Exploring the Salvadoran Civil War and the Martyrdom of Óscar Romero (and remedying my ignorance of a great saint)

NOTE: An earlier version of this post first appeared on my other blog. For various reasons I want to post it again here, not least because Saint Romero is increasingly becoming one of my heroes and a true inspiration.

Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president (pres. 1977-1981) that oversaw the giving of military aid to the government of El Salvador during the bloody Salvadoran Civil War. Carter was the first American president that I became aware of as I began to pay attention to the news as a boy. The first American president I voted for was Ronald Reagan (pres. 1981-1989), who came immediately after Carter. The Reagan administration increased the giving of military aid and support to the Salvadoran government, a practice begun by Carter. In 1980 the Salvadoran government, supported by the US government under Carter, was behind the brazen assassination and martyrdom of the then archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, now a saint of the Catholic Church. Thus, my first vote as an American citizen, though not for Carter, and actually for Reagan’s second term which happened years after Romero’s death, is nonetheless indirectly but forever linked to the death of a saint. Unfortunately, this is the reality of being an American voting for candidates who then go on to promote questionable and sometimes terrible foreign policies (and in my lifetime they all have). Of course I plead ignorance, but we’re all ignorant of many things, and that doesn’t mean we are not complicit at some level, even if not actually guilty. Perhaps its “structural complicity?”

I am learning more about one of the Church’s most recent saints, Óscar Romero. I believe Romero’s concerns were ultimately spiritual and heavenly which, as I am coming to learn, includes the social and political. Sadly, his Christian concerns played out within a volatile political context, and he was martyred for them.

The battle lines of politics are always much more than politics. Narratives compete with narratives, ideologies with ideologies, and nearly always class struggle. US culture discourages talking about class struggle and the structures of economic inequality. If one is so bold she or he is immediately labeled a socialist or communist. There’s a cultural narrative in that labeling, a culture of small-mindedness especially suited for the simpletons over populating America, and that narrative with its hegemonic forces behind it drive a great many other narratives.

Human beings, being sinners and fearful, will all too readily kill other human beings for the sake of the narrative they hold dear, and often for very selfish and ignorant reasons. From Cain until now we have been killing our brothers. But Christ calls us to love our brothers, our neighbors, and even our enemies. Saint Paul tells us our battle is not against flesh and blood, but is against spiritual forces of darkness. The entire narrative of salvation being written by God in the very fabric of creation tells us to trust in Him and that He will fight our battles. We forget this every day. I certainly do. They forgot that in El Salvador too. But many, including and perhaps especially Óscar Romero, did not forget it.

I know very little about the Salvadoran Civil War, but that is the historical context of Saint Romero’s assassination. I perhaps know only a little more about Saint Romero than I do about the war, which is to say almost nothing. Here are three contemporary news reports on the war, its brutality, and role of faith and the Church:

Some of the following videos must be watched on YouTube because of content restrictions.

This 1983 documentary takes a look at both sides of the war and provides an intimate overview of the attitudes and perspectives of each side:

Made by the same filmmakers as the above film, this is an excellent documentary from 1983 on the religious aspects of the war, in particular the ideas of Liberation Theology:

Here is an in-depth documentary about the Salvadoran civil war and the life of Óscar Romero. It was made before he was canonized a saint.

Here is a great lecture by Michael Lee (Fordham University) on the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood:

I suppose little seeds were planted in my life along the way to prepare my heart and mind for caring for and wondering about the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood.

In 1984 (the same year I voted for Reagan) a largely unknown, but with a passionate fanbase, Canadian singer-songwriter and brilliant guitarist released a song that became a surprise hit. I vaguely remember that song, but I was so politically, geographically, historically, and socially unaware that I didn’t get what the song was about, except for the fact that I felt as much as anybody that we all need a rocket launcher sometimes. But the song was specifically about the brutal wars in Central America, the dictatorships that promoted and leveraged them, the support those dictatorships received from the U.S. government, and the terrible havoc they wrought on the lives of the people. Here is Bruce Cockburn, 30 years later, performing live and acoustically his song If I had a Rocket Launcher:

Integral Salvation

Jesus came to bring integral salvation, one which embraces the whole person and all mankind, and opens up the wondrous prospect of divine filiation.1

I’ve always been told that being a Christian isn’t and shouldn’t be merely a personal affair, internally oriented, guided by feelings, and concerned only with one’s own final destination. Instead, Christians ought to follow Christ by loving and helping others in need, including the poor of this world. But this view gets powerfully challenged when one grows up in a version of Christianity that’s almost entirely oriented towards a personal relationship with Jesus, focused on the final escape from this world into the next, and carried along with praise songs and emotional sermons, and not come away thinking Christianity is a kind of group-think subculture crafted with sophisticated marketing techniques (often poorly executed) centered around a chosen local church that suits one’s fancy, is populated with people just like oneself (social class, race, tastes), and where one gets one’s personal spiritual “batteries recharged” each Sunday.

