On the Wrong Side of God: U.S. Policy and the Legacy of Romero



By Kevin C. Molloy

“Instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote these words in a letter to President Jimmy Carter just over a month before the Salvadoran pastor was assassinated on the altar while celebrating mass in the early months of 1980. Over the next decade, the rightist Salvadoran government would receive $6 billion in military aid from their strongest anti-communist ally—the United States. President Carter, of course, did not heed the archbishop’s warning, and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush would increase military aid to its highest levels.

Two decades removed from the Salvadoran civil war, we now know the horrific depths of the human rights violations and atrocities committed by the Salvadoran armed forces. It has since been revealed that in addition to the many massacres of unarmed, innocent civilians, the government’s armed forces were responsible for the rape and murder of four U.S. American churchwomen working in El Salvador, that Roberto D’Aubuisson, an intelligence officer trained by the U.S at the School of the Americas (and later founder of the right-wing ARENA political party) ordered the assassination of Oscar Romero, and that another elite battalion of the Salvadoran army, also trained at the School of the Americas, was responsible for the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the University of Central America.

Two very distinct groups were involved in each of these tragic scenarios. On the one hand, the victims (Romero, the four U.S. American churchwomen, the UCA martyrs) were staunch supporters of social justice and opponents of human rights violations. On the other hand, the perpetrators received either financial support, military training, or both from the United States. Theologian Jon Sobrino explains this dichotomy, labeling the forces that dehumanize, “empire,” and the forces that humanize, “God.” In its anti-communist fervor, the United States stood with the economic elites and the repressive military forces. In this sense, the United States stood on the side that opposes humanization—and therefore God.

For decades, opponents of Romero have been able to hide behind the ruse that he was a Marxist revolutionary who had abandoned his pastoral duties in favor of political rabble-rousing. This was the profile of Romero used by D’Aubuisson to justify his execution. This profile is inseparably linked to the U.S. involvement in Romero’s narrative. It was the profile projected by the United States’ institutional ally, the Salvadoran government. Another institutional ally of the U.S.—the Vatican—also propagated this profile. It was this uninformed, incomplete understanding of the archbishop that led to the skepticism of the Vatican and the U.S. The U.S. involvement in Romero’s episcopacy went beyond the military aid given to his opponents and the refusal to heed his warning to the Carter administration. There are indications that the U.S. expressed their concerns over Romero directly to the Vatican, asking then Pope John Paul II’s assistance in convincing Romero not to condemn the U.S.-backed Salvadoran regime.

Today, however, the United States and the international community can no longer deny what Salvadorans have recognized since Romero’s death—Romero, acting as a servant of the Salvadoran people, was proclaiming the true gospel and the reign of God. The institutional Catholic Church, which during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI was skeptical of Romero, has acknowledged the heroic virtue in Romero’s life and death. The canonization process, in this case, finally allows the hierarchical church to catch up with the popular church in El Salvador. Similarly, the United States has its own catching up to do in the history of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

In these days following Pope Francis’ acknowledgment of Romero’s martyrdom and the announcement of his beatification, many have highlighted President Carter’s place in Romero’s narrative. While some U.S. news outlets have picked up the story of Romero’s beatification, the coverage lacks an indictment or even a critique of the role of the U.S. in his death and the Salvadoran civil war. Both an article in the New York Times and a blog from the Washington Post fail to highlight the magnitude of U.S. involvement. Indeed both mention Romero’s letter to President Carter as a key moment in Romero’s life, but neither mentions President Carter’s response or the billions of dollars in aid sent despite the letter. The failure to highlight President Carter’s response and the subsequent military aid represents only one area where the U.S. has avoided blame. Noam Chomsky, cited by Dan Kovalik in a blog on the Huffington Post, provides further details on the depth of the U.S. cover-up of its policy entanglement in the Salvadoran civil war. Even this, however, cannot be a sufficient U.S. response to the martyrdom of Romero because it ends only in critique.

