Category Archives: massacres

Getting political

“To shake the hand of an Indian is a political act.”
Fr. Stanley Rother

Fr. Stanley Rother was a priest – an Oklahama farm boy, as Robert Ellsberg writes – who spent many years in the indigenous town of Santiago Atitlan, serving the pastoral needs of the people.

On July 28, 1981, he was killed in the rectory by three armed men who sought to silence his voice.

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

From what I can gather he was not a very “political” person, like some people I know here in Central America, including some priests. But his work with founding cooperatives and training catechists and pastoral workers made him a threat to the powers of Guatemala in those days. Those rulers saw every effort to work with the indigenous peoples and to empower them as threats to their national security state.

I have always been struck by Father Stan’s statement: “To shake the hand of an Indian is a political act.”

I think this has been part of the inspiration of my custom to shake the hand of almost everyone I meet when I come into a meeting.`

Here it is customary for the men to greet each other with a handshake. But I try to shake the hand of everyone – man, woman, child. Sometimes the younger children recoil, or even cry – not having seen many gringos. But other kids just smile – a little embarrassed, perhaps.

But I consider that this simple act is a way to show that I try to respect their dignity as children of God, as my sisters and brothers in Christ.

The little things mean a lot.

Thus I have grieved when I see the reaction of some in the US to the tens of thousands of young people and children who have fled poverty or violence or have travelled far to meet up with their parents. The hate, the fear, the anger fill me with a deep sadness.

But I rejoice at those who welcome the stranger, open their churches and houses to the adolescent and child migrants who seek a like of tranquility.

Their acts are political acts – not because they are supporting a political ideology, but because they are opening their lives and their hearts to the poor, the migrant, the stranger.

And in that political act, which is really just a human act, they are – I pray – experiencing Christ.


The God who has been pierced

On March 12, 1977, the Jesuit pastor of the church in Aguilares, El Salvador, was killed together with a young boy and an older man. Father Rutilio Grande had been a friend of the newly-name archbishop for several years. Grande’s death had a significant impact on that archbishop, Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

Aguilares parish church bell tower with bullet holes

Aguilares parish church bell tower with bullet holes

A little more than two months later, on May 19, 1977, Salvadoran government forces raided the city of Aguilares. Three Jesuit priests were arrested and expelled from the country. At least fifty people were killed, including a boy who was running up the steps of the church bell tower to ring the bell to alert the people of the city.

The Salvadoran military occupied the church for about a month; they opened the tabernacle and desecrated the hosts; they would not let even a military chaplain enter the church to retrieve the Eucharist.

Finally, on June 19, Monseñor Romero with several priests came to take back the church and install a new pastor and three women religious to help him.

In his sermon Romero made a strong connection between the suffering of the people of Aguilares with the suffering of Christ.

You are the image of God who has been pierced, which the first reading [Zechariah 12: 10-11] speaks of in prophetic words of mystery, but which present to us Christ nailed to the cross and pierced through by a lance. He is the image of all the peoples who, like Aguilares, will be pierced and insulted. But, if one suffers with faith and gives it a redemptive meaning, Aguilares is singing the precious chorus of liberation, because when they look at Him whom they have pierced, they will repent and see the heroism and the joy of those whom the Lord blesses in their sorrow.

The suffering of this world show us Christ crucified.

It is difficult to look upon the suffering – whether in Sudan, Syria, the Central African Republic, Honduras, or in the cities of the US.

But when we look with love on those who are pierced, Christ is offering us the opportunity to repent, to be in solidarity with those who are suffering – as Christ Jesus himself made himself one with all those who suffer and are in need.


Guatemala’s Martyred Bishop, Juan Geradi

The history of Central America, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, is bloody. Many know of the violence in El Salvador, partly because of the killings of Archbishop Romero and the four US women missionaries in 1980, partly because of the overt US support of the government and military – in the mid-1980s at a rate of about one million US dollars a day.

The history of Guatemalan oppression is much less known, though it is bloodier and lasted longer. After the war was over, the Guatemalan Archdiocesan Human Rights Office supported the Recovery of Historical Memory Project [REMHI], to investigate the killings. The project released a report that implicated the Guatemalan government and military in 90% of the 200,000 plus killings and disappearances.

Guatemala City auxiliary bishop Juan Gerardi led the investigation and spoke at the release of the report. He had experienced the repression first hand when he was bishop of Santa Cruz de Quiché. The violence got so bad that he and the priests withdrew from the diocese, partly at the urging of the people. He went into exile but later returned.

Two days after the REMHI report was released, Bishop Gerardi was killed on April 26, 1988, fifteen years ago today.

When he reported the findings of the REMHI report on April 24, 1998, he noted the importance of the report and the dangers in releasing such information:

We want to contribute to the building of a country different than the one we have now.  For that reason we are recovering the memory of our people.  This path has been and continues to be full of risks, but the construction of the Reign of God has risks and can only be built by those that have the strength to confront those risks.

Even today there are dangers as can be noted in the trial of former Guatemalan general and president Rios Montt, which was revealing more of the massacres of indigenous peoples. The status of the trial is unsure now. For more information, look at the Central American Politics blog of a friend and University of Scranton professor, Mike Allison.

Impunity for crimes against the poor and indigenous are not uncommon in Latin America.

But that means that we are called even more to practice the virtue of solidarity, that is, as Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [On Social Concern], paragraph 28, wrote, the “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all….”

This is not something political, nor is it merely the social aspect of our faith. Solidarity is, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “an encounter with God.”

Bishop Gerardi put it more starkly, on March 10, a few weeks before his martyrdom:

We ought to reflect on the suffering of Christ in his Mystical Body. That means, that if the poor person is not part of our life, then, perhaps, Christ is not part of our life.

El sufrimiento de Cristo en su cuerpo místico es algo que nos debe hacer reflexionar. Es decir, si el pobre está fuera de nuestra vida, entonces quizás, Jesús está fuera de nuestra vida.

May Christ – present in the suffering and the poor, in the crucified peoples of this world – become ever more central to our lives.

Remembering the Way of the Cross of the massacred

On February 28 thirty years ago, hundreds of campesinos, fleeing the Salvadoran army, were killed in and near Tenango and Guadalupe in the municipality of Suchitoto, El Salvador.

tenango poster

1999 poster commemorating the massacre

This was but one of the massacres experienced by the Salvadoran people during and before the civil war, a war in which Salvadoran government forces were aided by the US government, up to one million dollars a day during the 1980s.

I have spoken with some of the survivors of the massacre, people I knew when I worked with and visiting the parish of Suchitoto.

What stuck me was one story that shows the faith of the people and helps us connect their suffering with the suffering of Christ, something we might do during this Lent.

In the evening before the massacre, there were, according to one eyewitness, about 900 people gathered together for a celebration of the Word. They had come fleeing from Palo Grande, Platanares, and Chaparral and were quite afraid. As they met, they reflected that Christ had struggled and suffered. “He had to flee from one place to another because he was being persecuted. So we too have to walk here afflicted, persecuted. If not, we’ll all have to die and the revolution will not go forward.” With these words they felt comforted.

The next morning as they were fleeing up a hill the army attacked them. The hill was covered with people, suffering, as a witness said, their Way of the Cross.

As we live this Lent, in prayer, repentance, and fasting, let’s remember all those who have suffered from oppressive regimes, especially those regimes which have received aid from the US.

Lord, have mercy on us and our nation.