Martyr or Victim?

Martyr or Victim?
Steve Clemens. March 2005

On my recent trip to El Salvador to participate in the commemoration of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a question arose for me- who is classified a “martyr” and who is “merely a victim”? The early definition of martyr is “witness” and the term was often applied to someone who “witnessed” for his/her faith by the sacrifice of their life. The deacon Stephen is identified as the first Christian martyr, followed by many others in the early days of the Christian Church until it became part of the empire and began to turn the tables and persecute (and kill) others who did not follow what those in power decried as “orthodoxy”. In church lore, martyrs are considered “innocent” (at least before God) and are killed because their attempts to follow God or voice their beliefs came in conflict with others in power who felt the need to shut them up. Although it may have proved successful for the powerful in the short term, in the long run, the martyrs of the church continued to inspire the faithful. Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

But how does one distinguish between a martyr and a victim? As we look back on the three year period of the archbishopric of Oscar Romero, there are clear signs that he anticipated his own death at the hands of the death squads or the military. He knew there were serious consequences for publicly challenging the government and military for their oppression of the poor. He has witnessed the consequences to his friends Rutilio Grande and Fr. Navarro who were assassinated soon after he was elevated to Archbishop. He heard the stories, first-hand, from the campesinos who came to him for help in locating the bodies of their dead or disappeared. And he received more direct threats as he continued to utter his prophetic word, a call to repentance, to the violent, the rich, and the powerful. He even moved from his small house near the highway to a small bedroom behind the chapel several days before his death so as not to be too accessible to his would-be assassins. There is little doubt his death was not incidental, his was a martyrdom because of his outspokenness on behalf of his faith and his defense of the poor.

Eight months later, four women religious were raped and killed as they drove back from the airport. They had been stopped at a checkpoint - the complicity of the government/military in their deaths was evident. Because two of the nuns had been in Nicaragua, it seemed apparent that they were targeted for “political” reasons. Given their commitment to Liberation Theology, the churchwomen’s “religious” convictions were seen as political by their assailants. Because they were killed for their beliefs/actions, they too have been appropriately given the mantle of martyrdom.

When six Jesuits were killed at the seminary which was part of the University of Central America, their military assailants made it clear why: after entering the compound where these seminary professors lived, a soldier fired his weapon at a large photo of the slain Archbishop, shooting the photo in the place where his heart would be, imitating his assassin. Other photos and remembrances of Romero kept at the seminary were also attacked and burned in the assault in November of 1989. These Jesuits were targets because of their propagation of Liberation Theology’s “preferential option for the poor”. The Jesuit’s housekeeper and daughter were also killed, possibly because they worked with these priests, possibly just to prevent any eyewitnesses. If we don’t know why they were killed, are they victims or martyrs?

We met with the priest who was the Provincial for the Jesuits in 1989. Jose Maria Tojeira SJ was living in a house just 40 meters from where the 6 priests were assassinated. He heard the gunshots but thought it was just fighting in the nearby street during the time the guerillas had an offensive in the city of San Salvador. After he discovered the bodies of his six colleagues, he told us he waited for “his bullet”. He assumed that he would also be targeted for his stand for justice and nonviolence. For the next several days, he acted as if he knew his life could be terminated at any moment. Yet he knew that he had to continue the “witness” of Romero, the women religious, and his slain friends. Although he wasn’t killed, he continued to act, talk, and believe in a way which had led to the martyrdom of others he knew. Because death was so close and so real, his courage and convictions elevate him to the status of martyr in my eyes.

And so for the life and witness of Sister Peggy and Sister Patty, two nuns who accompanied the refugees from the massacre of Copapayo to their new village, El Sitio Cenicero. These committed women knew that they risked a similar fate to that of other priests, nuns, teachers, and union organizers. Yet they continued their “witness” to a God who comforts, reconciles, and years for justice. While not killed, they are “living martyrs” for us today.