Others have suggested shame as a response for U.S. supporters of D’Aubuisson and the Salvadoran military. Slate blogger Ben Mathis-Lilley chronicles the praise D’Aubuisson received exclusively from U.S. Republicans. Joel Gillin of The New Republic goes one step further to suggest that these Republicans, and specifically ‘Reaganites’, ought to be embarrassed. Both of these treatments are purely partisan and fail to illustrate the bipartisan support for the Salvadoran government and armed forces. In fact, in U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s response to Archbishop Romero in early March of 1980, it becomes clear that although President Carter shared Romero’s focus on human rights in El Salvador, it tragically believed that support for the “moderate and reformist” ruling junta would be the best way of promoting rights there. Even after Romero’s death, which President Carter trusted the Salvadoran government to prosecute, Carter approved $5 million in aid to the government. Partisan blame for Romero’s death also ignores the much broader context of economic and social inequality present throughout modern Salvadoran history for which both Democrats and Republicans share some responsibility.

It is increasingly clear that the U.S. has to reckon with what the popular church and the institutional church (other denominations have already recognized Romero as a saint and martyr) now see together—Archbishop Romero was martyred by a U.S.-backed government for speaking out against injustice, which he was obligated to do as a Christian believer of the gospel message in the face of dehumanization.

Upon his canonization, the U.S. will have to acknowledge that we ignored a saint’s plea for justice, supported a saint’s murderers, and continued to silence a saint’s companions. To be true to Romero’s message as it has been preserved in the Salvadoran people would require not only acknowledgment and shame, but action. The realization that the U.S. was involved in the martyrdom of a saint and countless other crucified peoples must be accompanied by the recognition of the economic imperialism and militarism of the United States in Latin America, and a firm commitment against their dehumanizing effects.

We could start with a commitment to address the inequality that has made the Salvadoran gangland a frightening reality. The largely U.S.-funded civil war in El Salvador forced families to decide whether stay in their country or seek a new life, at great cost, in the United States. This exodus from the war-torn rural society to U.S. cities such as Los Angeles became the genesis of the Salvadoran gangland. As Alma Guillermoprieto argues, with few opportunities in the United States and the constant bombardment of consumerist propaganda, Salvadoran immigrants in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles created their own gangs to confront other groups. When confronted with this threat to its interests, despite its role in creating the threat through a cycle of war, migration, economic inequality, and violence, the U.S. responded with its immigration policy that “focused on deporting the greatest possible number of undocumented migrants.” A large number of these deportees, being Salvadorans, found themselves back in a post-bellum El Salvador that was marred by the devastation of its infrastructure, the collapse of rural society, “the systemic practice of ruthlessness, the drastic increase in single-parent families, the loss of an educated elite, and the huge stockpile of leftover weapons no one kept track of.” The United States, responsible for $6 billion worth of these consequences continues to deport undocumented Salvadoran migrants, and with them, export its own gang problem. The United States’ refusal to welcome refugees from El Salvador and dismissal of gang violence as El Salvador’s problem represents the denial of the U.S.’s own responsibility for the crucifixion of the Salvadoran people, symbolized by the assassination of Romero.

In the United States, intrepid advocates have shed light on the corralling and seclusion of undocumented migrants in for-profit “Criminal Alien Requirement” prisons. Without adequate oversight of these prisons, there is no system of checks-and-balances to ensure the quality of care provided for these migrants-turned-prisoners. Though we share much of the blame in creating the situation these humans are fleeing, we hide them away in deplorable facilities that sacrifice their dignity.

It is time that we in the United States recognize that our imperialist policies have created the environment that makes ganglands and undocumented migration realities, admit that we have ignored the warnings time and again, this time from a Christian martyr and (future) saint, and grant refugee status to the undocumented migrants in the United States. This must be coupled with a commitment to address the root causes of income inequality in Latin America (especially El Salvador) and in the low-income communities in the U.S. into which undocumented migrants settle. Only after acting to prevent further dehumanization of Archbishop Romero’s flock, populations across Latin America, and all people excluded from the benefits of the U.S. empire, can we celebrate Romero and honor his legacy. In Sobrino’s words, we must stand on the side of God and not, as usual, remain silent and unmoved in our imperial arrogance when a saint asks us to participate in the reign of God.

Kevin_Molloy2.jpg Kevin C. Molloy is a Master of Arts Candidate in Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from the College of the Holy Cross in 2013.

This essay originally appeared on Political Theology Today on February 20, 2015.

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