It’s also easy and fun to point a judging finger like I am doing now, but probably of limited value. I have to say this version of Christianity—both Protestant and Catholic—has been very convenient for me. But I’m sorely found wanting when it comes to actual Christ-following, red-letter, biblical Christianity.

I am challenged by the realities of the Gospel—challenged to the point of utter failure. The love of God comes to us through His Son, bringing total and complete salvation to each person, to each group, to each nation, to the whole world and to the world as a whole. It is an integral salvation as the quote above states. It is a salvation that embraces the whole person, in totality, including their social, economic, and cultural contexts. And one of the great joys is that we not only are offered salvation but also bring about salvation through our actions. We participate in God’s salvation of our neighbor. But I consistently retreat into my private personal relationship with Jesus, failing my neighbor and the Gospel.

But who is this whole person? Naturally we assume it’s me for me, and you for you; I focus on myself and my relationship with Jesus and you do the same for yourself, and we meet at church on Sunday (or we don’t) and feel good that we’re on the same, winning team. But I am bothered by this. Christ preached the kingdom of God as a present reality and not merely a future hope. The kingdom is at hand, He said. He then explained it in terms of love, forgiveness, service, humility, peacemaking, feeding the hungry, giving up our lives for others, and caring for the needy and the poor. It is a tangible kingdom. Consistently He did not describe faith the way we do—feelings and fundamental tenets—but focused on how we relate to others. The test at the end is not a theology exam but an accounting of how we related to others.

The social doctrine of the Catholic Church teaches this. The whole person is the other person as much as it is you or I. The whole person isn’t merely one’s set of beliefs or psychological needs or feeling like one has a personal relationship with Jesus. The whole person is the person in entirety, including all their basic needs, all their needs above that, and even their potential for human flourishing and becoming the creature God intends. The whole person is the human creature in the world, in society, in relationship.

[T]he Church does not tire of proclaiming the Gospel that brings salvation and genuine freedom also to temporal realities.2

Quickly one realizes, that although the best one might be able to do is give alms, salvation for the whole person requires more than giving alms, it requires a society different than what we have. It requires a society built on love and justice, on sacrifice and trust in God, on forgiveness, meekness, empathy, and long suffering. It demands dealing with temporal realities. I hope we all see this and know that each of us can personally do better, but I also hope we look at our world and see that it does not evidence these traits and that it ought to change. Our politics, our economics, our social structures, and our multitude of prejudices seem mostly to serve the rich and the ideologies of the rich. Just one example: there are Christians who honestly dismiss systemic racism when our faith says we should expect it everywhere. Another: great numbers of Christians claimed a moral reprobate and billionaire thug was this nation’s savior, God’s hand-picked chosen one. The spirit of anti-Christ is alive and well in much of Christianity today.

Our world is corrupt with sin and we ought to be about changing that, living lives of love and actively battling sin in the world as we do in ourselves. Loving our neighbors includes levels of intimacy because it requires knowledge and empathy, and it includes addressing the prejudices, the bad laws, the bad politics, the ideologies of the rich, and the economic forces that are allied against human flourishing for all, especially including the “least of these.” It is all too easy to praise a court ruling that protects the unborn, it’s another thing to actively work towards overcoming the sin that rules this world and produces concrete and structural forces that compel women to see abortion as a necessary option in the face of such social, political, economic, and interpersonal cruelty. Salvation is physical and spiritual, now and future, of the body the soul and the mind. Salvation is God saving us. Salvation is us loving our neighbor, helping those in need, overcoming oppression, seeking the kingdom which is at hand, which is within us.

I grieve how bad I am at these things. I am a poor example of a Christ follower. I sit here typing what we all ought do and I do nothing.

