martyrdom, Oscar Romero

The Dangerous Jesus in the Martyrdom of an Archbishop (Part 2: Romero)

This is part 2, continued from part 1, of The Dangerous Jesus in the Martyrdom of an Archbishop: Oscar Romero, Johann Metz, and the Iconography of the Interruptive No. See part 3 and 4 for more.

Romero the Pastoral Theologian
In his pastoral letters and other addresses Romero constructed a backbone for pastoral ministry and church formation.[1] While in comparison to strictly systematic theology his works might seem inchoate, within his pastorals is a theological articulation of Romero’s witness. Essential to Romero’s project was his starting point: he began his pastorals by grounding the church, and therefore the Christian life, within the Easter story.[2] For Romero, as the church was formed by the foundation of the Christological passion and divine hope, so the church as the body of Christ is constituted by the same Christological mission as Jesus.[3] By remembering the Christological work of the cross and resurrection, and making such a memory singularly formative by way of scripture and tradition for the ecclesial community, the church embodies the life of Christ.[4]

Romero situated the church politically only after first establishing its theological, incarnational character. For Romero, the church was not a political organization in the conventional sense, but it did have a political theology and bios.[5] As the church lived the incarnational, Christological mission – living with the poor and seeking the justice of God’s rule – the political implications of living the gospel in a broken world demanded that the church advocate for liberation from oppression.[6] This theo-political turn is encapsulated in the phrase, “the preferential option for the poor.”[7] Romero, however, lifted the voice of the poor without ignoring the rich; he recognized the dialogical relationship between the oppressor and oppressed. Romero’s recognition of the elite or oppressor was, however, not a comfortable focus for the privileged. While Romero sought a holistic liberation of the poor, the attention given to the oppressors was aimed at rehabilitation and called them into solidarity with the oppressed.[8]

Romero condemned idolatry, specifically the absolutizing of wealth and private property, of national security, and of organizations, which he saw as the genesis of abuse.[9] It was this greed and idolatrous identification that, for Romero, generated disunity and oppression. This oppression and disunity created a wealthy and powerful life for a few at the expense of many; in short, idolatry created the oppression. As Romero called for repentance from an idolatrous way of life and sharp structural change to confront the idolatry, he challenged the status quo. In short, his theological opposition to idolatrous, self-serving power designed to fulfill the greedy desires of a few at the expense of many led Romero into a confrontation with the elite.

Romero’s theological path – from incarnation to Christological mission to a Christian political life to the preferential option for the poor to condemning idolatry and its oppressive function – did not academically mature. Romero’s witness, however, did reach full maturity in reality: pastorally the theology and witness of Romero did flourish. He constructed the rudiments for a Christological life for the church that he then embodied. It was this foundation, rightly set in the memory of the Easter story, which enabled a liberative orthopraxy to be lived and, finally, to end in Romero’s martyrdom.

The Structure of Romero’s Witness: Confronting Idolatrous Power
At times the Christian vocation is to proclaim and live a very strong ‘No’ to the surrounding world. For Romero, idolatrous self-serving power was not an option. Indeed he denounced oppression most strongly in his homilies: “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!”[10] However, as hinted at, denunciation was not simply the end of Romero’s work – he incarnated the emphatic No.[11]

Romero, however, did not simply live a life of pure negation or a totalizing rejection. In other words, he was not strictly the iconography of the strong No. Instead, Romero’s witness was located in two spheres. The sharp No was first located within the grand Yes to creation. Christianity is, in point of fact, incredibly materialistic: creation is good. In Romero’s case, he offered that Yes to the majority of the populace: the poor. No matter how one name’s Romero’s solidarity – identified with the poor, embodied the poor, an incarnation of the poor, an icon of Christ the poor – it all amounts to the same thing: Romero was with the beaten and he spoke as the voice of the voiceless – he did not fetishize them.[12] He “took on the debilities of that reality: the pain, poverty, suffering, and oppression of the poor, and the violence directed against them by the state.”[13] Even his burial was not the average procession of pomp and circumstance for an Archbishop; rather, it was a hurried and violent affair where people died because his funeral was attacked by the government with bombs and snipers.[14] The violence directed towards Romero’s body, even after it could no longer utter statements, was identified with the poor by both the government who continued to attack and the throngs of the poor who assembled.[15]

The second sphere comes into play within the first sphere. Because the No to sin is located in the larger Yes to creation – the No is to people originally created and still loved by God – the No is in fact an act of love. The No is inherently a call to justice and redemption; it is the invitational gift of a new, transformed life.[16] Rather than being a violent human response within the economy of the status quo, the prophetic action of Romero was an act constituted by divine action within the economy of grace. In short, the prophetic No is pure gift and therefore even in conflict, it is still good.

