Spirituality and politics: Oscar Romero's legacy

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
13 Mar 2010

On 24 March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by the government of El Salvador. At the time, the country was ruled by a brutally repressive regime which cared little for the poor and human rights.

At first a conservative, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador became aware of the suffering around him, and was drawn into attempts to improve the situation of the frightened and dispossessed.

Sometimes, in faith circles, it is assumed that spirituality and political involvement are in tension and that paying too much attention to earthly matters, except on explicitly religious issues, distracts the church from its main business.

Certainly, embracing the agenda of a particular party or movement or taking up a ‘good cause’ with such enthusiasm that personal matters are neglected is unhelpful. But this was not Romero’s experience.

To quote from some of his sermons in the month that he died:

There can be no true liberation
until people are freed from sin.
All the liberationist groups that spring up in our land
should bear this in mind.
The first liberation to be proposed by a political group
that truly wants the people’s liberation
must be to free oneself from sin.

While one is a slave of sin –
of selfishness, violence, cruelty, and hatred –
one is not fitted for the people’s liberation.

(2 March 1980)

The God we put our hope in for our liberations is the God of Israel, the God who today receives the celebration of the first Passover....

Adam leaves Paradise as a man without land. It is the effect of sin. Now, with God’s forgiveness, Israel returned to the land. They ate ears of grain from their own land, the fruits of their land. God gave his blessing in the sign of the land.

The land contains much that is of God. That is why it groans when the unjust monopolise it and leave no land for others. Land reform is a theological necessity. A country’s land cannot stay in a few hands. It must be given to all, and all must share in God’s blessings on the land.

(16 March 1980)

God in Christ dwells near at hand to us.
Christ has given us a guideline:
“I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”
Where someone is hungry, there is Christ near at hand.
“I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.”
When someone comes to your house to ask for water,
it is Christ, if you look with faith.
In the sick person longing for a visit Christ tells you,
“I was sick and you came to visit me.”
Or in prison.

How many today are ashamed to testify for the innocent!
What terror has been sown among our people
that friends betray friends whom they see in trouble!
If we could see that Christ is the needy one,
the torture victim,
the prisoner,
the murder victim,
and in each human figure
so shamefully thrown by our roadsides
could see Christ himself cast aside,
we would pick him up like a medal of gold
to be kissed lovingly.

(16 March, 1980)

To some, his violent death at the age of 62 might have seemed just a tragedy, but he was acutely aware not only of the pain and sorrow around him, but also of joy and hope in Christ.

Easter is itself now the cry of victory.
No one can quench the life that Christ has resurrected.
Neither death nor all the banners of death and hatred
raised against him and against his church can prevail.
He is the victorious one!

Just as he will thrive in an unending Easter,
so we must accompany him in a Lent and a Holy Week
of cross, sacrifice, and martyrdom.
As he said, blessed are they who are not scandalised
by his cross.

(23 March 1980)

(Quotations from The Violence of Love, compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, SJ. Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.)

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© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK. Savi is an Ekklesia associate, and a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.

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