Santa Clara University

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After Words

Reflections on the martyrs

Twenty years after the murder of Jesuits in El Salvador
Jon Sobrino, S.J. Translated by Juan Velasco and Ron Hansen M.A. ’95
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Photo: Charles Barry

Reflecting on the martyrs of El Salvador, I think of Julia Elba and Celina. Julia Elba was 42 years old, and she had worked all her life in the coffee farms as a cook. Her daughter Celina,15, a student and a catechism teacher, was hoping to get engaged to her boyfriend the next month. But they were murdered on November 16, 1989, with the six Jesuits at the University of Central America. They were sleeping in the Jesuit residency, but the government order was “not to leave any witnesses.” In the pictures you can tell how Julia Elba was trying to defend her daughter with her own body. When I was told in a long distance call who was killed, that was the thing that most caused my rage.

There are many millions of men and women like Julia Elba. In fact, most of humanity. They die fast in war and more slowly in the poverty caused by war. We need only look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine; at health disasters like malaria and AIDS; at ecological problems like flooding and erosion; at natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, where the majority of the dead are those who cannot afford strong housing. The poor live on the sides of the mountains, next to rivers, or along railroad tracks. Anything can happen, and does.

The majority of the earth’s people die innocently and cruelly, often after a life of great suffering. And they die defenseless. Who is risking anything to bring them down from the cross? There is now more wealth in the planet but also more injustice. Africa has been called “the jail of the world,’’ a continent in the midst of a “shoah.” Two and a half billion people on Earth live on less than three dollars a day; and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, each day 25,000 people die of hunger. In more than 100 countries, the widening of desert lands is threatening the lives of 1.2 billion people. And we are refusing emigrants “a floor under their feet.”

The economic powers have done nothing significant to reverse this history. In one year the number of the hungry has increased by 100 million, and every five seconds a child dies of hunger. Because we could have prevented their deaths, international food expert Jean Ziegler maintains we could call those children “murdered.”

These are “the crucified people” of our time. Martyrs like Martin Luther King Jr., Monseñor Romero, and Ignacio Ellacuría are famous and venerated, but not the crucified people. A paradox, since those famous martyrs risked their lives defending the unknown majority of the population. Those are the ones carrying the sin of a world that is killing them little by little. Those are the ones who give witness to the inherent suffering of this world—who, as Saint Paul wrote, “complete in their flesh what is missing in the passion of Christ.”

Looking at them as a group, we can say that it is in them that the God of salvation has appeared. My friend Ignacio Ellacuría wrote about it with scientific precision. On my part, I have written: “without the poor—or the victims— there is no salvation.”

I have two final reflections. First, that among the victimizers of the poor or builders and directors of oppressive structures, there are baptized Christians educated in Christian institutions. And, second, in the process of canonizing saints, the Church doesn’t know how to consider the martyrs of social injustice, and even more so, the Church doesn’t know what to do with the majority of the men and women from the crucified countries. May that process be rethought. And may the Church eagerly strive to give dignity to those majorities who carried the cross in life and in death. We are told in the gospels that those are the chosen ones.

Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino narrowly escaped being murdered by a government death squad in El Salvador in 1989. He is a leading liberation theologian and has devoted his life to helping the poor and oppressed. On Nov. 5, he spoke at SCU as part of the President’s Speaker Series.