What about the villagers of Copapayo, the 150 who were massacred by the army in 1983? Were they killed for their faith and beliefs? Were they killed because they wanted to farm their own land and in so doing were considered subversive? Was it a way to deny potential recruits for the guerilla/revolutionaries? We don’t know why they became the object of the military repression but does that mean they are “just victims”? Are they martyrs as well? Their attachment to the land and their desire to return to it led to the attack on their village. Their death continues to be a witness to the survivors and the next generations. It is crucial to continue to tell their story, to not let their suffering be forgotten. Is their suffering and death also redemptive in a way that the martyrdom of Romero and his compatriots was?

Hopefully these questions will continue to haunt me as I strive to find a way to work for a world where these murders and martyrdoms can be a thing of the past. I pray that I too will be found worthy to be a “witness” for the peace, justice, and radical discipleship of our teacher and model, Jesus of Nazareth.

Pilgrimage To El Salvador.

Pilgrimage to El Salvador
Steve Clemens, March 2005

“You didn’t come to be a tourist but to be on a pilgrimage”, Sister Peggy of the Sisters of Charity told us. She reminded us of the words of Gustavo Gutierrez: “Woe to you who come dry-eyed.” We were told by several speakers who addressed our 21-person seminar sponsored by Augsburg College Center for Global Education that the social and economic conditions in El Salvador today are as bad as or worse than before the civil war which ripped this Central American nation apart during the 1980s. Our pilgrimage coincided with the Christian Holy Week and the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero.

Why did God choose this “flea of a nation” as the place to raise up a prophet to the wealthy and powerful and a pastor and shepherd to the poor? Does the life, ministry, and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero deserve canonization by the church? Is his martyrdom relevant today or was he killed for meddling in political affairs that shouldn’t concern him as his fellow bishops warned him?

The parallels to Jesus of Nazareth are striking: both men were raised in the rural countryside by working-class parents. Both had a public ministry of three years. While criticized by the religious hierarchy, both of these prophets spoke directly to the poor, insisting that God has a special concern for them. And both were killed by the powers who wanted to silence them.

As an Anabaptist whose tradition scorned icons and discounted the claims to “sainthood” of many by the Roman Catholic Church, I found myself wanting to touch the altar and the place on the floor of the Divina Providencia Chapel where Romero was shot while celebrating the Eucharist in 1980. After hearing the words of many Salvadorans who lived and walked with Romero, I knew I was standing on holy ground. I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift that this prophet and pastor has been since his “conversion” in 1977 after being selected as the new archbishop. Because of his writings and eloquence in his homilies and radio broadcasts which have been preserved, Romero continues to inspire and challenge people of faith around the world today.

Part way through the 5 km march from the site of his murder, past the statute to the patron saint of the country, Salvador del Mundo, a sculpture of Jesus astride the globe of the world recalling his transfiguration, we came to a park where we encountered the Memorial Wall for Truth. Reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, this monument for the victims of the 12 year civil war listed by name those killed and “disappeared” in columns, alphabetized by year. There, amidst thousands of other names, I found the names of not only Romero, but also Rutillio Grande and Alfonso Navarro, two of many priests and women religious who were targeted by the notorious death squads, financed and armed by the U.S. government, whose murders compelled Romero to speak. Those who worked with this new archbishop said that he daily made himself accessible to the poor who traveled from the rural countryside to tell him about a relative, friend, or loved one who was killed or disappeared. In this processes, he truly became a bishop, a shepherd, one who tried to protect and comfort his “flock”.

The life, witness, and martyrdom of Romero, powerful as it was, was repeated over and over again by others in this nation who, inspired by the Gospel and its application encouraged in their daily lives by “Liberation Theology”, continued to try to work for justice despite the obvious risks and costs. If the death squads were willing to target the archbishop, not one who spoke out on behalf of the poor was “safe”. Yet, despite the growing numbers of the martyrs of the church, others continued and more voices arose demanding an end to the killings and repression. Father Tojeira, the Provincial for the 6 martyred Jesuits at the university seminary, told us that he expected his bullet would come “any day” for the next several years until the war ended – yet he had no option except to continue his call to mission that had been shared by his fellow priests.

