The BBC’s Heart and Soul ran an incredible 2-part radio show on Oscar Romero this week on the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. Join Julian Miglierini as he speaks to those who remember Romero, and travels to a village in El Salvador’s poor north, where he is revered as a saint.
“Thirty years ago, El Salvador’s Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating mass. He knew he was in danger – not long before his death, he said that if he was killed – he would rise again in his people. Today, his face is everywhere in the country – on murals, T-shirts and key rings. Many compare him to Martin Luther King, Gandhi or even Che Guevara.
But how was it that this man of the church became such an outspoken advocate of the poor and oppressed? And why did he become such a threat to the rich oligarchy that someone wanted him dead?Listen to BBC’s Julian Miglierini as he speaks to those who remember Romero, and travels to a village in El Salvador’s poor north, where he is revered as a saint.”
Every year on 24th March, the people of El Salvador remember the death of the man who throughout Latin America became known as the voice of the voiceless poor: Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot dead at the altar on 24th March 1980. But is the Catholic church he loved in terminal decline, in a country where more than one-third of the population now attend evangelical Protestant churches?
BBC’s Julian Miglierini goes to a Baptist megachurch in San Salvador where close to 80,000 people worship every week, and asks why its message should have such enormous appeal in a traditionally Catholic country. But while the Catholic church may be losing members, Oscar Romero himself seems to have lost little of his appeal. El Salvador’s new left-wing President, Mauricio Funes, calls him his inspiration. And this bookish Archbishop in his 60s has also become an unlikely icon of youth culture. Hear why the Hip Hop band, Pescozada, have just released a track in homage to him.
As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, I want to highlight a story that you won’t see in the mainstream news: how Christian nonviolent action was the lynch pin that set the stage for the wall to come tumbling down.
I remember exactly where I was and who I was with on the day the wall got a hole punched through it. It was the beginning of the collapse of Communism. The Soviet empire imploded. The Cold War that had left millions dead through starvation, poverty, nuclear brinkmanship, and “Red tide” skirmishes began its slow decline. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal notes, what Friedrich von Hayek so aptly called the fatal conceit was in retreat.
Several months ago I came across a remarkable story by Lutheran peace activist Bonnie Block on faith-based peace action in East Germany in the 1980s that set the stage for the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. I asked Bonnie if I could reprint it here. She replied, “Yes, I wrote this article in 2001 and would be delighted to have it distributed. We so often do not hear the stories of nonviolent action and thus it’s easier for the culture to convince us that violence works.”
Amidst a global economic recession and the potential end to U.S. imperial hegemony, I’ll posit that market capitalism is also a fatal conceit that is now in retreat. And the acts of faithful Christians who act out of Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence on behalf of human dignity are and will be the leaders of this revolution too. As the president of the German Democratic Republic said at that time, “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
Read Bonnie Block’s article below:
In early November 2001, I was one of eighteen members of two Lutheran congregations in the Madison, WI area who visited the former East Germany as part of a 13-day “heritage tour.” I knew that the churches of East Germany had been vital to the nonviolent revolutions which brought down the Communist governments of eastern Europe in 1989. But hearing and reading the stories of people who were involved in this historic time, actually sitting in the pews of one of those churches and lightening a peace candle there, has strengthened my resolve to practice nonviolence.
The place we visited is the Nicolaikirche (St Nicholas Church) built in 1165 in the center of a cobblestone square in the inner city of Leipzig. The story actually begins in the late 1970s or early 1980s when there were huge demonstrations all over Europe to protest the arms race. But in East Germany there was no neutral space to discuss and reflect on public issues except for the churches. It was in this context that a youth group from a congregation in eastern Leipzig started “peace prayers” every Monday at 5 pm at the Nicolaikirche. Soon “Bausoldaten” (people who rendered their compulsory military service by serving in special, unarmed units) came, followed by environmental activists and people interested in third world issues. Together they tried to stir the public’s conscience and encourage action.
That made the Stasi (State Security Police) and SED (the ruling Communist Party) officials come to see what was going on. Soon applicants for emigration and other regime critics came — along with Christian and non-Christian citizens of Leipiz and other parts of East Germany. The government reacted. From the May 8 1989, the access roads to the Nicolaikirche were checked and blocked by the police. Later the autobahn exits to Leipzig were subject to large-scale checks or even closed during the time of the prayers for peace. Monday after Monday there were arrests or “temporary detentions.” Yet the people continued to gather.
By September, the 2000 seats in the church were filled and people coming out of the church were joined by tens of thousands waiting in the Square outside. All held lighted candles in their hands and slowly they began to move toward the ring road that surrounds the city center. Helmut Junghans, a retired professor at the University of Leipzig said: “It started with 5 or 6 but each week there were more of us praying for peace. Eventually we filled the church and then the square around the church and then we spilled onto the ring road surrounding the old part of Leipzig. Eventually there were 300,000 of us marching past the Stasi headquarters. Chants of ‘We are the people’ began and then soon changed to ‘We are one people.’ But there was not one broken shop window and there was no violence.”
