11/19/2014 03:32 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

As El Salvador Proves, Championing the Cause of the Hungry Can Exact an Ultimate Price

JOSE CABEZAS via Getty Images

This week the world commemorates the killings, 25 years ago, of six Jesuit priests (five of them from Spain), the clerics' housekeeper and her teen-age daughter. All were killed on the grounds of Central American University, a Jesuit institution in the capital of San Salvador.

For many of us who remember, this and other tragedies during the 1980s wars in Central America were defining events. They colored how we saw (and still see) issues of poverty and hunger, military intervention and non-intervention, and the role of theology and faith communities in public life.

El Salvador was the fulcrum of the era. During its 12-year civil war, as many as 75,000 civilians were killed. What was particularly notable about El Salvador was the extent and depth of violence and the way in which clergy and members of religious orders became targets of death squads. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero and three U.S. nuns and a lay missioner were among those killed. Other religious from El Salvador also lost their lives.

Many of the assassins had ties to a government that, shamefully, was backed by the United States in an era when the specter of communism in the Americas was used as a bludgeon against those committed to ending El Salvador's disgraceful social inequities. (It is telling that when the Salvadoran war finally ended in 1992, supporters of U.S. policy in El Salvador fell silent about the urgent and ongoing humanitarian needs in the region.)

Many of those who died did so because they stood on the risky ground of seeking justice for El Salvador's poor. At the time, much was made (and much of it derisively) about the influence of liberation theology. But at the heart of that theology was not hardened Marxist ideology but the Catholic Church's own avowal of a "preferential option for the poor," an option now championed quite vocally by Pope Francis.

In receiving an honorary degree in 1982 from Santa Clara University in California, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of Central American University and one of those murdered in 1989, said his institution's work was aimed "above all on behalf of a people who, oppressed by structural injustices, struggle for their self-determination -- people often without liberty or human rights."

The killings of the Jesuits and their colleagues came as the war in El Salvador dragged on, a seemingly interminable cauldron of violence and blood, horror and chaos.

In El Salvador, the memory of those events has never died -- public commemorations are common, and the quest for reckoning and justice continue. In the United States, it has been more difficult to keep the memories of that awful era alive. Thankfully, though, we have pockets of churches and faith communities that remember the events, as well as human rights groups like the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability.

In a statement last week, the CJA quoted Almudena Bernabeu, a lead prosecutor in Spain against former Salvadoran military officers accused of the crimes, as saying, "It was a horrible war."

"When the Jesuits were killed, it was one of the most horrible moments, almost like a punch in the stomach. After all that suffering, all those attempts to end the war, the Jesuits were killed."

The CJA is asking that the Salvadoran government - now headed by a member of the leftist party that once waged war against the military-backed regime -- cooperate with the Spanish National Court's ongoing probe of the 1989 murders.

One of the reasons this case continues to capture the imagination of many is that what the Jesuits stood for -- a demand that social inequities end in a country where many went to bed every night hungry -- continues to find resonance throughout Latin America.

There is a long history of impunity in Latin America -- and not only during the horrible events in El Salvador or the Dirty War in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. During a recent assignment to the Chaco region of Argentina and Bolivia for Church World Service, I heard stories of killings from the 1940s onward of those in rural areas who stood up against los patrónes of landed estates and treated workers as little better than serfs - echoes of what happened in El Salvador.

Food insecurity has haunted Argentina for years, particularly in rural areas, and critical problems remain, particularly for the country's indigenous population. The indigenous of the Chaco continue to face long and protracted struggles for land, dignity and respect.

There have been some needed victories along the way -- the indigenous have been winning some critical legal cases recently to reclaim ancestral land that was once theirs. But there is still much, much left to do.

In 2011, Argentine land rights activist and farmer Cristian Ferreyra was murdered. As the trial of those responsible for his death gets underway, Ferreyra's allies are now being threatened. The Argentine-based Center for Social and Legal Studies (CELS) notes: "The encroaching agricultural frontier and insecure land ownership creates a context of increasing human rights violations against farmers and indigenous communities, especially in terms of land rights, food supply, and the right to a dignified life."

In short, the struggle in Latin America for human dignity -- including the quest for food, land and just plain simple fairness -- continues.

We think the right to food, for example, is self-evident. But the deaths of Fr. Ellacuría and the others on that Jesuit campus, as well as farmer Cristian Ferreyra in Argentina's Chaco region, are proof, if we ever needed it, that there is often an ultimate cost to championing the cause of the weak over the powerful.