At the same time, Romero was careful not to blunt the prophetic call. His prophetic call was sharp when it had to be precisely because it was within the grand Yes. The No had to be distinct and strong to ensure both the integrity of the oppressed poor themselves and the goodness of the life diametrically opposed to oppression: the life transformed in Christ. This No embodied by Romero identified and rejected idolatry and its necropolitics.[17] In the simplest of terms, Romero refused to conflate death and life, but fundamentally, what is this No against? In a word: simulacrum – an imposter or parody of the divine rule that, despite its finitude, masquerades as arbiter of life and death.[18] Theologically simulacrum is the very definition of idolatry.[19] Thus the No took on a disruptive quality; Romero interrupted the process of marginalizing the poor so as to make them voiceless, chattel-like commodities for the self-worship and self-care of the elite by the elite for the elite.[20]

Romero’s single Mass of March 20, 1977 shows the concrete working out of the No within the Yes – the faithfulness to the honest message.[21] Father Grande was a close friend to Romero, and it was Grande’s assassination that helped Romero see the oppressive reality. In response to Grande’s murder, Romero closed the Catholic schools and called for a single Mass at the Cathedral, against the wishes of the nuncio. One hundred thousand attended in person and many more listened by radio: “it was the largest demonstration of Salvadoran church unity within memory.”[22] Unity was a theme in the pastorals, but in liturgical actions like this Mass, Romero sought to bring the elite and poor together.

He was drawing on the power of the Eucharist to collapse the spatial barriers separating the rich and the poor, not by surveying the expanse of the Church and declaring it universal and united, but by gathering the faithful in one particular location around the altar, and realizing the heavenly universal Catholica in one place, at one moment, on earth.[23]

No longer could the rich run from the poor or act as if they were invisible. The rich were confronted with the humanity of the poor and they did not like it.[24]

In sum, the idolatrous status quo rooted in a flawed self-serving power was recognized as being against the life, power, and peace of Christ and those whom Christ loved. Romero rejected such an understanding of power and therefore said No to the actions rooted in such power. His martyrdom resulted in a refusal to shrink from proclaiming the sharp No, despite the threats and action by idolatrous power that claimed to control whether one may live or die. As such an action, Romero’s martyrdom proclaimed the basileia of God and unmasked a warped, finite power; he showed the poverty of the simulacrum’s claim to divine power. In short, his martyrdom was a true icon of the work of Jesus, and as Romero identified with the oppressed he exposed the status quo as an idolatrous simulacrum. By being an incarnation, or a living icon, of the Christological life, Romero lived both the sharp No and the grand Yes.

Romero the Martyred Archbishop
Romero was the subjectively authentic fulfillment of liberation theology. He carried out his task to proclaim the Good News to his death, refusing to back down from threats by the oppressive regimes that ruled his country. Although it was not fully fleshed out, Romero had a strong theology: “The Christian who does not want to live this commitment of solidarity with the poor is not worthy to be called a Christian.”[25] He lived this theology for the poor. Romero was the poor and therefore became incarnated within the crucified people.

Yet, to embody the Christ life was not easy. In fact, Romero told this to the Holy See: “I told them: It’s easy to preach his teachings theoretically. To follow faithfully the pope’s magisterium in theory is very easy. But when you try to live, try to incarnate, try to make reality in the history of the suffering people like ours those saving teachings, that is when conflicts arise.”[26] Nevertheless, despite the difficulty, Romero was with the crucified people.

He became a crucified person in his solidarity – in speech and act – throughout his life and in his death. The manner of his death had theological import: he died like the crucified people. His closing words in his last homily were of the Eucharist as a kenotic life: “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and blood to suffer and to pain – like Christ, not for self, but to teach justice and peace to our people.”[27] He was shot immediately following his homily, or rather the bullet cut him short. It was one shot. He was standing behind the altar. He collapsed at the feet of the crucified Jesus behind him. He bled out. Romero’s bloody body was an icon, like the Jesus nailed to a cross who looked on: he died for living the Christological life in solidarity with the poor, and thus, in the fullest sense, he became poor.

[1] Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, trans. Michael J. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985).

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Ibid., 65-69, 73-75.

[4] Ibid., 57, 69-73.

[5] Ibid., 78, 95-99.

[6] Ibid., 71, 179-185. See Tripp York, The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2007) for a larger work advancing this argument.

[7] Romero, Voice of the Voiceless, 125, 150-151.

[8] Ibid., 66, 74, 97-99, 141-142.

