Fed up with a “gadfly” who disrupted the status quo, the Greek authorities put Socrates—who is today regarded as one of the founders of Western philosophy—on trial for allegedly corrupting the youth and for heresy. The uncompromising social critic had gotten under the skins of the ruling class, relentlessly challenging the assumptions of his day, daring those around him to question their lives, to take nothing for granted, and to accept no authority but that of their own minds. Not surprisingly, Socrates was also accused of undermining Greek democracy, and sentenced to death by drinking poison hemlock. Socrates’ example can help us understand one of the theories supporting the martyrdom cause of Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador.
An earlier post examined the argument by the Salvadoran Church that the hatred of Archbishop Romero’s faith on the part of his killers could be established by National Security Doctrine analysis, and today we turn to the argument that hatred of his faith is also evident in their desire to kill him in order to snuff out his irritating appeal to their guilt-ridden consciences. Like Archbishop Romero in 1980 A.D., Socrates in 399 B.C. had become a pesky nuisance for his society. Socrates’ disciple, Plato, would later describe his mentor as a “gadfly,” whose job was to sting and provoke society, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. Insisting that his philosophical provocation was a needed social contribution, Socrates declared that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and accepted his sentence rather than retracting his teachings. His willingness to challenge ideas he found unsound was resented by some prominent intellectuals. He also made powerful enemies when he denounced what he perceived as corruption in Athenian democracy. His social criticism became increasingly aggravating to the ruling elites, and he was inevitably tried, convicted, and sentenced to death at the age of 70.
Similarly, Archbishop Romero’s criticisms of Salvadoran society irritated the ruling class because of his uncompromising defense of the poor and denunciation of the abuses committed against them. In his first major sermon, Romero anticipates the resistance that his message will encounter, when he humbly states, “This bishop, the lowliest member of the family, chosen by God to be a sign of unity ... graciously thanks you for joining him in giving the awaiting world the Church’s word.” Later, when Romero has recognized that he has become a major nuisance to the oligarchs, he pleads, “My sisters and brothers, as Pastor, I invite you to listen to the hoarse and imperfect echo of my words.” He insists, “Do not focus on the instrument but focus on the One who bids me to tell you of God’s infinite love.” Appealing to the magisterium of Christ Himself, the Archbishop entreats: “Be converted! Be reconciled! Love one another! Become a family of the baptized, a family of God’s children!” And finally, desperate at finding that his words are falling on deaf ears, Romero extols, “If they do not want to listen to me, let them at least listen to the voice of Pope John Paul II...”
But the Empire’s minions had hardened their hearts and shut their ears. Rather than heed his calls to conversion, they begin a whisper campaign against him, to discredit him and defame him, to make him appear contemptible to the army and to the armed bands of criminals who carry out the extrajudicial killings of those branded as enemies of the state. Although the motives for his killing included political pretexts—that the Archbishop’s criticisms favored the Marxist guerrillas, or that Romero’s tone may have been imprudent—the fact that another part of the motive for his killing was to silence a critic who had become intolerable to the ruling class is undeniable.
Like Socrates, Romero was killed for asking the powerful to obey their consciences. This message from his last Sunday sermon is unmistakable: “No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin.” It was his death sentence. He was killed the following day.
Before his own conviction, Socrates defended his role as dissenter, insisting that, “If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me.” Archbishop Romero would have agreed: “They can kill me but the voice of justice can never be stilled.” Blinded by their misguided outrage, the persecutors wagered that they could snuff out the voice of conscience. As always, they were wrong.