Since I preached about the four martyred church women in El Salvador, The New York Times published a story that gives the full picture of how those long ago events still reverberate today.
“MS-13, Trump, and America’s Stake in El Salvador’s GangWar: U.S. investment is guiding the fight to contain the violence in El Salvador, even as President Trump hurls insults and threatens to walk away.”
Below is a copy of my sermon. Advent is a good time to be in prayer for those places in the world like El Salvador, where things seem to be a tangled mess, but where God is always at work to reweave the fabric of creation to redeem it.
Some of you might know that today, December 2, is an important saint’s day in the United States. On this day in 1980, four American women were abducted, raped and murdered in El Salvador. It was a huge news story at the time, because the four, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, were all missionaries working in the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. There was a civil war raging in the country, and they were just four of the 75,000 who were killed during the war. Their deaths were important at the time because they focused attention on the role of the U.S. in backing the government that killed them. They’re important to us today because of what they say about some of the themes of Advent that we heard today, like righteousness and repentance and redemption.
Two were coming back from a conference in Nicaragua and the other two had picked them up at the airport just outside the capitol of San Salvador when they were stopped on the road by four soldiers. They got in the women’s van and drove it high up into the hills above the airport. Then they raped the women, shot them to death and left them by the side of the road.
Peasant farmers heard the gunshots and found the bodies. They told the judge in the nearest village, who consulted with his military occupiers. They told the peasants to go bury the bodies and tell no one. They did bury the bodies in shallow graves, but they told the village priest, who phoned the archdiocese which contacted the United States embassy. Robert White, the American ambassador, drove his truck to the site, helped uncover the bodies and put them in his truck and brought them back to the embassy. At that point, there was no covering up what had happened.
This would seem to be a pretty straightforward story of heroes and villains, of righteousness and repentance and redemption. But each strand of the story demonstrates how complicated those words really are, and how difficult it is to truly create a world that speaks those concepts.
If you’ve ever feared becoming a bureaucrat because you worried it would crush your soul, a superhero like Ambassador White should lay those fears to rest. He did what he knew was right although he paid dearly for it. That was the end of his diplomatic career. He went on to write books and speak to many people, but he never worked in the diplomatic corps again.
He was a hero, because what he did had such personal integrity. He saved four families years of unknowing grief over daughters who just disappeared, and he exposed foreign and military policy that the Carter administration didn’t want challenged. But his actions were not enough to atone for all the years of sin behind the incident. If you followed that one thread, you could follow it all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Monroe Doctrine and the beginning of United States dominance and exploitation of Latin America.
The women were of course martyrs because they died for the sake of their faith. If they had survived the attack, I think none of them would have regretted that they had stayed in El Salvador despite escalating danger. They had come to live in solidarity with some who were part of the vast poor majority, and they knew that meant sharing in the danger brought by the war. They demonstrated great personal righteousness. But their deaths couldn’t atone for the centuries of oppression that their Church had laid on El Salvador. You could follow that thread all the way back to the end of the 1400s, when the Church marched right alongside the Spanish conquistadors, and priests and lay brothers enslaved, abused and killed the indigenous people they encountered.
The soldiers were the villains, although they were just a few of the many faces of the government that protected the wealth and privilege of the Fourteen Families of El Salvador, the descendants of the conquistadors who still own almost all of the land in the country. You didn’t have to pull very hard on that thread to come to the vast corrupt system that tied government, military and private wealth all together and weaponized it against the poor majority.
So many have looked at the tangle of people and cultures and history of El Salvador and despaired. It does seem to truly be a mess, with threads that lead back so far that nothing can undo them. The fabric of every life and every situation can be like this. Threads get pulled, broken, tangled, and a beautiful creation is spoiled. It’s not possible for us to create a truly righteous and redeemed world, because sin creeps into every part of our lives. It’s unavoidable.
Righteousness is the set point of the universe, though. That’s what the creation story is all about. Creation is good, but it’s messy, and so sin gets woven into the fabric of life. Paul often talks about Jesus as the new Adam, the one who is able to embody righteousness in the world, which redeems it. When we say we believe in Jesus, when we repent and accept forgiveness and try to put right our lives, we join ourselves to that righteousness. In that action, redemption is created.
In Advent, we say we are waiting not only for the birth of a baby, but the rebirth of creation. We await an untangling, a reweaving, a remaking in a way that we cannot do for ourselves. We await the birth of the one who is righteousness incarnate, the one who comes to recreate our lives.