to the Gospel command: “If you want peace, work for justice.”
And while the future administration of Barack Obama promises to return the troops from Iraq within 18 months, the President-elect has also promised to commit more troops to Afghanistan. We must continue to cry out: “War is a defeat for humanity!” and to seek alternative paths to peace.
Our people are increasingly traumatized by war, and our basic democratic values and peaceful traditions have been assaulted by eight years of the Bush administration. We desperately need a prophetic voice now to speak out in our churches. How the leadership of so many churches could be so adamantly opposed to the war against Iraq, a war characterized as “immoral, illegal and unjust,” and so silent over the past five years about the occupation and continuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan is disquieting, to say the least.
When I returned from a peace delegation to Iraq in 2003, six weeks before the war began, one of our church leaders told me: “Our political leaders know best what to do because they have information that we do not have.” We can not allow ourselves that political naiveté, nor abdicate our political responsibility as citizens nor our Gospel responsibility as Christians to defend the overwhelmingly civilian victims from past, current and future wars.
We need only to remember how many hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi and Afghani men, women and children have died these past 5 – 7 years of the “war on terror” to know that the cost of the church’s silence is too dear. And while many statements have been made by churches of all denominations, we yearn to be part of a church that bears witness to the Gospel with the same passion and conviction as Archbishop Romero when he said: “In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people… stop the repression!”
Is it an exaggeration to say, in this day and age when religious fundamentalism has monopolized the debate about “religious values,” and “national security” has monopolized the debate about war and peace, that our churches are in a deep crisis of faith?
We find ourselves somewhere between the struggle of the churches of Germany in the 1930s, when mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches either were coerced or co-opted by the German state, or signed a concordat to stay our of each other’s affairs; and the struggle of the church in El Salvador during the 1970s and 1980s, when Archbishop Romero prophetically refused to legitimize illegal and immoral state acts of terror, hearkening back, by his witness, to a church of the martyrs.
Two radically different choices confront our people: Which nation will we become? Which church will we become?
Especially now, during this liturgical season of Advent, when shadows and darkness precede the miracle and light of Christmas, we are called to be people of hope. Precisely in these times of darkness, when the cruelty of war-from Iraq to Afghanistan, and from Sudan to Colombia-challenges the very foundations of our hope, precisely in these times of darkness we are called to bear witness to the light.
In El Salvador, in late November, as the winds stir up the dust and shower the sky with brilliant sunsets, signaling the change of seasons, something auspicious is in the air. The peasants have a saying that speaks of this time of expectation and hope, something like our people feel at this time of electoral transition: “The darker the night, the closer the dawn.”
So let us remember this time with hope, and let us remember the martyrs. Because it is, finally, the blood of the martyrs that will be the seed of new Christians, as the ancient fathers and mothers of the church remind us. They are the seed of a new Church that will be built on the faithfulness of the martyrs and of the poor. Today that faithfulness and that hope are built on the witness of Christians who speak out boldly against war – all war: “War is a defeat for humanity!” (John Paul II)
As Bishop Tom Gumbleton reminded a crowd gathered on the eve of the solemn funeral procession before the gates of the School of the Americas on Sunday, “It is not enough that we close the School of the Americas – we must abolish war itself.”
May this time of approaching Advent be a time of gathering light in the darkness; of following in the steps of the martyrs-not only the Jesuit martyrs and the four North American Church women who were martyred in El Salvador, but the many thousands of good and humble women and men who bear witness to their faith amidst the suffering and destruction of so many wars.
Let this be a time of remembering their lives with gratitude, and offering a reason for our hope through generous actions for justice and risks for peace.
We have been given a great gift of hope – as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to remind us – the gift to live precisely in these times. May the legacy of the Salvadoran Jesuit martyrs and the four U.S. Churchwomen be one that strengthens our resolve and capacity to work untiringly for justice and peace in this time of transition, and to celebrate with hope the task that is ours of entering the ranks of women and men throughout history who have “done justice, acted with compassion, and walked humbly with their God,” knowing that-again in the words of Dr. King-”the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”