From the archives and in honor of the canonization this weekend of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: 

“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 PROMO9recommendation 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.”

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 the Salvadoran army to stop doing the bidding of the country’s corrupt military government.

I would like to appeal in a special way to the army’s enlisted men, and in particular to the ranks of the Guardia Nacional and the police—those in the barracks. Brothers: you are of part of our own people. You kill your own brothers and sisters. Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: Thou shalt not kill!

No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations . . .

In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!

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 liberates. The truth of Christ, of God’s abundant mercy and generosity incarnate in a life of sacrificial love–a life and love which refused violence in all its seductive 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 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 America–the pettiness, the mind-numbing sameness of our squabbles, the countless ways we accommodate to state power and politics, the scandals that may yet undo us–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.