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New Pastoral Letter From San Salvador: I See Violence and Strife In the City

The Peaceable Kingdom
by Fritz Eichenberg

El Salvador is again overwhelmed with violence. At Casa Juan Diego we are very aware of the critical situation for Salvadorans because of the refugees who come to our doors and tell us their stories.

In response to a crisis situation in which the death toll from homicides is one of the highest in the world and some perpetrators of violence seem to be dehumanized, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador has published a pastoral letter which addresses the roots of the violence and presents one of the best cases for Christian non-violence in Latin America to be formulated in decades: I See Violence and Strife in the City,

Archbishop Escobar creatively integrates sources from the Old and New Testaments, from ancient and new theologians and teachers, from the Second Vatican Council, from what he names the Latin American Magisterium (reports from the conferences of Latin American Bishops), Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the writings of Pope Francis. Within each of these sources is woven the Salvadoran reality.

The Letter was published on the Feast of Blessed Oscar Romero this year.

Carlos X. Colorado, who has provided an English translation of the Pastoral Letter on the web, has said that it “is already being whispered about in San Salvador Catholic circles as being possibly the most important pronouncement from the Salvadoran church since Romero.” Quotes in this article are from his translation. (Thanks to the CRUX website for printing his article about the Letter.)

When in 1977 we lived in San Salvador government repression took the form of death squads in the street, especially targeting Catholics and labor or community leaders who advocated economic justice. (We did not completely realize the extent of the violence until we had left the country later that year.) The people warned us then not to criticize the government or the wealthy because of what the consequences might be. They told us in hushed voices about the massacre of so many Salvadorans, especially indigenous, when the people had dared to rise up in 1932.

Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero was a voice for peace and defense of victims of violence when we lived in El Salvador and in the following years until his assassination. Now another prophetic voice for peace has emerged in a country racked by violence in the aftermath of the civil war.

In what some are calling his epic Pastoral Letter Archbishop Escobar speaks of the reality in the country in which dozens of deaths are “being caused every day as if we were in the middle of a battlefield.”

Archbishop Escobar speaks of the current criminal violence and extortion, but addresses the underlying causes behind the violence and its historical roots: social exclusion, unfair distribution of wealth, disempowerment, lack of respect for human rights, idolatry of money, individualism.

He traces the roots of the violence in the country from the time of the conquest when the indigenous people were taught (through the cruelest methods) violence against their brothers, through the beginning of independence when violent methods continued in a new form disenfranchising the majority of the people.

Archbishop Escobar reminds us that well before large outbreaks of violence in the history of El Salvador, pastors of the Church had predicted what would happen if injustices and the social question were not addressed, including in colonial times. In 1930 Archbishop Jose Alfonso Belloso y Sanchez of San Salvador published a Pastoral Letter in which he enumerated those points which should be addressed by political leaders and the owners of economic power to stop a barrage of social violence: “the right to private property is denied; goods intended by nature for the common benefit are appropriated, equitable wages are betrayed, excessive profits are sought in trading and banking; exorbitant salaries are demanded, while theft and larceny presume disguised …forms, invading small property with lawyerly cunning and abuse of consultants; desiccating the needy with barbaric usuries, pretending titles and falsifying accounts…”(28)  The Letter was not heeded and those who dared to rebel two years later “came to a disastrous end. The death toll ranges between twenty thousand and forty thousand.”

In the 1970’s when the people tried to claim basic rights, a small, powerful group “defended social injustice, embraced the absolutization of wealth and private property and the absolutization of national security.” In addition, patterns of violence continued to “disfigure and to teach people new forms of violence.” Oscar Romero’s Pastoral Letters are quoted here describing the kinds of violence: “institutionalized violence, repressive violence of the state, seditious or terrorist violence, structural violence, arbitrary state violence, violence from the extreme right, and unjustified terrorist violence.” Romero pointed out how these forms of violence “act as triggers which generate violent responses in others: spontaneous violence, violence in self-defense, nonviolent resistance and the violence of insurrection.”

Monseñor Escobar states that these are all forms of violence that could have been avoided “if the ruling classes had opted for a model of state that was more inclusive, more just, equitable, Christian, based on solidarity, and promoting a pedagogy of life.”

The Archbishop helps to explain how the violence of today could have been imagined. The death squad violence of the late 70’s and ‘80’s “taught the people torture, repression, dismemberment, kidnapping, massacres, and multiple assassination techniques that were learned and apprehended by a people who, lacking a pedagogy of life or a decent education were unable to deconstruct such a macabre teaching. Sub-merged in an environment of violence and terror the people mimicked the patterns they necessarily had to learn and grasp so that they could survive in such an adverse environment. What was not normal became normal and people forgot that ‘all who take the sword will perish by the sword’” (Mt 26:52).

The hopes for a lasting peace to follow the Peace Accords after the Civil War have not come to fruition. This Pastoral Letter describes the Accords as more a ceasefire rather than a recipe for peace. Impunity for the powerful who committed serious crimes, a historical reality in the country, has prevented the possibility of building a culture of peace based on truth, leaving the people without a sense of justice and morality. The process after the accords has been “slow and unrewarding, and imbued with much violence and death.”   “Violence has morphed from ideological to criminal.”

Mons. Escobar calls for historical trials to “vindicate the victims and to know their victimizers, in order that others not feel encouraged to commit the same injustices”  and for an “economy of solidarity very different from the neoliberal models that allow the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few.”

The most beautiful and hopeful parts of “I See Violence and Strife in the City” come with the reflections on the Scriptures and Church teachings

Mons. Escobar’s exegesis of the covenant of peace of the prophets reminds us of Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan, SJ, who quoted Dorothy on her “no” to all forms of violence: “The covenant of peace that God proposes is a resounding ‘no’ to the dominating violence of certain groups over others; it is a ‘no’ to the usurping violence of the strong over the weak; a ‘no’ to social violence provoked by the strong; ‘no’ to ideological violence; ‘no’ to criminal violence; and a resounding ‘no’ to any other kind of violence produced by human beings.”

In the vision of the prophets, “The wolf and the lamb shall pasture together, and the lion shall eat hay like the ox. None shall harm or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” (Isa 65:28)

Archbishop Escobar presents Jesus as a counter-cultural figure, especially in regard to violence. His very name means to save. His mission is to save and to bring peace, not to dominate, not to subjugate, not to oppress, as the other kings of his time did.  (88-89) In his reflections on the teachings and life of Jesus, the Archbishop emphasizes that there is no person who cannot be forgiven, including the “sheep in the shadows.”

Archbishop Escobar asks all the Salvadoran people to work together for peace, from the richest and most powerful including the government, down to the very poorest. He asks   for new schools of theology to be opened, and for  priests, sisters, educators to begin study groups addressing nonviolence.

What Archbishop Escobar Does Not Say

The Pastoral Letter does not mention the backing of the United States government of state violence during the Civil War or the fact that Salvadoran youth also learned about gang warfare when they fled to the United States during the war.

We would like to add that our country bears a responsibility to help the Salvadoran people in a new and peaceful way, including putting a stop to deporting  Salvadoran people as they flee the violence, back to impossible situations.

The full text is available at



Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, June-September 2016.