by Katharine Armbrester
The purpose of our life is God’s glory. However lowly a life is, that is what makes it great.
Oscar Romero might be an unfamiliar name to you, as it was to me. This is unfortunate, for the story of his life and death is a powerful testament to God’s glory, and Fr. Romero’s words have much to offer us in our turbulent times. Fr. Romero’s call to obedience and action is perhaps the most relevant of all the modern prophets we have examined so far in our ongoing series.
Born to one of eight children in San Salvador, from an early age Fr. Oscar Romero had a heart for the church, becoming a priest, and laboring for the poor. He faithfully served amid crippling poverty and widespread political strife as a parish priest for twenty years despite a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which was not properly understood at the time. Despite the odds against him, he eventually became the Archbishop of San Salvador. This revered position came with difficulties that we Americans — in a first world nation with religious liberty enshrined in our Constitution — cannot begin to fathom.
Everyone who struggles for justice, everyone who makes just claims in unjust surroundings is working for God’s reign, even though not a Christian. The church does not comprise all of God’s reign; God’s reign goes beyond the church’s boundaries.
Fr. Oscar Romero lived during one of the bloodiest periods in his country’s history. Class inequality and corruption were endemic in San Salvadoran society, the poor were plagued by gang violence, and when the Junta government (consisting of three consecutive dictatorships) came to power, civil war broke out, leading to terrorism and persecution of dissenting religious authorities. But Romero was undeterred.
See how the accusations against the prophets of all times are the same. When the prophet bothers the consciences of the selfish, or of those who are not building with God’s plans, he is a nuisance and must be eliminated, murdered, thrown into a pit, persecuted, not allowed to speak the word that annoys.
Fr. Romero began preaching over the radio in order to reach the widest number of the poor and oppressed as possible — and they listened. One listener stated that Romero’s sermons were like “a university education,” and for all Romero’s erudite eloquence, he spoke simply, straight to the heart, fervently asking his listeners to turn away from sin and violence and reach out in love and forgiveness to their neighbor and those around them.
Increasingly, Romero and his radio program were targeted by the government — he was labeled a firebrand and a communist in order that western powers (including the United States) would ignore his pleas for foreign aid and his truthful exposure of the terrors unleashed by the Junta Government. Despite the slurs and increasing death threats, Romero continued humbly preaching to millions of listeners hungry for spiritual food, and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Liberation that raises a cry against others is no true liberation. Liberation that means revolutions of hate and violence and takes the lives of others or abases the dignity of others cannot be true liberty. True liberty does violence to self and, like Christ, who disregarded that he was sovereign, becomes a slave to serve others.
The Violence of Love is a collection of excerpts from Fr. Romero’s sermons, beautifully rendered as lyric, poetic texts, almost like the Biblical Psalms. It is astonishing how his words are still pertinent to our time, and his exhortations against sin, selfishness and violence are desperately needed for a divisive time in a supposedly Christian nation.
Fr. Romero repeatedly states that yes, we need revolution, but it must begin in the heart first, as he writes: “The church does not approve or justify bloody revolution and cries of hatred. But neither can it condemn them while it sees no attempt to remove the causes that produce that ailment in our society.” Loving God and loving justice will never lead to oppression, and liberty will result of being Christ-like and dying to the self in order to take care of the poor.
The Violence of Love is a powerful book that will leave you both deeply contrite and fired up with a need to give to and love others if you are not careful! It’s more dangerous to one’s complacency than any weapon. Along with his discussions of liberty versus oppression, the need to cleanse oneself of sin, Fr. Romero also speaks eloquently of the need for education for all, Christ’s austerities (which we as his followers should emulate,) God’s grace and the need for stewardship of the earth.
Another of Romero’s most interesting themes (and again, extremely relevant) is the need to make sure that one’s fervor for politics never supplants one’s fervor for Christ, for disaster can be the only result. Romero was an excellent student of history, and saw history as the story of God, despite all the suffering inherent in the past. When a person, a town, a country truly seeks to follow Christ, there is great hope for the future.
Historical moments will change, but God’s design will ever be the same: to save human beings in history. Therefore, the church, entrusted with carrying out God’s design, cannot be identified with any historical design. The church could not be the ally of the Roman Empire or of Herod or of any king on earth or of any political system or of any political strategy. It will enlighten them all, but it will always remain authentically the one that proclaims salvation history, God’s design.
Unfortunately, Fr. Romero’s message against sin, corruption, and terrorism was something that the San Salvadoran dictators could not long stomach, and Romero was assassinated while attending mass on March 24, 1980. He would later be canonized as a saint, and is commemorated on Westminster Abbey’s Great Door alongside fellow martyrs Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite his death, his exhortations can still be heard and learned from every time you read The Violence of Love.
God comes, and his ways are near to us. God saves in history. Each person’s life, each one’s history, is the meeting place God comes to. How satisfying to know one need not go to the desert to meet him, need not go to some particular spot in the world. God is in your heart.
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one. Katharine has been recently published in the Lucky Jefferson literary journal, the Birmingham Arts Journal, and the supernatural Twilight Zone-inspired anthology, Step Into the Fifth Dimension.