John Sealey is the provincial assistant for social and international ministries for the Wisconsin and Chicago-Detroit Province Jesuits.
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”
While serving with Jesuit Volunteers in Central America (Belize 1989-91), my wife Leah and I visited El Salvador seven months after the Jesuit assassinations. At that time, the war was still underway and tensions were high ahead of the anticipated rainy season offensives. With an Australian Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) friend, we visited the UCA and sites in the capital but most of our time was with recently repatriated communities in conflict zones such as Santa Marta, Teosinte and Guarjilla. We met Jesuits, church workers, community leaders, survivors and families of disappeared.
One night, the JRS house where we stayed was raided by 15 armed Salvadoran military, and we were subsequently separated, searched and questioned into the early morning hours. At the time, this inconvenient and somewhat startling incident made us feel a closer identification with the Salvadoran people, but in truth the privilege of our international passports and personal histories kept us far removed from the imminent danger they lived and suffered.
To be honest, I’ve become a bit hesitant to retell my experiences from El Salvador 25 years ago. Seeing these events through the scope of time runs a danger of idealizing them, and it can become a timid and conservative exercise if done in a vacuum that removes the risk of critically understanding injustices today.
What endures are the stories of the Salvadoran people and the martyrs who accompanied them. Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg could be said of them. We cannot dedicate their hallow ground, rather they have consecrated it already, far beyond our poor power to add or detract. Therefore, the challenge is for us to be dedicated to the unfinished work they so nobly advanced.
The Salvadoran narrative also remains instructive. Empire, in its varied forms, will try to obliterate those perceived as threats, and the weak and vulnerable are mere commodities or collateral damage. The martyrs’ story also unveils some difficult truths about U.S. foreign policy, which still opts for violence to solve differences. In short, our country perpetuated that civil war through our direct aid and advisement, and the side we supported was the same side that killed the Jesuits and countless others working for justice. Cold War fears forged our support for the forces of private property over the common good. This was borne out in the UN Truth Commission report that attributed 95% of the political violence to either the Salvadoran army/security forces or right wing death squads, while the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) accounted for 5% of the violence.
Several years after the peace accords, we again visited El Salvador during the rebuilding process. We spent time with UCA faculty member Fr. Dean Brackley, SJ, who conveyed that while peace agreements had been signed, the conditions for true peace were lagging, if not worsening. Deep economic disparities remained, and access to land, education and employment were waning in a society socialized by violence.
Are not the struggles and injustice the martyrs confronted still in place today? Perhaps the social incongruities are even more insidious, less well-known and more tacitly accepted? For this reason, may we prayerfully remember their courageous mission this month, but more importantly let ourselves be consecrated so that our labor continues theirs.