It is quite evident in the way the common folk of El Salvador commemorate “Good Friday” that this is a people that understand suffering and can relate much better than I what the arrest, trial, and crucifixion was really about. Yet resurrection also abounds: before his assassination, Romero clearly understood the risks he was taking on behalf of the people. He told the people that if he was killed, he would “rise again in the people” of El Salvador. This is quite evident when you see how precious the memory of this saint is to the poor. He is risen every time another person speaks on behalf of those with “no voice”. He is risen every time the base Christian communities read, reflect, and act on the scripture, recognizing that “God has a preferential option for the poor”.

The present hierarchy of the Catholic Church in El Salvador did not wish to adapt or change their traditional observation of Holy Week, finding it “disruptive” of their Maundy Thursday, to endorse the public march in honor of the slain archbishop. One bishop in the countryside has declared that Romero’s name is not to be mentioned in the Department of San Vicente. The Opus Dei right-wing sect within the church has taken over control of the seminary, blessing the status quo and making religion a way of coping until one gets to heaven. So the push for sainthood has its opponents in both Rome and El Salvador. Cannonization for Romero raises the ugly question of who is responsible for his death and why was he killed? Two questions whose answers critique and question not only the status quo in San Salvador but also our nation as well. While many of the perpetrators of the violence today live in luxurious self-imposed exile in Miami, some of the architects and promoters of the anti-communist foreign policy which led to the U.S. support of the military repression throughout Central America in the 70s and 80s continue to be named to high positions within the U.S. government today.

While the death squads were used to keep the rich protected then, bankers and other financiers are able to do the same today through trade and loan agreements. The poor, whether in the countryside or working for the internationally-owned maquilladoras, are being killed with ink pens rather than bullets today. God is calling us to take up the fallen mantle of Romero and be a “voice for those who have no voice”.

The Case Against Canonization of Oscar Romero.

The Case Against Canonization of Oscar Romero
Steve Clemens. March 2005

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980 while celebrating the Eucharist at the Divina Providencia Chapel, part of a hospital complex run by the Carmelites for cancer patients in the capitol city. Romero, who had been named Archbishop only three years previously, resided in a very modest three-room house a block from the chapel. Due to increased threats on his life, he moved into a small room of the chapel so as to not be so close to a nearby roadway. Romero had previously resided in that small room before the nuns insisted that they build the small house for him. A quiet, scholarly priest and bishop before being thrust into his prominent position within the church hierarchy, Romero was considered a “safe” choice for Archbishop. It was not likely that he’d rock the boat or disturb the status quo.

Romero took seriously his new role as “shepherd” for his people. He practiced an open door policy and regularly, if not daily, invited in those who came to meet with him. He daily visited some of the cancer patients in the hospital across the street before his breakfast. In this role as pastor, he grew in his love and concern for the people of the small nation, especially the rural poor who were increasingly under economic and military pressure. When Romero’s close friend, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, was assassinated while en route to say mass at a small town in the countryside, Romero came to realize that he could not remain silent in face of the repression and grinding poverty of his people.

In the following months, as more campesinos, priests, nuns, teachers, and union organizers were targeted by the death squads and the military, Romero grew increasingly vocal, denouncing the violence and repression, even publicly criticizing the President several times. His Pastoral Letters were clear in their opposition to the oppression. Wherever he went throughout the country, crowds of the poor would greet him with applause. Romero used the radio station to send out messages, including his Sunday homilies. His courage inspired many others to take a stand for justice and that, in turn, inspired Romero. Throughout it all, Romero remained steadfast in his commitment to nonviolence.

His commitment to justice was clear: he stopped all construction on the cathedral in San Salvador, refusing to spend the church’s money on it until “peace and justice were established.” He welcomed displaced, hungry, and homeless, the victims of violence to the grounds of the seminary in the capitol city. Romero said what “all Christians must do is to be converted to the preferential option for the poor.” Although the church must side with the poor, his call to conversion was directed to both the rich and the poor. As he continued to speak in stronger terms against the injustice he witnessed, he also went with families who searched the garbage dumps for the bodies of their loved ones. His defense of the poor didn’t stop at national boundaries; he wrote a letter to President Carter asking him not to send any military aid to the government of El Salvador.

