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Nonviolence in El Salvador
by Father Joe Nangle

prisoner
35-year-old prisoner of war. Woman died shortly after
photo was taken
© Mike Oso
The example of the men and women who struggled for peace in El Salvador during the 1980s has become even more important 10 years after many sacrificed their lives for the ideal of nonviolence.

The meager attention given to foreign policy during the 2000 U.S. electoral campaigns all hinged on strengthening the U.S. military "to protect our interests." No longer do we in America heed a call to seek other means than the gun for settling disputes within and between nations, and the euphemistic "surgical" gun at that. As a people we allow "clean" bombs to be dropped on anyone who would threaten our national security, while letting genocide in Rwanda or Namibia run its course.

To bring it closer to home, I recently received an invitation from the War Gaming Department of the U.S. Marine Corps to join a panel of "experts" discussing the least offensive ways for U.S. ground troops to invade Columbia. The War Gaming folks at Quantico received instructions from Washington to invent various scenarios for a U.S. military search-and-destroy mission against coca growers in that South American country. This example of armed interference in another countries' affairs shows how much we can still learn from our involvement in El Salvador.

The women and men in ENEMIES OF WAR lived and died under the power of an ideal: that bringing an end to armed conflict does not have to mean winners and losers; that might does not make right; that mediation can accomplish what rifles and bombs and gunships fail to do. Their ideal proved so powerful and so threatening to the Salvadoran army that these peacemakers had to be killed.

Romero image
Drawing of Monsignor Oscar Romero in a country graveyard
Another Salvadoran had urged a nonviolent approach 10 years before the deaths of the Jesuit priests. Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter in 1980 pleading for a cessation of military assistance to the Salvadoran army. Although Catholic hierarchs normally use Vatican diplomatic channels to address heads of states, Romero was no ordinary bishop. He felt compelled to write directly to "a fellow Christian" to beg for nonviolent approaches to El Salvador's escalating civil war. President Carter never responded and a month later Romero was murdered while celebrating the Eucharist. The war in El Salvador raged for 10 more years.

Romero and priests
(left to right) Archbishop Oscar Romero, Father IgnacIo EllacurIa and Father Segundo Montes
Engaged nonviolence, as practiced by the Jesuits and their associates, sends a different message to those who think only in terms of military power. But the idea of negotiating peace proved too much for the American-backed military establishment of El Salvador. It reacted with typical violence when a squad of soldiers carried out orders to murder six Jesuit priests and two female employees at the University of Central America (UCA). The killing of these true "enemies of war" provided the horror, outrage and motivation for reasonable people on all sides to approach the negotiating table and end the violence. A year after the martyrdom at UCA, a peace process had begun.

The spiritual heirs of the El Salvadoran conflict still pursue the nonviolent alternatives. In many areas of the world, men and women of faith or simply of enormous good will have generated tactics for confronting situations of violence in peaceful ways. Christian Peacemaking Teams, for example, have stood between Palestinians and Israelis in that conflictive region They have also closed crack houses in Washington, D.C. Similar groups have accompanied the most vulnerable individuals in violent places like Guatemala and Bosnia.

These initiatives might seem doomed to failure in the face of military power - which expends upward of one trillion dollars yearly - or in view of an American military establishment that consumes more than one half of the annual U.S. budget. However, while practitioners of nonviolence may die along the way, the power of their ideal cannot be denied.

Less than a month after the November 16, 1989 massacre, Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, a surviving member of the UCA community, visited Washington. He met with several friends there who fully expected to console this man who had so recently had lost his friends, co-workers and fellow Jesuits.

What Sobrino's listeners heard, however, was the assurance that the UCA martyrs would prevail. He said with deepest conviction, "I am convinced that death will not have the final word - life will." The message of ENEMIES OF WAR is as fresh as today's gesture, however small, of tolerance, of understanding and of reconciliation.

Joseph Nangle is a Franciscan priest who spent fifteen years in Latin American. There he encountered the effects of "institutional violence" done to the poor and marginalized. Since his return to the U.S., Father Nangle has worked to heighten awareness of our country's complicity in Third World poverty and oppression. He currently trains and places American lay women and men in impoverished areas of the world to increase their understanding of North/South dynamics.

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