1 John Paull II, Encyclical Letter “Redemptoris Missio,” paragraph 11.

2 Pontifical Council For Justice And and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. 1st: USCCB Publishing, 2005, page 1.

My Growing Curiosity about Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology: Birth of the New Man, Managua, Batahola Community Center, Nicaragua. Showing the Magi as Carlos Fonseca, Che Guevara, Sadino and Archbishop Romero. [source]

NOTE: This is a repost from my other blog. I am reposting it here because the topic of Liberation Theology continues to change my way of thinking and, I hope, my life. I plan on exploring it more on this site. Since it was first published my thinking has continued to evolve as well. I am now much more in the Liberation Theology camp than this post might suggest.

I have become increasing curious about Liberation Theology. As I continue to become disillusioned by the state of politics in the U.S., including the politics of the Church (or certain prominent sections of the Church), and as I learn more about Latin America and its rich, but also violent, history, and as I have become increasingly curious about Saint Romero and the modern history of El Salvador, I find myself confronted with Liberation Theology. Can Liberation Theology teach us, perhaps even provide a way, for the Church seeking to follow Christ is a deeply broken and anti-Catholic world?

Almost immediately I find vociferous Liberation Theology antagonists. These are primarily conservative and/or traditionalist Catholics. Liberation Theology, they say, is merely Marxism dress up in some Catholic vestments. Ironically, while many of the conservative Catholics revere Saint John Paul II, it this quote from that dynamic and “muscular” anti-communist pope that sparks my interest:

Insofar as it strives to find those just answers – penetrated with understanding for the rich experience of the Church in this country, as effective and constructive as possible and at the same time consonant and consistent with the teachings of the Gospel, of the living and the everlasting Tradition Magisterium of the Church – we and you are convinced that liberation theology is not only timely but useful and necessary. It must constitute a new stage – in close connection with the previous ones – of that theological reflection initiated with the Apostolic Tradition and continued with the great Fathers and Doctors, with the ordinary and extraordinary Magisterium and, in more recent times, with the rich heritage of the Doctrine Church, expressed in documents ranging from Rerum Novarum to Laborem Exercens . ( Emphasis added. Full text here)

Is this not an endorsement of Liberation Theology? Those who say it is actually just Marxism with a Catholic veneer seem to lack understanding. Or do they? I’m still learning.

I am reading Gustavo Gutiérrez‘ classic work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. In it I find an excellent explanation of the Catholic faith. Thus far I find no overt Marxist ideology (thus far) and, in fact, I find a challenge to such ideas. I ought to be clear at this point for the sake of honesty: I am not against all Marxist ideas, nor am I against all aspects of socialism. I am against all the evils done in the name, or using the name, of Marxism and socialism, just as in a similar way I am against all the evils done in the name of capitalism, republicanism, democracy, anarchy, fascism, and any other ideologies or systems of political and economic organization that men use against others. Men are wicked and they will wrap their intentions and deeds in whatever language is most convenient to “justify” their actions of power over others. Men will also quickly and effortlessly excuse evils done in the name of their own systems (those they accept) and their own cultures (those in which they were raised, or into which they were adopted, and in which they find acceptance). Thus, I am still cautious. I have studied the evils of man and the systems he builds. I am not yet convinced that socialism, and there are many versions and definitions of socialism, is or must be inherently evil, or must produce evil men. I am also not convince Liberation Theology is or must be fundamentally socialist, even if it informed by Marxist methods of social and political critique.

So I proceed with my research. I am curious.

Cardinal George was once asked about Liberation Theology and he gave a quick answer. It think his answer represents a kind of thoughtful middle ground that I feel I can get behind. However, I also wonder if he, and Cardinal Ratzinger whom he references, had an adequate understanding of Liberation Theology. Thus, I don’t completely buy into it, yet.

I do not think modern Americans (U.S. citizens) can quite fathom the context in which Liberation Theology developed. I certainly have never lived within a context like those in which Liberation Theology developed, arguably, out of necessity. In fact, U.S. citizens are rather notorious for having strange and perverted ideas about Latin American and its history, including U.S. foreign policy towards that Latin America, its governments, its resources and, more importantly, its people. We are also formed through decades of propaganda (for better or worse) to believe anything that is in any way associated with socialism or Marxism must be gravely and irredeemably evil. For most Americans this is an objective and unquestionable dogmatic truth. I am not convinced, but I am not wary either.