The day before his assassination, Romero made a direct appeal to members of the military and the police to refuse to kill “your own campesino brothers and sisters”. He ordered them in the name of God: “Stop the repression!” While celebrating mass on March 24, 1980, Romero read from John’s gospel about a grain of wheat – when it falls to the earth and dies, it bears much fruit. He talked about giving oneself out of love for Christ in the service to others. As he blessed the elements of the Eucharist, Romero prayed that Jesus’ sacrifice would nourish us so that we too could “give our body and blood to suffering and pain … to bring about justice and peace for our people.” As he prayed, he was shot in the heart and fell behind the altar, at the foot of a large crucifix. At his funeral, government troops fired into the massive crowd, killing and injuring hundreds so his body was buried with haste in the dirt of the unfinished Cathedral basement.

Two weeks before his martyrdom, Romero spoke to a reporter from Guatemala. He told of the death threats and said if he was killed, he pardoned those who would do it. He wanted his blood to serve as a seed for freedom and a sign of hope for a new reality. “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” It is evident today that this has come true: Monsenor Romero remains an inspiration to the campesinos not only of El Salvador but throughout Latin America. He already is seen as a saint – his canonization has come directly from the people, no church hierarchy has been able to stifle or thwart the love of the people for this servant of God. Yes, the institutional church and its hierarchy have tried to put a damper on the radical call for love and justice of this Archbishop. If he is canonized by the church, the inevitable questions will arise: Who killed him? And why was he killed? To answer those questions will necessarily expose the complicity of the church in the continuing oppression of the poor. Much of the present day hierarchy of the church in El Salvador is comprised of Opus Dei members, a conservative, secretive order which has often sided with the rich and powerful. One bishop has ordered that Romero’s name not be uttered within the Department (State) of San Vicente.

For a church which remains complicit with the evil which killed Romero to name him a saint would be as ironic as the Reagan Administration’s signing into law a day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The church needs to once again reaffirm its “preferential option for the poor” and embody that commitment within its own leadership in Latin America and around the world before it can proceed with the canonization of Oscar Romero with any credibility. Until then, he will remain a Saint of the People. Thanks be to God for this, God’s Servant to the Poor and Prophet of Justice, Saint Oscar Romero.

Indiscriminate Weapons and International Law

Indiscriminate Weapons and International Law
By Steve Clemens. March 2005

In defending oneself against charges related to “criminal trespass” at a military base, a weapons manufacturer, and/or federal facility/office, a civil resister can choose either an offense or a defense. The former argues that you were compelled to act and often references obligations assumed under International Law and the precedence set by the Nuremberg /tribunals. The latter argues what one did not do.

Being proactive: an offensive “defense”
Some very successful sport coaches push the concept – the best offense is a good defense – or good pitching always beats good batting … encouraging players to see how “defense” can be an aggressive way to win. In the area of civil resistance to the manufacture and use of weapons of indiscriminate destruction, some activists strive to show the court that they have responsibility as moral human beings, as citizens, as “Good Samaritans”, to take nonviolent action against organizations which promote or use these weapons. To use this “defense”, nonviolent actors strive to demonstrate that existing law compels them to address what is clearly a violation of both the spirit and letter of those laws.

In the United States, the federal Constitution provides the basis for determining what is legal (or not) for the national government, the states, and its citizens. In the U.S. Constitution there appears what has been referred to as “the supremacy clause”. Article VI contains the provision “…and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby…”. This provision implies that international treaties which have been signed by our government and ratified by the Senate essentially “trump” all other local and national law. If an activity done by a manufacturer or behind the fenced-in area of a military base is illegal, that entity cannot hide behind the “protection” of private property laws to remain unaccountable for its wrongdoing.

