“What role should the dead play in our politics?” (1) This is the provocative question Kyle Lambelet poses at the beginning of ¡Presente! Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead. In fact it is but the first of many provocative questions raised by Lambelet’s book. Does “messianism” have a legitimate place in politics? Can religious liturgy be a form of protest? Are the primary reasons for practicing nonviolence strategic, moral, or necessarily both? Does belief in a “higher law,” or the resurrection of the dead, change the nature of “practical reason”? Over the course of ¡Presente!, Lambelet insightfully engages all of these questions, and many others besides. Yet underlying them all remains the book’s first, and final, question. What role should the dead play in our politics? And what difference does it make to take that question seriously?
For Lambelet, this is no idle theoretical inquiry. To the contrary, it is a question that arises from praxis, and specifically, from the praxis of the social movement on which his book focuses, the School of the Americas Watch (“SOA Watch” for short). A transnational, nonviolent protest movement that originated on the Catholic Left, the SOA Watch first arose in response to the assassination of six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeon Cañas (UCA) in El Salvador on November 16, 1989. Among those killed was the university’s rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, a leading figure in Latin American liberation theology who was known internationally for his defense of the “crucified people” of El Salvador. Like Archbishop Óscar Romero before them, Ellacuría and the other UCA Jesuits were murdered by elite troops operating under the authority of the Salvadoran military government; for their stand against the “structures of death” sustained by the regime, they were marked for death themselves. To many Christians throughout the Americas, those slain at the UCA were not merely victims, but martyrs, prophetic Christian witnesses whose very deaths testified to the reality of the sinful structures they had criticized, while also pointing to something beyond them. The martyrs, though dead, were still ¡presente! As such, they actively called upon the living to take up their cause, and continue their witness.
The following year, in response to this call of the dead, the SOA Watch was born. By then, investigations by transnational Catholic activists and US journalists had revealed that the troops who killed the UCA martyrs, and the officers who authorized them, had been trained at the US Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), which had recently relocated from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia.1 In fact, it emerged, the same school had trained many of the Latin American military leaders who perpetrated human rights atrocities across the region during the 1970s and ’80s. To call public attention to the SOA and the complicity of the US government in Latin American death, Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois and nine others began a multiday hunger strike on Labor Day. Subsequently, on November 16, 1990, the anniversary of the UCA massacre, Bourgeois and two companions staged a prayer vigil and direct action protest on the SOA campus itself. After installing a white cross with the names and photographs of the UCA martyrs, they proceeded to enter the SOA building and pour blood from the UCA crime scene, mixed with their own, upon the School’s “Hall of Fame.”
Thereafter, this small yet dramatic act of protest grew into a massive annual event. Every year, near the anniversary of the UCA massacre, people from around the country—first tens, then hundreds, then thousands, and eventually tens of thousands—would gather at the SOA campus to participate in a prayer vigil to commemorate the martyred dead of Latin America, to affirm them as “¡presente!,” and to protest the ongoing role of the US government in abetting Latin American violence. For many of these participants, a large number of whom were young Catholics, attending the vigil was a moment of political awakening, a formative first encounter with a kind of “politics” unlike anything they had witnessed before. To some, it was also an experience suffused with theological meaning, one that made palpable, as little else had, the reality of “a communion that transcends death” (xii). Lambelet himself, who first attended the SOA Watch vigil in 2005, had an experience of this kind. It was sufficiently powerful to move him to dedicate more than a decade to understanding just what it was he and thousands of others had participated in, and unpacking its larger implications.