[9] Ibid., 122, 133-136, 173.

[10] James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 241.

[11] I do not intend here to act as if Romero sought out conflict or was always decided for liberation, even when he was an Archbishop. Quite the opposite is the truth actually; however, I do believe that when all was said and done, Romero did exactly what I am saying here. In fact, he even wrote a poem about his hesitancy for confrontation: see, Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Romero, trans. James R. Brockman (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1988), 97.

[12] Jon Sobrino, “A Theologian’s View of Oscar Romero”, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, 27-28.

[13] Jon Sobrino, “Monseñor Romero, A Salvadoran and a Christian”, trans. Michael O’Laughlin, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), 170.

[14] Jon Sobrino, “Archbishop Romero: Some Personal Reflections”, trans. Robert R. Barr, Witnesses to the Kingdom, 19.

[15] The parallel to the death of Jesus here is striking. While we may have theologies of Holy Saturday (i.e. Hans Urs von Balthasar), we often miss the political ramifications. The authorities actually thought they should endeavor to make sure Jesus stayed in the grave and they sought to do so by maintaining a contingent of guards outside of the sealed tomb. The funeral of Romero can be read similarly: the government sought to disperse the people by violence and keep the liturgy and mass for Romero’s funeral from occurring. Even in death and after they could no longer speak, the bodies of Jesus and Romero were threats to the status quo but life for the oppressed.

[16] This call into solidarity with the oppressed, rather than living as the oppressor, by Romero to the elites was noted in the pastorals section earlier.

[17] The word necropolitics comes from Achille Mbembe, “NecroPolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15 (2003): 11-40.

[18] Eugene McCarraher has similar sentiments in “The Enchantments of Mammon: Notes Toward a Theological History of Capitalism” in Modern Theology 21 (2005), 433: “The corporation parodies the ecclesia, and the trinkets of the market ape the delights of the heavenly city. The enchantments of capitalism pervert our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world. A fat, greasy, hoarding slob in ancient Babylonian lore, Mammon appears, in capitalist modernity, in a counterfeit angelic rainment”

[19] This is in direct contradiction to Jean Baudrillard in Simulation and Simulacra where iconography is simulation and therefore negative because it conflated “the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’” (3), while simulacra is positive, recognizing that the icon was never connected to the divine, because God could not be distilled in a sign. Thus for Baudrillard, Christian iconography is problematic: “But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to the signs that constitute faith? The then whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer itself anything but a gigantic simulacrum—not unreal, but a simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchange for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference” (6). I contend that Baudrillard is describing an idolatrous status quo – acting as if it is God by attempting to simulate God – and not Christian iconography, which Baudrillard does not seem to understand well. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1994).

[20] This points at neo-liberalism in all but in name. I find support in Romero: “But there is an ‘atheism’ that is closer at hand an more dangerous to our church. It is the atheism of capitalism, in which material possessions are set up as idols and take God’s place. Vatican II is the one that points it out: ‘Atheism arises at times…from wrongly making certain human goods into absolutes, so that they are then substitutes for God. Present-day civilization, not in itself, but because it is too much wrapped up in earthly affairs, can often make it harder to approach God.’ Here, in a capitalism that idolizes money and ‘human goods,’ is a danger for us as serious as the other, and perhaps more than the other, which gets the blame for all evils. Which is more serious to deny God out of a false idea of human liberation, or to deny him out of selfishness raised to the level of idolatry? Who are the greater hypocrites: those who believe in this world to the point of denying openly what is transcendent, or those who use what is transcendent and religious as tool and justification for their idolatry of the earth? Both are atheism. Neither of them is the truth that the church of the gospel teaches so beautifully: ‘The sublimest reason for human dignity is human beings’ call to communion with God.’” Romero, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Romero, 121-122. Also see two paragraphs on page 141, dated at January 7, 1979; two short paragraphs on page 153, dated March 18, 1979;

[21] Brockman, 12-18.

[22] Ibid., 17.

[23] William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2002), 122.

[24] Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom, 20.

[25] Romero, The Violence of Love, 227. The same sentiments are echoed in Jon Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays, various translators (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008).

[26] Romero, The Violence of Love, 70.

[27] Brockman, 244.


2 thoughts on “The Dangerous Jesus in the Martyrdom of an Archbishop (Part 2: Romero)

  1. Pingback: The Dangerous Jesus in the Martyrdom of an Archbishop (Part 3: Metz) « flying.farther

  2. Pingback: The Dangerous Jesus in the Martyrdom of an Archbishop (Part 4: Romero and Metz) « flying.farther

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