If we, for a moment, set aside the wrangling over theories, over political and economic systems, and about the examples of evil men, and simply consider what we Christians are called to do as we live out the Kingdom of God in tangible actions, we might find a calling to change the world. Pope Paul VI gave us some perspective in his encyclical Populorum progressio, an encyclical that informed Liberation Theology’s development, in which he wrote:

It is not just a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not just a question of fighting wretched conditions, though this is an urgent and necessary task. It involves building a human community where men can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily. It involves building a human community where liberty is not an idle word, where the needy Lazarus can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table. [full text here]

Liberty must not be an idle word. Is that not the foundation of Liberation Theology? Of course, people will argue over that notorious and wonderful word: liberty.

But when politics and faith become entangled, it can be hard to know if one is talking about one or the other. And yet, how can the gospel not also be political? In God there is no separation, is there? In this world there is truth, there is heresy, there are lies, there is evil, and there is love. These things are present in all aspects of human life. Does not the gospel speak to all of that? Are not politics also under the reign of Christ? And what happens when we open our eyes beyond narrow, single-issue, lesser-of-two-evils, U.S. politics and begin to wonder if others, in others places also have eyes to see and hearts that long for justice? What do we do when they see things differently than we do and speak in foreign tongues and use words that frighten us and yet still call us brothers and sisters in Christ? What ought we to do then?

Still, the history of Liberation Theology and its proponents is interesting and, at times, perhaps troubling even for many in Latin America. But it is also fascinating. And there are, naturally, different perspectives.

This short Religion and Ethics piece gives a brief overview and some perspective, and not without moments that will give a traditionalist Catholic conniptions, make a conservative Catholic cringe, and make a liberal Catholic pause:

Is the Church today under Francis more attuned to Jesus? I don’t believe it is. But I also cannot buy in its entirety the critique of traditionalist Catholics (mostly Americans) who demonize Francis and the Church hierarchy today. There is so much that is bad, but there is so much that is good, and there is much good (I firmly believe) going on in the world beyond the horizon of American Catholics and their limited understandings and their historical prejudices. Perhaps that is where most of the good is happening.

One aspect of Liberation Theology, or at least as something clearly linked to it, is the fact of Catholic priests and bishops renouncing their vocations for political action in the name of Liberation Theology. For example, Fernando Lugo, who was a Catholic priest and bishop, then became president of Paraguay, gave up the priesthood for politics:

Lugo resigned his ordinary from the Diocese of San Pedro on 11 January 2005. He had requested laicization in order to run for office. However, the Holy See refused the request on the grounds that bishops could not undergo laicization, and also denied him the requested canonical permission to run for civil elected office. However, after Lugo won the presidential election, the Church granted his laicization on 30 June 2008. [from Wikipedia]

This bothers me a great deal. Why must they do this? I don’t know. Have they lost the faith, turned from God, or have they made the right choice? I have my opinions, but I’m holding off judgement until I know more. I first came across Lugo in Oliver Stone’s fascinating documentary film, South of the Border. I have a hard time faulting Lugo for making his decision, though i’m bothered by it. I am in no place to criticise him. I also sense that his position became somewhat untenable as he found himself between the Church that tends to side with those in power and Christ’s call to help the poor. And yet, I don’t like the decision he made and I am curious about his eternal destiny. What will Christ do with him and others like him?

Similarly, one of the more prominent theologians of the Liberation Theology movement is Leonardo Boff. Also a former priest and a sharp critic of the Church, he gave up the priesthood for social activism. This documentary gives a rather good picture of Boff and his views:

I am not sure what to do with this. Is Boff’s direction the right one? I’m inclined to think not, and I feel about him much as I feel about Fernando Lugo. And yet, I do agree with the general direction of some of his views, up to a point. I am also concerned about any movement where men give up the priesthood for the movement, or stop wearing traditional clerical clothing. However, I don’t know enough about Latin American history and culture to know the meaning of all that. I also think there is a generational element to it. Older, baby-boomer, 1960’s radicals might have thrown off their religious garb because that was the spirit of that age, whereas younger priests and religious today might insist on wearing more traditional religious clothing for, ironically, similar reasons. I can’t say, but it would make some sense to me. We are all far more children of the zeitgeist than any of us want to admit.

