Jon Sobrino, S.J., worked and lived with the six Jesuits who were killed in San Salvador in the early hours of November 16. At the time of the murders, he was lecturing in Thailand. Now in the United States waiting to return to El Salvador, where he has worked for sixteen years at the University of Central America, he spoke with Commonweal by telephone from the West Coast.
The Jesuits have had a long history of receiving threats; none of this started yesterday. These killings did not happen by chance. Since 1980 there have been several attacks on the university, and our house was destroyed in 1983; the computer center, the library, the printing building have all been attacked. Why? Because we supported dialogue; that was considered treason. But the Jesuits were confident nothing would happen now because the house was surrounded by the military who would be held responsible. The cook and her daughter were staying in the house because they thought it was safer than their own little house close to the road.
Ellacuría [Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.,rector of the university] has been very active in working for peace and diaogue. Recently he had two private talks with President [Alfredo] Cristiani. In our minds and many others, we were working not for the government, not for the FMLN [Farabundo Martí Liberation Front], but to end the war. So these deaths are tragic and paradoxical.
I have loved these men and worked with them many years. It has been difficult to accept their deaths; I feel a great loss, an irreparable loss. But as Christians—the pope, bishops, liberation theologians—we all know from Puebla and Medellín of the option for the poor. We live in El Salvador, as elsewhere, in the world amidst poverty. For the poor simply to live, to survive, is difficult. It is their daily task. They don't take life for granted. It is not the will of God that the poor live like this. We cannot believe in the Jesus Christ sent by God without taking this option for the poor.
In 1975 we Jesuits said our mission today is to defend faith and justice. Both go together. You know usually universities don't care too much for faith and justice. But now we understand the university as a social force working for faith and justice. What happened to the Jesuits, to Archbishop Oscar Romero, to the American churchwomen happens all over the world to priests, to sisters, to catechists, to peasants. The idols of this world bring death to people who work for justice. The Jesuits have been killed because they loved their brothers and sisters. They freely gave up their lives for this. In this world of injustice they have shown their love for men and women. From this love comes hope. That is the Christian response to these deaths.
As for the killers: as Christians and human beings, we are ready to forgive. We don't want more deaths. We want to call these people to conversion. Archbishop Romero, just before he was killed, said it: "I say now I forgive and bless those who will kill me."
But these are individuals. It is the structures allowing this kind of killing that we have to fight—the structures that produce the slow death through poverty. We must work to change these structures or these killings will go on, not just in El Salvador but all over Latin America where things are getting worse. In all of this the government is not too important. Rather it is those who control the country: the extreme right, the oligarchy, the death squads, and some members of the army. They are in control. It is they who harass the churches—the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Mennonites, as well as the Catholic church. These obscure forces do not want Christians who believe in faith and justice. They want to go back to the old religion where you simply accept everything that happens. They don't want Christians who follow Jesus of Nazareth. There are different understandings of what the church should do and be. These differences are not rooted in dogmatic questions, but in the kind of commitment we should have in the face of poverty. There are those who do not want to commit themselves. Others do. But how can you say you believe in God and do nothing about that commitment? In that sense ecumenism is easy in El Salvador; the poor have united us.
So these attacks on the churches are an effort to dismantle the work for faith and justice; to make our efforts ineffective by killing and terrorizing. But that won't happen. At the funeral Mass, the papal nuncio said these men were martyrs. This is the most eloquent way of saying they were good Christians. That means ideally that the churches will stay, that the work will continue.
The decision to go on has been made by the Jesuit provincial. The Society of Jesus and the university have not been killed. Of course, it will be difficult; the group will be hard to replace. But a great number of Jesuits from all over the world have volunteered to come and work in the university.
About the political situation, I have no very clear personal opinion. But I can say this. It seems that the FMLN hoped in their attacks in San Salvador for two things. First, they wanted to bring about a general uprising, which did not take place, but everyone knew that it would not. The public opinion polls show that all the people want is peace. Second, the FMLN wanted to show that they had real power, that they were not just a small group. They could then go back to negotiations having shown their power. It is unlikely that the guerrillas will ever take over, but if they did, Stalin would not come to El Salvador.
I don't think the current administration in Washington will withdraw aid. But in any case, Americans should understand that the problem in El Salvador is not political. It goes much deeper; it is a problem of poverty. Americans' first effort should be to understand why many in El Salvador, as elsewhere, live inhuman lives. Americans must ask themselves, "What should we do to be in solidarity with these people?" If the problem of poverty is not solved, conflict will always arise, conflict that will be interpreted in a political way.
Please understand, life in Central America is not as it is in the U.S. With war in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, things become worse. There are casualties, violations of human rights, an increase in refugees. Twenty percent of Salvadorans have been forced to leave.
The war will not end militarily. It has to end through negotiations. A new policy is needed, not to keep the fighting alive, but to keep on pressure so that both sides will negotiate. Otherwise, you see that the terrible things that have happened and still happen become normal.
Americans need to take this time to analyze what is happening; it is not only a political problem but a human problem. Your readers should feel so concerned that these events become a call to conversion, a call to think and act differently. You know Christian faith is a little bit crazy. It is not for "sound" people. In the United States and Europe you are very highly developed, you have technology and wealth, but you have difficulty in finding a meaning to life. Wealth is not the best companion of Christian faith. El Salvador does not have weapons, or wealth, or technology to offer; but it has something of higher value to offer, the meaning of life. It has hope to offer. In the face of these many tragedies, there is still a feeling of community, of overcoming individualism and selfishness. In El Salvador the life of faith makes sense.
For Americans then, I would say, these events have two meanings. First, there is the challenge to see that "we have to change ourselves." Second, that these events are Good News, as we say the Gospel is the Good News—there is hope; there is love in the world. The crucified people of EI Salvador show it.