¡Presente! is the fruit of his labor. It is also a work of precisely the kind of theology Ignacio Ellacuría and his fellow liberation theologians modeled: a theoretically rigorous, yet faithfully engaged, reflection on praxis. As such, Lambelet’s argument advances in several directions at once. In one direction, through a careful analysis of the SOA Watch’s actual praxis, Lambelet is able to show up the inadequacy of the prevailing theoretical paradigms that might otherwise be used to interpret it. Drawing on anthropologist Michael Burawoy, Lambelet himself frames his work as an ethnographically informed “extended case study,” which uses “the empirics of the case of the SOA Watch to disrupt and challenge the theory developed by both political theologians and analysts of strategic nonviolence” (15). In particular, Lambelet challenges the tendency of recent academic scholarship on nonviolent practice to focus only on its strategic dimensions while excluding its moral and theological ones; as he demonstrates convincingly, in the “practical reasoning” of the SOA Watch, strategic reasoning, ethical reasoning, and theological reflection are thickly intertwined. Analogously, Lambelet criticizes ecclesiocentric approaches to political theology like William Cavanaugh’s, which fail to attend to the dynamic interpenetration of “church” and “world,” or liturgy and practical reason. Simultaneously, however, Lambelet also draws on his theoretical interlocutors to examine, assess, and at times critique the praxis of the SOA Watch itself. And through the dialogue he effects between theory and practice, Lambelet in turn develops his own constructive responses to the questions animating his study. Building upon Ellacuría’s theology of the “crucified people,” he argues for a nonviolent, messianic politics of radical hope that takes seriously “the agency of the dead” and the “action of God irrupting in history” (174).
In this symposium, a diverse group of interlocutors take up the questions raised by Lambelet’s work and pose some new questions of their own. Sociologist Ruth Braunstein opens the symposium with a response that focuses on the workings of “discernment” in the SOA Watch movement. Inviting Lambelet to expand upon his account in the book, Braunstein inquires about the variations he observed in the movement’s exercise of practical reasoning. She also asks Lambelet to go further in articulating his own ethical framework. Specifically, she wonders, how would he evaluate movements whose practices resemble those of SOA Watch in some ways, yet whose political goals stand opposed to it? Ethicist Aaron Stauffer, in the symposium’s next exchange, pursues questions that complement Braunstein’s. In particular, Stauffer asks, how does Lambelet understand the normative relationship between liturgy and practical reason, and between ecclesial and political practice? Moreover, Stauffer continues, does Lambelet’s account give adequate attention to the role of power dynamics within the movement, and how those dynamics might inform, or deform, its practical reasoning? Both responses afford Lambelet an opportunity to further develop his account of practical reason and its relationship to the call of the dead.
Next, in a third response, historical theologian Catherine Osborne engages Lambelet’s work from the vantage point of the “Catholic Left” and the SOA Watch’s relationship to it. As one of countless Catholic college students first exposed to the Catholic Left by the SOA Watch’s annual vigil, Osborne reflects on the impact the movement had on her and others like her. She also highlights the relevance of developments and conflicts internal to the American Catholic Church for understanding the SOA Watch. Both Osborne and Lambelet, in his reply, consider whether the movement’s nonviolent praxis might have relevance for addressing injustices within the church itself.
Lambelet’s contribution to the study of nonviolence, meanwhile, is the focus of Selina Gallo-Cruz’s response. Gallo-Cruz, herself a sociologist and scholar of the SOA Watch movement, fully supports Lambelet’s challenge to the “conceptual divorce of pragmatic and philosophical nonviolence.” At the same time, she has further questions for Lambelet about what the alternative might look like, both within academic scholarship and within the future work of the SOA Watch itself. Drawing on feminist and liberation theology, Gallo-Cruz also calls for further reflection on the nature of “agency” and “obedience,” for living and dead, within the movement—a task Lambelet takes up in his reply.
Gallo-Cruz’s concluding theological questions set the stage for the symposium’s final exchange between Lambelet and Michael Lee, a liberation theologian and leading scholar of Ellacuría. While concurring with Lambelet’s critical assessment of ecclesiocentric political theologies, Lee also seeks to complicate his way of framing the field, and raises the question of whether, in moving away from its Catholic roots (and its annual vigil at Fort Benning) in recent years, the SOA Watch may not have sacrificed something important. Encouraging Lambelet to go even further in his appropriation of Ellacuría, Lee points toward the martyred theologian’s work on prophecy and utopia as a further resource for his messianic political theology. He and Lambelet conclude by returning us to where we began, with the dead and their importance for the politics of the living. For Lee as for Lambelet, Ellacuría and the other UCA martyrs are still very much ¡presente! To what are they calling the movement they inspired, and indeed all of us, today?
The School of the Americas was located at Fort Gulick, in the Panama Canal Zone, from 1949 until 1984, when its Panama campus was closed. It was reopened in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1985 (29).↩