Monday, March 26, 2012

Tribute to a Martyr III

Oscar Romero
+ March 24, 1980
 I mentioned in the last posting that Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in part because he was considered “safe” by both the Vatican and the Salvadoran Government at a time when many of the clergy and religious of Salvador were being radicalized by “Liberation Theology.”  I will have to do a posting or two in the future on Liberation Theology as it is a very complex issue, but the fundamental flaw that the Church finds with it is that it uses the Marxist analysis of class struggle to interpret the principles of religious faith.  Marx had said that religion is the opium of the people—and indeed it often has been so misused.  Promises of a happy afterlife have been offered the poor and downtrodden as a soporific to deter them from seeking what is justly theirs in this life.  Divine Justice is not human justice, much less any sort of “fairness.”  What we mean by justice is that state in which each of God’s children has the share of this earth’s goods that God has willed for them. Such passages of scripture as the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in which the Rich Man is in hell precisely and for no other reason than because he had an abundance of goods in this life while Lazarus is in Paradise because he had only trouble in this life (Luke 16:25)  are extremely subversive of the existing social order.  One doesn’t need Marx, only Luke, to envision a world turned upside down with the rich sent away empty and poor fed; the powerful cast down from power and the nobodies of this world raised up (Luke 1:52-53).  When Rutilio Grande was killed for being a “communist” Romero knew that this label was false. Grande was a priest who knew the power of the Gospel to call for social change, no more and no less.  The loss of his friend was the conversion point for the Archbishop who took up Grande’s cry, not much different than how Jesus had taken up the Baptist’s message of the Kingdom of God when Herod had put John to death.  And like Jesus, Romero had about three years of preaching before his zeal for God’s Good News brought down violence upon him. 
      As I pointed out in the last blog, after Grande’s death, Monsenor Romero refused any and all invitations from the Government to participate in public functions and this left the Government naked of moral respectability both in front of its own citizens and of the world.  Moreover, the Archbishop’s separating himself from the government and military made it clear in the eyes of the Salvadoran people that the establishment was inherently sinful.  Though the method was different the results were not unlike the way Becket had undercut  the authority of the King in 12th century England.  Without moral legitimacy, the Government could not claim any real authority.  Without moral legitimacy, people could resist the Government; even overthrow it to replace it with a legitimate government.  The situation became ever more perilous.  More and more people, especially those connected to the Church, were murdered, “disappeared” or tortured.  And wherever the Government used violence to put down the people, Romero showed up to denounce the Government and legitimize the struggle of the people for social change.
       Now Romero did not, unlike some “liberation theologians’ legitimize the use of violence to fight violence.  He condemned those who had taken up arms against the government though he recognized the justice of their cause. Like Gandhi, King, Tutu and other moral leaders of the twentieth century he was consecrated to non-violence but non-violence, while it may work more slowly, is more dangerous to illegitimate authority than is violence.  Non-violence consistently claims moral high-ground.  By 1980 El Savador was totally destabilized, in no small part by the Archbishop’s preaching.   On March 23, 1980 he gave a famous sermon in which he addressed the soldiers—the common soldiers—of the army. 
       "Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, 'Thou shalt not kill'. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. ...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression" 
       Such a speech was calling the military to mutiny.  It could not be tolerated.  The following day, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed by a government assassin as he raised the chalice at Mass.  
       Romero’s death caused a huge outcry.  The Pope denounced the “sacrilege” of killing a bishop while he was saying Mass.  World leaders decried the murder.  Bishops and religious figures—from many different Christian denominations and religions—flocked to San Salvador to the funeral to pay tribute to the Archbishop.  But the violence did not stop.  During the Archbishop’s funeral, in an act of moral contempt, the Salvadoran military to cause panic dropped smoke bombs on the huge crowd gathered before the Cathedral.  Then in the panic they began firing on the crowd. Dozens of people were killed.  
      The war in Salvador continued for another 12 years.  Peace has finally come to the country.  Oscar Romero stands as the national hero.  His picture is everywhere.  Scores of folk songs tell his story.  Although not officially recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, he is venerated as on in Salvador and his tomb in the Cathedral is a place of pilgrimage.  His cause for Sainthood has been introduced at official levels and he has been given the title “Servant of God” by the Vatican, but in Salvador he is “San Romero.”   His statue stands alongside those of Martin Luther King, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Maximilian Kolbe, and other “Martyrs of the Twentieth Century” over the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey.  Most important however, his memory and example are imprinted on the hearts of the People of San Salvador and in their National story.      

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