By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Thirty years ago today Oscar Romero, archbishop of the Roman Catholic church in El Salvador, became a martyr for the sake of justice. Although he began as a conservative archbishop, opposed to the progressive liberation theology that was popular among those seeking to help poor farmers in El Salvador, Oscar Romero experienced a radical conversion when his friend, Father Rutillio Grande, was assassinated as a result of his commitment to social justice. Through weekly homilies on national radio, Romero advocated for an end to the repression of El Salvador’s people, thus making himself an enemy of the government and the military. Because of his prophetic witness, Romero became a target of assassination. As he was saying Mass on March 24, 1980, he was shot and killed. “A bishop will die,” Romero had said, foreseeing his own fate, “but the church of God–the people–will not perish.”
The Christian tradition remembers its martyrs not only because they have made the supreme sacrifice for our faith but also because they have something to teach us. In a time when we talk about and long for change we can believe in, one lesson we can learn from Romero’s witness is the radical power of stability.
Though Romero is now remembered as a leader of the people’s movement in El Salvador, he did not come to that role via radical ideas or progressive politics. Romero was a conservative–a safe choice for archbishop when he was elected. But he was a person deeply committed to God and the people God had called him to serve. Prayerfully attending to his people and place, Romero put down roots of love that led him to radical action.
Whatever may be said in praise of stability’s more conservative virtues–its ability to preserve tradition and strengthen the things that remain–those who have practiced stability through the ages attest to its fundamental revolutionary character. Stay put and pay attention–learn to trust God in the place where you are–and you will have a front seat for the revolution that Christian tradition calls conversion. Stability transforms us along with the place where we are. Georges Chopiney, a 20th twentieth-century Benedictine in France, summed up stability’s revolutionary power in this koan:
“What a life! What are you doing in your chrysalis!”, asked brother snail, who was cheerfully dragging his shell to the four corners of world. “I am pushing out my wings,” replied the night butterfly from its chrysalis. “You will never have them because they are a gift from God to those who are stable.”
Like brother snail, our hyper-mobile culture mocks stability’s tactic of changing the world by rooting ourselves in the ground beneath our feet and in the God who walked among us. The irony, of course, is that our technological progress drags the shell of human nature, affording us more complex and complicated means of remaining as we always have been. The twentieth century, which began with incredible optimism about the power of nonviolence and the potential for global peace manifest in Gandhi’s independence movement, ended with a greater death toll than any century before it and the threat of nuclear holocaust at the touch of a single button. Though the fall of communism was celebrated by many as the “end of history”–the ultimate victory for democracy and a free market–we are terrified by the 21st twenty-first century’s defectors who would rather blow themselves up than enjoy the pursuit of happiness. Progress has not exorcised all of Cain’s demons. Abel’s blood still cries out from the ground beneath us.
But with Abel’s blood, there is also the blood of martyrs like Romero who call us back to the original revolution–Jesus’ death on the cross. “Only if a seed falls into the ground and dies,” Jesus said, “can it bring forth fruit.” Stability cuts through our self-satisfied complacency with the radical insistence that we can, like sister butterfly, be born again. Marred though it may be, our world has not been abandoned but rather embraced by a God who saves us by refusing to leave the place where we are–by drawing closer, even, to our self-inflicted violence and suffering it on the cross. As the people of El Salvador celebrate peace and the global Christian community remembers one of its martyrs today, may we put down roots in the places where we find ourselves, always attentive to the ways our place is calling us to be born again. As a people who believe God meets us where we are, we know the change we can believe in begins right here.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is author of “The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.”