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.