I want to take you on a little nostalgia trip, back to the 80s and 90s when I was part of the burgeoning punk scene in the New York/New Jersey area.
This is a track by Puerto Rican political punks Ricanstruction, a mainstay of the hardcore punk scene on the Lower East Side.
When I started dedicating myself to becoming a theologian, I remember recalling this video. It fascinated me that the young man with the rattle can had no trouble equating Óscar Romero (the martyred archbishop), Túpac Amaru (the murdered Native American leader), and Emiliano Zapata (the Mexican revolutionary), declaring in the name of them all, ‘La Lucha Sigue’… ‘The Struggle Continues’…
As I began to delve deeper into Latin American liberation theology, I was equally fascinated by murals you see dotted around Central and South America with images of both Che Guevara and Romero- devout Christian archbishop and implacable revolutionary atheist- side by side.
I think there’s a lesson for us in that graffiti and those images, a holy treatise that we need to remember, particularly on this day.
For as I write this, Archbishop Óscar Romero- martyred 24 March 1980 for his determined and increasingly vocal opposition to the government of El Salvador’s reign of terror- has been officially canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church.
Romero has exerted such an influence and inspiration over my life, my work, and my personal spirituality that it might come as a surprise to many that I’m feeling rather subdued today.
The reason for my ambivalence is two-fold.
The first, as most regular readers will know, has to do with my enduring struggles with the Vatican power structure, which did very little to support or defend Romero in his fight for justice when he and the persecuted people of El Salvador needed it most.
Worse, that same Vatican power structure went on to variously frustrate, delay, or outright oppose the cause of Romero’s canonization for decades, maligning his memory and his character in the process.
The fact is, Romero was a saint at the moment of his death, and the people of El Salvador, as well as millions of Catholics around the world, recognized him as such. It has taken our bureaucratic, officious, autocratic hierarchy nearly thirty years to recognize what any Salvadoran campensino could have told them the day after Romero’s death.
But of course, this was heart of Latin American liberation theology’s critique- that theological reflection begins with the experience of the most poor and the most oppressed.
A corollary is when the Gospel writer has Christ say, ‘I thank you, Father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants (Matt. 11:35).
There are similar echoes of this when Brazilian priest and theologian Frei Betto observed, ‘the poor invaded the Church (and) Catholic priests and bishops began to be converted to Christianity.’
My second reason is related to the first; now that Romero is ensconced in the devotional structures of the Church, I worry that his elevation might blunt the message that he gave.
The greatness of Romero, I believe, is the fact that three weeks after this bookish, conservative, status quo figure was ordained archbishop, he unexpectedly and disturbingly felt that God showed him the path he would need to take.
His good friend Fr. Rutilio Grande- who had been denouncing the government’s cruelty to the people- and two companions were murdered by the Salvadoran military, which was carrying out a sustained campaign of terror in the countryside. Romero went to the funeral and stared at both the bullet-ridden body and at the faces of the parishioners. He later recounted:
When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’
After this event, Romero was tireless in his advocacy for the people, denouncing the government’s terror, appealing to US President Carter to cut off aid to the Salvadoran government, even going so far as, on 23 March 1980, to demand obedience from the soldiers at the expense of their military commanders:
‘I’d like to make an appeal in a special way to the men in the army: Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are the same people. The farmers and peasants that you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the words of the man telling you to kill, think instead of the words of God, ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the Law of God. In His Name and in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much, and whose laments cry out to heaven: I implore you! I beg you! I order you! Stop the repression!’
The next day, he was dead.
The people were drawn to Romero’s words because, in a world that made it brutally clear to them that their lives were of no value whatsoever, he constantly reminded them of their value in the eyes of God and that God is a God of justice.
The greatness of Romero is in the change of direction- at the prompting of the Spirit of God- he was willing to make… yet ironically he has been elevated to a place of example and inspiration by a Church that doesn’t change direction well at all.
If we wish to do theological reflection with integrity, it is vital that Romero’s greatness not be lost under a welter of gauzy, institutional sentimentality or rendered inoffensive, divorced from the radical context from which it sprouted.
That depends on the people of God who recognized his holiness from the beginning, not those who noticed it far, far later…
… And the key to that is in the graffiti of the video and in those murals of Romero and Che.
The poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and the all those deemed ‘worthless’ by the forces of capital and power across the globe continue to cry out for justice… the cry of Romero… the cry of Jesus.
It is the duty of the Church to stand with those who cry out for justice, for justice is the heart of the Gospel…
‘The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it in full’ (John 10:10)…
This is the intersection of Romero and Che, the Christian and the revolutionary. It is impossible to evaluate the actions of Che without evaluating the actions of the Latin American Church of his social context- ossified, reactionary, anti-reform, privileged, elitist...
The Gospel of Christ- food for the poor, sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, freedom for the captives, life for the lifeless, a voice for the voiceless- was, is, and ever shall be revolutionary.
If the Church fails to preach and act out this radical Gospel, the world will still cry out for it; the poor and the oppressed will still demand justice.
If the Church stops up its ears, it is surrendering its mission, and that mission will be picked up by those who will attempt it without any understanding of the love of Christ. No one- least of all the Church- should be surprised if that turns out to be a disaster...
But in that instance, I think the judgement of God rests heavier on the Church. They knew Christ, and failed to emulate him; Che didn't, and set off to do it in his own power and wisdom...
Ironically, this is why I have a deep admiration for Che and consider him an inspiration to me in the same manner as is Romero. For the Gospel to have any integrity it must be revolutionary or it will be empty… and for the revolution to have any integrity it must encompass Romero or it will be in vain.
Che said, 'If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine’;
Romero said, ‘When the Church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises’;
Jesus said, 'Do you love me? Feed my sheep'.
The statements are all identical to me...
… And spray painting any or all of them on a wall would be an act of devotion…