On this day 34 years ago, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed while performing mass in a hospital chapel following 3 years speaking out again violence and injustice in El Salvador. His life and death serve as a symbol of Christians speaking out against the injustice of political and military powers.
In What Happened at Dos Erres, This American Life teamed up with contributors from ProPublica, Fundación MEPI, and an independent journalist tell the story of Oscar, a 31 year old man who learns troubling news about his family. In 1982, during a massacre in a Guatemalan village, a soldier abducts Oscar and raises him as his own son. After decades of living in darkness, a team working to uncover the truth about the massacre at Dos Erres, where over 200 people were killed by government soldiers, slowly reveal the truth about Oscar’s family.
It’s hard to imagine the shock of learning that the person you always knew as your father was actually a soldier involved in violent acts in another country. And the story This American Life tells is just that: shocking. Part of uncovering Oscar’s discovery for the radio audience is telling the story of violence in Guatemala: a civil war which lasted decades, cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, which ended without closure, without prosecution, and which was believed by many (and only officially in 2011 with the conviction of José Efraín Ríos Montt) to be genocide. The process towards achieving legal victory against those who carried out the military violence in Guatemala took decades, including uncovering Oscar’s real family. The story serves as a testament to the need to uncover the truth of past actions in an attempt to achieve some kind of closure, if even possible at all.
The story also reveals the power of tying events like the violence in Guatemala to the lives of actual people. Throughout the episode the producers talk to survivors about what happened, piecing together a story that is difficult to listen too. When Oscar is introduced to his biological father, who survived the massacre because he was visiting family out of town (his wife and 7 children did not survive) it’s difficult not to be consumed by the emotion of the event. Oscars father had lived for decades believing all of his children had been killed, only to learn one had survive.
The author of Ephesians encourages his congregation to “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Listening to the story of Oscar and the people of Dos Erres, as well as remembering the life and martyrdom of Oscar Romero puts this in new perspective. Are we as the church, as Christians, committed to revealing the truth of violence and oppression in our world? Are we committed to speaking out in the name of light, telling hard stories and working to expose the places where darkness dominates?
Uncovering of the truth doesn’t fix everything, as nothing can bring back the lives of those lost. But hiding the truth serves to ignore the witness of those whose lives were taken and to neglect the wounds of those who suffered. Part of being the church is to seek the truth in all things, being the memory for those who have been crucified in all times. Remembering what happened in Dos Erres and other places where violence has occurred reminds us to be witnesses to Christ’s peace in a world where violence continues to be wide spread. Memories of those lost in Guatemala remind us that our world is constantly in danger of repeating such acts, in places like Syria and Afghanistan. Even in our own country, forgetting the memory of violence against Native Americans during colonization, slaves forced from Africa and those of Japanese decedents during World War II means we risk committing violent acts again and again in our own time. We need to remember in hopes that some day we’ll recognize the crimes of our past as just that, crimes, not to be repeated.