From the Archives: The Political Dimension of Christian Love

From the March 26, 1982 issue
This story is included in these collections

 

This piece first appeared in the March 26, 1982 issue of Commonweal.

 

March 24 is the second anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, shot down while he was offering Mass. To commemorate that date and to show the reasoning that eventually led to his martyrdom, we publish below the bulk of an address by Archbishop Romero, delivered when he received an honorary degree from the University of Louvain. –The Editors

 

I COME from the smallest country in faraway Latin America. I will not try to speak, and you cannot expect me to speak, the way an expert in politics might.

Nor will I even speculate, as someone might who was an expert, on the theoretical relationship between the faith and politics. No, I am going to speak simply, as a pastor, as one who, together with his people, has been learning the beautiful but harsh truth that the Christian faith does not cut us off from the world but immerses us in it, that the church is not a fortress set apart from the city but is a follower of that Jesus who lived, worked, battled, and died in the midst of a city, in a ''polis.'' It is in this sense that I would like to talk about the political dimension of the Christian faith: in the precise sense of the repercussions of the faith for the world and also of the repercussions that insertion in the world has for the faith.

We ought to be clear from the start that the Christian faith and the action of the church have always had socio-political repercussions. By action or omission, by associating themselves with one or other social group, Christians have always had an influence upon the socio-political make-up of the world in which they live. The problem is about the "how" of this influence in the socio-political world, so that it may be truly in accordance with the faith.

As a first idea, though still a very general one, I want to propose Vatican II's intuition, which lies at the root of every ecclesial movement of today. The essence of the church lies in its mission of service to the world, in its mission of saving the world in its totality, and of saving it in history, here and now. The church exists to act in solidarity with the hopes and with the joys, with the anxieties and with the sorrows, of men and women. Like Jesus, the church was sent "to bring good news to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to seek and to save what was lost" (Lumen Gentium, 8).

You all know these words of the Council. My contribution will be to put real flesh upon those beautiful declarations from the standpoint of my own situation, of a small Latin American country, typical of what today is called the third world. To put it in one word, in a word which sums it all up and makes it concrete, the world which the church ought to serve is, for us, the world of the poor.

 

OUR SALVADORAN WORLD is no abstraction. It is not yet another example of what is understood by "world" in developed countries. It is a world made up, in much the greater part, of men and women who are poor and oppressed. And we say of that world of the poor that it is the key to understanding the Christian faith, to understanding the action of the church and the political dimension of that faith and of that ecclesial action. It is the poor who tell us what the world is, and what the church's service to the world is. It is the poor who tell us what the ''polis'' is, what the city is and what it means for the church really to live in that world. In its apostolic work our archdiocese has recently been moving in a direction which can only be described, and only be understood, as a turning towards the world of the poor, to their real, concrete world.

Just as elsewhere in Latin America, the words of Exodus have, after many years—perhaps after centuries—resounded in our ears: "The cry of the sons of Israel has come to me, and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians oppress them'' (Ex 3:9). These words have given us new eyes to see what has always been the case among us, but which has so often been hidden, even from the view of the church itself. We have learned to see what is the first, basic fact about our world and, as pastors, we have made a judgment about it at Medellin and at Puebla. “That misery, as a collective fact, expresses itself as an injustice which cries to the heavens" (Medellin, Justice, 1). At Puebla we declared, "So we brand the situation of inhuman poverty in which millions of Latin Americans live as the most devastating and humiliating kind of scourge. And this situation finds expression in such things as a high rate of infant mortality, lack of adequate housing, health problems, starvation wages, unemployment and underemployment, malnutrition, job uncertainty, compulsory mass migrations, etc." (Final document, 29).

