Martyrs of hope, a new look at the struggle for justice in Central America


Ed T. and Donna W. Brett Martyrs of Hope, A New Look at the Struggle for Justice in Central America

In 1988 we authored Murdered in Central America, a book about U.S. missionaries who were killed in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras by authoritarian governments who viewed them as “communists” because of their work with the poor. Writing that book changed our lives. We were moved by these church people who, guided by the gospels and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, were willing to risk their lives in a nonviolent struggle for justice.

While we were doing our research in the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan was re-elected president in a landslide and was at the height of his popularity. In the name of a misguided form of anticommunism, Reagan and Congress were enabling brutal military dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, while also financing a violent counterrevolution that sought to topple the new Sandinista government in Nicaragua. By placing our missionary subjects within the historical and cultural context of the lands where they served, we hoped that our North American readers would conclude that U.S. policy in the isthmus was morally bankrupt, counterproductive, and in need of change.

In the three decades since our book was published much has changed. The Sandinistas have come to power through democratic elections in Nicaragua, but unfortunately have themselves degenerated into a violent dictatorship in an attempt to hold on to power. In El Salvador the former revolutionary Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front has also been democratically elected and is struggling to define itself. The Catholic Church has its first Latin American pope, a man who deeply admires the martyrs of his native hemisphere and embraces the church’s obligation to “hear the cry of the poor” as an essential part of being Christian. Yet North Americans—especially those not yet born in the 1980s—still know very little about the struggles for justice in the Central American isthmus in the last quarter of the 20th century, and the adverse role played then by our government. Consequently, we decided it was an opportune time to write a revision and update of our 1988 book.

What we found as we began our research was that the pool of resources available to us in the 1980s had greatly expanded. Important primary sources—original correspondence from the missioners to family and friends, audio cassette tapes, retreat notes, reports, and other documents— have been carefully collected by the religious orders of the martyrs and placed in their institutional archives. In addition, investigative findings— the most notable of which are the Moakley Report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress, and the United Nations Truth Commission Report— were published in the 1990s, shedding valuable new light on the violence that took place in El Salvador during its civil war. Moreover, some missionaries who had worked with the U.S. martyrs but for safety reasons could not be interviewed, since they still remained in Central America, were now available to share with us their recollections and insights. For all these reasons our planned “revised and updated” version, when finished, turned out to be a very different book than its predecessor. And therefore we gave it a brand new title, Martyrs of Hope (Orbis Books).

Unlike our first study, which treated eleven missionaries, our new book is limited to seven—Father Stanley Rother and Brother James Miller, who were gunned down in Guatemala, and the four churchwomen, Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke, and lay missioner Jean Donovan—who were raped and executed in El Salvador. For reasons which are explained in the book, we have also included Sister Carla Piette, a companion of the martyred church women who died in a flash flood in El Salvador.

We have also added new chapters that trace the accomplishments and setbacks in the struggle for justice in Guatemala and El Salvador after the deaths of our seven missioners up until the present. We include here the shameless complicity of the U.S. government in covering up massacres and assassinations, including but not limited to those of our seven subjects. We do so based on concrete evidence that is largely indisputable and is not biased speculation.

Today is a time in history when the Catholic Church has suffered from a variety of self-inflicted scandals and when some of its leaders seem more concerned with preserving the prestige and power of the church as an institution than with serving the poor and marginalized. We are living in an age when it should be obvious that the church, in order to remain relevant, must reevaluate its priorities so that it places emphasis more on ”serving” than on “judging.” Our Central American martyrs stand tall as models for a church of the future. They were ordinary human beings, flawed in some ways as we all are, who opened themselves to “the cry of the poor” and, as a result, were transformed. They were capable of inspiring thousands nearly four decades ago and are no less so today.

Martyrs of Hope may be purchased from the authors for $25 or, if you don’t mind paying postage, from Amazon.

Ed and Donna Brett are authors and members of the Thomas Merton Center.

They can be reached at and


(TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No. 9 November 2018. All rights reserved)

Categories: News

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