“And that is how Oscar Romero got disappeared by right wingers for a second time.”
Jon Stewart spoke these words at the end of a segment last week on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. The occasion was the Texas School Board’s recent decision to reject a recommendation that Archbishop Romero be included in a world history curriculum standard about important figures who led resistance movements against political oppression. Stewart noted, with his usual stinging wit, that the rationale for the board’s decision was that Romero wasn’t famous enough. The absurdity of it (“let’s not teach this because no one knows it”) is both hilarious and tragic.
Thirty years ago today Oscar Romero was gunned down with an M-16 assault rifle while celebrating the Eucharist for a group of nuns in a hospital chapel. In a sermon preached the day before, and broadcast across the country by radio, he had called upon Christians in the Salvadoran army to stop carrying out the repression of the country’s military government.
(American involvement in El Salvador’s government was direct: Jimmy Carter dramatically increased U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military during his presidency–despite Romero’s public plea that his country was “fed up with weapons and bullets,” and between 1980 and 1992 6 billion American taxpayer dollars helped to fund an oppressive regime and its death squads).
And so on March 24, 1980 Romero wasn’t exactly “disappeared” as so many of his fellow Salvadorans had been, but his life was brutally cut short, his prophetic voice silenced by a sniper assassin.
Yet his witness has endured. In 1989 Australian filmmaker John Duigan made Romero, introducing the first world to this third-world prophet of the people. A collection of Romero’s writings–excerpts from radio addresses, sermons, speeches, and homilies–was published in 1988 (paperback 2004), and is available in its entirety online. Romero’s compelling life and death and the liberation theology he espoused have been the subject of countless theological texts and treatises.
When prophetic figures like Oscar Romero are cut down in their prime, there’s a tendency sometimes to tidy up their image; soften their radical edge a bit; make their persona a little more palatable for mass consumption–in other words, to minimize the revolutionary qualities that got them killed in the first place. (Tim Tyson has written eloquently about this phenomenon in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr.).
So it’s important to remember the truth that Romero bore witness to with his words and his witness (which were one and the same): a truth that wounds but which also heals; that accuses but also saves and liberates. The truth of Christ, crucified and risen, God’s abundant mercy and generosity incarnate in a life of sacrificial love–a life and love which refused violence in all its guises.
Chris Huebner suggests that “the truth of Christ is not merely a belief uttered or expressed or otherwise made present by us. Rather, it is a performance enacted in and through which truth is given as an offering or gratuitous gesture.” Romero made of his own life this kind of offering, this kind of gratuitous gesture in which “the interruption of the violent world of mastery, possession, and control” was glimpsed “by a nonviolent offering of a radically different way of being and knowing called peace” (Huebner).
And for this he was felled on the altar of a small Salvadoran chapel, days before the start of Holy Week, his own body and blood mingled with the body and blood of the Eucharist. The peace that the Eucharist makes possible made Romero’s life possible, and in his violent death, martyrdom and truth were again revealed as gifts that make the Church’s ongoing witness of peace in the world possible.
For those of us who live and work in the tedium that often characterizes church life in affluent America–the pettiness, the mind-numbing sameness of our squabbles, the countless ways we accommodate to state power and politics–Oscar Romero’s witness is an enduring challenge–and a gift. For constitutive of his life’s work was another gratuitous gesture: that of making God credible in the world.
Texas school children won’t find this out in their new history books and they will be the poorer for it. But the body of Christ gathered around his table around the world have, in the martyrdom of our brother, Oscar, the credible truth of God’s own life and love.
Thanks be to God.