Jesuit companion of martyrs speaks at SOA protest

By Jane Stoever

Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino lived with the six Jesuits who were martyred Nov. 16, 1989, at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador. A famous liberation theologian, Sobrino was in Thailand, when 26 soldiers attacked the priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. The death squad included 19 graduates of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Ga.

This past November, Sobrino joined participants in the annual rally to close the school, which Congress has renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Pax Christi USA gave Sobrino an award for his latest book Nov. 21 at a meeting held in conjunction with the rally.

Sobrino told about 400 people at the award ceremony, “The Salvadoran soldiers who killed the Jesuits and Julia Elba (Ramos) and Celina were trained here (at the SOA). Obviously, obviously, we say no to that. But no is not my last word. We say yes to something else.

“Yes to what? — to the love of the lay people, the Jesuits, the four American church women, so many others, yes to the great love so many people have who live always on the side of the oppressed even when it is dangerous, when it means to head into conflict. If behind the reality (of suffering) there is great love, that makes people say yes.

“If behind the hatred on this planet which can really move us to go crazy, which denies us human reality, if behind that there is great love which makes people work to be for others, then the last word is not a no but a yes.”

Sobrino shared these thoughts after receiving the award for No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays (Orbis Books, 2008).

“In a civilization which is contrary to the civilization of wealth, in a civilization of poverty, maybe we find salvation,” Sobrino said.

Born in 1938 in Barcelona, Spain, Sobrino joined the Jesuits at 18, went to El Salvador at 19, and helped found the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, where he directs the Oscar Romero Pastoral Center. In 2007, the Vatican reprimanded Sobrino for affirming that “the ‘Church of the poor’ is the ecclesial ‘setting’ of Christology and offers it its fundamental orientation.” Although the Vatican stopped short of prohibiting Sobrino from teaching theology, Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle of El Salvador ordered him not to teach theology in the archdiocese.

Pondering current tragedies, Sobrino said at the award ceremony, “You watch on TV a mother in Africa who cannot feed with her breasts her child, and you might be moved, yes? But in general, we forget. We are not moved by the tragedies of the world.”

He smiled, slipped into his native Spanish, and then translated: “Our bowels are not moved. We are not moved to compassion.”

A few years ago, the world’s most forgotten crisis was the killing of 4 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said Sobrino. “It took years to tell the world simply that people were being killed in Congo, that there were 4 million corpses in Congo. I learned that from nuns who were working there, not from the Spanish ambassador, not from the American ambassador, although they knew, but they didn’t talk about it.” The war was engineered for raw material, including coltan, a metallic ore useful in missiles, computers and cellphones, said Sobrino. “Who wants to have coltan? Not the peasants. The enterprises from the North.”

Sobrino also assailed the First World for allowing the “crisis alimentalia,” hunger, in the Third World. For the cost of one aircraft carrier, hunger among half the population of Somalia could be eradicated, he said. “We don’t want hunger to be eliminated. Every five seconds, a child dies of hunger. The child is assassinated. That is reality without makeup.”

The world of abundance bases its civilization on the nonexistence of the poor, Sobrino said. “We live in a civilization of exclusion. For example, in El Salvador, the oligarchs, the wealthy, don’t consider the peasants ‘real.’ They know they exist, and are necessary, for example, if they want to grow coffee, but their existence is not very important. In El Salvador, only 20 percent of people have what can be called a decent job. Three million people — one-third of the population — have left the country. Our poverty is appalling.”

Referring to the wall the United States is building to keep out Latin Americans, Sobrino said immigrants are denied “even the ground beneath their feet.” He added, “Don’t worry. You’re not the only ones. Europe is raising a barrier against Africa in southern Spain. All of this is iniquitous. Immigrants are ghosts — they don’t even have ground on which to walk.”

Sobrino reflected on the worldwide divide between the affluent and the poor: “We exclude people from work. We exclude people from food. We exclude people from existence. We know there are the poor, but we act and we teach as if those vast majorities of people simply do not exist.”

