Romero’s martyrdom a witness against tunnel vision
The Church’s decision earlier today that Archbishop Oscar Romero is a martyr settles a long-standing controversy which often pitted liberals against conservatives. The Salvadoran Archbishop was gunned down while celebrating Mass in 1980, shortly after delivering a sermon calling upon soldiers to obey God rather than enforce government orders which violated fundamental human rights. He was an outspoken opponent of social injustice, torture…and assassination.
You see the problem?
Whenever Central and South American social problems are viewed through a first-world lens, the Christian narrative is resolved into the left-right dialectic. For example, liberals in the United States frequently lionized Romero for standing against landowners and capitalists (whom they regard as the root of all evil). And conservatives often distrusted him because it was so easy, at a distance, to read the problems he faced in terms not of Christianity but of Marxism.
Americans (and I presume many others in the first world) are accustomed to the wildest rhetoric over the smallest inequalities. As a result we have a huge blind spot when conceptualizing third world problems. It is bad enough that after several hundred years of ever-increasing secularism, we still see everything in terms of the profoundly secular categories of left and right. But it is even worse that we seem unable to realize how different the experience of Latin American oppression is from our own experience of relatively widespread opportunity and mobility.
But it is not only that a first world assessment of Oscar Romero must overcome its own tunnel vision. It is also the case that authentic witness to the Faith blurs as it extends into social causes and concerns. When a person is told to worship a false God or deny Christ under pain of death, and is killed when he refuses, his martyrdom is clear. But when a Christian risks speaking out for and ministering to the dispossessed, is he following the call of Jesus Christ or pursuing a secular (and perhaps utopian) socio-political vision? When such a person is murdered by those who feel threatened by him, do his killers abhor his Faith or simply his politics?
One judgment makes him a martyr; the other, merely a casualty. As the larger social order spirals ever farther from Christian principles, and as the focus of Catholic action shifts in the age of the laity, these questions will not become easier to answer.
I confess to preferring my martyrs neat, tidy, and focused directly on a specific demand to renounce the Faith. But God rarely arranges things so they appear neat to us. So consider: Is a murdered pro-life demonstrator a martyr? Always or only sometimes? The same questions (and distinctions) surround any Christian witness in the world, for we do not gain heaven by saying “Lord, Lord”, but by doing God’s will. Surely the concept of martyrdom stretches at least this far.
In each case, it takes both study and prudence to arrive at a fair assessment. The Church has now completed this process for Oscar Romero, and only a fool would be so blinded by his or her own “dialectics” to begrudge the archbishop his crown. Oscar Romero’s politics were neither liberal nor conservative. They were Christian. Those who loved or hated him for less than Christian reasons are invited to meet him again now—this time as a heavenly witness against their own tunnel vision.
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