Oscar Romero’s appointment in 1977 as archbishop to the archdiocese of San Salvador was initially welcomed by the El Salvadoran government and despaired of by other priests. Everyone seemed to think he would let down the poor.
But less than a month after his appointment, something dramatic happened: Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and good friend of Romero’s, was assassinated for his organizing work among the poor. And Romero looked at his friend, and he saw Christ. He saw someone whose love for “the least of these” put him in harm’s way. He saw that no one even cared enough about this priest’s death to investigate his murder. He saw that the newspapers wouldn’t report about it, because they had been censored. He saw, basically, that no one would do anything about it, and that he had no way to make them do anything about it. He couldn’t magically make the institutions of his fractured country work again. There was only one person whose actions he could control, and that was himself.
So Romero began denouncing the violence of poverty and injustice. He began speaking out against the assassinations and torture that had become commonplace. He became an unlikely activist, much to the disappointment and fear of his powerful and well-off countrymen.
Have you ever wondered why martyrs are so important to Christianity? When you grow up in the middle of the world’s safest empire, devotion to the martyrs is really hard to come to grips with. It looks so primitive, so outdated. At its extreme it looks very anti-body and even pro-suffering. And to be fair it can be used that way! But try to look at it from another perspective, a perspective from outside the safety of white America, and it begins to make more sense. Martyrdom is about absolute commitment to God and to Christian community. And when you live in a place and time where that community is seen as suspect or even threatening, as it did in the Roman Empire of the early church or in 1970’s El Salvador, that becomes incredibly important. It becomes a symbol of love: love that is stronger than death. A martyr points to Christ’s own death in solidarity with his beloved creation, and to Christ’s resurrection as God’s power over that death.
Oscar Romero’s El Salvador was becoming more and more allergic to this kind of love. Priests, nuns, and Christian teachers and radio announcers were attacked, especially in the wake of the Revolutionary Government Junta’s coming to power. But it was not simply the church being persecuted, Romero pointed out: “That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.” In other words, the church doesn’t get persecuted for simply existing; it gets persecuted for living out Jesus’ New Commandment: love each other as I have loved you. Love each other so wholly that you would put yourself in harm’s way for the least powerful among you. Love each other even unto death.
Romero never stopped speaking out against the political repression of the Salvadoran government. He named the disappearances, tortures, and murders in his Sunday sermons on the church’s radio station . . . except, he once said, “when [the station] was bombed off the air.” Because of the government’s censorship of the media, this was the only way people could get news about what was happening, aside from rumors.
You may know how this story ends, or have already guessed. It ends with Romero gunned down after preaching, while preparing to celebrate mass. It ends with Romero joining the ranks of Christian martyrs, saints not because they sought death, but because they sought love. And, as of last fall, it ends with Romero officially being recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic church.
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The Hebrew Bible makes utterly clear that immigrants and refugees are very close to God’s heart. Every patriarch is an immigrant; each one ventures away from the known to the unknown. The people of Israel are refugees from slavery in Egypt to the land of promise. The exilic community, those the Babylonians forced from their land in the 6th century BCE, had to make a new life away from their temple and the land of their ancestors. And then their grandchildren had to face the prospect of returning to that land, only to find it completely alien to them. The stories of the Hebrew Bible are stories of wandering, homelessness, vulnerability in strange places without roots or protectors. Which is why Torah commands 36 separate times that God’s people care for immigrants and refugees: enact justice for immigrants, care for immigrants, love immigrants, for your ancestors were immigrants. Thirty-six times, more than any other category in Torah, God’s people—we—are commanded to do right by the stranger.
The New Testament takes this even further. The most vulnerable people—hungry and thirsty people, strangers, sick and imprisoned people—aren’t just close to God’s heart; they are God. There is no escaping the logic of Jesus’ parallels here. The good you do to suffering people, you do to Jesus himself. The evil you do to suffering people, you do to Jesus himself.
We as a country are fast making martyrs on our southern border. Martyrs, that is, according to Oscar Romero’s own definition of the word: someone—anyone—who suffers. Because everyone bears God’s image. Everyone represents Christ. This is why Romero put himself in harm’s way, because he saw the poor and oppressed as Christ and loved them as Christ.
Where is our love, as Christians? People ask what we can do to shut down the camps, free the children, make sure the hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing violence and desperate poverty receive adequate food, shelter, and medical care. What can we do but put our bodies on the line? What can we do but shut things down? It’s going to take massive disruption to stop this, just as it took to end Jim Crow, just as it took to end slavery, just as it took to gain women’s rights. What Frederick Douglass said of slavery is true of America’s injustices now: “it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.”
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Carlos Rodriguez has written, “Whenever we build walls to separate ourselves from those in need, Jesus chooses the side of the wall where the need is.” And I would add: Jesus also asks us to demolish those walls. Jesus Christ, in whom, Paul says, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female—waits behind the boundaries we make for us to tear down what separates us from full and abundant life in him. It is Christ who awaits our acceptance that all of us are walking images of God, whom God demands that we love. No exceptions. In Christ there is no longer American or Guatemalan or Honduran or Salvadoran. In Christ there is no longer legal or illegal. In Christ there is no longer deserving or undeserving. There is only the image of God, the face of Christ, in one child after another, in one struggling mother and desperate father after another.
God is suffering today in America’s detention camps. As our prayer of contrition states, we have created worlds of poverty, pain, lost opportunities, and absence of hope. And it is true, also, that God will not deny a repentant heart. But repentance is not a passive thing. It isn’t something that takes place only in church pews or the human heart; if that is its limit, it is nothing but good intentions. It can take place anywhere, everywhere, but only when we stop breaking each other’s hearts and start healing them instead. Repentance isn’t a word we say, it’s what we do. It’s making things right. It’s enacting God’s justice, the justice called for in Torah, and by the prophets, and by Jesus himself.
It’s important to know that in attempting to live out God’s justice, we are not alone. Hundreds of protests gathered at the offices of Senators and Representatives. Some of those politicians are listening, and have visited the camps themselves. Jews have been rallying outside ICE offices and detention sites under the slogan “Never Again,” and dozens have been arrested. And all of that in just this past week!
Now, I’m not going to tell you specifically what you need to do in this moment. Because of disability, poverty, and many other factors, not everyone can join a protest, or fly to the border, or be arrested. But I am going to ask one, concrete thing of you: that you take just ten or fifteen minutes this week, time set aside from other demands, and spend it asking yourself what you can do. To consider what amount of time, energy, or resources you currently can spare for the sake of people right now who are cold, abused, hungry, lonely, and fearful. Who are dying.
If you find you have something you can give to them, there are many ways to help. The organization Migrant Justice works for human rights and economic justice right here in Vermont, for the workers who milk our cows and pick our apples. They are at migrantjustice.net and their “Get Involved” button gives a long list of possible volunteer help they could use. (And yes, migrant workers are also being unjustly arrested right here in Vermont.) There are also groups, such as the Vermont Freedom Bail Fund, which funnel money so that migrants can post bail and get out of prison, and other organizations, such as RAICES, which provide legal aid to migrants. We should also be making it clear to our elected officials that this is the most pressing human rights issue of our time. Even if you know what your senators and representative think, adding your voice is valuable.
Let me be clear: all I ask is that you take ten minutes this week to ask yourself what you could do. If you feel that you are called to take a more dramatic role in the fight to free imprisoned migrants, I implore you to do so. And if you cannot, I urge you to do whatever you can do. There is one thing that every last one of us can do, and that is pray. The least of these are among us now, being held in our name. We must not look away.