Still, I firmly believe that it’s all too easy to get pulled away from Christ and His kingdom by the enticements of the world and worldly politics, and thus lose one’s soul. I believe Liberation Theology is, at its heart, an attempt to avoid that, but clearly many questions still remain about many of its adherents. I am inclined to read some of Boff’s books eventually.

In summary, I know very little at this point, but I am inclined to believe Liberation Theology is a good thing and ought to be taken seriously, perhaps re-thought and re-addressed, by more Catholics. I also am beginning to think the Church (once again) dropped the ball in a big way by not more fully embracing it and thereby helping guide it rather than leave priests and faithful Catholics essentially on their own, sometimes feeling abandoned by the Church. This, I think, was a huge missed opportunity at a crucial time in Latin America. In a sense, I believe the Church “lost” Latin America, in a sense, because of this.

I welcome any comments pointing me to more resources.

A nihilist

I want to start with three quotes all from the same person. I will say who it is after the quotes. As you read them, ask yourself what kind of person this is:

Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most.
Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.
I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.

There is something heroic in not allowing oneself to be deluded by fantasy in the face of meaninglessness, to stand before the great emptiness and accept it for what it is, to not live a lie. Unless, of course, one is merely self-delusional about the so-called meaninglessness in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is, in fact, meaning.

Arguably there is no more untenable position than nihilism, for it is the greatest lie. Nihilism is the claim that existence has no meaning. It is the claim that anyone who claims meaning is deluded. In his heart, the nihilist like a fool, says there is no God. It’s not really a philosophy as much as a stance, a cry, a shrug, a prejudice. In other words, the nihilist hero is really a fool, an unhappy fool surrounded by a world overflowing with meaning. And some of those fools are great artists.

If you have not guessed already, these quotes are all by Woody Allen, from an interview he gave in 2010 for Commonweal magazine. Allen has been in the news a lot the past few years regarding accusations of child molestation. It’s a lot of he said, she said, and most have already made up their minds about it. This post is not really about all that, at least not directly.

Woody Allen was one of my favorite filmmakers once I discovered his films in college. Although his life and career has been tarnished by those accusations, as an artist he is (or was) brilliant, witty, serious, and often very funny. Many of my Christian friends have loved his films as well. And as Christians we have all been of two minds about his films.

But I can’t help but look back on those films that I loved, some I still do I suppose, and not see them as ultimately empty. I also can’t help but think if one truly believes the world has no ultimate meaning and human existence is pointless, how can one live except by the mindless inertia of seeking the next “oases, delight, some charm and peace?” And finally, in the end, nothing.

I pray Allen turns to God who is love and who seeks him.


I’m restarting this blog. It’s not the first time.

Whatever happened to blogging? I got on Facebook and my blogging slowed. I guess I just needed an outlet and FB did it. I left FB and got on Twitter. Love Twitter. I hate Twitter; 240 characters but you can string tweets together forever if you want. Some do, in fact.

And that ended my blogging basically. My attention span shriveled.

My first blog was this one, pilgrimakimbo. Mostly I wrote about film and art and some family stuff. When I began to write about my faith journey I lost some followers, got some new ones, and thought I should have a separate blog for that. That one is satillitesaint.

But I stopped writing that one too.

Twitter scratched my itch and longer-form writing (more than 240 characters, complete thoughts, arguments even) became too much effort. But I missed it.

So I’m trying a restart (my blogging & myself in a way), going back to this blog because I like the title better; it suits my mood a bit more. I’ll probably write, ruminate really, about anything that tickles my fancy, but lately I’ve been interested in the interface between faith and politics; reorienting my thinking actually. Still might write about movies and art too.

We’ll see if this is a good idea.

[Photo: Filipe Braga/Serralves]

So here’s to my first post on this blog in eight years.



Today we watched our first ever cyclocross race. Here are a few snaps of the fun:

The start

Into a headwind on the back stretch

Up and down, over the road

The stairs

Again, headwind on the back stretch

Over the barriers

The race took place at Camp Harlow and is part of the OBRA cyclocross racing season.

I am now thinking of training for cyclocross in the future. The event looked fun, is rather low-key, and is open to all levels. It reminded me of a 10k road run where some come to win and most come for their personal goals and the challenge. Unlike the tense and high-strung world of road racing, cyclocross is more like a family affair with some very serious competitors, but most just having a lot of fun.