Assassination of a Saint

The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice

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Matt Eisenbrandt
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     2017.
     256 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520286801.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Matt Eisenbrandt’s Assassination of a Saint is a remarkable achievement. Eisenbrandt, a human rights attorney who was a member of the legal team in the case against one of Romero’s killers, has written a book that is focused centrally on the pursuit to identify and prosecute those who plotted and carried out the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero. However, for students and scholars, the value of Eisenbrandt’s work goes far beyond this topic. This is a must-read for anyone interested in recent Salvadoran history, the life and witness of Óscar Romero, the Catholic Church in Latin America, or the challenge of defending human rights in our world.

First, a word on the unique style of the text. Assassination of a Saint reads like an engrossing detective story. It is wonderfully written as it deftly shifts back and forth between analyses of Romero’s life and time, the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s, and the post-2000 pursuit of justice. The reader is constantly drawn in by a new turn in the legal case or a new detail revealed about Romero and his killers. The engaging style of the text on its own makes it a great resource for introducing students to this history.

The substance of the book is equally excellent. Eisenbrandt’s brief summaries of extended periods of Salvadoran history and of the political and economic dynamics of the country are superb. For example, after recounting a 1980 telegrammed message from US Ambassador Robert White concerning why the Salvadoran situation was a “social bomb,” Eisenbrandt offers a clear, accurate, and lively account of Salvadoran history from 1880-1980 (24-28) and the role of the US military, oligarchic figures, and right-wing death squads in the 1970s and 1980s (29-37). Similarly, he engages the role of the US in El Salvador under Presidents Carter and Reagan, detailing both figures’ general posture towards the country and their responses to individual events like the assassination of Romero in March of 1980 and the murder of the church women in December of that same year. I would highly recommend many of these shorter sections as helpful secondary resources for students.

Given the background of the author, it might be expected that the engagement with religious and theological themes would be weaker than the account of politics and the legal case against Romero’s killers. Here, I was pleasantly surprised. Although I did not find any brilliant new insights into Romero’s theological legacy, Eisenbrandt’s description of Romero’s life and preaching is measured and accurate, going against the tendency of certain texts to overly-dramatize Romero’s conversion or caricature certain aspects of Salvadoran religion. He describes well some of the basic shifts in Romero’s theological worldview from 1974-1980, the important role Romero played in the political, social, and religious life of El Salvador, and the major ecclesiastical and political responses to Romero’s work. 

In the epilogue to the book, Eisenbrandt notes that recent political developments in El Salvador and the movement towards canonization of Romero within the Catholic Church have brought broader acceptance of Romero’s life and witness. However, he rightly notes that “many of his followers feel Romero’s public image has been distorted and sanitized, the more revolutionary lessons he preached erased as Romero becomes an icon acceptable to all sectors of society” (167). Other recent books by Michael Lee (Revolutionary Saint: The Theological Legacy of Óscar Romero, Orbis, 2018) and Edgardo Colón-Emeric (Óscar Romero’s Theological Vision: Liberation and the Transfiguration of the Poor, Notre Dame, 2018) offer important accounts of Romero’s theological witness that resist a dangerous domestication of Romero. Eisenbrandt’s book should be added as essential reading alongside these more theologically inclined texts. His compelling account of Romero’s message andthe powerful rejection of it by many leaders in El Salvador (and the US) offers an essential guard against the manipulation of the saint. 

I would recommend Eisenbrandt’s Assassination of a Saint to all scholars and students interested in the major fields discussed in the book. The interdisciplinary nature of the text will offer to most readers some new insights alongside a reminder of more familiar ones. The text, in whole or in part, is perfect for an undergraduate or graduate classroom. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Todd Walatka is Assitant Chair for Graduate Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matt Eisenbrandt is a U.S-trained human-rights attorney who has devoted his career to finding legal means to prosecute war crimes. In the early 2000s, he served as the Center for Justice and Accountability’s Legal Director and a member of the trial team against one of Óscar Romero’s killers. Now based in Canada, Matt is a special consultant to Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman on the law firm’s business and human rights cases. He is also a special advisor to the Canadian Centre for International Justice, where he previously served as Legal Director.

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