Risk, Blood and Solidarity
A Sermon for the 30th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero
Perkins Chapel Worship, March 24, 2010
Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-11; John 18: 15-18; 25-27
“If I were to look for an adjective to describe this time of change in the archdiocese, I would not hesitate to call it the hour of resurrection.”
“I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill meI will rise again in the Salvadorian people.”
Resurrection: the ultimate experience of hope for the Christian religion. Thirty years after the horrible assassination of Monseñor Romero, we continue to harvest the fruits of Romero’s ministry beyond the boundaries of El Salvador. In the preface to the book Archbishop Romero: Martyr and Prophet for the New Millenium, Robert S. Pelton comments that “The Archbishop Romero Case: Legal Accountability in U.S. Courts. . . is already being hailed as a blueprint for breaching the once-impenetrable wall of impunity”. . . In August 2004, a landmark ruling by the District Court of Eastern California under Judge Oliver W. Wagner “held Alvaro Rafael Saravia legally liable and culpable for the key role” in Romero’s assassination (xi). “The court also ruled that the late Roberto D’Aubuisson was the mastermind of the assassination, and that the Salvadorian government engaged in widespread and systematic obstruction of justice (xi).” Pelton states, “History teaches us all-too-clearly that failure to bring human rights violators to justice inevitably provokes still more violence, both by emboldening the forces of repression and by teaching their victims that counter-violence is the only option when the ‘rule of law’ is merely a self-serving sham (xviii).” Yet, commenting on the global implications of this court ruling, he reminds the readers that “Replacing impunity with accountability — like Romero’s case does — is crucial not only as a small measure of belated justice for past victims, but also as a powerful deterrent to present and future abuses of human rights in nations around the world.”
In the words of a colleague soon after the verdict was public, “He — Romero — has been resurrected. . . this is the beginning. It will give courage to people to continue fighting against death (xix).”
Fighting against death. . . Preparing this sermon brought too many powerful memories. . . of friends, sisters and brothers in Christ. Some, like Monseñor Romero, are martyrs; Noel Vargas, a leader in the Pentecostal Church of El Salvador and María Cristina Gómez, a member of the Emanuel Baptist Church and a leader of a teacher’s union in San Salvador. Both assassinated because they were radicals, communists, a danger to the “national security” of the Salvadorian government. Others suffered under the death squadrons — kidnapped, tortured — and because of Christian and non-Christian international pressure, were released by their captors. Bishop Medardo Gomez and lay Baptist leader Ruth Kalil are living testimonies of facing death because they fought against death. Their testimony is a reminder of the struggle against evil. And yet others became refugees during the time of impunity in El Salvador. Given the intensity of death threats and dangers, churches and communities offered hospitality. In gratitude for saving their lives, Victoria Cortez, who went to Nicaragua, never stopped her Christian vocation, and established the Lutheran Church in Nicaragua. She is the current bishop of the Lutheran Church in this neighboring Central American country.
Memories, intense memories, memories overwhelmed with paradoxes: repression and resistance; despair and hope; doubt and faith; hate and love; fear and courage; death and resurrection.
Ezekiel puts in our face the image of blood. Speaking to the sentinel, speaking to the prophet, God is incisive and demanding. The image of blood, of life becomes the ultimate test of accountability. The images are totally counter-intuitive to our modern, post-modern and even post-colonial world views: “. . . their blood shall be upon their own heads . . . their blood shall be upon themselves. . . but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand. . . [if] you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. . .” Blood. . , life. . ., the sentinel’s, the prophet’s life is at risk, and his vocation is intrinsically embedded with the people, with the wicked.
This text runs against that famous late 19th/early 20th century statement, still declared today in many Christians communities, one of the strongest legacies of modern Protestant theology of salvation — “salvation is personal;” perhaps a more dramatic interpretation of this statement might be “salvation is private.”
Sisters and brothers, friends, blood ties! Blood bonds. All of the biographies of Monseñor Romero point to a turning point in his vocation as Archbishop: the assassination of his friend Padre Rutilio Grande. Padre Rutilio, a martyr of the Salvadorian church, was assassinated on March 12, 1977. Just one month before his assassination, he preached “It’s practically illegal to be a true Christian in El Salvador . . . In Christianity today you have to be ready to give up your life to serve a just order. . . to save others, for the values of the Gospel!”
Monseñor Romero received the news that his dear and close friend and two other men were murdered. He wanted to see with his own eyes what happened. Rutilio’s body was taken to the parish house. Scott Wright’s most recent biography of Romero entitled Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints narrates the eye witness of Ernestina Rivera as she shared what transpired the night of a bloody encounter:
“I [Ernestina] took off Father Grande’s socks, all soaked with blood, and helped to undress him. He was dead. When I heard the news, I felt as if I was being picked up in the air and thrown down the ground. I was so shaken that I don’t even know how I got to the parish house. And now I asked myself how I lived through the events of the day. I loved him. That’s why, to this day, I have saved a little piece of cloth soaked with his blood.
. . . It was midnight when Monseñor Romero arrived to see his body. He approached the little table where we had him, wrapped in a white sheet, and there he paused. . . looking at him in a way that made me see that he loved him too. I didn’t know Monseñor then. That night we heard his voice for the first time, preaching. When we heard him, it was a great surprise.
