[This piece was originally written in 2014 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the murders in El Salvador. This edited version incorporates new material and updates the original text.]
On November 16, 1989, eight people were murdered on the grounds of the José Simeón Cañas University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador. Six of the victims were Jesuit priests who taught at the university and who were vocal advocates for a negotiated settlement of the country’s civil war. The two other victims were the cook for the priest’s dormitory and her daughter. These murders shocked a country that had seen plenty of bloodshed up to that point.
The 1993 United Nations Security Council report submitted by the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador claimed that, “between 1980 and 1991, the Republic of El Salvador […] was engulfed in a war” which ultimately claimed upwards of 75,000 lives, traumatized an entire society, destroyed roads, highways, bridges, churches, schools, hospitals, homes, and families. “In its cruelty violence leaves everyone defenceless.”
Looking back, I remember being unsure about who was doing what to whom, and where. Central America was in crisis throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when civil wars in Guatemala (1960-1996), Nicaragua (twice, first in 1978-1979 and again from 1981-1990), and El Salvador attracted a variety of foreign involvement, in the form of money, arms, and advisors. Coup d’états, repressions, and counter-coups marked the era. Human rights were abused with impunity. People disappeared, villages were destroyed, and villagers massacred. Both sides committed gross atrocities against the other.
In El Salvador, the United States backed the government. The Soviet Union, Cuba, and other Soviet bloc countries supported the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), an alliance of five insurgent groups. The fighting was “particularly merciless” on the civilian population. The details are far more complicated than a brief synopsis can provide, but in the end, neither side could dislodge the other, and as the Cold War dwindled, so too did foreign political interest and financial aid to El Salvador, eventually leading to an end to the fighting and a subsequent peace accord, signed in Mexico City on January 16, 1992.
This conflict highlights the nature of power – who has it, who wants it, and who gets stuck in the middle. But war doesn’t happen overnight. Even the seemingly spontaneous Rwandan genocide in 1994 was planned. War is, as von Clausewitz said, “a continuation of policy by other means,” a political act, as it certainly seemed to be in the El Salvador of the Cold War era.
The roots to this latest conflict go back to the sixteenth century when Spain conquered Central America. El Salvador only became an independent republic in 1838. Before then, the Spaniards and, after independence, Salvadorans of European descent had created a vast gap between rich and poor. The Salvadoran economy was based on agriculture, mostly around two singular crops: first, indigo, for which demand evaporated with the introduction of chemical dyes, followed by coffee in the 1800s. By 1880, coffee had become the dominant export crop and would figure prominently as a funding source in the civil wars to come.
The Center for Justice and Accountability says indigenous peoples and mestizos made up 95 percent of the population but were reduced to virtual serfdom while a small minority of wealthy landholders called the “Fourteen Families” ruled through a long series of military dictatorships throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “It is along these fault lines – between peasant and planter, European and native – that cycles of violence have erupted throughout El Salvador’s troubled history.”
In January 1932, Augustin Farabundo Marti, a labor leader, led a peasant revolt against the ruling dictatorship and the “Fourteen Families.” The response was immediate and massive. It is remembered today as La Matanza, the slaughter that took 30,000 lives, mostly those of indigenous people. Thus began a perpetual struggle between the various right-wing military dictatorships and their left-wing guerilla opponents. Caught in the middle, Salvadoran society in general and particularly the peasant population were vulnerable to depredations from both sides, more so from the right-wing.
Europe between Hitler and Stalin, from the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, and even a little beyond, experienced similar murders, where millions of people were murdered simply for who they were and where they happened to be living at the time.
We need to know these long and complicated histories in order to see our current world in all its complexity and tragedy and as clearly and completely as possible. In response, one might ask, where was God? For every murder, for every disappearance, was God present to the victims? How could God allow such a long-playing tragedy such as what befell El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Poland and Ukraine?
In the immediate aftermath of the December, 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Sumatra and most of the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean as far away as Sri Lanka, David B. Hart wrote that, when we are confronted by “the sheer savage immensity” of wide-spread suffering, we are permitted only to hate death, waste, and “the imbecile forces of chance.” The hidden hand of God does not send the destruction of natural causes our way as a form of testing or punishment. Instead, we can see that God is in our collective positive response to tragedy, in our compassion, and in our charity.
In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, John Podhoretz wrote that evil is “an effort to destroy the common good by making good appear powerless, ineffectual, weak.” Evil is all of that and more. Evil isn’t just a thing that sits there as if it were waiting for the next bus. Evil is something we choose to do. We can resist evil. We can choose not to do it.
What happened on November 16, 1989 in El Salvador was not by natural causes. The men who murdered six priests and two women that night chose to do evil. Worse, they were commanded to, and they did not question the command. We can say, then, that the murderers and their commanders were evil. Such evil is still on the loose around the world today in conflicts small and large.
We are called to remember what happened on November 16, 1989 and elsewhere in Central America at that time because, as Father Joseph O’Hare wrote, “for us to forget [the slain priests] or to decide that the costs of justice are too high for us to pay would be to betray not only their memory but our faith that this is God’s world and that God is the Lord of justice.” In the same way, we are called to also remember if not stand with the slain in Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, and with all those trapped in a war zone; anywhere that neighbors strike at neighbors or wherever people have died at the hands of oppression. It is a long list.
At the Communion table, Christians recall the words of Jesus Christ, who said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus is calling us to remember, first, that we meet in peaceful fellowship that cuts across social, political, and economic boundaries. Secondly, in sharing that meal, we build up God’s beloved community, the kingdom of heaven, here on earth. Reconciliation and perhaps understanding occur at the Lord’s Table. What we do there is the exact opposite of what we do when we are at war.
Jon Sobrino reminds us of “God’s eternal question,” which is this: “What have you done to your brother or sister,” to which we would add, “or not done for them?” Here is Sobrino again with what we hope is the last word that might speak for all time to man’s inhumanity to mankind: “In a world of darkness with a heart of stone it is possible to live with light and with a heart of flesh, and that it is possible to experience in one’s own life the blessing and joy of the beatitudes.”
 Rev. Stan G. Duncan , “Introduction: The Crime” in Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990], xi-xxviii.
 Betancur B, Figueredo Planchart R, Buergenthal T. “From madness to hope: the twelve-year war in El Salvador. Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.” [New York: United Nations; 1993] http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/ElSalvador-Report.pdf, accessed 13 October 2014.
 Mark Vasallo, “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: General Considerations and a Critical Comparison of the Commissions of Chile and El Salvador,” The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), 168.
 Ibid., 168-169.
 Karl von Clausewitz, War, Politics, and Power: Selections from On War, and I Believe and Profess, ed. and tran. Edward M. Collins [Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1962], 83.
 “Background on El Salvador,” The Center for Justice and Accountability, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=199, accessed 16 October 2013.
 Donald E. Jacobson and David B. Ehrenthal, "Chapter 3: The Economy" in A Country Study: El Salvador, Library of Congress Call Number F1483.B55 1990, http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/svtoc.html, accessed 17 October 2014.
 A person of combined European and Native American descent.
 “Background on El Salvador.” Emphasis added.
 David B. Hart, “Tremors of Doubt,” The Wall Street Journal (31 December 2004).
 John Podhoretz, “Gehenna in Connecticut,” Commentary (14 December 2012), https://www.commentarymagazine.com/culture-civilization/gehenna-in-connecticut/.
 Father Joseph O’Hare, S.J., “Six Slain Jesuits” in Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, 176.
 Ibid., ix.