So the question turns to “what are the provisions of treaties made under the authority of the U.S.?” At least since the appearance of the new killing technology of the Gattling gun in the U.S. Civil War, ethicists and diplomats have wrestled with the issue of “the rules of war” or what limits must be placed on this mass killing done by nation-states. Near the turn of the 20th century, a group of nations convened talks in The Hague, Netherlands to discuss these very issues. The resulting Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 became treaties whereby the countries party to the treaty or convention agreed to place limits on the types of weapons which could be used in warfare. While most parties self-righteously decried the brutality and immorality of modern warfare, they wished to continue to allow themselves the option to go to war, restricting, in this case, what weapons and tactics must be forever outlawed by the world community. Included in the Hague Convention of 1907 are provisions which state “The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.” (Section II, Chapter 1, Art. 22). Article 23 gets more specific: it is especially forbidden “to employ poison or poisoned weapons” and “to employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering” among other prohibitions.

In the aftermath of WWI and WWII, the community of nations gathered in Geneva to continue to find ways to limit war and protect civilians. Out of these efforts arose the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, Geneva, June 17, 1925 and the Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva, 1949. Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions have been adopted over the years including Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I of 1977). This protocol, while repeating previous prohibitions on weapons and tactics in war, also prohibits as well the employment of “methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” (Article 35, paragraph 3; also: Article 55). There are also explicit regulations regarding the protection of civilian population against effects of hostilities (Article 48; Article 51, paragraphs: 1, 4-c, 5-b; Article 57, paragraph 2-a-ii). These provisions make it clear that “the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants”, “The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack”, and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. “Indiscriminate attacks are: … (c) Those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.”

In 1980 another treaty nicknamed “CCW” was adopted. The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects. Geneva, 10 October 1980 stated that the “High Contracting Parties” wished to prohibit or restrict the use of certain conventional weapons with a goal of “putting an end to the production, stockpiling and proliferation of such weapons”.
In 1996 and 1997, the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights passed resolutions which found “production, sale and use” of nuclear weapons, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium weapons “incompatible” with existing humanitarian and human rights law and identifying them as “weapons of mass destruction”.

When the United States signed the treaty establishing the United Nations, it also adopted the work of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal. These principles make clear that “I was only following orders” is not a defense against war crimes (IV). The fact that a local or national law does not prohibit an act also does not relieve one of responsibility under international law (II). And “complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity … is a crime under international law” (VII). To remain silent and inactive when one is aware that a company is manufacturing and selling illegal, indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction, or that a military base is stockpiling them, or a nation is using (or plans to use) them, is to be complicit and in a participatory democracy one’s silence implies consent. One therefore is compelled to take nonviolent action to prevent these war crimes from being committed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is the organization that is charged with the education and implementation of “International Humanitarian Law” – these treaties which are also known as “the laws of war”. It calls “preventive measures” which include spreading knowledge of humanitarian law, “repressive measures” to put a halt to all violation including “the obligation to repress, by the national courts, grave breaches considered as war crimes”, and “other measures of implementation for prevention, control, and repression” which include “diplomatic efforts and pressure from the media and public opinion [to] help ensure implementation of humanitarian law.”

The lack of criminal intent
In order to be found “guilty” of a charge of criminal trespass, one must have the “mens reas” (guilty mind) or the mindset to know that what one is doing is wrong. It is necessary to show that those accused of this crime have a “criminal intent” or know what one is doing is wrong yet does it anyway. It is clear from the above listing of International Laws and Treaties that if one is attempting to honor (and implement) the intent of those “supreme” laws, one does not have the criminal intent to be found guilty of the trespass law. The Nuremberg Principles make it clear that the weapons manufacturers, the military bases, and the governmental offices cannot hide behind private property laws when they are in the process of committing what international law has labeled war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. One does not have to be an “expert” in international law to avail oneself of this defense; one needs to hold this belief sincerely and it needs to be understood as “reasonable” according to a jury of one’s peers.

Until or unless the world community finds better ways to “enforce” International Law against powerful nations which flaunt their disobedience, it is left up to actors of conscience to raise these issues in the public forum, risking arrest (and possible conviction) to move us in the direction we have pledged ourselves to when those treaties were approved by our constitutional process.