The experience of these realities, and letting ourselves be affected by them, far from separating us from our faith has sent us back to the world of the poor as to our true home. It has moved us, as a first, basic step, to take the world of the poor upon ourselves. It is there that we have found the real faces of the poor. There we have met peasants without land, and without stable employment, without water or electricity in their poor houses, without medical assistance when mothers give birth, and without schools when the children begin to grow up. There we have met workers who have no labor rights, and who are discharged from their factories if they demand such rights, people who are at the mercy of cold economic calculations. There we have met the mothers and the wives of those who have disappeared, or who are political prisoners. There we have met the shantytown dwellers, whose wretchedness defies imagination, living out a constant insult from the mansions which are next door.

It is within this world which lacks a human face, this contemporary sacrament of the suffering servant of Yahweh, that the church of my archdiocese has undertaken to incarnate itself. I do not say this in a triumphalist spirit, for I am well aware how much in this regard remains to be done. But I say it with immense Joy, for we have made the effort not to pass by afar off, not to circle round the one lying wounded in the roadway, but to approach him or her like the good Samaritan.

This coming closer to the world of the poor is what we understand both by the incarnation and by conversion. The changes which were needed within the church and in its apostolate, in education, in religious and in priestly life, in lay movements, which we have not brought about simply by looking inwards upon the church, we are now carrying out by turning ourselves outwards towards the world of the poor.

 

THIS ENCOUNTER with the poor has regained for us the central truth of the Gospel, through which the word of God urges us to conversion. The church has to proclaim the Good News to the poor. Those who, in this-worldly terms, have heard bad news, and who have lived out even worse realities, are now listening through the church to the word of Jesus: "The Kingdom of God is at hand," "Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.'' And hence they also have a Good News to proclaim to the rich: that they, too, become poor in order to share the benefits of the Kingdom with the poor.

It is something new among our people that today the poor see in the church a source of hope and a support for their noble struggle for liberation. The hope which our church encourages is not naive, nor is it passive. It is rather a summons from the word of God for the great majority of people, the poor, that they assume their proper responsibility, that they raise their consciousness, that, in a country where it is legally or practically prohibited they set about organizing themselves. And it is backing, sometimes critical backing, for their just causes and demands. The hope that we preach to the poor is intended to give them back their dignity, to encourage them to take charge of their own future. The church has turned towards the poor; indeed, it has made of the poor the special beneficiaries of its mission because, as Puebla says, "God takes on their defense and loves them" (n. 1142).

The majority of the poor in our country are oppressed and repressed daily by the economic and political structures. Those terrible words spoken by the prophets of Israel continue to be true among us. Among us there are those who sell the just man for money, and the poor man for a pair of sandals; those who, in their mansions, practice violence and pile up plunder; those who crush the poor; those who make the kingdom of violence come closer while they lie upon their beds of ivory; those who join house to house, and annex field to field, until they occupy the whole of the land, and remain alone in the country.

These texts from the prophets Amos and Isaiah are not just voices from distant centuries; they are not merely texts which we reverently read in the liturgy. They are everyday realities. Day by day we live out their cruelty and intensity. We live them out when there come to us the mothers and the wives of those who have been arrested or who have disappeared, when mutilated bodies turn up in secret cemeteries, when those who fight for justice and peace are assassinated. In this situation of conflict and antagonism, in which just a few people control the economic and the political power, the church has placed itself at the side of the poor, and has undertaken their defense. The church cannot do otherwise, for it remembers that Jesus had pity on the multitude. But by doing so it bas entered into serious conflict with the powerful people who belong to the economic oligarchies, and with the political and military authorities of the state.

 

THIS DEFENSE of the poor in a world deep with conflict has occasioned something which is new in the recent history of the church: persecution. In less than three years, over fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs—they have been murdered; several have been tortured and others expelled. Nuns have also been the objects of persecution. The radio of the archdiocese and educational institutions which are Catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been constantly threatened, intimidated, attacked, including by bombs. Several parish communities have been raided.

If all this has happened to people who are the most conspicuous representatives of the church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christian people, to the peasants, the catechists, the delegates of the word, to the basic ecclesial communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering hundreds and thousands. As always, even in the persecution it has been the poor among the Christians who have suffered most.