He called for a civilization not of exclusion but inclusion: “Our first task is to put names on everyone.”

Sobrino warned that people who live well don’t want the poor to be treated with compassion. The wealthy feel under attack and kill those who live according to a civilization of inclusion, he said, noting, “We should thank the martyrs because they are saving us from total inhumanity.” In addition, Sobrino called for people not only to work for the poor, but also to thank them.

Points from No Salvation Outside the Poor

In his new book, Sobrino attacks the “civilization of capital, which generates extreme scarcities, dehumanizes persons and destroys the human family: it produces impoverished and excluded people and divides the world into conquerors and conquered.”

The right of property is the principle that sustains capitalism, says Sobrino in his book. “As long as that principle is maintained as absolute and untouchable, every economy will be structurally configured by a dynamic of oppression, human beings will be classified according to their ability to produce wealth, their right to possess and enjoy wealth will prolong and even increase human oppression, and most certainly it will widen the distance between the haves and the have-nots.”

Assessing the mission of Christianity, Sobrino asserts, “The poor are the immense majority of humankind, and the poor are at the center of the Gospels.” Millions of poor people are persecuted, are slowly but relentlessly oppressed by injustice, and are often violently repressed, says Sobrino. “They resemble Jesus poor and overwhelmed.”

Address before funeral procession

On Nov. 23, torture survivors and family members of those killed in Latin America by SOA graduates joined from 15,000 to 20,000 North Americans in a funeral procession to the gates of Fort Benning. The day before, staff members for SOA Watch, which leads the movement to close the SOA, said 86 countries practiced torture in 1998, and more than 150 countries practiced torture by 2008, according to the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (at

“Any school in which violence is being taught, in which torture is being taught, should be closed,” Sobrino told the vast audience Nov. 23. “Any school in which lies and the covering up of truth are taught should be closed. Any school in which accumulation of wealth is taught as the main issue of humanity, so the few can live a life of abundance, should be closed. We have to fight for that.

“But I also think we should work that other schools be opened, schools that work hard for truth, for compassion, for justice.”

Sobrino was mindful of the victimizers who killed his companions, he said. “But more important than remembering the victimizers and their cruelty is to remember the victims and their goodness. Archbishop Oscar Romero (killed by graduates of the School of the Americas in San Salvador March 24, 1980) used to say that the victims — in El Salvador or wherever — are the historical crucified people. They are today, for us Christians, like Jesus of Nazareth present among us.

“Ignacio Ellacuria (the Jesuit president of the UCA, killed in 1989) said, ‘What do we have to do with these people? First of all, work hard to bring them down from the cross.’ So let’s fight for truth, let’s fight for justice, so that those who have committed atrocities and cruelty will be brought to justice. But never, never forget the anonymous millions of people, crucified people, and try to be compassionate to them.”

In a gesture of gratitude to the thousands of protesters, Sobrino concluded, “Thank you for remembering the poor of this earth and those eight people from the university where I live and work.”

Joy, wonder

Sobrino met with Jesuit Father John Dear, a columnist for National Catholic Reporter, several times during the weekend rally to close the SOA. In his article “With Jon Sobrino at the SOA Protest,” at, Dear wrote:

“The weekend over finally, Jon Sobrino took my arm and pulled me aside. The weekend amazed him, he said. He had no idea there were so many North Americans siding with the crucified people of Central and South America. ‘This is such a good thing!’ he said with joy and wonder. ‘I’m so glad I came.'”

Jane Stoever, a freelance writer, lives in Overland Park, Kan.


Sign of hope

The last vote in the House of Representatives to defund the School of the Americas (SOA) failed by only six votes, and 35 representatives who supported the school in that vote in 2007 lost their seats in the 2008 elections.

To ask President-elect Barack Obama to close the SOA through an executive order, sign the petition online at or print the petition at and collect signatures. Also consider joining a gathering Feb. 15-17 in the nation’s capital to lobby Congress to close the school. For information, contact Jane Stoever at 913-206-4088 or

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