‘Ay! Even his voice [Romero’s] is just like Father Grande’s. That’s what we all said. Because it seemed to us that right there, the words of Father Rutilio had been passed to Monseñor. Right there. Truly.
Is it possible that God has worked this miracle so that we will not be left as orphans? my comadre whispered to me. (44)”
Blood bonds. . . resurrection, the ultimate Christian experience of hope. The blood of the faithful sentinel, the blood of the faithful prophet is a seed of life. Of life for the orphans and an offer of reconciliation and life to the perpetrators. During the Mass for Father Rutilio Grande in the Cathedral of San Salvador — perhaps the liturgical turning point in the life of Romero and the archdiocese — the words of an emerging prophet, tied by blood to the orphans and the perpetrators of El Salvador, offers an opportunity for conversion. Romero preaches with the tenacity of a prophet who does not play with sin and the overwhelming love and grace of Jesus, “Who knows if the murderers that have now fallen into excommunication are listening to a radio in their hideout, listening, in their conscience to this word. We want to tell you, murderous brothers, that we love you and that we ask of God repentance for your hearts, because the church is not able to hate (45)” Blood ties; blood bonds! ¡La sangre une, la sangre amarra!
I find John’s denial of Jesus one of the most intriguing texts of the New Testament. I remember sermons and commentaries. . . no chance for Peter. The versions on Mathew and Luke say that as soon as the cock crowed, Peter “went out and wept bitterly.” This has been a perfect ending for a call to repentance. It is interesting however, that “wept bitterly” could be interpreted in different ways: from the typical call to repentance to a less typical, but yet in affinity with the Greek, weeping with anger.
John does not give these options. Peter denies Jesus and the cock crows. Fear and courage; courage and fear. Peter keeps himself close to Jesus. In a dangerous time, Peter does not run away or hide, he is close to Jesus. Maneuvering the politics of encounter — with his well connected peer — in order to be close to his friend Jesus; his friend who faces an unjust tribunal. Courage to be close to a potential dead political leader; fear to fall in the hands of those who will murder for their own sake and preservation of order and power. Courage to be among soldiers, those who execute death orders, sharing the heat of a fire in a cold night; fear that these same soldiers, some who are looking at him with suspicion, might suddenly turn on him, for he is a follower of this Jesus of Nazareth. Peter’s courage and fear, doubt and faith, spatial proximity and verbal distancing embodies the real condition of human beings faced with a dilemma between life and death. Isn’t it extremely hard to embrace death on the grounds of faith in resurrection? Hell yes, it is!! This is too demanding, too difficult. Just thinking about it — my children, my spouse, my family, my friends. . . wait, my blood? Dying for my blood. . . how to do it? I get Peter, but can I see — not understand, or describe or make rational — but see the power of Monseñor Romero’s option?
Monseñor Romero’s decision to cancel all mass celebrations in San Salvador and celebrate one mass — la misa única — in the Cathedral on March 20, 1977 weighed on his heart and mind. Biographers refer to this as the liturgical turning point in his life and in the life of the archdiocese in relation to the people of El Salvador. But it was not easy. There was courage in this decision; there was fear in this decision. Inocencio Alas, a Salvadorean priest who was present the day of the Mass for Padre Rutilio in the Cathedral, recounts one of those testimonies that we usually omit for the sake of presenting ourselves as paradoxical and ambiguous human beings, and even more so in times of extreme decisions. He remembers and shares that “As the Mass began, I noticed that Monseñor Romero was sweating, pale, and nervous. And when he began the homily, it seemed slow to me, without his usual eloquence, as if he was reluctant to go through the door of history that God was opening for him. But after about five minutes, I felt the Holy Spirit descend upon him.”
Inocencio recounts that as Monseñor Romero continued his homily, the people “exploded with applause” as a symbol of solidarity with their raising prophet. Monseñor Romero is quoted declaring, “This applause confirms the profound joy that my heart feels upon taking possession of the archdiocese and feeling that my own weaknesses and my own inabilities can find the complement, their strength, and their courage in a united clergy. Whoever touches one of my priests, is touching me. And they will have to deal with me!” Inocencio recounts, “Thousands of people were applauding him, and something rose within him. It was then that he crossed the threshold. He went through the door. Because, you know, there is baptism by water, and there is baptism by blood. But there is also baptism by the people.” (49)
Risking Christ for Christ’s sake — the missional imperative of the first centuries of the Christian religion and the current reality of 21st century Christianity. Blood that ties, that bonds. The blood of Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected one, which binds all people, all elements of creation and the universe. The body and blood we partake today in this Eucharistic celebration. Solidarity — because no prophet is alone. With the power of the Holy Spirit, our human dilemmas are eased, not resolved, but eased, and our paradoxes generate compassion, humility, reconciliation and a ministry of accompaniment. With the power of the Holy Spirit, working with the people who sustain and are the church, resurrection is real!!! Death does not overcome the power of life in Jesus our friend and savior.
Oscar Romero, presente. . . Jesús de Nazaret. . . presente. ¡Maranatha!
Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, Ph.D. is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Professor of World Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Common Global Ministries, a common witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.
 Robert Pelton, C.S.C., Editor. Archbishop Romero: Martyr and Prophet for the New Millenium (Scranton: The University of Scranton Press, 2006).
 Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of the Saints (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009).