It is, then, an indisputable fact that over the last three years, our church has been persecuted. But it is important to note why it has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted which has placed itself at the side of the people, and has gone to their defense. Here again we find the key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor. Once again it is the poor who bring us to understand what has really happened. Persecution has been occasioned by the defense of the poor. It amounts to nothing other than the church taking upon itself the destiny of the poor.

Persecution has been directed against the poor who today are the body of Christ in history. They, like Jesus, are the crucified people, the persecuted people like the servant of Yahweh. They are the ones who make up in their own bodies that which is lacking in the passion of Christ. And for that reason when the church has organized and united itself around the hopes and the anxieties of the poor it has incurred the same fate as that of Jesus and of the poor: persecution.

The political dimension of the faith is nothing other than the church's response to the demands made upon it by the real socio-political world in which it exists. What we have rediscovered is that this demand is a fundamental one for the faith, and that the church cannot ignore it. That is not to say that the church should regard itself as a political institution entering into competition with other political institutions, or that it has its own political processes. Nor much less is it to say that the church desires political leadership. No, one is talking of something more profound, something more in keeping with the Gospel; one is talking of an authentic option for the poor, of becoming incarnate in their world, of proclaiming the Good News to them, of giving them hope, of encouraging them to engage in a liberating praxis, of defending their cause and of sharing in their fate.

Because the church has opted for the real, and not for the fictitious, poor, because it has opted for those who really are oppressed and repressed, the church lives in a political world, and it fulfills itself as church also through politics. It cannot be otherwise if the church, like Jesus, is to turn itself towards the poor.

 

THE ACTION of our Archdiocese has clearly started out from its conviction about the faith. The transcendence of the Gospel has guided us in our judgment and in our action. We have judged the social and political situation from the standpoint of the faith. But it is also true, to look at it another way that the faith itself has been deepened, precisely by taking up this stance towards the socio-political reality around us.

In the first place, we have a better knowledge of what sin is. We know that the death of an individual is an offense against God. We know that such a sin really is mortal, not only in the sense of the interior death of the person who commits the sin, but also because of the real, objective death the sin produces. Let us in this way remind ourselves of the fundamental fact of our Christian faith: sin killed the Son of God, and sin is what goes on killing the children of God.

We see that basic truth of the Christian faith daily in our country. It is impossible to offend God without offending one's brother or sister. And the worst offense against God, the worst form of secularism, as one of our theologians has said, is ''to turn children of God temples of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ in history into victims of oppression and of injustice, into slaves to economic greed, into fodder for political repression. The worst of these forms of secularism is the denial of grace through sin, turning this world into a presence through which the powers of evil operate, the visible presence of the denial of God.

It is not a matter of sheer routine that we insist once again on the existence in our country of structures of sin. They are sin because they produce the fruits of sin: the deaths of Salvadorans—the swift death brought by repression or the long-drawn out, but no less real, death from structural oppression. That is why we have denounced what in our country has become the idolatry of wealth, of the absolute right, within the capitalist system, of private property, of political power in national security regimes, in the name of which the insecurity of the individual is itself institutionalized. No matter how tragic it may appear, the church through its entrance into the real socio-political world has learned how to recognize and how to deepen its understanding of, the essence of sin. The fundamental essence of sin is in this world, revealed as the death of Salvadorans.

In the second place we now have a better understanding of what the incarnation means, what it means to say that Jesus really took human flesh and made himself one with his brothers and sisters in suffering, in the tears and the laments, in the act of surrender. We know that we are not directly treating of a universal incarnation. That is impossible. We are speaking of an incarnation which is biased and partial: incarnation in the world of the poor. From that perspective the church will become a church for everybody. It will offer a service to the powerful, too, through the apostolate of conversion—but not the other way round, as has happened so often.

The world of the poor, with its very concrete social and political characteristics, teaches us where the church can incarnate itself in such a way that it will avoid the false universalism which ends up with the church associating itself with the powerful ones. The world of the poor teaches us what the nature of Christian love is, a love which certainly seeks peace but which unmasks false pacifism-the pacifism of resignation and inactivity. It is a love which should be freely offered, but it is one which ought to seek to be effective in history.