October 7, 1989 was the 40th anniversary of the GDR. The authorities cracked down and for ten long hours uniformed police battered defenseless people who made no attempt to fight back and took them away in trucks. Hundreds were locked up in stables in Markkleeberg. The press published an article saying it was high time to put an end to the “counter-revolution,” if need be, by force.
On Monday, October 9, 1989 “everything was at stake” because the order to shoot the protesters had been given. Rev. C. Fuhrer, describes the day as follows:
1,000 SED party members had been ordered to go to the Nicholaikirche. Some 600 of them had already filled up the church nave by 2 pm. They had a job to perform like the Stasi personnel who were on hand regularly and in great numbers at the peace prayers. And so it was that these people, including SED party members, heard from Jesus who said: “Blessed are the poor”! And not: “Anyone with money is happy.”
Jesus said: “Love your enemies”! Instead of: “Down with your opponent.” Jesus said: “Many who are first will be last”! And not: “Everything stays the same.” Jesus said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”! And not: “Take great care.” Jesus said: “You are the salt”! And not: “You are the cream.”
The prayers for peace took place in unbelievable calm and concentration. Shortly before the end, before the bishop gave his blessing, appeals by Professor Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. This mutuality in such a threatening situation is also important, this solidarity between church and art, music and gospel.
And so these prayers for peace ended with the bishop’s blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. And as we–more than 2,000 persons–came out of the church–I’ll never forget the sight–tens of thousands were waiting outside in the Square. They all had candles in their hands. If you carry a candle, you need two hands. You have to prevent the candle from going out. You cannot hold a stone or a club in your hand. And the miracle came to pass. Jesus’ spirit of nonviolence seized the masses and became a material, peaceful power. Troops, industrial militia groups, and the police were drawn in, became engaged in conversations, then withdrew. It was an evening in the spirit of our Lord Jesus for there were no victors or vanquished, no one triumphed over the other, and no one lost face.
Not a shot was fired. On Monday, October 16, the peace prayers continued (as they do to this day) and 120,000 people were in the streets of Leipzig demanding democracy and free elections. On October 18, Erich Honecker, the leader of the ruling SED party resigned. Nonviolent protests were held all over Germany, including one with one half million people in East Berlin on November 4th. On November 7, 1989 the entire government of the GDR resigned. On November 9th the crossing points of the Wall in East Berlin opened. Seven months later the entire border regime of the GDR (symbolized by Checkpoint Charlie) came to an end. On October 3, 1990 Germany was reunified.
Sindermann, who was a member of the Central Committee of the GDR, said before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
Block lives in Madison, WI, and was the national coordinator of Lutheran Peace Fellowship during the early 1990s and chair of the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1995. She would like to thank Herb Brokering for his reflections on the pilgrimages he made to the Eastern Germany before the fall of the Wall and which were available for reading on the bus during our journey in 2001.
Catholic monk, mystic, writer, and justice advocate was very concerned about the rise of atomic weapons. In 1962 he wrote a book called Peace in the Post-Christian Era addressing the immorality of nuclear weapons. He was forbidden from publishing it by his order’s abbot. It wasn’t published until 2004 and has a wonderful foreword by Jim Forest.
Below is an excerpt from Merton to French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain on the topic.
[To Jacques Maritain, Feb, 1963] I do not want to bother you with a multitude of things of mine, but I am putting into the mail a mimeographed copy of my “unpublishable” book on “Peace in the Post Christian Era.” Unpublishable because forbidden by our upright and upstanding Abbot General who does not want to leave Christian civilization without the bomb to crown its history of honor. He says that my defense of peace “fausserait le message de la vie contemplative” [would falsify the message of the contemplative life]. The fact that a monk should be concerned about this issue is thought-by “good monks”-to be scandalous. A hateful distraction, withdrawing one’s mind from Baby Jesus in the Crib. Strange to say, no one seems concerned at the fact that the crib is directly under the bomb.–Thomas Merton
From The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993, p. 36)
I’m not sure what to think about ending up as a minor character in a short story, except to say that I’m honored. Alice Kesner posted “The Peace Vigil” at Political Affairs magazine (tag line “Marxist Thought Online”). I think she makes a good effort at crafting the “stuff” of life into the art of life–carving away what’s less important, so that the essential tensions and beauties stand out. Thanks, Alice! Here’s an excerpt:
Dusk, in the living room of a rambling, country-style house in Texas, where three women and two men are about to mark an important occasion. It’s the second anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, and while in urban places people are commemorating the day with antiwar marches and demonstrations, in this small Hill Country town these five folks are about to hold a peace vigil. …
At this moment, Bruce, who reclines at the other end of the sofa, waves some sheets of paper in the air. “Folks, I’ve got me some copies here of a humdinger responsorial by a Rose Marie Berger, hot off the Internet.” Bruce, who owns a thirty-acre pecan ranch, is slim, loose-jowled and rugged in blue jeans, sports jacket and the cowboy hat he always wears, even indoors. A friend of Mary’s from school days, and for a brief period a long time ago her lover, he finds himself, now twice divorced, drifting back into Mary’s emotional orbit.
Read Alice Kesner’s whole story here. If you want to read the litany she references, see below.