The world of the poor teaches us that the sublimity of Christian love ought to be mediated through the overriding necessity of justice for the majority. It ought not to flee from honorable conflict. The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of hand-outs from governments or from the church, but when they themselves are the controllers of, and protagonists in, their own struggle and liberation, thereby unmasking the root of false paternalism, even ecclesiastical paternalism.

The real world of the poor also teaches us what one is talking about when speaking of Christian hope. The church preaches a new heaven and a new earth. It knows, moreover, that no set of socio-political structures can be equated with the final fullness which is given by God. But it has also learnt that transcendent hope ought to be preserved by signs of hope in history, no matter how simple they may apparently be—such as those proclaimed by Isaiah when he says, "They will build houses and inhabit them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit" (Is. 65:21). What in this is an authentically Christian hope—not reduced, as is so often said disparagingly, to what is merely of this world or purely human—is being learnt daily through contact with those who have no houses and no vineyards, those who build for others to inhabit and work so that others may eat the fruits.

In the third place, incarnation in the socio-political world deepens faith in God and in his Christ. We believe in Jesus who came to bring the fullness of life, and we believe in a living God who gives life to men and women, and wants them truly to live. Those radical truths of the faith become really true and truly radical when-the church enters into the midst of the life and death of its people. Then there is put before the church, as it is put before every individual, faith's most fundamental choice: to be in favor of life, or to be in favor of death. We see, with great clarity, that here neutrality is impossible. Either we serve the life of Salvadorans, or we are accomplices in their death. And here what is most fundamental about the faith is given expression in history: either we believe in a God of life, or we serve the idols of death.

In the name of Jesus we want, and we work for, life in its fullness, a life which is not limited to the satisfaction of the basic material needs, nor one which is reduced to the sphere of the socio-political. We know perfectly well that the fullness of life is to be achieved finally only in the Kingdom of the Father, and in history this fullness is achieved through a worthy service of that Kingdom, and total surrender to the Father. But we see with equal clarity that in the name of Jesus it would be a sheer illusion, it would be an irony, and, at bottom, it would be the most profound blasphemy, to forget and to ignore the basic levels of life, the life which begins with bread, a roof, work.

With the Apostle John we believe that Jesus is "the Word who is Life” and that God reveals himself wherever this life is to be found. Where the poor begin to live, where the poor begin to free themselves, where people are able to sit around a common table to share with one another, the God of life is there. When the church inserts itself into the socio-political world it does so in order to work with it so that from this cooperation life for the poor may arise. In doing so, therefore, it is not distancing itself from its mission, nor is it doing something of secondary importance or additional to its mission. It is giving testimony to its faith in God, it is being the instrument of the Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.

 

THIS FAITH in the God of life is the explanation for what lies deepest in the Christian mystery.  To give life to the poor one has to give of one's own life, even to give one's life itself. Indeed, the greatest sign of faith in a God of life is the witness of one who is ready to give his own life. ''A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). And we see this daily in our country. Many Salvadorans, many Christians, are ready to give their lives so that the poor may have life. They are following Jesus, and showing their faith in him. Entered into the real world just as Jesus did, like him accused and threatened, like him laying down their lives, they are giving witness to the Word of Life.

Our story, then, is a very old one. It is Jesus's story that, in all modesty, we are trying to follow. As church, we are no political experts, nor do we want to manipulate politics through its own internal mechanisms. But entrance into the socio-political world, into the world where the lives and deaths of the great mass of the population are decided upon, is necessary and is urgent if we are to preserve, not only in word but in deed, faith in a God of life, and the following of Jesus.

Early Christians used to say "Gloria Dei, vivens homo" (the glory of God is the person who lives). We could make this more concrete by saying "Gloria Dei, vivens pauper" (the glory of God is the poor person who lives). From the perspective of the transcendence of the Gospel we believe we can determine what this life of the poor truly is; and we also think that by putting ourselves alongside the poor and trying to bring life to them we will come to know what is the eternal truth of the Gospel.

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